Many people look forward to their shower ritual — it’s when they feel rejuvenated and fresh. But how long will you stay clean if you reach for an old towel to dry off?

It’s easy to assume that because you’re clean when you dry off with a bath towel that your towel stays pretty clean even after a few uses. But bath towels host a variety of microorganisms that you might not welcome into your hygiene routine.

Towels absorb a lot of water and remain damp for hours, which is the perfect breeding ground for unwanted germs. That’s why towels should be washed every three uses.

You have 19 million skin cells and 650 sweat glands in every inch of your body. And one powerful tool keeps it all clean day after day: your bath towel.

Dead cells make up the top 20 layers of your skin. Some of these cells scrub off in the shower, but many of them will end up on your bath towel every day.

The best way to prevent germs from growing on your bath towel is to let it dry completely between each use, and wash it frequently.

The Cleaning Institute recommends washing bath towels after three uses. If you shower every day, that means laundry almost twice a week. Regular laundry is sufficient to clean towels and remove any germs that are starting to accumulate.

Washcloths that you use to lather and scrub in the shower should air-dry and be washed after every use.

There are some circumstances that call for washing your bath towels more frequently than twice a week:

  • Any towel that has body fluid on it should be washed after only one use.
  • Gym towels that sop up sweat or towels that stay damp in your gym bag for a few hours should be washed after one use.
  • Towels kept in a bathroom that’s usually damp and don’t dry fully should be washed after one use.
  • If you have eczema or sensitive skin, wash all of your towels after one use to prevent further irritation.

Frequently washing your towels — and always letting them air-dry before throwing them in the hamper — will deter growth of unwelcome bacteria and fungi.

Unfortunately, dirty towels can spread viruses, fungi, and bacteria. The consequences of using a dirty towel include irritated skin and possibly spreading infections. The bacteria that causes staph infections (MRSA) is known to spread on towels and linens.

You should never share a towel with someone you don’t know or someone who’s sick. It’s not the end of the world if you get a few more uses out of your towel between washes, but you and your skin will be healthier the more often you wash them.

To keep towels their cleanest:

  • Always hang them to dry before putting in the laundry pile. Don’t put wet towels directly in the hamper.
  • Bleach isn’t necessary to kill germs on towels.
  • Follow product instructions for laundry detergent to get the most efficiency. This can mean changing your water levels and temperature.
  • Consider using a laundry booster or add vinegar to your rinse cycle.
  • Read the washing machine manual or call the manufacturer to determine how often your washing machine needs to be sanitized. Running a rinse cycle with just vinegar can kill unwanted bacteria in the machine.
  • Don’t overload your washing machine with towels. When in doubt, take one out. A too-full machine means towels won’t get as much detergent, water, or movement to get clean.

The life cycle of a bath towel depends on quality and how you care for it. Very cheap towels may unravel quicker, and using water that’s too hot can also start to break down the fibers faster.

Always read the bath towel’s product tag and follow washing instructions to get the most out of it.

If towels develop a damp or musty smell, try using the sanitizing setting on your washing machine. You can also soak towels in vinegar to kill smells, or hang them on a clothesline to sun-bleach stains and remove odor.

With good care, a bath towel should last a long time and will probably outlive your next bathroom renovation.

While bath mats don’t get quite as soaked as bath towels, you do walk on them multiple times per day. Not to mention guests and pets trafficking through the bathroom. You could wash bath mats every time you do towel laundry, or at least once a week to keep hygienic.

It’s sanitary to reuse a bath towel two or three times between washes. But damp bathrooms and towels can quickly become home to many unwanted microorganisms.

Regular laundry washes are sufficient for killing germs and refreshing your towels. To keep towels their cleanest, always hang them and let them fully dry between uses.