Why are my dish towels not absorbent?

What do you do with dish towels that are too good to throw away, but aren’t doing their job any longer?  We use these kitchen workhorses every day, so if they’re not performing well it’s really noticeable.

If you’re wondering why your dish towels are not absorbent, it’s usually due to a buildup of detergent or fabric softener.  Brand new towels have a coating applied by the manufacturer that can reduce how well they absorb.  For towels you’ve had a while, the laundry products you’re using can have the same effect. 

The answer to this common problem can be simple and inexpensive.  Let’s look at why your towels may be under-performing, and a few suggestions for you to try.  

Manufacturers often coat towels with a chemical before they end up in stores.  This treatment makes the towels appear and feel especially nice.  Of course we’ll be more likely to buy a towel that looks and feels great on the shelf. But the coating can interfere with the very purpose of the product, which is to absorb liquid.

Detergent can build up on the fibers over time.  Even though we use detergent as a cleaner, it still leaves a residue on the items we wash in it. And little by little this can affect how much liquid the fibers can hold on to.  

Fabric softener is another culprit that can cause towels to lose their absorption.  We may enjoy the way it makes our kitchen towels feel and smell, but it does them no favors when it comes to letting the fibers do their job.  It leaves a water-resistant layer on the surface of the towel.

How can you combat these common causes while still thoroughly cleaning your towels?

How do I make my dish towels more absorbent?

Don’t give up on your dish towels yet.  If they’re still in good condition it’s well worth trying to revive them. Here are some proven methods to renew absorbency.

  • Before their first use, run the towels through the wash cycle twice.  Wash once no detergent, and add 1 cup of white vinegar to the fabric softener dispenser.  Don’t dry them.  Then run them through the wash cycle again with ½ cup baking soda and no detergent. The vinegar and baking soda can remove the coating used by the manufacturers, soften and restore absorbency.
  • Use less than the recommended amount of detergent (by half) for routine laundering.  The towels will still get clean, but there won’t be as much buildup left on the fibers.
  • Avoid fabric softener altogether.  The water-resistant layer it leaves on the towels interrupts how much liquid they can soak up. This includes dryer sheets as well.

Baking soda and vinegar each act as a fabric softener.  Use either (not both at the same time in the same wash load) whenever your towels need a refresh.

What material is best for dish towels?

Cotton is by far the best material for a soft, absorbent, sturdy dish towel.  You’ll want to purchase towels that are “100% Cotton”.  It has all the properties needed to provide superior performance in the kitchen. In fact, it’s what the vast majority of dish towels are made from.  

What are the most absorbent dish towels?

Whether you’re drying dishes or cleaning up a spill, the absorbency of your towels makes all the difference.

We know that 100% cotton is the best material to look for, but even all-cotton towels come in a variety of different weaves.  And different weaves offer their own unique benefits.

If you’ve ever shopped for kitchen dish towels, you know there’s a big selection to choose from.  Some are thin and smooth while others are thick and soft.  Yet others are a combination.  And you may wonder what the difference is in how they perform.

The most absorbent dish towels generally come in one of the following categories.

  • Flour Sack
  • Flat Weave
  • Textured Weaves (Dobby, Waffle, Popcorn, etc.)
  • Terry Cloth

Flour Sack
These thin, absorbent towels were originally make from their namesake … flour sacks.  That should give you an idea of just how long they’ve been around, and been a favorite tool in the kitchen. 

Description – Lightweight (great for drying glassware), highly-absorbent, tight weave/no lint, sturdy, multipurpose, quick-drying

Buy on Amazon

Flat Weave
This material is more tightly woven, giving the towel a uniform texture which grows even softer with use over time.  Some of the hardest-working dish towels are made this way.  

Description – Medium weight, absorbent, sturdy, lint free

Buy on Amazon

Textured Weaves (Dobby, Waffle, Popcorn, etc.)
These materials have various textures incorporated into the weave of the cloth.  They’re not smooth like flat weave, and don’t have the loops of terry cloth.  The textures increase absorbency and make the towels thicker.

Description: Thick, absorbent, sturdy, not lint free

Buy on Amazon

Terry Cloth
The distinctive feature of terry cloth is the uncut loops of cotton fiber, which stand up and away from the base of the material.  Because of the way it is woven, the level of absorbency is very high.  It’s also generally the thickest material used to make dish towels.  

Description:  Thick, absorbent, sturdy, not lint free

Buy on Amazon

What if my efforts to increase absorbency don’t work?

If you’ve tried the recommended methods (above) to increase the absorbency of your towels but still aren’t satisfied, it may be time for new towels.  Sometimes the absorbency was never there to begin with, or maybe it’s not coming back.  Even when the tag assures you that a towel is “100% Cotton”, as with any product there are differences in quality between brands.  But knowing what you know now will help you choose new dish towels that you’ll be happy with for years.   

Looking for new dish towels?

Even though dish towels are a small item, the simple fact that you use them every day is an argument to buy ones that will do their job well and last a long time.  

A quality dish towel can retain (or regain) its absorbency, soften with use, and last for many years.

So taking what we’ve learned, I’ve hand picked some highly rated dish towels for you to look at.

Remember to opt for 100% cotton and select a fabric type (flour sack, flat weave, textured weave, terry cloth) that matches your preferences and how it will be used. 

Also, use this as an opportunity to add some new life to your kitchen decor. You can find designs from simple white all the way to beautifully decorative.   There’s no reason you need to sacrifice looks for functionality.

Auntie Em’s Vintage Design Kitchen Dish Towels  [Buy on Amazon]

Bakers Floursack Kitchen Dish Towels  [Buy on Amazon]

12 Pack Professional Grade Kitchen Dish Towels [Buy on Amazon]

Fecido Classic Kitchen Dish Towels  [Buy on Amazon]

Utopia Dobby Weave Kitchen Towels [Buy on Amazon]

Wrap up

We use our kitchen dish towels every day to absorb liquids.  And it gets downright frustrating when a dish cloth is pushing liquid around instead of soaking it up.  Reaching for a paper towel as a quick fix can become a habit.

Before you decide to replace your towels, there are a few things to do that can improve absorbency:  wash with vinegar or baking soda, use less detergent, and avoid fabric softener.

If none of these methods help, you may want to consider buying new towels that are 100% cotton and are made with one of the four best type of materials for absorbency.

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