Excerpt: How many bath linens do you need?

Below is the final excerpt from my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week we plan to run on the site — this time on how to determine how many towels and washcloths you need in your linen closet.

This is from the Tuesday chapter, “Your Bathroom” section:

“During its second season in 1967, the television show Star Trek aired an episode called ‘The Trouble with Tribbles.’ In this episode, a member of the crew of the Starship Enterprise is given a cuddly, furry tribble as a pet. Unfortunately for the crew, the tribble reproduces at an alarming rate and thousands of tribbles end up eating all of the grain on the ship. The crew runs the risk of dying of starvation out in deep space since their food supply has been so greatly depleted. I won’t give away details about the ending of the episode, but since the show went on to run for another season and a half, you can probably guess that they found a way out of the furry situation.

I mention this episode of Star Trek because I remember thinking about it the first time I cleared the clutter from my linen storage. I was convinced that my bath towels and washcloths had multiplied. I remembered buying one of the towels before I started college, but I had no memory of how I acquired the dozens more in the years since. It was as if they had spontaneously reproduced while the doors to the linen closet were shut.

To determine how many towels and washcloths you need, use this simple math equation:

(House residents + Guest bedrooms) x 2 = Sets of bath towels and washcloths

The logic behind the equation is that you have one bath towel and washcloth in use and another set in the linen closet ready to go. Since houseguests only need towels while they’re staying with you, they don’t need extras in reserve. Most guest rooms can accommodate two people, so multiplying the number of guest rooms by two usually provides for a towel per guest. (I’m using the term guest room in a general sense; in our house the guest room is an apple-green pullout couch in the middle of the living room.) If you have four people living in your home and zero guest rooms, then you should have eight bath towels and eight washcloths: (4 + 0) x 2 = 8. If you have three people living in your home and two guest rooms, then you should have ten towels and ten washcloths: (3 + 2) x 2 = 10.

This equation might not work for everyone, but most people find it to be a good starting point. If you’re a whiz at laundry, you might be able to get by on one set of towels per person. If you’re particular about having a new washcloth every day, you might need more washcloths in your collection. If your towels are falling on your head every time you open your linen closet, it’s time to trim your collection.

One nice thing about getting rid of towels and washcloths is that animal shelters worldwide are more than eager to take used linens off your hands. They are used to provide soft spaces for animals to rest, to dry off recently bathed animals, and to clean up messes. In addition to towels and washcloths, most shelters also take old sheets and tablecloths. Give your favorite animal shelter a call before you make your donation to make sure that they have a need for your unwanted items, and wash the items you plan to donate.”

44 Comments for “Excerpt: How many bath linens do you need?”

  1. posted by Celeste on

    I feel like rolling the towels keeps them from falling out if you have a lot.

    The shelter donation idea is a good one.

    However I say keep a few extra junky ones around. They are great if you have to clean up after a sick child or there is a big water spill. In those times I really think twice about using the nice towels. I keep some by the washer and some by the upstairs bedrooms.

  2. posted by Dawn F. on

    Thank you soooo much for mentioning that animal shelters need linens – that is such a blessing to them (at least the shelters in our area love them).

    The calculation you mentioned is perfect for our family. I also have 2 sets of nice towels that are saved only for guests (which is rare since both sides of our family all live in our city).

    I also have 3 old towels in our garage that I call our “car wash towels” and I have 2 old towels in my laundry room for large clean-ups. These clean-up towels have come in handy on quite a few occasions.

    My family loves to go swimming a lot in the summer, so I have 2 beach towels per person that I keep rolled up on the bottom shelf of our linen closet. They are stored/displayed easily to grab and run – plus they look fun and cool rolled up on that shelf!

    When I get new towels, I either replace one of our “old” towels (car wash/clean-up) or I donate them to the animal shelter. Our linen closet isn’t very large, so I don’t like to have a massive stash of towels – your calculation is right on for our family!

  3. posted by Pink Helicopter on

    I also use old towels as car-drying/waxing towels sometimes. I keep them in a box on the shelf in my garage.

    It’d never occured to me to donate linens to the animal shelter. What a great idea!

  4. posted by Ben on

    I have been rotating my towels out when I get new ones to my dog for baths, etc. Afterwards they go to the laundry room for emergency issues like water leaks, etc. Thanks for the forumla. I have way to many in my closet and jamming them in each week gets old. I am looking forward to having more space in the closet and love the idea of donating the old unused ones to the animal shelter.

  5. posted by dusty on

    Sorry, but that is too few.
    Suppose you just changed the towels, your first set is in the wash, and your current towel falls into the bath.
    Now what ?
    Or you washed the baby, the towel is wet, and the baby has the runs and needs another quick wash.
    I say keep at least one extra set, more if you have children.

    What you should discuss is the numbers of towels in a set.
    If you go to a good hotel, you get about 5 towels per person, of different sizes. Now that is too much.

    Also the size – you don’t really need the biggest ones. Children like a full body wrap, but an adult can take a smaller size towel. That saves a lot of closet space.

  6. posted by cerrissa on

    I don’t have a problem keeping my everyday towel supply under control. It’s the junky clean up towels that take over! i always think “what if…” and they have come in handy a couple of times already, like when there was water coming through the ceiling from the apartment above mine. this also happens with old pots and pans that i think i will need in emergencies to catch water dripping. I get slightly stressed out about getting rid of these, but the truth is i have no room to store any of these extras. *sigh*

  7. posted by Anita on

    This is a good rule of thumb to start from, but then of course you have to take into account personal preference. For instance, personally I prefer bath robes to bath towels…

    Also: by this formula, I’m short of washcloths!

  8. posted by Magchunk on

    Interesting! I’d never thought about using a formula. We’re a two-adult household and have six bathtowels in rotation as it takes us a while to build full laundry loads (our washer can fit at least four towels comfortably). We also have two extra towels that were still pretty nice when I moved from my bachelorette apartment, but haven’t decided on a plan of action for them. Likely they’ll be stashed away for clean-ups or extra extra guests πŸ™‚ I know my sister likes to use one towel for hair and one for wrapping, so we need a few extra!

    Thought Dusty’s comment about towel size was interesting. Since children are smaller they can do the full-body wrap in a “regular” bath towel, but I found the regular to just be too revealing (I just got rid of/turned into cleaning rags my college towels… quite the show running from the bath back to the dorm room!) I know we have windows to walk by back to the bedroom, so I like to be fully and comfortably wrapped! Storage be damned.

    And now that I’m writing a novel on here, I might as well add that it helps a lot to fold all the towels in the same fashion and in uniform size. They stack much easier, and having all the exact same towel means no one is pulling a favorite from the bottom and tipping the pile.

  9. posted by Mletta on

    Every household is different. We don’t use wash cloths but have a few for guests; usually go through four to six hand towels in a week (more when someone is ill) so need twice that many, and everyone prefers the large, large, large body towels (bath towel size? Nobody likes them, especially the adults)so that’s a minimum of three super-sized towels a week, more in the summer. (Too tired to do the math here.)

    We always keep old towels around (toilet overflow, other emergencies where paper towels make no sense) for cleaning, etc.

    We don’t have all that much space so we’re not worried about having too many of any size towel (One of the rare things we have in our old apartment? An actual linen closet outside the bathroom! and we added a tall shelving unit in the bathroom.

    FYI: We have towels that are over 25 years old. They are still in fabulous shape (they really do not make towels like they used to), granted they are really good towels (Fieldcrest)to begin with. It’s worth paying the price for quality towels. (We know people who have to buy new towels every year or so because they buy junky/cheap ones. Pays to invest in quality if you can.)

    We live in a city apartment. Doing laundry as needed not always an option, so we really need more “extras.”

    We also keep three sets of sheets per bed and lots of extra pillow cases. That’s saved us when we’ve had accidents in the bedroom (yes, we occasionally eat in bed!), unexpected guests and had children staying over.

  10. posted by Pammyfay on

    Because I have plenty of storage space, I don’t obsess over how many towels I have–there’s always a need for them.

    As another poster mentioned, you don’t necessarily want to run the laundry just because you have one set of towels that need to be washed. I wait until there’s enough linens and towels to be worth the water and energy.

    Washcloths always are needed in my house–a household of one. Up until recently, it was a household of two: me and and my dog. During the winter and when it was muddy outside after a rainstorm, I would always wash and dry her paws, and the washcloths were perfect. And they were exactly what was needed when she had bile throw-up occasionally and I had to use the spray-on carpet cleaner. Those things require that you let the cleaner soak in to the fibers and then use a towel to absorb it all up; a paper towel’s no good for that–you’d use a whole roll of it!

    The washcloths are also better for some cleaning tasks than paper towels, both for inside jobs and for outside jobs, like wiping bird poop from the car.

    The last time I bought paper towels, there were 12 in the package, and each was individually wrapped–beyond the outer plastic wrap. That really disgusted me, and I really think that economically and environmentally, reusables are the way to go. Some people say studies have proved otherwise, but to each her own.

    Also, regarding full-size towels, wherever she plopped down to look out a sliding-glass door or a window, she was much more comfortable on a soft towel, so there were a few regular-size towels just for her.

    For people who color their hair at home, they need an old towel or two for afterwards, because some dye always comes off (and potentially on a pillowcase, too, so I’ve frequently placed a towel over it).

    But as I wrote, I have plenty of storage space. Although even if I didn’t (like in one of my former converted garage apartments, I’d keep the extra towels in my car trunk if I had to!).

  11. posted by Lori on

    This is one area in our family where more is better. We have four adults and I used to only have about eight to ten bath towels. It seemed like we were always running out of towels and my husband would get upset when he wanted to go to the gym and there weren’t any clean towels.

    I ended up buying five or six extra towels recently, which seems to be just about right. We usually have a few clean ones at all times. I have found that my life is simpler now that we have more towels than when we had less.

  12. posted by Jeannine on

    I am learning that we are spoiled in our house!! We use a new bath towel every time we shower….is this wasteful? Yikes!

    I’ve heard the logic that you should be clean when you dry off after your shower, so your bath towel will be clean again as soon as it dries….but I’m sorry. I just get a little grossed out by that. It always seems like the towel is covered in lots of hair after I use it, and then if I re-use the towel, the hair gets stuck to my damp skin. Ick!

    I’ll admit — we are a two-adult household and it seems that I have a full load of towels every 4 days…so perhaps that is wasteful. Ugh. I just don’t know if I can bring myself to change!

  13. posted by Sky on

    I prefer a few more towels and washcloths than you recommend, just in case there is a need.

    It may be wasteful, but we use paper towels in the bathroom instead of hand towels. Much more sanitary. Guests always like it.

  14. posted by Lose That Girl on

    Perfect timing for this post — I’ve been thinking of getting rid of some of our towels to make more storage space in the linen closet. We’re a two adult, one puppy household and we seem to use the same bathtowels again and again. I wash them, we use them, I wash them..put them back again and again. I do have many sets of spares and it’s getting to the point that they’re just taking up room. I could easily get rid of a few and still have multiples in case of spills, floods or dog problems.

  15. posted by Rue on

    I like to have two towels “in use” for myself. I don’t wash my hair every day, but when I do I want one to wrap around my body and one to wrap my hair up with so it doesn’t drip everywhere. Bonus is that hubby usually uses my “hair towel” after his shower so we still only have two in use.

    I keep six bath towels, four hand towels, and four washcloths. We keep two bath towels and one hand towel in the bathroom at a time and use them for a week (less if we have to clean up a mess or if they start smelling prematurely, etc). So after using one set for a week, there’s a dirty set in the laundry, a clean set in the bathroom, and a clean set in the closet. So there’s always a clean set on hand in case we have company.

    For a guest bathroom I think having two of each type of towel is plenty, unless you’re having guests every week! The only exception would be hand towels if the residents of the house use the toilet in said bathroom – then you’d want to have enough to last until you do laundry.

  16. posted by Lose That Girl on

    Just received my copy of ‘Unclutter Your Life in One Week’ — Amazon.ca, speedy service! Can’t wait to dive in!

  17. posted by Nana on

    Various solutions for various situations. I personally don’t use a washcloth, although I have a couple for guests. Used to have the big bath sheets…then a college child came to visit with a friend. Each took one to use at the pool…then a separate one for the post-pool shower that evening…then another separate one for the morning shower. 15 hours in my house = six bath sheets to take to the laundromat!

  18. posted by Kris on

    When my kids were at home, I always kept some old towels for them to take to the pool or camping. (I also had beach towels for them to use, where else, at the beach.) To distinguish the camping towels from the better towels, I used a laundry marker to put an “X” on each old towel’s label. That way the kids didn’t have to ask me which towels they could take.

  19. posted by *Pol on

    Oh the woahs of towel math!

    The formula is good for “presentable” towels.

    Then one “muck” towel per person in the household and at least 3 for each pet in the household, and the designated pool/beach towel per person.

    Recently, we had a bad bleaching epidemic that ruined every single decent towel in the house! I don’t use bleach in the laundry and found that it was the acne spot cream that was the culprit… it took out some pillowcases too. Suddenly all the nice colour coordinated towels looked like college hand-me-downs, very depressing. (I haven’t had the desire to replace them yet $$$ — they still work.)

  20. posted by Inadequate Wife on

    We have two adults and one teenager in the house, and we each have 6 huge bathsheets, 6 hand towels, and 12 washcloths. Each person has a separate color, which coordinates with their bathroom. My husband and daughter use a new towel/washcloth every day, whereas I use the same one for a couple days. It seems like we have an excess compared to everyone else!

    We have two guest rooms, with 2 bathsheets, 2 hand towels, and 4 washcloths per person, in 4 coordinating colors so each guest can keep track of their own towels (only one guest bathroom).

    We also have 12 towels designated for swimming pool use which I keep rolled up in a basket near the back door.

    We also keep a couple of old towels and facecloths in each bathroom and the laundry room for messy jobs.

    Thankfully, we have a super sized front loading washer/dryer, so I only do about 3 loads of towels per week.

  21. posted by Sarah on

    Pol, I know exactly what you mean. All my towels were ruined by Proactiv. No matter how careful you try to be (I would wash my hands twice after applying the cream), benzoyl peroxide will ruin your linens.

    The two-towel thing makes sense. After I graduate and buy some decent towels, I’m definitely getting white ones so the bleaching incident doesn’t happen again. Basic is best.

  22. posted by Sharon on

    So what about bed sheets? It seems that we never have enough when an emergency (sick kid, etc…) hits.

  23. posted by WilliamB on

    These seem like good rules-of-thumb to start with, then modify by circumstance.

    I determine what towels each household member likes, then get two sets; all these should be the same color so you can rotate efficiently. Two sets sheets for each bed, again same color and remember to rotate. I like having guests so add one set sheets per guest bed and 3 sets towels in different colors so guests can tell their towels apart. Then beach and slop towels.

    I have two bathroom closets, but I have to be slightly psycho about folding exactly right, but if I do everything fits and lines up tidily. Makes it easy for guests to find what they need and to rotate so the sets wear out evenly. (My towels have to be folded in thirds longways, then quarters; guest towels in quarters longways, then thirds – it sounds retentive even to me!)

    I got an excellent deal on very good quality towels for myself so there’s another two sets in the basement, for five years from now when this set wears out. I bet Erin wouldn’t approve!

    PS: Jeannine, since you asked us, yes, that’s a lot of towels. I have a (beloved) houseguest no end of ribbing because he did the same thing. “M, aren’t you clean when you get out of the shower?!?” A’course, he doesn’t have a lot of hair to worry about. ;->

  24. posted by Laura on

    I have found lately that my bath towels come out somewhat shredded! I have used gentle-cycle wash and dry, but there are still lots of hanging threads I need to cut off. These towels are Ralph Lauren, and they weren’t cheap. I’m thinking maybe it’s the water … perhaps “harder” than I’m used to.

    I bought 12 lavender washcloths at Target and I keep them in the drawer next to my bathroom sink. I use these washcloths for drying my face after washing it in the evening. I just rinse my face in the morning shower, but in the evening I really try to take care of my skin and I want to use a clean cloth. Everyone in my household of 5 knows that the “purple ones” are for MOM ONLY!!

  25. posted by Ms. Harmony on

    This is timely. I just trimmed our collection a bit and wasn’t sure goodwill would want used towels. I’ll call the shelter.
    Our apartment is so moldy our towels last two days at most before they need rewashing. Maybe when we move we can pair down our collection more. One thing I’ve learned living here though, from now on – only white towels. I know the perils of bleach but mold and mildew are worse!

  26. posted by Gypsie on

    We are a household of two adults, two large dogs, and two small cats. We have two towels each for home use, two towels each for gym use, two (total) camping towels and two (total) beach/pool towels. The dogs each have their own bath towel (brown color). My DH uses a fresh wash cloth for each shower so we have about two dozen of those. Also, we have about a dozen hand towels for gym use (on the equipment).

    But we are lucky to have the storage space…

  27. posted by Dawn F. on

    I like Laura’s idea of using one color for Mom only! πŸ™‚

  28. posted by Korta on

    Last year I was overwhelmed by towels, but I knew I used most of them…especially the few times my daughter was sick and I needed extras. But I decided to tuck most of my “extra” towels away out of sight (a high basket in a totally different cupboard). This post has reminded me they’re still there, completely untouched…so I suppose I didn’t need as many as I thought! Time to donate to the shelter, I think!

  29. posted by Mary on

    Furry animals aren’t the only household members who fly through towels…I find that aquarium maintenance goes through them like crazy, also. Weekly water changes with slops and spills is enough for a whole extra load.

  30. posted by dutchmarbel on

    Towels for sports & gym aren’t included in the formula, but many people shower after sports (and for kids it is obligatory in our schools). So I have three kids who have gym at school twice a week, gym club once a week, one of them has swimming lessons twice a week and I sport three times a week. That adds a lot of towels to the equation.

  31. posted by Another Deb on

    You definately have to take circumstances into account. In coastal Texas I could only use bath towels once. They’d become mildewed if you used them more. In Arizona I can use them all week.

  32. posted by Elaine on

    Perhaps a better rule-of-thumb would account for the very young members of a household. The people to towel ratio could decline until children become teens, and then taper off at the number of towels you suggest. It makes a lot of sense to decrease towels, etc. when possible – I feel like I’m always laundering them!

    BTW, that Star Trek episode – the tribbles were eating all of the quadrotriticale wheat that was scheduled for delivery to some agricultural planet… Cute, but a nuisance!

  33. posted by PrairieGal on

    I love that there are over 30 comments on how many towels to have!

    I just had a funny conversation wtih a colleague who accidently took a “good” towel to hockey practice and his wife will not be impressed.

  34. posted by Amy Smith on

    Ok, someone has to do this. At the risk of inviting “Get a life!” comments, πŸ˜‰ there are some glaring errors with the Star Trek episode description. As a Trekker old enough to see this episode the first time it aired, and as a technical writer who likes to get her facts straight:

    – The grain was stored on a space station
    – The grain was destined for a planet that the Federation wanted to claim
    – The crew was never in danger of starvation.

    The crew was, however, in danger of ending up neck-deep in tribbles. Which is really the point of that story. πŸ™‚

    Ok, I feel better now. πŸ˜‰

  35. posted by Lilliane P on

    Glad to see everyone’s input. I was wondering how many I actually need as my linen closet is bulging and I want to pare it down. For two adults, I’m going to go with the 6 bath towels, 4 hand towels, and 4 washcloths. Thanks everyone. Great post.

  36. posted by Renovation survivor on

    I’m glad people posted about the Star Trek synopsis being inaccurate! I thought it sounded wrong but was afraid I was just remembering the episode incorrectly. πŸ™‚

    Excellent advice on donating old towels to animal shelters, though! I had never even thought about that.

  37. posted by Morgana on

    Apart from not having many more towels than strictly necessary, I also have got rid of my old bathing robe. I decided it took too much space hanging behind the bathroom door, in the washing machine or in the closet. It also took much longer to dry than a conventional towel. After the shower, I use a medium-sized towel and get immediately dressed or put on my pyjamas.

  38. posted by Lilliane P on

    Finished reading this, commented, got offline and went and organized my towels. Done. Wheeeeeeeeee!

  39. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    Other places to donate towels:
    Homeless family shelters
    Group homes for children
    Car wash fundraisers – give the cheerleaders, etc your oldest towels, and tell them to toss them afterwards.
    Veterinary hospitals
    Many animal rescue organizations will take them – Forgotten Felines, horse rescue, etc

    Other places to keep old towels for your own use:
    At least 2 in the car
    Your Disaster Kit (1 med size towel for every family member)
    One under the kitchen sink if you have room – a quick solution for big spills
    Several in the garage for easy access

    And for the sci fi lovers, remember The Hitchiker’s Guide – always have a towel!


  40. posted by Robert on

    That’s if you shower everyday, which some people do. When it starts to take up your life, then maybe it’s time for change.


  41. posted by Pammyfay on

    Nana: Thanks for reminding me (and perhaps others) that not everyone has a washer/drier in his or home. For a number of years, I, too, had to lug stuff to the laundromat. That clearly helps determine how much stuff you’re willing to schlep to the laundromat. (Even if it’s just in the basement of your apartment/condo building!) And now that I think about it, my linen and towel collection certainly grew after I had an apartment with a stackable laundry unit and then after I bought my home.

  42. posted by Rae on

    YESH to the animal shelter thoughts as I live in the middle of one – we always need linens for cleaning dogs, for crates and for covering couches. PLUS, having a crazy number of multiple dogs in the house means you never have too many linens as if they get one, it can be shredded either singly or by a pack in a matter of minutes. Love the blog – thanks.

  43. posted by Gayle on

    To cut down on laundry, I keep a basket of colorful washcloths on the bath vanity. We use these as individual hand towels and guests can have their own fresh hand towel when they come to visit.

  44. posted by Rose on

    We are a big family — with an even larger extended family – who comes to visit us (the big city) from their small towns (across the Midwest) often — and in large numbers. Based on this calculation, we’d need something like 76 towels.
    We have 1.5 towels for immediate family, and 2 sets of guest towels – and the rest are only beach towels, in a plastic container, stored in the guest room. If “real” guests visit, we use guest towels . When groups (4-10 people) arrive, they happily help themselves to a beach towel — which is theirs for the duration of the stay — for beach, showering, etc. — and they hang it to dry on a drying rack, set up in the bathroom (it can hold 5 beach towels). Those who drive to our house sometimes bring their own towels, but the fliers don’t want the extra baggage. Some of the towels get washed in between out of necessity, but most get washed only at the end of the visit.

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