A while back, I wrote about how to save money, time and the environment by washing pajamas more rationally. You can read the article here.
Today, I am going to save you even more money on laundry through the magic of simple mathematics. I know, you thought that graduating high school meant never having to do math again, but I will walk you though it step by step.
I should preface this with my story. My eldest teenage daughter was taking a shower every couple of days. About a year ago, she suddenly switched routines. She would take a bath every night to “relax” and “reduce stress”. But she wouldn’t wash. That was something she would do every morning. So she went from 3-4 showers a week, to 6-7 baths plus 6-7 showers a week.
Not long after, I noticed something curious. A lot of our towels were starting to look somewhat frayed. It seems that she was taking two new towels for each bath (one for her body and one for her hair) and two new ones for each shower. So if you can follow me on this simple math:
- 6-7 showers per week
- plus 6-7 baths per week
- equals 12-14 bathing events (that’s how the CIA would call it)
- multiplied by two towels at each bathing event
- equals 24-28 towel units used per week (that’s how the military would call it)
Yikes! No wonder the towels were looking frayed. That’s a heavy workload for our towels.It’s also a heavy workload for a washing machine and dryer. Towels are thick and heavy. Depending on the size of a towel and the size of the washing machine, you can clean 6 – 12 towels at a time. I think we can clean 8. That’s a lot of water, a lot of soap and a lot of electricity being used, all of which tax the environment and your pocketbook. And that’s a lot of time spent loading, transferring, unloading, folding and putting away the clean towels. Imagine if all five of us would use 24 or more towels per week.
I’ve been trying to tell her to reuse towels. When I was a kid, my mom washed towels once a week. Or was it once every two weeks? Or could it have been once a month?
So that got me thinking: What is the ideal interval for washing towels? Are we wasting money washing them even every week? Could we save money, rime and the environment without sacrificing cleanliness? Hotels have reduced the number of laundry loads by 17 percent by encouraging guests to reuse their towels, which some do.
Let’s talk about … underwear!
So let’s do some math. First, we need a baseline for comparison. It struck me that we should use underwear as a comparison, for the following reasons:
- Underwear are always tight against our skin, getting dirtiest fastest, so whatever is good enough for underwear should be good enough for towels.
- Underwear are always tight against our skin, so it has to be clean, so whatever is good enough for underwear should be good enough for towels.
- Everybody wears underwear.
- If I write about underwear, more people will read this article, since people seem to find underwear intriguing.
I did some research on how often people change their undies, and as I suspected, the average person changes underwear once per day, and this seems to be the case for both men and women. A sizable minority change them every couple of days, and some people change them more often than once a day or less often than once every two days.
So the typical person wears their underwear for one day, between 16 hours and 24 hours (so let’s say on average around 20 hours). We don’t need the precision of nuclear science, so let’s say that 20 hours is typical.
However, there is a wider range that we might call “normal”. Some people wear them longer, for two full days, or 48 hours. And some people wear them less, for half of their waking day, or about 8 hours.
So we have the following baseline number of hours underwear is worn before being washed:
- Typical: 20 hours
- Range: 8 – 48 hours
How is the math going for you so far?
Let’s talk about towels
When you get out of the shower, you dry yourself. That might take two minutes. You might also wrap the towel around you to go to the bedroom, especially if you live with people other than your partner. Single people and couple households might often walk to the bedroom naked. People with long hair might use a second towel and wrap it around their hair for a few minutes.
So typical towel use might be 2-5 minutes per shower.
Some people might wrap the towel around themselves and sit at the kitchen table to enjoy a steaming cup of coffee dressed in a towel, just like in coffee commercials on TV. Correct me if I am wrong, but I suspect this is somewhat rare. When it happens, I am assuming it might be 20 minutes before the person decides it’s chilly and wants to put on some real clothes.
So we have the following best guess for the number of minutes towels are used for each shower:
- Typical: 5 minutes
- Range: 2 – 20 minutes
If we assume that towels need to be washed as frequently as underwear, then let’s do this math:
- 20 hours typical underwear usage
- Divided by 5 minutes typical towel usage
- Equals 240 showers before washing the towel
Because people typically shower once per day, this means that one could typically use a towel for 240 days. But, since some people wash twice per day, they would probably want to wash their towel after 120 days (twice the “typical” frequency). On the other hand, those people who wash every second day, might not need to wash their towels more than once every 480 days (half the “typical” frequency).
Annual Towel-washing Day
So you should typically wash your towels every 120-480 days, depending on how frequently you shower. Ha! All hail the Annual Towel washing day!
For those who are getting all excited about the math, we have looked so far only at typical towel use compared to typical underwear use. To get a full range, we need to look also at both extremes:
People who find cleanliness really, really important and sleep without their underwear. Those people will both shower more and wear their underwear less.
- We assume they wear their underwear for 8 hours.
- We assume they shower 2 times a day.
- We assume they use their towels for 5 minutes per wash.
- So they use their towels for ten minutes per day.
Which means that after 48 days, they will have used their towels as much as they use their underwear before washing them. So every month-and-a-half, germ-o-phobes need to wash their towels.
On the other extreme are people who are not too bothered with cleanliness and sleep in their underwear. Those people will both shower less and wear their underwear longer.
- We assume they wear their underwear for 48 hours.
- We assume they shower once every second day.
- We assume they use their towels for 5 minutes per wash.
- So they use their towels for 5 minutes every second day, or about 2.5 minutes per day.
Which means that after 1152 days, they will have used their towels as much as they use their underwear before washing them. So every three years, those folks will be happy to wash their towels.
Have I missed anything?
Yes, two things, both of which blow the whole math theory out of the water, but in different directions each.
Towels don’t get dirty
We have been comparing towels to underwear. No piece of clothing gets as dirty as underwear, right? I could spend the next seven or eight paragraphs describing the details of how dirty our underwear gets, but I will spare us both that trauma. Suffice to say, that no piece of clothing, not even socks, gets as dirty as underwear.
Towels don’t get dirty. They are not there when you sweat. They are not there when you do all those other things that can get underwear dirty. They are used on your body and on your hair when you are as clean as you can get. With the exception of medical conditions or women during their periods, there should be nothing touching the towels that could soil them.
If towels don’t get dirty, why bother with Annual Towel Washing Day at all?
Tips to keep towels that don’t get dirty from getting dirty
Unfortunately, towels do get moldy. We humans have a bad habit of getting them wet for some reason. In fact, some people get them downright soaking.
And they do catch bacteria form all the skin cells that we rub off when drying, especially if we rub our skin vigorously with them. So here are four tips to keep your towels from getting dirty:
- Wash properly and rinse properly. If you rinse properly, there should not be much dead skin left to rub off on the towel.
- Flick off most of the water with your hands. I am sure that I get rid of 90 percent of the water while still in the tub, before I reach for the towel. That means that the towel never gets soaked. I must admit that I don’t do this for cleanliness’ sake, nor to save money or the environment. I do it so that I will dry better than I would by soaking the towel before drying myself with it.
- Pat yourself dry rather than rubbing yourself dry. Even better, let the final drying come from evaporation. While patting might still pick up a loose skin cell or two, it won’t pull off any that are not already loose.
- Hang up the towel to dry right away. Ideally, hang it up over a heater, so that it spends very little time damp.
While the math does suggest that towels need to be washed once per year, and some clinicians do panic about towels being washed once every three uses, most people will be happy washing them once per week. And if you follow the tips above, you’ll probably be perfectly happy washing them once every 3 -4 weeks.
Is it worth the effort? Towels are among the thickest and heaviest items in your laundry, and they are the ones that you can reduce the easiest. So if money and the planet are important to you, yes, it is worth the effort.