Tea Towel vs. Hand Towel

Tea towels and hand towels are two types of towels that are commonly used in kitchens and bathrooms.

Tea Towel vs. Hand Towel

But what exactly is the difference between a tea towel and a hand towel?

What is a Tea Towel?

A tea towel, sometimes called a dish towel, is a type of towel that is typically used in the kitchen for drying dishes, glassware, silverware, and sometimes hands.

Tea towels are usually made of a lint-free cotton or linen material so they can dry dishes and glassware without leaving behind fibers or lint. The fabric is tightly woven but still lightweight and breathable. Tea towels are hemmed on all sides for durability and come in a variety of colors and patterns to suit different kitchen decors.

In terms of size, tea towels are generally somewhere between 16 x 24 inches up to 20 x 30 inches. They are large enough to hold a plate or bowl for drying but smaller than a bath towel.

Tea towels first emerged in 18th century England and were used by wealthy households during afternoon tea service. The lady of the house would use delicate linen tea towels to polish fine bone china tea cups and plates. The tea towel was also sometimes used as a decorative accent on the tea tray.

These days, the humble tea towel is an indispensable helper in kitchens around the world. Key uses include:

  • Drying dishes, glassware and utensils
  • Drying hands
  • Wiping down countertops and tables
  • Covering rising dough or baked goods
  • Straining liquids like stocks and juices
  • Wrapping bread, rolls and other baked goods
  • Protecting hands from hot dishes

Cotton tea towels are preferred in the kitchen because they are very absorbent, quick to launder, and stand up well to repeated washings. Over time, the natural fibers tend to get softer but still retain their strength and absorbency.

Key Takeaway: Tea towels are made of lint-free cotton or linen, sized between 16 x 24 inches up to 20 x 30 inches, and commonly used for drying dishes and glassware as well as other kitchen tasks. They originated as an accessory for afternoon English tea service.

What is a Hand Towel?

A hand towel is a small, rectangular towel that is designed for drying hands, hence the name. Hand towels can be found in kitchens and bathrooms.

The main difference between a tea towel and hand towel comes down to size and intended purpose. Hand towels tend to be smaller, measuring around 16 x 20 inches. They are meant for drying hands rather than dishes or glassware.

While tea towels focus on absorbency and being lint-free, hand towels prioritize softness and gentleness against the skin. Many hand towels are made of soft cotton terry cloth or cotton velour with a loosely woven pile that is gentle on hands.

In the bathroom, hand towels are used after washing hands and are often displayed by the sink in a decorative towel ring or bar. Hand towels can also be found in kitchens for quick hand drying when cooking or washing dishes.

Standard uses for hand towels include:

  • Drying hands in the bathroom and kitchen
  • Wiping up small spills around the bathroom sink
  • Adding a pop of color or texture as part of the bathroom decor

Cotton terry or velour hand towels tend to be very absorbent while remaining soft and gentle against skin. The loops in the terry weave help the towel soak up moisture quickly. These fabrics also launder well while retaining their plush feel.

Key Takeaway: Hand towels are smaller, measuring around 16 x 20 inches, made from soft terry cotton or velour, and used primarily for drying hands in kitchens and bathrooms.

Tea Towel vs Hand Towel Comparison

Now that we’ve defined what tea towels and hand towels are, let’s directly compare some of the key differences:

FeatureTea TowelHand Towel
Standard Size16 x 24 inches to 20 x 30 inches16 x 20 inches
Typical MaterialsCotton, linenCotton terry, cotton velour
Weave TypeFlat wovenTerry or velour with pile loops
Main UsesDrying dishes and glassware, wiping countersDrying hands
AbsorbencyVery absorbentVery absorbent
Lint ProductionLint-freeLint can be produced

While there is definitely some overlap, tea towels and hand towels have evolved to serve different primary purposes. Tea towels focus on effectively drying dishes and glassware without damaging them or leaving lint behind. Hand towels concentrate more on gently drying skin in comfort.

Key Takeaway: Tea towels and hand towels differ mainly in materials and intended uses, with tea towels made for drying dishes while hand towels focus on drying hands gently.

Can You Use a Hand Towel as a Tea Towel?

Because hand towels are so soft and plush, they don’t make the best substitute for tea towels in the kitchen. The loose weave and pile loops tend to leave behind lint on glassware and dishes. A hand towel also won’t absorb as quickly or thoroughly as a thin cotton tea towel.

That said, in a pinch, a hand towel can get the job done for drying a few dishes. Just be prepared for it to take longer to wick away moisture and for some lint and fabric fuzz to transfer.

If you primarily want to use a towel for drying dishes, glassware and silverware, opt for a dedicated tea towel instead of a hand towel. For quick jobs like drying freshly washed hands, wiping up a small spill or covering a bowl of rising dough, a hand towel can certainly work.

Can You Use a Tea Towel as a Hand Towel?

On the flip side, what happens if you try to use a tea towel in place of a hand towel in the bathroom?

Since most tea towels don’t have the same ultra-soft, plush feel of a cotton terry hand towel, they aren’t quite as gentle and cushy for drying hands and skin. Some people also find thinner, flat woven tea towels to be a bit abrasive and not very absorbent if you want to wipe up splashes of water on the bathroom counter or around the sink.

That said, in a pinch, a tea towel can get the job done for quickly drying hands after washing them. Just don’t expect it to feel as soft or luxurious as a nice, fluffy hand towel. Tea towels also won’t work as well for wiping and soaking up standing water.

If you want something primarily for drying skin and hands, go for an actual cotton terry or velour hand towel instead of trying to make a tea towel work. But for the occasional hand drying, a tea towel can suffice.

Caring for Tea Towels and Hand Towels

To make tea towels and hand towels last:

  • Wash frequently – because these towels get so much use in kitchens and bathrooms, wash them often to prevent bacteria from accumulating in the fabric. Wash at least once a week or anytime they look dirty or smelly.
  • Use hot water – for optimum sanitization, wash towels in the hottest water recommended for the fabric, using bleach-free detergent.
  • Avoid using fabric softener – softener deposits can make towels less absorbent over time.
  • Hang to dry – line drying preserves the fibers better than the heat and agitation of electric clothes dryers.
  • Store neatly folded or hung – neatly folded or hung towels stay fresher and cleaner than piles slung over cabinet doors.

Key Takeaway: Frequently washing towels in hot water and avoiding fabric softener helps them last. Line drying, folding neatly, and hanging also preserves their lifespan.


What exactly are tea towels made of?

Most modern tea towels are made of either 100% cotton or a cotton/linen blend. Cotton offers great absorbency and durability while linen emphasizes the lightweight crispness desired for tea towels. Both fabrics are woven tightly to minimize lint. Vintage flour sack towels and vintage tea towels may be made from slightly different textiles.

Are tea towels and dish towels the same thing?

The terms “tea towel” and “dish towel” are sometimes used interchangeably. Technically though, a dish towel is used like a tea towel for drying dishes but is often made of a more durable, high-absorbency fabric like terry cloth.

How do you make tea towels more absorbent?

Soak new tea towels in hot water before first use to increase absorbency. And avoid using fabric softener when laundering, as it coats the fibers and inhibits moisture absorption.

Should you use bleach on kitchen towels?

While bleach does sanitize towels, it can degrade fabric fibers with repeated use. Instead, wash kitchen towels frequently with hot water and non-bleach detergents. Occasional bleach is OK if towels get heavily soiled.

Why do tea towels turn yellow?

Natural tea towel fibers like cotton and linen contain lignin and other pigments that can slowly yellow with age and repeated laundering. Make sure to wash in the hottest water safe for the fabric, avoid liquid chlorine bleach, and line dry in the sun to naturally whiten.

What is the best way to dry a hand towel?

The best practice for drying cotton terry hand towels is to machine wash warm with like colors and then tumble dry low. Shake towels out halfway through drying to fluff the terry loops back up. Line drying also works but may stiffen towels slightly.


Tea towels and hand towels serve distinct purposes despite looking vaguely similar at first glance. Key differences come down to materials, size, absorbency, lint production, and intended use.

Tea towels excel at drying dishes, glassware and silverware without leaving behind lint thanks to their tightly woven cotton or linen composition. They are sized to hold plates and bowls efficiently.

Hand towels focus more on gently drying skin after washing hands and feature ultra-soft terry cotton meant to coddle skin. Though smaller, hand towels are just as absorbent using their loops and piles to soak up moisture.

Towels Edition
Towels Edition