What could possibly be complicated about buying a towel? A fair bit, actually. That fluffy fabric sheet needs to work for you on several levels: it needs to dry you off quickly, not shed whilst doing so, offer softness and comfort, look good in your bathroom, wash well in the machine and last for years.

All that before we even get to considering personal taste. Some people prefer a heavy, thick-piled bath sheet in which to envelope themselves (and/or their kids). Others favour a lightweight towel to stick in their gym bag, or a contemporary waffle-knit that looks stylish and dries quickly. There's no “one size fits all” when it comes to towels.

So, for this review, we've picked five towels that fit those differing needs, from beach towels that make a statement to a more classic style for bathroom comfort. Before we reveal our favourites, here are our tips to ensure you make a top-notch towel purchase.

Yes. A big, fluffy hotel-style towel will add a touch of luxury to your bathroom but will be too cumbersome to take to the gym; even more so to bring back home when it's damp. So here's a quick towel-type summary.

Bath towels need to be absorbent and comfortable. They should add a touch of style to your bathroom, but also need to be long-lasting and machine-wash well without taking an age to dry. Your best bet is a towel set that includes a sheet for bath time, plus a few smaller hand towels that offer a balance of softness, quick drying and durability.

Gym towels need to be light and superfast at drying. Go for a waffle knit, terry towel or microfibre towel that's thin enough to wrap around your hair – and to bundle into your bag. Some towels even have antibacterial properties to help prevent odour, ensuring your drying-off experience is as un-smelly as it can be when you're sharing a changing room with 50 stinky strangers.

Beach towels should be big enough to lie on and robust enough to machine-wash at high temperatures to remove all the gunk they accumulate. Avoid fluffy piles and go for a terry or mat-style jacquard (patterned) weave instead. Don't skimp here – a cheap and colourful beach towel will shed bits all over your suncream. Machine-wash before you travel to be on the safe side.

Cotton is the default choice for a decent towel. Unless you're buying a special travel towel for the gym or backpacking, go for 100% cotton. Cheap cotton-alternative synthetic fabrics won't be as absorbent, comfortable or durable.

Nearly all the towels in our top seven are made from standard cotton – rather than the traditionally luxurious Egyptian or Turkish cotton, or US Supima (“pima”) cotton, which have longer, stronger fibres than standard cotton. Modern, low-twist (or zero-twist) weaving techniques enable manufacturers to make standard cotton just as fluffy, absorbent and deep as Egyptian cotton, but at a more affordable price.

Microfibre and similar specialist synthetic mixes such as Hydrofiber and SoftFibre are designed for lightness and fast-drying practicality, making them perfect for backpackers. Microfibre is the closest in texture to cotton and can be woven in terry-style loops, just like a traditional towel.

Bamboo and other natural fibres, such as hemp and linen, also pop up in towels. Bamboo is especially suitable for towels because it's very light and durable – and eco-friendly to boot.

Yes – arguably more than the choice of material itself. Most towels have a pile weave (tufts), instead of terry (towelling, or the one with loops). Pile is softer, but it does shed fluff more than terry. Laundering pile towels a few times should help get rid of any bits. Washing also makes towels more absorbent because it gets rid of any leftover fabric softeners that manufacturers use to make towels feel soft in shops.

Terry towelling isn’t as soft as pile, but it’s more practical because it dries much faster. Some folk prefer its more textured feel, which gives you a more thorough wipedown than soft pile. “Luxury” towels tend to be pile rather than terry, but which you go for is largely a matter of taste.

Newer towel weaves, such as waffle, are becoming increasingly popular. Waffle weave looks great and gives you an even better massage than terry as you towel yourself down. The textured weave means a waffle towel can be quite lightweight without feeling “thin”, which is good for its eco-credentials, plus it means it dries out fast.

The more densely woven a towel is, the softer and more absorbent it will be. That denseness is measured in “gsm”, which stands for grams per square metre. Manufacturers will make a big deal out of high gsm, but a well-made 400gsm waffle towel is more durable, practical and faster-drying than a 750gsm slab of fluffy pile.

If you want a thick, luxurious, blanket-style cosy bath sheet, go for 600gsm or even 700gsm-plus. At the top end, it will take some time to dry out, so bear that in mind if you share a busy bathroom. A gym or beach towel is best kept to 400gsm or lower.

Dunelm's towels come in many colours and strike the perfect balance between sumptuous softness, absorbency and durability. At 600gsm, these towels are heavy enough to feel luxurious, but not so heavy that they’ll take all day to dry.

Ultimate Towels are made from standard cotton using “zero-twist” technology, where fibres aren't twisted before they're woven. This results in a larger surface area for more softness and absorbency. They also benefit from a reduced fibre-shedding design to ensure they last. Users say they've machine-washed them for years with no visible pulled threads and barely any colour loss.

Our main grumble is that there's no option to save money by buying a set – you have to buy each size separately. There are three towel sizes, plus a face cloth, all available in 18 shades that cover rainbow colours, classy neutrals and bright white. Mix and match, if you dare!

Key specs – Material: 100% standard cotton (machine-washable); Weight: 600gsm; Sizes available: 3 (50 x 90cm, hand to 100 x 150cm, bath sheet); Colours available: 18

The White Company's all-time bestsellers manage to be fast-drying and durable, while retaining their supreme fluffiness for years – which is no mean feat. They’re the most expensive towels in our top seven, but cheaper than heavyweight Egyptian cotton towels and far more practical, thanks to their extra-quick dry time.

Like Dunelm's Ultimate Towel, the Hydrocotton Towel is made from standard cotton with a zero-twist pile that stays amazingly soft and absorbent, even after years of machine-washing. The ribbed finish gives it a comforting feel and contemporary look, but it's functional, too – the ribs enable the towel to be less weighty (a mid-weight 500gsm) and, therefore, faster-drying, without feeling thin. So, if you can afford it, this is the perfect towel for busy households.

Despite the company's name, these towels are available in seven shades, including “Pearl Grey” (pictured), “Platinum” (light bluey-grey) and “Smoke” (brown) – and, of course, white. Again, there's no option to buy a set.

Key specs – Material: 100% standard cotton (machine-washable); Weight: 500gsm; Sizes available: 4 (50 x 90cm, hand to 115 x 180cm, jumbo sheet); Colours available: 7

These indulgent towels are woven from Supima – “the cashmere of cottons” – and they're so cosy you'll want to sleep in them rather than chuck them on the bathroom floor. Indeed, their super-thick pile and whopping 750gsm weight makes them more like a throw – but with serious powers of absorbency.

The flip-side of that extreme cosiness is a relatively slow drying time, so these aren't the towels to choose if you need a fast turnaround on your laundry.

We love the choice of colours, which includes “Dark Teal” and “Aubergine”, as well as white and a handful of greys. For bonus points, Soak&Sleep lets you buy towels in a set (two hand and two bath), which will save you 5% on the price.

Key specs – Material: 100% Supima cotton (machine-washable); Weight: 750gsm; Sizes available: 3 (50 x 100cm, hand to 100 x 160cm, bath sheet); Colours available: 6

“So waffly versatile” went the old advert for potato waffles and, without wishing to cast aspersions, we think the same applies to these fabulous contemporary towels from German designer Blomus. Their textured surface is a great way to add durability, good-looks, absorbency and a great built-in massage to towels that are light enough to stick in your gym bag, drying in no time at all.

Four more colours sit alongside the “Microchip” pictured above, and they're all on the grey spectrum (five shades of grey, if you like), so mix and match them to add a designer edge to your bathroom. For more about the Caro range, see the Blomus website.

Key specs – Material: 100% standard cotton (machine-washable 40C); Weight: Not given; Sizes available: 3 (50 x 100cm, hand to 70 x 140cm, bath); Colours available: 5

At just 200gsm, this beautifully made tasselled towel is slim but strong and super-attractive. There's no waffle or rib to make it feel sumptuous enough for a bathroom, but it's perfect for the beach, poolside or even a picnic, thanks to a special hammam weave – a traditional Turkish technique that adds absorbency without bulk, making it very quick to dry.

It's also the most eco-friendly towel in this list. Portuguese company Urbanara boasts the Oeko-Tex label – a worldwide recognised certificate to confirm you'll find no harmful substances in its textiles.

This is one towel you won't want to chuck in a hot wash every week, however. It is machine-washable, but the manufacturer recommends 30ºC or lower to retain its colour and shape. This particular print is available in five other colours, but Urbanara also has many other patterns in the range, with some available in a smaller, standard bath towel size.

Key specs – Material: 100% organic Turkish cotton (machine-washable 30ºC); Weight: 200gsm; Size: 95 x 175cm (other sizes available in other designs); Colours available: 6

Sea to Summit gives microfibre a comfort-boost by weaving it into a terry cloth finish that feels super-comfy on your skin, while retaining the usual microfibre advantages. The clever Tek Towel also has a snap-on hang loop, allowing you to hang it from any available branch while out camping, and a zip-up mesh pouch to store it in once it's dry.

Unlike most travel towels, the Tek Towel comes in a good range of sizes, right up to bath sheet size, and five striking colours including Cobalt Blue and Lime.

Key specs – Material: 70% polyester, 30% polyamide (machine-washable); Weight: 400gsm; Sizes available: 5 (30 x 60cm, XS - 75 x 150cm, XL); Colours available: 5

Let's finish with a statement piece that's a far cry from the crisp white towels you’ll see in hotels. US heritage brand Pendleton is in the business of head-turning textile design, and this glorious towel combines stunning looks with blanket-like cosiness and practicality.

The high-quality cotton is woven differently on each side (why don't more towel-makers do that?). It's sheared into a tight velour on one side for super-softness, and looped terry-style on the other for great absorption. It's the perfect canvas for this Native American-inspired design, whose intense colours age well and don't bleed in the wash.

Do give your Pendleton towel a couple of washes before travelling, though, or you'll find dark-blue fibres stuck to your sun-creamed skin. More colours and designs are available from Amazon.

600gsm Bath Towel With Logo

Key specs – Material: 100% standard cotton (machine-washable); Weight: 500gsm; Size: 76.2 x 147.3cm; Colours available: 1 (more available from other retailers)

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