The problem most consumers face when buying towels is the limited information on labels and packaging, making it hard to know exactly what you’re getting. “Industry brands have done a good job of obfuscating the facts, offering few details,” says Jimmy MacDonald, co-founder of Authenticity50, which offers cotton home goods.
“If you were buying a car, you could do online research for its features, such as a backup camera,” says home economics expert Joseph Marini of the lifestyle website At Home with Joseph. “That’s difficult to find for bath towels. Just because a towel is beautiful or carries a celebrity’s name doesn’t always equal quality.”
MacDonald compares towels to cooking: You can’t make a good towel with poor ingredients.
The key component is cotton. It dictates softness, durability and absorbency. But not all cotton is created equal. Ideally, you want a towel woven from what is known as long-staple or extra-long-staple cotton, which you should be able to find in the towel’s description or specifications. That’s because as the staple length — or the length of the individual fibers used — increases, so does the soft, silky feel of the cotton. Through the spinning and weaving process, a longer length yields a smoother surface with fewer exposed fiber ends. Items made with long-staple cotton are also more durable.
How to keep towels soft and fluffy
Marini says you also need to consider where the cotton is grown and harvested. American-grown cotton with extra-long fibers (called “Supima”) is comparable to Egyptian or Turkish cotton. Experts agree that all three are fine options if the towel contains 100 percent of the product. You want to avoid any type of cotton-polyester mix, which is prone to shredding or shrinkage and feels rough against the skin. Here are some other things to consider when shopping.
Weight. Towels are rated on a grams per square meter (GSM) scale. Towels that are heavier, more expensive or higher quality have a greater GSM than cheaper towels that tend to fall apart more easily. Typically, the more loops that are woven into a towel, the higher the GSM. The lightest towels are 300 to 400 GSM. A decent-quality, medium-weight towel runs 400 to 600 GSM. One that is 700 to 900 GSM will be soft, plush and heavy. The higher the GSM, the thicker the towel, and thicker towels are more absorbent, says Mark Feldman, general manager and chief home merchandising officer for Riverbend Home, an online retailer.
Use. Interior designer Dawn Cook, co-owner of BLDC Design in Ohio, says to think about where the towels will be stored and who will be using them. Are you storing them in a cabinet or on a towel rack for display? Will they be used by the family, on pets or by guests only? Do you want to keep them for years to come, or are you buying them for your college-bound kids? “You may want to splurge on a set that looks nice and you keep out of the family rotation,” she says.
Dimensions. Although towels come in standard sizes, there is little to no regulation regarding their measurements. And even within a single company, each towel line may have different dimensions. Typically, a washcloth is 12 by 12 inches, a hand towel is 16 by 30 inches and a bath towel is about 27 by 52 inches, Feldman says. “The largest manufacturers adhere to the standard and maybe give you a bit more, while other retailers may cheat in sizing to get the price down.” So it pays to check the size before you buy, especially if you want to ensure that the towel will cover your head or body. Those with a larger frame may want to upsize from a bath towel to a bath sheet (35 by 60 inches to 40 by 70) for ample coverage.
Specifications. Marini says the hardest part of buying towels is doing your homework. Find a brand and go to the company’s website. “Look up the towel to see where they source the cotton,” he says. “If the company isn’t as reputable, you may have to dig to find the information. If someone is proud of their towel, they will put the information on the front page.” You also want to note GSM, construction and size.
In a perfect world, you would find something like this: Bath towels are generously sized at 27 by 54 inches. Each towel is spun from handpicked, 700 GSM, long-staple, 100 percent Supima cotton.
Whatever the circumstances, don’t choose a towel based on how it feels in the store. Many manufacturers use a chemical finish, so the towel feels soft at first touch. However, that feel may disappear after five or so washes.
Marini says it’s best to have a plan when you shop. Write down what you need, whether that’s washcloths, hand towels, bath towels or bath sheets. Most salespeople should be knowledgeable. Ask: “ ‘What’s the best-quality, not the most expensive, towel for my face?’ ” he says. Cook suggests shopping at reputable retailers and buying from a known source, so you can get the same towel again in the future.
Like with many other items, cotton prices have skyrocketed, MacDonald says. Although a 100 percent cotton towel is still the best buy, expect to pay a premium for those on the high end. Marini says a 100 percent cotton bath towel with a high GSM starts around $70; a medium-grade one runs about $29 to $50. But good towels should last you up to 10 years. Invest in quality for pieces you will use often, and select medium-quality options for others. “It may be worth it to compare towels in store, then go home, do some research and wait for a sale, so when it hits, you are ready to buy,” Marini says. And if someone says they will sell you a 900 GSM towel for $9.99 — buyer beware, Feldman says.
Finally, realize that towels are an investment, so take care of them. Wash towels at least once a week. Don’t use fabric softener or bleach, which will damage the fibers, and tumble-dry on low.
Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net.