Why won't my towels absorb any longer?

Why won't my towels absorb any longer?
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towelsReader's Question:

I have a problem that maybe you or your readers can help me solve. All my nice bath towels, 100% cotton, are losing their absorbency. I launder them in All detergent on cold, no fabric softener, and use Bounce dryer sheets. Drying off with them is like trying to dry off with a sheet of rubber - even makes a squeaky noise under friction! I've tried soaking them in white vinegar - no difference. I hate to get rid of the towels, they are a couple years old but still nice and fluffy looking with no fraying. Besides, if I don't know what is causing this, the new towels may become the same as the old! Have you or your readers come across this before? ~Still-damp-in-North-Carolina Nadine

Well, I haven't had this problem, except with one or two odd towels that just never absorbed that great. It could be the type of towel-- or it could be something you are using--have you tried using the vinegar 1/2 cup or so in the rinse cycle, and not using the Bounce? Does anyone else have an idea? ~Brenda Hyde, Editor

The Bounce dryer sheets are a fabric softener. Stop using them in every load. I would use a half a bottle of vinegar in the regular wash cycle---but with no soap and then add the rest of the bottle in the rinse cycle. You can do an extra rinse with just water---no vinegar or soap---to get rid of the vinegar smell. The lack of absorbancy is due to a build up of soap and fabric softener. ~Karyn

I have heard that dryer sheets can cause this problem. Perhaps she should try not using dryer sheets for a few times to see if it makes a difference or try switching to fabric softener that is added to the rinse cycle of her washing machine. ~Sammi

Try drying your towels WITHOUT the Bounce sheets. It may take a couple of washings to get rid of the build-up but it's worth a try. ~Michelle in Florida

I think the lady with the towel problem has a build up of the Bounce wax/oil (whatever they use for softening and anti-static guard). You are right on with the vinegar and stop using the Bounce. Using the vinegar in about 2 washes should remove the offending elements left from the Bounce, and soften the towels in the drier. She could even let the towels soak for 1/2 to 1 hour in the wash water with about 1 and 1/2 cups of vinegar. Then during the rinse cycle add a 1/2 cup of lavender vinegar. The lavender remains, but not the acid odor. ~Catherine

New towels, old towels-- yes, I have had this problem. It is the chemicals in the soap and fabric softener and dryer sheets that you are using. It is as if you have Scotch Guarded your towels. I use All Free and Clear with bleach un warm water and no dryer sheets and that has solved our problem. Using warm water or hot water helps the soap clean the dryer sheet residue off them.

I use only white towels now and I bleach them and I use free and clear soap on them with free and clear dryer sheets in the winter months. Also you might want to hang them out on the clothes line. I have also used lemons in my washer as natural bleach. Baking soda is a booster you can put in the washer to help with smells. ~Jessica in Tennessee

Towels will absorb better if you hang them on the clothes line outside on a nice sunny day. It works great!

You should never use fabric softener on towels. It definitely affects the absorbency. ~Patricia

Do not use any type of fabric softner or dryer sheets, as they will cause a build-up on the towels and make them too soft and less absorbent. However, do continue to use the white vinegar from time to time. . . Loretta

First and foremost, I do not use fabric softener or dryer sheets, yet towels will get this way from bath products, such as body mists, oils, etc., over a period of time. Whenever my towels get this way, I soak them in the washing machine overnight with 2 cups of Epsom Salts. Works like a charm. I learned this from the Queen of Clean. I cannot remember her exact measurements, but I use this amount due to having the oversized tub in my washing machine. Seems she recommended 1 cup to the load but it's cheap, and certainly cannot hurt to use more. ;o) ~Jean from Texas

Don't use ANY fabric softner at all. It decreases absorbency. Towels are not as soft but they absorb like crazy without fabric softner. Fabric softner puts a petroleum type substance on clothes. READ THE BOX. It, ironically, will say: Don't use directly on clothes. Go figure. CVS has some blue ball with rounded pointy things that soften without using anything else in dryer. Just by bouncing around. Here and there they produce some static but its very very rare. The balls are all I use now. ~Sherri

The reason is the dryer sheet. You are still adding fabric softener to the material. Try not using them for awhile and see if the absorbency increases. It might take a couple of washings to get it out of the fabric. Good luck. ~Liz

I would be inclined to believe it is a softener being used. The dryer sheets are wax which absorbs into material (thus, no static) and most of the washer softeners contain some wax. Myself, after hearing from my brother, a fireman, about the number of dryer fires due to the buildup of wax, gave up both fabric softeners and the dryer. I only use vinegar for a rinse and dry on-line. Still soft, still fresh, but no fire worries, and the towels (kitchen is where I notice the most) absorb like new.

At first, I washed everything, towels, sheets, UW, denim, everything, in HOT water with detergent and 3 cups vinegar, and now I just use whatever is appropriate but rinse in vinegar (or actually, the commercial version which is acetic acid cut to 4%) and have no more problems. ~Ann

I had that problem, only I was using liquid softner in the rinse water. I quit using softner and bought the dryer balls and now my towels are nice and fluffy and very absorbent. Takes a couple of washes and drying. ~Ruth

I heard a long time ago that you shouldn't use dryer sheets when drying towels. The ingredients in the dryer sheets rub into the towels and makes them less absorbent. I don't think it matters what brand you use; they contain similar ingredients. ~Caroline

Do not use fabic softeners of any type on towels and that includes dryer sheets. The solution gets into the fibers of the towel and that is why there is no absorbency. You may be able to reverse this with a few washes using vinegar in the rinse water. ~Sunny

The Bounce is contributing to the problem as well as the cold water. A lot of fibers like warm water to be their fluffiest. She may have to wash them 1 or 2 times in rather hot water to get rid of the Bounce coating on the towels as well as scrub her dryer and the lint screen. ~garcyn

I am convinced that using too many fabric softeners can have this effect on towels (bath, kitchen, dish, hand) and wash- and dish-clothes and even rags! Seems to me I read some years back that you shouldn't use fabric softeners all the time with these items.....and I don't.....maybe every third time of washing. An idea is to use an OLD fabric dryer sheet to reduce the static that sometimes happens with towels. ~Deb in Wisconsin

The towel dilema having lost its absorbency. I've found that not using dryer sheets or fabric softener cures the problem. If you can hang them out side it will give them a fresher scent and feeling. If you still want to use dryer sheets try cutting them in half for each load, it helps with the cost & reduces the amount of softener per load. ~Joyce from PA

I believe it is the Bounce. Try drying your towels without it. My towels dry nicely with nothing.~Saundra

I've always heard that fabric softener affects the towel and its ability to absorb liquid. I use fabric softener sometimes and then a couple weeks without. Usually, I'm drying things outside anyway, so it's a moot point. I have absolutely nothing to back this up with. ~Sue in Washington State

What if she contacted the company that made the towel? She might get a replacement towel and they may use the towel in their department to improve the towel. Also, I thought about Good Housekeeping magazine. She might check them out. I see them handle a lot of stuff in product replacement or improvement. ~Cheryl

Do not use any softener sheets in the dryer when drying towels, washcloths or Jeans. The slick like powder coats the fibers and there you go...jeans that don't hold their shape and towels that lose their absorbency. It'll probably take several washings to get that stuff out of your towels. Quit using the water softners and dryer sheets. ~JLerch

It is probably due to the use of fabric softener and dryer sheets. I line dry my towels (and all of the laundry) whenever the Minnesota weather permits and the only product I use on them besides laundry detergent is vinegar in the rinse. When I do use a dryer sheet, I only use one half of one. Not only does this save money, the clothes due not have static cling and they do not smell of the heavily perfumed dryer sheets. I am one of those people who can barely walk done the detergent aisle without gasping for breath due to the perfumed products. ~Pat B

It's the Bounce-here's the proof- take out your dryer lint filter...it looks clean, right? Well, run a thin stream of tap water onto the screen....wow, and ick, it pools because the screen is clogged The residue is from fabric softener sheets, and it's a fire hazard, say repair professionals...clean your lint filter with a bit of dish soap (and a nail brush if necessary) every few months and let it air dry I wash my bath towels every so often with no soap, just a bit of clorox, warm wash, cold rinse...but a front loading washing machine makes a best improvement with laundry residue ~Miss Linda

I have found that any type of fabric softener - dryer sheets included - will greatly reduce the absorbency of any fabric. It will take a few washes to get rid of the softener build-up. Also, at least for the first several softener-free washes, try line-drying the towels. If you need to soften them up, toss them in the dryer for a few minutes once they are dry. Hope this helps! ~Elizabeth

I've always used hot water on the light towels, 1/2 cup chlorine bleach to a load, and never use fabric softener. I've had towels for going on 15-20 years, and most still do a grand job. My granny always used fabric softener and her towels always felt "too soft" to dry properly, sort of pushed the water drops around rather than absorb. ~Starr

It is the fabric softener sheets. Whether liquid softener or sheets are used, it coats the fibers and prevents absorbency. Don't use softener on any towels or wash cloths. ~Lorrie

Sounds like Nadine's towels have a fabric softener build up. Try washing them in hot water and detergent with a vinegar rinse. Dry without fabric softener sheets. I line dry mine as much as possible because they seem to absorb better. Plus they smell really fresh. ~Janine in South Carolina

I remember reading years ago in Heliose's column that if you are having trouble with towels absorbing, you are probably using dryer sheets or other softeners. Since I stopped using any softener, or dryer sheets, my towels are fine. ~Connie

Just a suggestion, quit using dryer sheets. I found out that dryer sheets can clog up the holes in the lint screen in the dryer (and that can cause a fire). The screen will actually hold water because the holes are plugged. I scrubbed my screen and quit using the dryer sheets and it still plugged up for the first week or so after I quit using them! I only use them occasionally now when something has a lot of static electricity . It's worth a try. ~Betty

I read in a homekeeping book that you shouldn't use fabric softeners of any kind on towels because this will affect their absorbency. I tried it at my house and it does work...the towels are more absorbent when you don't use anything other than laundry soap. ~Donna

In regards to the towels losing their absorbency--it's the dryer sheets--fabric softeners or dryer sheets all work the same. They have oil in them, and what it does the oil do for absorbency? It blocks it! There are 2 other options-cut each of your dryer sheets into quarters. You don't need any more than a quarter sheet for any load of clothes. Or eliminate the use of dryer sheets completely, and use vinegar on a washcloth-toss one in with each load of laundry. It gets rid of static and softens the clothing too! ~Jeanne in Wyoming

I think I have a solution for towel problem. I have noticed that if you dry them in tumble dryer with dryer sheets they sort of get covered in oil. (And I have the feeling I was using Bounce too...) It makes no difference with socks or underwear but towels aren't so absorbent any more. To make them soft and cuddly, wash them with conditioner and then dry them in tumble dryer without any sheets. That should make them do what they suppose to do:). ~Jurgita

Fabric softener buildup causes towels not to be absorbent. The towels probably need to be washed and dried with no commercial fabric softener -- neither liquid nor dryer sheets -- a half dozen times or so to get rid of that buildup. If the residue from the dryer sheets has been accumulating for a couple of years, it isn't realistic to expect it to come out in one or two washings. To prevent the problem with new towels, or if the old ones ever get clean, use the dryer sheets every other washing at most, ideally less often. For fresh and pleasant towels, she might try adding either vinegar or baking soda to the wash or rinse water on a regular basis. ~Coleen

If you wish to keep your towels absorbent, you should never use any kind of softener on them. It sounds like these towels have quite a bit of build up on them. They need to be cleaned, that is, totally washed of the softener (which the vinegar should help), and well rinsed to remove all the detergent. If all the detergent is removed in the rinse, the towels should be soft enough after going through the dryer with no added softener. I wash my towels with about half as much liquid detergent the bottle calls for and a scoop of baking soda. Then I dry them in the dryer without adding a dryer sheet. This makes for absorbent towels, and it costs less to clean them since I'm not using as much detergent or any softner. ~Sherry

Wash your towels, tea towels, etc. in hot soapy water with no softeners for 3 or 4 washings and don't put any softner sheets in the dryer. There is build up from the softeners also on your lint filter which makes your dryer run hard as the holes are somewhat blocked, so be sure to wash the lint filter in hot soapy water and dry before putting it back in the dryer. ~Dusty

I have never experienced this problem but I would stop using "Bounce" fabric softener. If this was happening to me, I would also begin by washing and rinsing the towels in warm water and maybe try using a different detergent. It sounds like there could be too much fabric softener in the towels. I hope I have helped. I would even go so far as to use the vinegar in a "Warm" water rinse not cold. ~Lor

Do NOT use a fabric softener on them. It coats the fibers and after several dryings with fabric softener, makes them much less absorbent (but very soft!!!!). Put the towels through the washer with hot water and no soap a few times; then dry all by themselves and see if that doesn't help. If you must have really soft towels, try using only cutting your fabric softener into thirds or even in half ... you do not need a whole sheet, ever. ~Lynn - So. Calif.

Regarding Nadine's towel problem, maybe she is just laundering them too much, or like Brenda said -- with the wrong detergent. There might be something in the All that is reducing absorbency. Try Ivory Snow, which is more gentle and environmentally-friendly. Also hang the towels out in the sunshine. And if they aren't thick enough already, get some that are. You would be amazed at the difference it can make. And they will be more durable than some of the wimpy ones.

Finally, consider the impact of the kind of water and cleansing products you use. They might be making you "squeaky-clean," but also deteriorating the towels. Switch to something milder. I use soaps with ingredients like aloe, olive oil, and oatmeal. Try a chlorine filter on the bath or shower, and use warm (but not too hot) water. Everything has an impact, after all. ~Brent

I believe the problem with the non-absorbent towels is the Bounce dryer sheets. They will coat the fibers in the towel and reduce the absorbency. I would suggest washing the towels as usual and adding a cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse water. Dry them without using the Bounce. It might take a couple times to get them back to normal. But, you should start seeing improvement with one washing. ~Chrissey

I would stop using the dryer sheets. My Moms towels were all that way. They were so soft, but water actually beaded up on them. It was the fabric softener! I never use fabric softener or sheets on anything, I just double rinse. ~Nancy

I have read in past years that if you use any type of fabric softener or Bounce on your towels that it will make them non-absorbent. So I've never used those items on towels although it's tempting--until I hear a story like this one. I don't know how to correct the problem at this point, but it will help anyone buying new towels. ~Deb in Virginia

The lint filter could need a good cleaning. Fabric softener sheets leave a film on lint filters that needs to be washed off with warm soapy water occasionally. This also improves the performance of the dryer and helps prevent fires! ~Rene

I'm thinking that Bounce is a fabric softener and that could be the problem. That aside--this is "old-fashioned living" right? My favorite way still to dry sheets, towels and hubby's white shirts is outdoors. (Though clotheslines are BANNED by our subdivision association--any ideas around that would be welcome.) If they don't stiffen up big time after several outdoor dryings, I would be surprised and stymied, and the fresh air smell is GLORIOUS! ~Fresh-aire Fiend Ohio

My solution would be to put some baking soda in with the wash of towels because it sounds like she has a fabric softener build up. It may help. Then I wouldn't use softener after this load and just see. ~Lisa

I had this problem and I just stopped using the fabric softener sheets and the towels went back to nice fluffy absorbent towels. ~Tammie

I had the same problem with some towels that my mother-in-law "handed down" to me and she had been using fabric softner. I washed them repeatedly using no softner of any kind and most of them have recovered. I have two that were like that when they were new and they still don't absorbe very well. I never use softner or dryer sheets of any kind on towels or washcloths because of this. ~Lisa in Alabama

I would suggest not using the dryer sheets or any other type of fabric conditioner (except for the vinegar). Fabric softener makes clothes softer by putting an imperceptible layer of whatever chemicals are used in the softener, thus, in the case of towels making them less absorbant. ~Anita in Illinois

This is for the lady that has non-absorbent towels. I had the same problem until I discovered that using any type of fabric softener will cause that problem. I use 1/2 cup of white vinegar in the rinse water. My towels come out soft and fluffy. ~Ellen

I think the problem with the non absorbant towels is the fabric softner. Try not using fabric softner. The dryer should soften them up good enough. If not try using a clean sneaker or other clean item that can smack them around a little bit. I think the fabric softner leaves a film on them like it leaves on your lint catcher. ~Ginette

I was just curious whether or not the lady with the towel problem has had any changes in her water? Sometimes certain laundry detergents do not work well with a person's water. Have you ever gone someplace, stayed in a motel and used YOUR OWN shampoo and conditioner and found that your hair feels awful? Same basic idea. ~Lisa

I had to give up dryer sheets and Downy years ago, because they made my towels unabsorbent. My laundry is not quite as soft as it used to be, but it is back to being absorbent. ~Lori in Texas

Bounce sheets are fabric softening as well as static reduction. They make an oily build-up on your towels or anything else you put them with in the dryer—especially if you use them every time. I stopped softening my towels after finding the same problem at my sister-in-law’s house. Her towels would not dry my skin and I found out she used softener sheets time after time. I rarely put fabric softening sheets with my towels or if I do—a half sheet or less. Also it is wise to wash your dryer line screen out as the oils build up in the dryer line screens. ~Gay

I think the towel problem is caused by the use of softener sheets. Over time, they clog up my fine fabric mesh dryer filter, which then has to be scrubbed with hot soapy water. Dryer sheets leave a film on everything. ~Lucy

I had this problem with towels. The fabric softener builds up in the towels, I tried the vinegar with warm water, but the thing that worked best was Washing soda or Borax. Dissolve it in warm water and wash the towel just using either of these products. And just dry with out dryer sheets. ~Mary Anne

I have had this problem in the past~and I soaked the fabric over night in temperature safe water with a cup of Cascade powder... (Then wash according to your preference) I then changed for a brief period of time from using dryer sheets... It corrected the problem for me... ~Paula

One other important note for dryer sheets, they leave a film over your lint trap that can restrict airflow causing your dryer to overheat and be a possible fire hazard. Wash your lint trap in soapy water often to prevent this. ~Chris

It's true that Bounce sheets eventually slow down the absorption of towels....I started using liquid softener instead - but only 1/8 of what the bottle says to use....and I do a second clear rinse - water only....my towels are soft And still do absorb water!

Another thing about using Bounce sheets in the dryer....about once every two months or when your lint seems to stick to the dryer lint filter, take the filter out and run water lightly over it. If the water does not run thru the filter, it's clogged with the sticky build-up from using dryer sheets....wash it with warm water and dish detergent, rinse, shake out excess water and let it dry on a towel....also vacuum out your dryer's back venting system....these two easy chores can prevent your dryer from causing a fire! ~m


We don't have heated water so I must use cold water for laundry. It is well water and very hard with calcium and lime. That makes for rough fabric. Vinegar is nice for some things but not putting down into the septic tank. Unless you want to kill everything in the area. One of my writers suggested it as a weed killer long ago and it does a great job. We had a LOT of trouble recently with our pressure tank going out. It was rusted completely and making a mess of everything. I was trying to add extra fabric softener and it did no good. I ended up with clothes (and towels) that felt wet and heavy even when completely dry.

With the tank replaced I am back to having nice clear water. I still use the one capful of fabric softener per load. All winter our humidity levels stayed between 5 and 15%. I have tried the line dried with no softening and it hurts the skin. I am sure it depends on the water. Clothes died in the sun lose their integrity and will fall apart, just like if you use any bleach on the clothes, ever. My husband's allergy doctor said NO line drying, the clothes drier does a much better job and you won't be picking up the things in the outdoor air. I use the Wal-Mart Spring Fresh liquid softener and really like the scent.

A lot depends, too, on how often the towels are washed. Ideally, someone wanting a fresh towel every day needs to have a lot of towels so they are each only washed once a week. I wash ours once a week and even then they become frayed and needing to be replaced every few years. I also dry wet towels enough so they don't mold or mildew between uses.

I had noticed the one lady was not allowed to have outdoor clothes lines. They make neat racks for indoor drying that fold and can be stored away when not in use. Nita Holstine, PhancyPages Publishing


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About The Author

Brenda Hyde is a freelance writer living on ten acres in rural Michigan with her husband and three kids. She is a mom, grandma, gardener, cook and writer. She blogs on all of these topics at Harvestmoongazette.blogspot.com.


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