A Basic Guide to Bath Towels

Whether you use yours for drying off or simply as decoration, here's everything you need to know about this perennial bathroom staple.
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Supima Leaves towels from Lands End

Supima Leaves towels from Lands End

Bath towels may be the hardest working members of your household. After all, we expect our towels and washcloths to keep us clean, dry us off, add to the look of our bathroom and, occasionally, wipe up after Fluffy tracks mud into the house. However, despite their versatility, towels are often underappreciated, with many people putting little thought into which type of towel they buy and bring home. But with a little knowledge, your towels will look, last and perform better in their many roles.


All towels have a fabric weight, measured with a GSM (grams per square meter) number. This refers to the density of the fabric used to make that particular towel. Lower GSM towels are lighter and thinner, making them a great choice for a gym bag or trips to the beach. You'll likely want to save your heavier, thicker, higher GSM towels for use in the master or guest bathroom.

Most towels are made of cotton, but the look and feel of towels largely depends on what type of cotton is used. Towels designed and priced for everyday use are made of standard cotton, while Egyptian cotton is considered the crème de la crème of towel fabrics. These more expensive towels have longer, more-fibrous threads, meaning that each towel will have more moisture-sucking loops per inch. The ultra-soft, super-fluffy bath towels found in high-end spas and hotels are typically Egyptian cotton or increasingly, the American-grown version, called pima cotton, which offers a similarly luxurious look and feel.

10 Towel Combos to Brighten Up the Bathroom

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Replace those bleach-stained, threadbare things with these fresh and colorful towel combos picked by HGTV Magazine

Hand Towel + Bath Towel

Hand towel: Avanti Chalet cotton towel, $15, bedbathandbeyond.com, Bath towel: Dena Home Madison cotton towel, $19, dillards.com

Photo By: Marko Metzinger (Styled by Courtney de Wet)

Hand Towel + Bath Towel

Hand towel: Scroll Medallion cotton towel in rose bisque, $16, westelm.com, Bath towel:Trina Turk Trellis cotton towel in pure grey, $20, bedbathandbeyond.com

Photo By: Marko Metzinger (Styled by Courtney de Wet)

Hand Towel + Bath Towel

Hand towel: Greek Key cotton towel in cornflower, $20, garnethill.com, Bath towel: Dot to Dot cotton towel in cornflower, $30, garnethill.com

Photo By: Marko Metzinger (Styled by Courtney de Wet)

Hand Towel + Bath Towel

Hand towel Cotton towel in mum, $10, jcpenney.com, Bath towel: National Park cotton towel in Glacier, $39.50, pendleton-usa.com

Photo By: Marko Metzinger (Styled by Courtney de Wet)

Hand Towel + Bath Towel

Hand towel: Triangle Calisto cotton towel, $10, worldmarket.com, Bath towel: Ralph Lauren Home Palmer cotton towel in evening amethyst, $35, macys.com

Photo By: Marko Metzinger (Styled by Courtney de Wet)

Hand Towel + Bath Towel

Hand towel: French Bull Multicolor Dot cotton towel, $14, macys.com, Bath towel: Mainstays True Colors cotton towel in pink, $18 for a 6-piece set, walmart.com

Photo By: Marko Metzinger (Styled by Courtney de Wet)

Hand Towel + Bath Towel

Hand towel: Room Essentials cotton towel in dashing pink, $4, target.com, Bath towel: Peacock cotton towel in multi 2, $19, dillards.com

Photo By: Marko Metzinger (Styled by Courtney de Wet)

Hand Towel + Bath Towel

Hand towel: Embroidered Anchor cotton towel, $19, zarahome.com , Bath towel: Mainstays Chevron cotton towel, $7, walmart.com

Photo By: Marko Metzinger (Styled by Courtney de Wet)

Hand Towel + Bath Towel

Hand towel: Cotton velour towel in green with pom-poms, $15, zarahome.com, Bath towel: Metro cotton towel in moss, $39, peacockalley.com

Photo By: Marko Metzinger (Styled by Courtney de Wet)

Hand Towel + Bath Towel

Hand towel: Bettina Floral cotton towel, $10, worldmarket.com, Bath towel: Kassatex Linea cotton towel in coral, $30, jcpenney.com

Photo By: Marko Metzinger (Styled by Courtney de Wet)

Towel Storage: 12 Ideas

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Wall Cabinet

Making use of every inch of space is essential in a small bathroom. Marian Parsons of Miss Mustard Seed hung an easy-to-make handmade cabinet to make use of the empty wall space. The different compartments store a variety of bathroom items while maintaining an organized look.

Storage Tower

This built-in storage tower not only stores several towels, but it also brings visual interest to the neutral bathroom. Designer Lina Khatib placed rolled towels in the compartments to add color and texture to the space. The floating vanity has open shelving for even more storage.

Storage Ladder

Freestanding storage is a great option if you frequently change the design of your bathroom. Ana White of Ana-White.com built this simple storage ladder and stored different items at each level. Paint the ladder any color to match your bathroom design style, and fill the ladder with different types of containers to bring dimension to the space.

Vintage-Inspired Storage

Designer Sarah Richardson placed two large wicker baskets on a vintage vanity shelf to keep bathroom toiletries at hand and to bring visual appeal to the all-white bathroom. The vanity's vintage design provides a place to hang towels.

Vanity Niches

This Old World-style bathroom, designed by Thom Oppelt, is centered on a large vanity with oversize drawers for plenty of storage space. The vanity mirror is flanked by two deep niches complete with shelving to store towels for guests.

Sink Skirt

If you have a tiny bathroom with no room for storage containers, use the space underneath the sink. Marian placed storage bins underneath this pedestal sink and covered it with a patterned sink skirt. The skirt allows you to add several storage containers without making the space look cluttered.

Custom Armoire

A custom-made armoire adds a warm, inviting feel to your bathroom while providing plenty of storage. This cottage-style armoire, designed by Shane Inman, coordinates with the custom vanity for a seamless look. Drawers underneath the sink provide additional storage.

Stacked Wicker Baskets

Stacked wicker baskets are a simple, efficient way to add storage and visual interest to a small bathroom. Place the baskets underneath a pedestal sink to save room and to allow easy access to toiletries. Design by Judith Balis

Crate Shelving

For easy, budget-friendly storage, Ana purchased and painted inexpensive crates from a craft store to create a decorative and functional storage solution. Hang them on a wall to save space, or keep them at hand on the vanity.

Custom Shelving Unit

Custom-made built-in shelving is one of the best options for an irregularly shaped bathroom. The different-sized shelving compartments allow for storage of a variety of items without making the space feel cluttered.

Peg Rail

Several pegs line a wooden rail in Dream Home 2006's bunk bathroom, providing plenty of room to hang towels, toiletries and other bathroom items. A wooden shelf sitting atop the peg rail gives room for lotions and jars filled with toiletries.

Tropical-Style Towel Rack

Leaning a ladder against the wall is an unexpected way to hang towels. Designer Luis Caicedo chose this handmade tropical-style ladder because it doesn't take up a lot of room, and the material is carried through to the framed mirror for a unified look.

From: Luis Caicedo

But buyer beware, warns interior designer Carla Sanclemente of Sanclemente Designs in Hartford, Conn. Some manufacturers sell towels advertised as "made with" Egyptian or pima cotton, when in fact the fabric may have other materials in its makeup.

"Sometimes, 'luxury' bath towels actually have synthetics in them, to give a shinier look," Carla says. "And this restricts absorbency."

When shopping for better towels, be sure to check the labels and look for fabric of 100 percent Egyptian cotton, or for the Supima trademark, which guarantees a towel is made of 100 percent American pima cotton.



Organic cotton bath sheets from Fisher Henney

Organic cotton bath sheets from Fisher Henney

Other types of fabric are also starting to find their way into today's bath towels, including Modal, made of cellulose from beech trees. Its fans claim that it's about 50 percent more absorbent than even cotton alone, and that it won't fade over time, making it an excellent choice for bath towels.

Eco-conscious buyers can look for organic cotton towels or towels made from bamboo, which have a looser, velvety-soft texture compared to cotton towels. Bamboo, along with the newer hemp towels, has natural mildew-resistant qualities.

Unlike towels made from these natural products, microfiber towels are made of engineered fibers. They are lighter and thinner than cotton towels, with a suede-like texture and excellent absorbency. These specialty towels are popular for wringing water from wet hair without being too heavy.


Because towels offer a relatively painless and inexpensive way to complement or change the look of your bathroom, decorators say they're a great way to have fun with design. Rather than trying to precisely match your towels to your wallpaper or paint, use them instead to draw out or accentuate the look you want.

"Towels are accessories, so why not use them to shake up the look of your loo?" says Jason Oliver-Nixon, creative director of NYC-based design firm John Loecke Inc. "I use towels just as I use the accessories in my wardrobe. They give some sizzle and style to an area of the house that's often overlooked."

Designer Judith Wilson of Los Angeles agrees. "Towels are like the jewelry for a bathroom," she explains. "They are design accents, much like throw pillows in the living room."

No matter what the bathroom backdrop, an abundance of bright, colorful towels placed around the room provides stylish punch.



Seychelles towels from Ralph Lauren

Seychelles towels from Ralph Lauren

"I have four different colors of towels on the shelves in my bathroom, and the colors give the room a focal point," says Jason, who adds that he often changes his bath towels to reflect a new season or even a different mood.

For a more classic look, nothing says total luxury like a bathroom fully stocked with freshly laundered, fluffy white towels. It's a timelessly posh look that never goes out of style. London designer Nina Campbell (www.ninacampbell.com) suggests monogramming even less-expensive white towels for instant elegance.


Bath towels of all types will look fresher and last longer if they are cared for properly. Manufacturers often coat new towels in a special fabric softener, which means the towels look extra fluffy and soft on the shelf, but don't absorb water well when you first bring them home. For this reason, it's best to wash your new towels before first use.

"For the very first wash, add a cup of vinegar to the wash cycle," suggests Judith Wilson. "This will help to set the color and prevent fading, especially of deep tones."

While a tumble in the dryer assures a fluffy towel, you don't want to overdo it, says Nina Campbell.

"The heat from the dryer can really damage fibers," she says. "Try using a lower-heat setting, or alternate between air and heat drying."

Dark and brightly colored towels should be washed separately. For your special, more expensive towels, using Woolite or another gentle-care detergent will keep them at their fluffy best longer.

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