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How to Deep Clean Kitchen Towels: Its Astounding How Gross They Are

Kitchen Towels seem to get used for everything…
Drying dishes
Wiping up spills
Drying freshly washed hands
Wiping not-so-clean hands?  (guilty!)
Towels are one of the workhorses of the kitchen and over time they start to look dirty, dingy, and sometimes feel just yukky.
What is a homesteader to do about grimy, slimy towels?
DEEP clean kitchen towels.
Pinterest graphic - deep clean kitchen towels

Why Deep Clean Kitchen Towels?

Over time detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, grease, and general dirt from regular use all build up in your towels.  This buildup makes them look grey and dirty but it also makes them less absorbent too.
This is a process you really only want to do a few times a year.  I try to do it every 3 months, but sometimes they go longer.  The process of boiling cotton is a bit hard on it.  Plus, while it is a pretty simple process I find it is one I have to make time for.  Finding that time in the midst of farm chores, preserving, working, and all the other realities of daily life can be a struggle.

How to Deep Clean Kitchen Towels Less Often

The key to needing to strip towels less often is to change your laundry routine. 

Dryer sheets and fabric softeners are two of the biggest culprits when it comes to buildup.  I encourage you to stop using them completely.  Honestly, I don’t think I have ever used fabric softener in a load of laundry in my life.  Since they tend to be full of artificial fragrances, they are an automatic no in our house because of allergies.  Instead of dryer sheets, try wool dryer balls.  I find they are adequate and if you try to stick to natural fibers in your towels and clothing, that cuts down the static more than anything.

A second way to avoid needing to deep clean your kitchen towels is to NOT use homemade laundry soap.  If you make it at home then it is actually soap and not detergent.  Soap is great at building up on textiles because it is oil based. Heard of soap scum?  Yep, it gets on your laundry too.  Additionally, soap reacts with minerals in the water, becoming less effective at suspending the dirt and oils on your laundry and washing them out. Detergent is typically water based specially formulated to suspend dirt, especially in your pricey HE machine.

Another third trick is to use less detergent in your washer.  Keep in mind that detergent manufacturers want to sell you more detergent so they are going to suggest using an amount that may be more than you really need. 

How do I know if I’m using too much detergent?

There are a couple of ways to easily tell:
  • When you strip your towels, does the water suds up at all?  When I did mine, it didn’t suds in the boiling pot but when I poured it down the sink, there was just a little bit of suds. 
  • Run your washer through a cycle without putting anything in it.  You can use a rinse cycle to save water, but don’t add laundry or any detergent or additives.  See what the water looks like once the washer is full.  Does the water look oily or cloudy?  Do you see bubbles? 

Supplies for Deep Cleaning Kitchen Towels

towel deep clean ingredientsTo deep clean kitchen towels, you’ll need a few tools and ingredients:

  • A large stockpot
  • A long-handled spoon
  • Borax (sodium borate)
  • Washing soda (sodium carbonate or soda ash)
  • “Clean” kitchen towels (they’ve been laundered and didn’t come out of the dirty hamper)

Borax and washing soda can be purchased in the laundry aisle of most grocery/big box stores or on Amazon.  Borax is highly alkali (pH 9.5) mined mineral, fighting acidic stains like the tomato sauce I splatter all over the stove and then wipe up with my towel.  It is also a water softener and deodorizer.  Borax only dissolves well in hot water. 

Washing soda is also highly alkali (pH 11) and has many similar actions to borax.  However, its higher pH also helps break down greasy and oily stains.  While the Environmental Working Group gives Washing Soda an ‘A’, it is caustic and can be irritating to the skin so be careful handling it. 

How to Deep Clean Kitchen Towels

Use the largest stockpot you have.  Sometimes I use my old canning kettle but it takes a long time to get to boiling because it is SO big.
  1. Fill the stockpot about 2/3 full of water.
  2. Bring to a boil on the stove.
  3.  Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of each borax and washing soda to the pot of water (I used 1/4 cup each in my 15 qt stockpot.  You can use 1/2 each for a larger pot).
  4. Carefully add towels to the pot and gently stir with the spoon.
  5. Allow to boil for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  6. Turn off heat and remove pot from burner.
  7. Get grossed out by how dirty the water is.
  8. Carefully remove towels to a large bowl with a pair of tongs or slowly pour the pot into the sink, being careful not to splash the boiling water.
  9. Run towels through the washer without any added detergent or other laundry additives.
  10. Dry as usual.

It is possible to deep clean bath towels and clothes in the same manner.  However, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • The high temperatures of boiling water can damage fabrics, especially synthetics.
  • Dyes can be leached from fabrics, staining other items in the pot and fading your clothes.

Personally, I do bath towels about once a year and I don’t usually do my clothing.  I might do a cotton T-shirt if it starts to look a bit dingy and it isn’t part of my “farm clothes.”

Have you ever done a deep clean or “stripped” your towels?  How did it go? 


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2 thoughts on “How to Deep Clean Kitchen Towels: Its Astounding How Gross They Are”

  1. Good article I thought. I usually wash my tea towels when I have saved a bagful of about 20 or 30 or so. I use a biological detergent on the hottest possible wash setting in my front load washer, and I try to choose to do this on a nice day so that they can be dried outside, hopefully in the sunshine which also kills bacteria. They seem clean to me after this, with no lingering smells etc. I make a point of changing to a clean one every 2 -3 days, or more often if there’s been a lot of use. I wanted to ask though, in the article you state that Borax and washing soda are both actually sodium sulphate, but in different strengths, so I wonder why we need both ?

    1. Borax is sodium borate and considered a bleaching agent that is very alkaline and helps release acidic stains like tomato and coffee. Washing Soda is sodium carbonate is also alkaline but acts differently, breaking down oils and acting as a water softener.

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