Why are my towels orange?

Time to wave the white towel?

Time to wave the white towel?

This question has been well-covered by home websites like The Spruce and message boards for disgruntled AirBnB hosts: your towels are orange because someone in your house is using a face product containing benzoyl peroxide.

Your first question might lead you to new question: How do I get benzoyl peroxide stains out of my towels? You can’t. But you can just buy white towels.

If you really want to outfit your bathroom in jewel tones, you move on to another question: What skincare products work as well as benzoyl peroxide but won’t stain my towels? My own years of experience suggest the answer is “none.”

But that’s okay, because you’ve got one more question: Does someone make benzoyl peroxide-resistant towels? Yes!

Asking these four questions probably took you a half hour. You asked the internet for an answer to your towel problem, clicked on the first ten hits in the hope you could blame your washing machine or towel retailer instead of your own human error, then accepted your culpability for the towel mess, turned your old towels into rags, and ordered some benzoyl peroxide-resistant replacements. Now you just have to wait a few days for new towels to arrive.

Since you have a little more time to wait, why not ask another question?

Writers who remember the stained towels, t-shirts, and bedding of their teen years are heralding benzoyl peroxide-resistant fabric as a life-changing textile innovation. “Without a degree in textiles,” Refinery 29 contributor Rachel Krause warns, “it’s hard to say how they work,” but benzoyl peroxide-resistant sheets will save teens everywhere from a life confined to white bedding.

I remember a lot from my teenage years. I remember all of the acne medications I used, many of which contained benzoyl peroxide. I remember rushing to apply those medications in a bathroom shared with three teenage siblings who were also using benzoyl peroxide. And while I remember plenty of conversations about all the wet towels heaped on the floor of the bathroom closet, I don’t remember a single orange streak.

Neither did my mom, who noted that her towels only started turning orange after we kids grew up, moved out, and came back to use the guest bathroom she’d stocked with decidedly nicer towels than the ones we used as teens.

And neither did Rita, who wrote to syndicated advice columnist Heloise in 2010 to ask why her 30-year old towels still retain their color while her new ones get streaks. “What’s the deal?” Rita wrote. “This doesn’t seem like progress to me!”

At least three people remember a time when acne medications did not destroy towels, which led me to a new question: Why weren’t my towels orange?

What was different about the pristine towels I used as a teenager and the towels my family is ruining today? OEKO-TEX. The rhyming Swiss association offers certifications to companies that meet its standards for human and environmental health, including reduced levels of formaldehyde and heavy metals.

OEKO-TEX is not the product of any one government, so its standards are not legal requirements, but if you go out and buy a towel today, it’s most likely an OEKO-TEX certified towel. Wal-mart, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Macy’s, Crate & Barrel, WestElm, podcast-ad darling Parachute: anywhere you can think to buy a towel probably sells at least one OEKO-TEX certified one.

I’m issuing no opinion on the OEKO-TEX standards here. It’s certainly laudable to try to preserve the health of factory workers and their communities by restricting the use of chemicals that could be dangerous in large amounts, but I lack the chemistry background to judge the standards. I will, however, slow-clap the general marketing strategy of the OEKO-TEX certification, which makes its towels seem safe alternatives to all the other towels that might destroy the planet or kill you.

The OEKO-TEX Standard 100 was created in 1992, which means that, over the past twenty-five years or so, more and more companies have been reducing the levels of formaldehyde and other chemicals in textile supply chains. I lack both the scientific authority and the requisite willingness to destroy towels necessary to conduct my own experiments, but I hypothesize that if you tested pre-OEKO-TEX towels against post-OEKO-TEX towels, you’d find that the older towels could stand up to benzoyl peroxide. It may not be great for humans or the environment, but that formaldehyde may have acted as a pretty nice towel preservative.

…which brings me back to benzoyl peroxide-resistant towels. If you look at the tag on a benzoyl peroxide-resistant towel, you might notice something missing: an OEKO-TEX certification. Although some companies, like Kohl’s, sell benzoyl peroxide-resistant towels that also meet OEKO-TEX guidelines, other companies, among them L.L. Bean and Bed Bath and Beyond, offer benzoyl peroxide-resistant linens with no OEKO-TEX certification. If these companies are just using a pre-OEKO-TEX towel process, then benzoyl peroxide resistance isn’t a life-changing innovation: it’s a vintage throwback.