How to buy a decent towel

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Buying new bath towels seems pretty simple: figure out the size and quantity you need, pick your color(s), then go to your favorite store and pick the ones you like best, right? ? Well, maybe. If you’re lucky, the towels will be soft, absorbent and durable. But they could also wrinkle, shred, and start degrading within a few months.

The problem most consumers face when buying towels is the lack of information on labels and packaging, which makes it difficult to know exactly what you are 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 homeware.

“If you were buying a car, you could research features online, such as a rear view camera,” says home economist Joseph Marini of lifestyle website At Home with Joseph. “It’s hard to find bath towels. Just because a towel looks good or has a celebrity’s name on it doesn’t always mean quality.

MacDonald compares napkins to cooking: You can’t make a good napkin with bad ingredients.

The key component is cotton. It dictates softness, durability and absorbency. But not all cottons are created equal. Ideally, you want a towel woven from what’s known as long-staple or extra-long staple cotton, which you should be able to find in the towel’s description or specifications. This is because as the length of the fiber – or the length of the individual fibers used – increases, the soft, silky feel of the cotton also increases. Through the spinning and weaving process, a longer length results in 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. Cotton grown in the United States with extra-long staples (called “Supima”) is comparable to Egyptian or Turkish cotton. Experts agree that all three are good options if the towel contains 100% of the product. You want to avoid any type of cotton-polyester blend, which is prone to shredding or shrinking and feels rough on the skin. Here are some other things to consider when shopping.

Lester. Towels are rated on a grams per square meter (GSM) scale. Heavier, more expensive or better quality towels have a higher GSM than cheaper towels which tend to fall apart more easily. Generally, the more loops woven into a towel, the higher the GSM. The lightest towels are 300-400 GSM. A decent quality, average weight towel will run between 400 and 600 GSM. The one that is 700-900 GSM will be soft, fluffy and heavy. The higher the GSM, the thicker the towel, and thicker towels are more absorbent, says Mark Feldman, general manager and director of home merchandising for Riverbend Home, an online retailer.

Use. Interior designer Dawn Cook, co-owner of BLDC Design in Ohio, says to think about where towels will be stored and who will use them. Do you store them in a cabinet or on a towel rack for display? Will they be used by family, on pets, or by guests only? Do you want to keep them for years or are you buying them for your kids going to college? “You might want to splurge on a set that looks nice and you avoid family rotation,” she says.

Dimensions. Although towels come in standard sizes, there is little to no regulation regarding their measurements. And even within the same company, each line of towels can have different sizes. Typically, a washcloth measures 12 by 12 inches, a hand towel measures 16 by 30 inches, and a bath towel measures about 27 by 52 inches, Feldman says. “The bigger manufacturers stick to the standard and maybe give you a little more, while other retailers can cheat on the sizing to bring the price down.” So it pays to check the size before buying, especially if you want to make sure the towel will cover your head or body. Those with a larger frame may want to switch from a bath towel to a bath sheet (35 by 60 inches to 40 by 70) for sufficient coverage.

Features. Marini says the hardest part of buying towels is doing your homework. Find a brand and go to the company’s website. “Look for 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 briefcase, they will put the information on the front page. You also want to note the GSM, build, and size.

In a perfect world, you’d find something like this: bath towels are generously sized at 27 inches by 54 inches. Each towel is hand spun, 700gsm, long staple, 100% 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 on first touch. However, this feeling may disappear after about five washes.

Marini says it’s best to have a plan when shopping. Write down what you need, whether it’s washcloths, hand towels, bath towels or bath sheets. Most salespeople should be knowledgeable. Ask, “‘What is 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.

As with many other items, cotton prices have skyrocketed, MacDonald says. While a 100% cotton towel is always the best buy, expect to pay extra for high-end ones. Marini says a 100% cotton bath towel with a high GSM starts at around $70; a medium quality one costs around $29 to $50. But good towels should last up to 10 years. Invest in quality for parts you will use often and select mid-quality options for others. “It might be worth comparing towels in store, then going home, researching and waiting for a sale, so when it comes, you’re ready to buy,” Marini says. And if someone says they’ll sell you a 900 gsm towel for $9.99 — buyer beware, says Feldman.

Finally, be aware that towels are an investment, so take care of them. Wash towels at least once a week. Do not use fabric softener or bleach, which will damage the fibres, and tumble dry on low heat.

Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategy. Find it on

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