Kitchen Towel vs. Dish Towel

Kitchen towels and dish towels are two of the most commonly used towels in households and restaurants.

Kitchen Towel vs. Dish Towel

But what exactly is the difference between a kitchen towel and a dish towel?

While they may seem interchangeable, there are some distinct differences in terms of their materials, texture, absorbency, history and intended uses.

Both kitchen and dish towels are extremely versatile tools that every household should have in ample supply.

Materials Used for Kitchen and Dish Towels

The materials used to construct kitchen and dish towels is one of the main distinguishing factors between the two. Kitchen towels can be made from a variety of materials including:

  • Linen – Made from flax plant fibers, linen is soft, lint-free and quick drying. Since it won’t leave any fuzz behind, linen is great for drying and polishing delicate dishware and glassware.
  • Cotton – Cotton kitchen towels are highly absorbentsoft, and stand up well to repeated use and washes. The tight weave also prevents leaving behind lint or streaks.
  • Terry cloth – With its super absorbent loops, terry cloth (also used to make bath towels) is best for drying hands and wiping surfaces. However, terry towels shouldn’t be used on dishes since the lint can transfer.

Dish towels specifically refer to towels made of terry cloth that are meant for drying dishes and wiping kitchen surfaces. The loose knit causes them to be more linty than linen or cotton towels.

Absorbency Levels

In addition to materials, kitchen and dish towels also differ in their level of absorbency:

  • Dish towels made from terry cloth are highly absorbent given the fluffy knit construction. The loose weave creates pockets that can soak up and retain a large volume of liquid.
  • Kitchen towels come in a range of absorbency levels depending on material:
    • Linen – Less absorbent due to the tight flat weave
    • Cotton – Varied absorbency depending on density of weave, but generally more absorbent than linen
    • Terry – Equally as absorbent as terry cloth dish towels

So when you need a towel for maximum liquid absorption, choose a dish towel or cotton kitchen towel with terry cloth construction. For gentle drying and wiping delicate items, reach for a linen or lightweight cotton kitchen towel.

Key Takeaway: Dish towels made of terry cloth are the most absorbent choice. Linen kitchen towels are less absorbent but good for delicate tasks.

Brief History of Kitchen and Dish Towels

Tea towels, the precursor to today’s kitchen towels, originated in 18th century England. Wealthy women used these thin linen cloths to dry fine china and tea sets without causing scratches or damage. The soft, lint-free linen was perfect for the job.

Later, factories began mass producing tea towels to meet rising consumer demand. Manufacturers switched from linen to durable, absorbent cotton as the material of choice.

Dish towels emerged more recently in 20th century America. Frugal housewives cleverly transformed rough cotton feed sacks into towels and other household items. The repurposed sack towels were decorated with pretty embroidered designs.

While tea towels were originally a luxury item, the ingenuity of cloth sack upcycling helped make functional and attractive dish towels widely accessible. Today, both cotton and linen kitchen towels remain popular and useful items found in most kitchens.

Tea Towel vs. Dish Towel – Key Differences

While tea towel and dish towel are sometimes used interchangeably, there are a few key ways to distinguish them:

Tea TowelDish Towel
Common MaterialsLinen, cottonTerry cloth
TextureThin and smoothThick and fluffy
AbsorbencyLess absorbent due to tight weaveHighly absorbent from loose terry knit loops
Lint ResidueLow – leaves no lint as fibers held tight in weaveHigh – terry loops release lint easily
Original PurposePolishing delicate china without scratches in tea ceremoniesWiping dishes and kitchen surfaces

While terminology varies regionally, tea towel generally refers to a smoother, thinner, less absorbent towel often in linen or decorative cotton. Dish towels are characterized by thick terry cloth meant for heavy duty absorption and drying tasks.

Key Takeaway: Tea towels are thinner, smoother cloths like linen or decorative cotton. Dish towels refer specifically to terry cloth.

Best Uses for Dish Towels

The ultra-absorbent loops that characterize terry cloth dish towels make them ideal for:

  • Wiping kitchen counters and surfaces – Excellent for cleaning up spills and drying hands
  • Drying dishes – Soak up water quickly without excessive wiping
  • General household cleaning – Good paper towel replacement for tasks like wiping down high chairs, drying pets, or cleaning shower walls

Since dish towels can leave stray loops behind, refrain from using them to clean glassware or furniture that could show lint.

Best Uses for Tea Towels

The generally thinner, lint-free nature of tea towels makes them perfect for:

  • Polishing glassware and delicate china – Prevents scratches and streaks
  • Drying silver or polished wood surfaces – Won’t scratch special finishes
  • Rolling utensils or cutlery set – Protects from nicks and damage
  • Lining a bread basket or buffet tray – Absorbs spills and condensation
  • Pressing tofu – Thin material allows moisture distribution without damaging delicate tofu
  • Covering rising dough or baked goods – Allows airflow without drying out
  • Wrapping herbs or greens for fridge storage – Breathable wrapping keeps produce fresh longer
  • Folding into an impromptu pot holder – Just make sure towel is dry first!
  • Cleaning mirrors, appliances, tile and other hard surfaces – Helps dry and polish without leaving annoying lint fuzzies
  • Adding a pop of color or whimsical print to your kitchen décor!

Key Takeaway: Dish towels are best used for drying and heavy duty absorption jobs. Tea towels excel at delicate drying and polishing tasks.

Proper Care Guidelines

Caring properly for your kitchen and dish towels helps maintain their functionality and extends useful life. Follow these best practices:

  • Wash frequently – Towels used for cleaning should be laundered very regularly to prevent bacteria buildup. Wash dish towels after every 1-2 uses.
  • Use hot water – Wash towels on hot setting to fully kill germs and remove grease.
  • Avoid fabric softener – Softener leaves an oily coating that reduces absorbency.
  • Hang to dry – Line or rack drying helps maintain integrity of materials and absorbency.
  • Bleach white towels occasionally – Helps remove stains and disinfect.
  • Pre-wash brand new towels – Gets rid of manufacturing residues that can diminish absorbency.

Following these care guidelines, your kitchen and dish towels will maintain effectiveness and last for years of reliable service.


Are dish towels and tea towels the same thing?

While sometimes used interchangeably, tea towels generally refer to thinner, decorative cotton or linen towels. Dish towels specifically mean terry cloth towels used for drying dishes and absorbing spills.

Should you use fabric softener on kitchen and dish towels?

No, fabric softener leaves an oily coating that makes towels less absorbent. Wash towels in hot water using regular laundry detergent.

What is the best way to dry kitchen and dish towels?

Line or rack drying helps towels maintain their shape and absorbency much better than the heat and tumbling of electric clothes dryers.

How often should you replace kitchen and dish towels?

With proper care as outlined above, high quality cotton and linen kitchen and dish towels can last for years. However, towels used frequently for cleaning should be replaced every 6-12 months.


Kitchen towels and dish towels serve distinct but complementary roles.

Understanding those differences allows you to select the right towel to tackle any task efficiently.

Towels Edition
Towels Edition