Proper Care of Dish Cloths and Kitchen Towels

Clean Dish Cloth and Towel

(Yes, that is a fresh pan of brownies on the stove.)

Dish cloths and kitchen towels fall into a different category of ‘typical’ laundry.  Like cloth diapers, kitchen towels need to be washed in their own load of towels – not with jeans, tshirts, underwear and the like.

Kitchen towels and dish cloths are the perfect environment for efficient breeding of bacteria:  they’re wet, often scrunched in a ball (so they don’t dry out), often warm and sometimes hiding in a dark place waiting to be washed.

I will readily admit that I switch kitchen towels and dish cloths often. As in, I can easily use up to 3 or 4 a day – but I also prepare 3 meals a day in my kitchen.  After I’ve wiped the counter down from preparing chicken, I don’t want to use that cloth again to wipe our kitchen table.  That is just asking for food-borne illness, of which I am not a fan.  And when one of my little people has used the kitchen towel to wipe water off of the floor, I don’t want to use it again to dry my hands.

So what constitutes the proper care of dish cloths and kitchen towels? Here are a few suggestions to keep your kitchen as clean as possible:

  • Change dish cloths when you’ve used it to wipe counters with raw meat.
    Raw meat – whether it is beef, pork or chicken – can cause serious food-borne illness.  Food-borne illness can range from an upset stomach to far more serious conditions.  I am very careful with raw meat and raw eggs and if there is any question at all, I change my cloth or towel.  Why be sick when I can avoid it?
  • Always wash dish cloths and kitchen towels on hot and on a regular/heavy duty cycle.
    These are items that must be laundered on hot.  You’ve used them to wipe up milk or wash dirty dishes and they need to be washed on hot water to best activate the detergent you are using.  Hot water only makes detergent dissolve and work even better.  Kitchen towels also need to be washed on a regular or heavy duty cycle – never on delicates or gentle even if the care label says to do so. The gentle cycle does not provide enough agitation to adequately get the cloths clean.
  • Don’t use fabric softener in your kitchen towels or cloths.
    Fabric softener is great for other laundry items, but it should be avoided with kitchen cloths.  Liquid fabric softener provides a filmy coating on the outside of the laundry it comes in contact with.  I don’t want a film on my dish towels and I also don’t want a softener to inhibit my towels from getting completely clean in the washing machine.
  • Rinse dish cloths completely before putting them in the washing machine.
    If you’ve used your dish cloth in a sink of soapy water, it still has a lot of that soap in its fibers.  I personally have had a soapy dish cloth SUD my machine a couple of times.  Causing the machine to go into the SUD cycle just causes wear and tear and makes it go through a ridiculously long safety-type cycle.  Save yourself the hassle and rinse them completely.
  • Let your dish cloths and kitchen towels air dry before putting them in the laundry hamper.
    There is never a time that it is beneficial to put wet, dirty dish cloths and towels in a laundry basket to wait until wash day.  It will cause them to mildew, smell and just grow general funk that is gross.  Let them air dry completely over the edge of the sink during the night and place them in the laundry basket in the morning.
  • Have a good selection of dish towels to choose from.
    If you have a moderate number of dish cloths and towels, you’re more likely to change them often simply because there are more available.

How often do you change your dish towels and cloths?  Daily?  Weekly?


  1. I have a mesh laundry bag hanging from Command hooks in my kitchen. Anything damp gets dried hanging over the side, then stored there until laundry day. It was the missing piece to the puzzle for my kitchen laundry routine. We are wiping up a toddler so there is lots of kitchen laundry.

  2. I keep a small wicker hamper under my kitchen table. I change the dish cloths and sponges daily, the towels less frequently. With a toddler in the house there are also the meal clean-up cloths from every meal (hands, face, table, and floor all need wiping) and our placemats and napkins.

  3. I change them daily and air dry before washing.

  4. I have heard that putting white vinegar in with them every few washes will help disinfect them and kill any of the germs that make them smell so funky.

  5. I change mine every day at least once, sometimes more. I wash them with our socks and underwear on HOT with bleach. (I use white ones just for this reason.)

    I try to dry them over the edge of our basket before they get thrown all the way in, but that does not always happen.

    • Catherine I ‘m not sure if you meant washing underwear and dish towels clothes together if so Have you considered washing your underwear separate from your dish clothes and towels to prevent the chance of E.coli 0157:H7 transfering from underwear to dishes which can cause severe anemia or kidney failure which can cause death to you or your loved ones and take a lot of your time dealing with the tradgedies that can be involved. I’m not sure if thats what you meant but if not my mistake.

    • Betty Hilliard says:

      I read in Good Housekeeping that underwear should NEVER be washed with other laundry because no matter how fastidious/clean you think you are, there is always fecal matter/bacteria in used underwear. My daughter washes underwear and socks together but I don’t even do that.

  6. Oh wow. I had never thought about the effect laundry softener would have on kitchen towels. I just washed a small load this evening because one was smelling like sour milk. I ran downstairs and set it to rewash after reading this because I always put softener in the load! Haha! Who would have thought I’d learn something new about washing kitchen towels after 15 years of washing them!!! 😀

    • Frank Rekasi says:

      Putting them in a dryer that has had clothes with fabric softener on them stick to the tub and coat your towels again, air dry them to make them absorbent. Also rincing them with white vinager strips them of any residue.

  7. I, too, use LOTS of dish towels and cloths in my kitchen. (Cheaper and better for environment than paper towels and other disposable cleaning tools.) My laundry room is very close to the kitchen, so I’m constantly tossing towels into the washer. That’s pretty much where I store the dirty ones. I’ve never had a problem with them being smelly (after being washed, of course).

  8. I use lots of towels every day – I don’t use paper towels or napkins – I hang them to dry over the dirty clothes hamper – my laundry room is next to the kitchen – or if the washer is empty I toss them in there. I have a large family – 9 of us live here, so I do a load of towels everyday. I wash them in warm, maybe I need to up the heat.
    Great post.

  9. My mail question is about washing kitchen towels and dish cloths with other clothes. I certainly wouldn’t wash them with underwear and socks.
    I wondered about washing them with bath towels. Think I’ll just continue washing a small load of kitchen linens.

    • mamalaundry says:


      I wash all towels together on hot and on a long normal cycle. If they are really gross (like vomit laundry), I definitely wash those separate.

      I never wash clothes and towels together. The fabrics are different (so they dry different speeds) and towels lint pretty heavily onto other clothes.


  10. I usually change my dish cloths daily to every other day. I have a little hanger in my pantry that will hold up to 3 dish cloths or towels and I dry mine out before putting them in my laundry room. My brother-in-law is very persnickety about dish cloths and so I’ve gotten better about changing mine. He’s told me how they breed bacteria. When their family visit I usually have dish towels and dish cloths hanging from my oven and various other places letting them dry out before the next morning.

    Now that I’ve read your post, I’m sure I’ll be thinking about changing more frequently than I do.

    http://treasuring the

  11. Christy says:

    I have a horrible silly question. Am I supposed to have different towels for hand drying, dish drying, dish scrubbing, and counter cleaning? I am confused by “Kitchen towels” vs. “Dish towels”.

    • mamalaundry says:

      Oh – not silly at all! This is just what I do. I’m sure others do differently. 😉

      In general, I have a cloth (what I call a dish cloth) that I use to wash dishes, wipe down counter tops and tables, etc. And then I have a dry cloth (a kitchen towel) that I use to dry my hands, dry dishes if needed, etc. I usually only have one of each out at the time. When I’ve cleaned up something gross with my dish cloth, I just put it in my little trash can under the sink and get a new one.

      I use ‘kitchen towel’ and ‘dish towel’ interchangeably. Well…mostly.


    • I have kitchen hand towels that are fluffy like bath towels and flat weave dish towels that are for drying dishes. There are also dish clothes, 6″x6″ squares, that are for washing dishes and cleaning counters. And then I have old washcloths for cleaning the toddler and rags for cleaning the floor!

  12. Christy says:

    So if you use the term interchangeably, do you use the cloths interchangeably? Thanks for your help!

    • mamalaundry says:

      I don’t use them interchangeably only because of their size. My dish cloths are smaller, like the size of a washcloth you would use to take a bath. My kitchen towels are similar to the size of a bathroom hand towel.

      I find it much easier to wash dishes or clean up the counter with something smaller. And much easier to dry my hands or dishes with something a little larger.

      Did that answer your question? I hope so! 🙂


  13. We have a problem with our kitchen towels smelling like sour milk, almost a vomit smell (even though they have not been used to clean up vomit!). This smell will not go away when they are washed, and sometimes stinks up other things in the laundry, particularly jeans. After reading your website, I will start washing them seperately and more often. I also use vinegar. I have ended up just throwing a lot of them away, which I don’t want to keep doing. Any other ideas on how to prevent and/or get rid of this smell? Thanks so much!

    • mamalaundry says:

      Megan, Have you read the post on How to Revive Smelly Towels?

      Take a peek at it. If you’ve already done all of those things, let me know and I’ll help you troubleshoot. If you don’t do anything else, dry them in the sunshine. It works wonders.

  14. Melissa W. says:

    What is the standard for changing a dish cloth? Should I be doing it everyday, even if I don’t use the cloth that much? I usually change it out at least once a week.

    • mamalaundry says:

      Melissa, Yes, change the dish cloth/kitchen towel every single day even if you don’t use them that much.

      If you’ve used the cloth to clean up food of any kind (even wiping down the table and such) or have gotten it wet in any way, it needs to be changed.

      A wet towel of any type breeds bacteria, so make sure you change it every time it’s been wet.

  15. J. S. Lane says:

    HELP ! ! ! Where can I find some PROVEN facts one way or the other on the proper use of a “dish” towel VS. a “hand” towel, i.e., germs, dirt, bacteria etc.

    I am a firm believer that you should not wash your hands several times a day, dry them on the towel hanging on the oven door, wash the dishes and then dry the dishes with that SAME towel.

    A BATH towel is used AFTER you bathe or shower — you should be “clean” when you get out of the shower — right??
    A HAND towel is used after you wash your hands — now your hands are clean, right?
    A DISH towel is used to dry dishes — (NOT to be used for drying hands)

    My standard argument is — “Would you dry your dishes with the bath towel you used this morning??? ” I’m sure 99.9% of the world would say “NO” — that would not be acceptable. In my book, it is the same answer when it comes to using the same towel to dry hands all day, then use it to dry dishes.

    But, when it comes to drying dishes, you need a “CLEAN” towel for that purpose.
    I would appreciate ANY comments or suggestions.
    J. S. Lane

    • If dish towels or clothing sour, I place them in my washer to spray them thoroughly with Oxy clean, then wash on sanitize.
      if I don’t use Oxy clean, they still come out smelling sour even on the sanitize cycle.
      I don’t have many things sour at home, because I make sure they dry thoroughly. Dish cloth & towels always sour at my work place. So I just toss them in a plastic bag,spray them in my washer wash that load by themselves & take them back to work, fresh as a daisy !!
      I use dish cloths & dish towels for 1 day only. If I use 1 for cleaning up after meat, the floor, etc., they go immediately in the wash, so not to cross contaminate. I only use 1 dish cloth for dishes & another for hands.

  16. Kitchen towels or dish towels should aways be washed SEPARATELY.

    A study was done recently, where bacteria was found in washers even after the rinse cycles. Ever since I heard these stats, I run a rise cycle with 1/2 cup of bleach or white vinegar BEFORE I wash my dish towels. I then air dry them put in the dryer.

  17. Well, I’m an odd ball here. I have dish towels which are used to dry dishes only, washed separately from everything else, hand towels to dry hands on only, washed with other hand towels, dish cloths that are used for washing dishes, counter tops, microwave, stove or table top, washed separately. I change hand towels once a day, unless I’m drying hands after handling meat, eggs, or fats, then they go to the laundry immediately and changed. Dish cloths are changed after washing dishes every time, table top, counter or stove are all wiped down with a clean cloth everytime. I don’t want possible saliva from table settings when spoons or dirty forks end up on the table, wiped on my counter tops, nor do I want grease from pots or stove wiped everywhere, so I use about 4 or 5 dish cloths every meal, 1 for doing dishes, 1 for pots and pans so saliva is never on my pots or pans, 1 for table I eat from, 1 for stove, 1 for counter tops. They are all sent to laundry after use immediately. Dish towels are sent to laundry after every use. Counter tops are dried with a clean hand towel. In a day I will use 15 dish cloths alone, unless I have food spills from kid during the day, then more. All dish cloths are washed daily, but hung to dry in laundry room until I get to them after the last meal, the rest are hung to dry so nothing wet is ever in my laundry basket. Cross contamination happens easily and fast, so every towel is changed daily, with the exception of my kitchen linens. All are washed separately by type or use. I use to be a Nurse, and I can’t stand the thought of food, saliva, bacteria hanging around my kitchen. Statistics have always shown disease could be greatly reduced by hand washing, so I wash dish cloths like crazy!

  18. I think dish clothes should be washed on there own and exspecially not with your underwear. Would you wash your dishes with your underwear, probably not, so why would you wash your dish cloth with your underwear?

  19. Jean Diehl says:

    I read several years ago that you shouldn’t use fabric softener at all unless you regularly clean, not just remove lint from your lint filter in your dryer. I tested out what I read which was that the fabric softener and dryer sheets as well put a thin clear coating on the lint trap. I tested it out with my own lint trap and yes the water did pool therefore the holes get clogged and overheat the dryer and can cause of Fire. So if you use a fabric softener, you should clean it very often with soap and water.

    • Lauren Hill says:

      Excellent tip, Jean! Yes, one has to be very careful with that lint trap and keeping it clean and free of residue. Sadly, so many home fires are started this way. 🙁


  20. Amanda Christie says:

    I use the small bar mop cloths for drying dishes and I use the larger kitchen bar mop towels for drying hands (one hanging on the counter.) I use another kitchen one for cleaning the counter. I wash them in vinegar, sometimes bleach. I wash them separately from the other towels. I change then daily and let dry before putting them in the hamper. I do use paper towels for food prep (drying fruit and soaking up grease.) Glad I’m not the only one who does these things though. My husband thinks I’m just OCD, which I am there things too. Love the site BTW. 😊


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  2. […] I was unaware that I’ve been washing my dish towels wrong all these years! Thanks to MamaLaundry for setting me straight! […]

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