When asked to describe the perfect bath towel most people would include the words soft, thick, and thirsty. Cotton Incorporated, a trade association of cotton wholesalers, agrees and goes on to say that the perfect towel is a luxurious towel that can also stand up to constant use and laundering for at least a decade.
The secret to buying the perfect affordable bath towel is in understanding fibers, loops, and dyes because unlike bed sheets, towels don’t come with easy measures like thread counts.
A towel’s main duty is to blot up and absorb water. One hundred percent cotton does the best job because cotton naturally attracts water. Synthetic fibers like polyester repel water, making a cotton-polyester blend less absorbent and to be avoided.
The quality of a towel is determined by where the cotton is grown and woven. The heavier the weight, the thicker the towel— which translates to higher quality and greater durability as measured in GSM.
GSM is short for grams per square meter. All fabrics have a weight, and the standard measurement for the weight and quality of fabrics (including towels) is grams per square meter. This number refers to the density of the towel. High-quality Turkish cotton towels are generally heavier and are more absorbent.
Towels can vary anywhere between 300 GSM and 900 GSM. The lower the number, the lighter and thinner the towel. For instance:
300-400 GSM. In this weight, as noted, the towels are lighter and thinner. But, depending on its use, you might want a lower GSM for the gym towel or a kitchen towel. A lightweight, quicker-drying beach towel might be around 350 GSM, for instance.
400-600 GSM. This is a medium weight. This weight is great for beach towels, bath towels, guest towels, and so forth. Each consecutive gram weight –400, 500, 600– gets a little heavier, and a little more absorbent.
600-900 GSM. This is a premium, luxury weight. The towel will be denser, heavier, more absorbent. It will probably take a little longer to dry.
Other factors that will influence the towel’s softness and absorbency are type of cotton, whether the manufacturer uses a polyester blend (please, no!), and whether the cotton is woven with a short or long loop (more on this in a bit).
The highest quality towels are made of cotton grown and woven in Turkey with 800-gram weight.
Next comes Egyptian cotton towels that weigh 300 to 600 GSM (grams per square meter).
Pima cotton, grown in Arizona and California, is exceptionally soft and absorbent and is typically woven at 300 to 700 grams of weight (GSM).
Supima is a trade name for cotton that is a blend of Egyptian and Pima cotton plants.
If you look closely at terry cloth you will see it is made up of a series of loops. The length of the loop determines the fabric’s ability to absorb water. The longer the loop, the better the absorbency.
If those loops are shaved off or “cropped,” the result is velour. While velour makes the towel feel velvety, losing the loops dramatically reduces a towel’s ability to soak up water. A velour towel is pretty but not so useful. Short dense loops result in a thinner towel (preferred by some). Long dense loops make the towel thicker, increasing its absorbency and durability.
Dark-colored towels will fade over time, and that cannot be avoided. If you want colored towels, opt for light colors. The best option, however, is to always go for white. You’ll simplify the laundering process and never have to worry about colors fading. Besides, white goes with everything. All the hand towels and face clothes match all the bath towels, which means you’ll save time when you opt for all white. White bath linens never go out of style.
The price of a medium-weight cotton towel is $10 to $12, but can go as high as $60 or more for a high-end Turkish cotton towel.
Let’s say you pay $20 for a high-quality Egyptian cotton bath towel and use it once a week in rotation with other towels, for 10 years, or 520 uses. That works out to about 4 cents per use.
Now let’s say you pay $10 for a lightweight, poor-quality towel in the same way. You’ll be lucky if it lasts for two years, and will cost 9 cents per use—more than twice the cost of a high-quality Egyptian cotton towel.
Face it. Bath linens are exposed to soil, oil, skin cells, and germs. For good health, towels should be laundered in hot water, at least 120 F, with detergent and occasionally a small amount of chlorine bleach. You cannot do that safely with colored towels, but high-quality, white towels can take the most vigorous laundering and keep looking good year after year.
Avoid fabric softeners of any kind when laundering towels. They contain silicones that will make towels virtually water repellent. Instead, add a cup of white vinegar to the last rinse to remove all traces of detergent—the culprit that makes towels stiff and scratchy.
Wash white towels separately. If drying by hanging on a clothesline, shake towels once while still wet, and again after they are dry. This will fluff the terry loops. Do not iron towels, as this, like fabric softeners, will reduce their ability to absorb water.
Buy the most quality you can afford and you’ll save the most in the long run—and enjoy the luxury of quality bath towels in the process.
Having owned, tested, loved, and often loathed an untold number of brands and types of bath linens over the years, I am confident to continue recommending JCPenneys Liz Claiborne Luxury Egyptian Hygrocotton Loops Bath Towels as the best quality, luxury bath towels at the best price—especially when they’re on Sale!—my pick for Best Inexpensive value for quality, luxurious bath linens.
Hygrocotton uses a special weaving process by which the fabric’s yarns have either a low twist count or untwisted loops. This method increases the surface area of the individual fibers, resulting in much more absorbent items. Ideal for shower and bath towels, and face cloths.
First published: 4-24-17; Revised & Updated 6-3-22
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