How often should I wash my washcloth?

Letting a damp washcloth sit around for days is an invitation for bacteria and mold.
Letting a damp washcloth sit around for days is an invitation for bacteria and mold.
©iStockphoto.com/MaxFX

It's late at night after a busy day, and you're nearly ready for bed. Before you head off to sleep, you might use a washcloth on your face to wipe away the day's accumulation of dirt and oil or your makeup. While this essential step can help prevent skin problems, if the washcloth itself isn't clean, you might defeat the purpose by introducing new germs to your face.

Neglecting to clean your washcloth on a regular basis can cause the towel to become a breeding ground for bacteria and mold [sources: Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health]. To make your hygiene routine worthwhile, you need to wash and dry towels regularly. If you don't think water's enough, bleach is also effective at killing germs and mold, but it can ruin your towels. The harsh chemical wears through threads quickly, which means you have to purchase replacements more regularly [source: Cotton Incorporated].

Whether you use a washcloth only for your face or on your entire body, using a clean cloth will help combat the germs living in bathrooms. Bathrooms -- which are typically wet, warm spaces -- are the perfect environment for bacteria and mold [source: Consumer Reports]. Letting your damp washcloth lie around for days invites bacteria and mold, and you can unknowingly spread bacteria if you reuse the same cloth again and again.

The point of bathing is to get rid of bacteria -- not to add more to your body. Read on to learn how bacteria and mold thrive on washcloths and how to prevent their growth.

Washcloths and Bacteria

The whole point of using a washcloth is to cleanse your face or body. But if you take the spreading power of bacteria for granted, that seemingly harmless little towel could potentially introduce new germs into your system.

Consider this: Nothing is ever completely germ-free, even a fresh towel that has just come from the dryer. So naturally a used washcloth that is left to air each day gives bacteria and other microbes more of a chance to grow and spread. And each time you use a cloth to wash your face, dead skin cells get caught in it, providing even more food for the bacteria that gather in the towel. Laundering your washcloth regularly may not kill every germ it contains, but it will lessen the overall amount of bacteria and decrease your chances of catching an illness [source: National Institutes of Health].

You should never share your washcloth with other people, including members of your family, since this can spread disease-causing bacteria and infections, including staph infection [source: Mayo Clinic: MRSA]. Staphylococcus bacteria, the germs that cause staph infections, result in minor irritation on the surface of the skin or serious illness if they get under the skin. People who already have a medical condition are especially vulnerable to serious staph infections [source: Mayo Clinic: Staph]. If you suspect that you've developed an infection, you should consult your physician immediately.

Similarly, all personal items, especially washcloths, can be instrumental in spreading pinkeye, a condition that's also known as conjunctivitis. This disease is easy to transmit from person to person, and anything that has contact with the eye area can easily transport bacteria from one person to another [source: WebMD]. If your family often gets towels and washcloths confused, consider using a color-coded system to distinguish which towel is whose [source: Mann].

Bacteria may not be the only thing growing on your unwashed towel; mold could be there, too. Read on to find out more about the potential effects of mold.

Washcloths and Mold

Along with the bacteria that can make itself at home on your washcloth, mold is a likely and problematic invader. Many people have allergies to mold, and it can be difficult to control once it gets a foothold in your home. If you live near an ocean or in a damp climate, you may be more likely to develop mold in your home than if you live in drier environments. But regardless of geography, the bathroom is always a potential hot spot for mold and mildew growth, given the regularly high moisture content of the air in that space [source: Bode].

Mold and mildew, a variety of mold, both fall into the fungus category. Fungi reproduce with the help of tiny particles called spores, which can be dangerous to humans when inhaled. Mold spores trapped in your lungs can cause serious allergic reactions, and many people may experience reactions to skin contact with the spores, such as redness and itching [source: Bode].

Switching your used towel and washcloth with a clean one every few days can help prevent transmitting mold to your skin, but you need to be careful about what you do with your used, damp towels, too. Mold can thrive in wet washcloths and other fabrics left to dry on the counter or floor, in the hamper or laundry basket and even in the washing machine. If you must leave a washcloth to dry in the bathroom, hang it over a bar so air flows around it, speeding the drying process. Otherwise, cycle it through the washing and drying process quickly, rather than letting damp items sit [sources: Bode, Cotton Incorporated, National Institutes of Health].

You should try to keep towels and bathmats as dry as possible to prevent mold from forming. To learn more about how to clean towels to prevent the growth of mold or bacteria, continue to the next page.

Cleansing Washcloths

Washcloths used on the face are especially important to keep clean. Touching your eyes, nose or mouth with a dirty washcloth is an easy way to introduce bacteria and spread infection. To prevent the spread of bacteria, you should machine wash your washcloths every three to four days -- or more often, if you prefer. As for what cleaning agent you should use -- chlorine bleach may be most effective at killing germs, but it can also cause your towels to deteriorate. Regular detergent or non-chlorine bleach should suffice [sources: [url='http://www.marthastewart.com/269266/washing-bath-towels[/url'], National Institutes of Health].

To keep your washcloths and towels in useable condition for a longer period of time, avoid washing them in very hot water or drying them at the highest temperature, as this can cause excessive amounts of wear and shrinkage. You should remove towels from the dryer when they are nearly dry; they should not be wet to the touch, but they shouldn't be crisp, either, as this means that they've been dried for too long [source: Cotton Incorporated].

Practicing proper hygiene with your towels can be more difficult than it appears, but is essential for maintaining clean and healthy skin. For more information, follow the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Bathing and Moisturizing Guidelines." 2009. (Accessed 8/23/09) http://www.skincarephysicians.com/eczemanet/bathing.html
  • Bode, Marilyn. "Help Yourself to a Healthy Home." Federal Citizen Information Center. 2002. (Accessed 8/23/09) http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/family/healthyhome/mold.htm
  • Consumer Reports. "The Basic Facts About Bathrooms and Household Mold." November 2007. (Accessed 8/26/09) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/home-garden/bed-bath/bathroom-remodeling/bathroom-fans/bathroom-fans-household-mold-306/index.htm
  • Cotton Incorporated. "Caring for Cotton Towels." (Accessed 8/23/09)http://www.thefabricofourlives.com/fabric-smart/Caring-for-Cotton-Towels/
  • MarthaStewart.com. "Washing and Folding Towels." (Accessed 8/23/09)http://www.marthastewart.com/article/washing-and-folding-towels
  • MarthaStewart.com. "Washing Bath Towels." (Accessed 8/23/09)http://www.marthastewart.com/269266/washing-bath-towels
  • National Institutes of Health. "Mold and Mildew Awareness." 2001. (Accessed 9/2/09) http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/docs/mold.pdf
  • National Women's Health Resource Center. "Bathroom Mold Busters." 2009. (Accessed 8/23/09) http://www.bedbathandbeyond.com/NWHRCBathroom.asp?order_num=11539431
  • Mann, Denise. "Germs in the Bathroom." WebMD. October 18, 2007. (Accessed 8/23/09) http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/germs-in-bathroom
  • Mayo Clinic. "MRSA: Understand Your Risk and How to Prevent Infection." October 29, 2008. (Accessed 9/2/09) http://mayoclinic.com/health/mrsa/ID00049/NSECTIONGROUP=2
  • Mayo Clinic. "Staph Infections: Prevention." June 9, 2009. (Accessed 9/2/09)http://mayoclinic.com/health/staph-infections/DS00973/DSECTION=prevention
  • WebMD. "Understanding Pink Eye -- Prevention." November 25, 2008. (Accessed 8/23/09) http://www.webmd.com/eye-health/understanding-conjunctivitis-prevention
  • Wisconsin Department of Health Services. "Mold in Your Home: Cleaning Options." October 24, 2008. (Accessed 8/23/09) http://dhs.wisconsin.gov/eh/hlthhaz/fs/moldclean.htm