Visit any store selling bath towels and you’ll see confused consumers. Faced with stacks and stacks of towels, in a wide range of prices and awash in advertising claims, it’s hard to choose. The mission? To buy soft, absorbent towels. Here’s some advice from the experts at Consumer Reports.
Thicker, heavier towels are usually more absorbent than thinner, lighter towels, but take longer to dry, of course. Towels made of Egyptian or Pima cotton, premium cotton brands, are super absorbent, and towels made with rayon absorb even a bit more water than cotton.
Towels often feel softer in the store than they do after a few washes. Most manufacturers coat towels with a fabric softening finish that feels soft to your hand, but it wears off after a wash or two, say Consumer Reports' experts. 

Towels made with rayon, including rayon derived from bamboo, are usually very soft. Towels made with Pima or Egyptian cotton are also soft as their yarn is smooth and silky and less prone to fuzzies. Liquid fabric softeners do work, but they leave a film that decreases a towel’s absorbency, and increases flammability. Use dryer sheets instead. Most towels shrink, so use the appropriate heat setting. If your dryer has a moisture sensor then all the better.
Two-ply towels are a bit more durable than one ply. Cotton is stronger than rayon. Cotton/polyester towels are also durable—that’s why hotels and gyms use them—but are less absorbent than all cotton.

A washing machine full of towels.

Towel Takeaways

For soft, absorbent towels that last, first consider two-ply towels made with Pima or Egyptian cotton, or towels that blend cotton with rayon, but they may not last as long. Premium cotton towels usually cost a bit more than other types, so look for them on sale or bring coupons.
Buy inexpensive towels if you or a family member uses products for treating acne. They often contain benzoyl peroxide, which can bleach towels and leave an orange or pink blotch. Some towels are claimed to be safe to use with benzoyl peroxide, so we tested them. See "Towels That Resist Bleaching" for details. 
Whatever towels you choose, pick up an extra washcloth and store it, unwashed, with your receipt. If your new towels fade and you need to return them, that washcloth is your proof.

In the Laundry

Towels absorb large amounts of dirt and body oils and should be laundered frequently, and using a high-scoring detergent from our tests will keep them looking good. We test how well a detergent removes stains from body oil, dirt, grass, and more. The detergents below are the highest-scoring liquid detergents tested, earning overall scores ranging from 71 to 82. They appear in alphabetical order. 

Our laundry detergent ratings provide all the details. And keep in mind that you want to sort your towels, washing dark towels separately because they can bleed. To keep your white towels bright, use a detergent with bleaching components, such as Tide HE Plus Bleach Alternative, or a mild oxidizing agent in powder form, like OxiClean.