Warm, fluffy towels provide instant comfort and freshen up the decor in a bathroom. After being wrung out in the washer and spun-dry a few times, though, they can resemble a collection of rags.

There are a few tricks to lengthening a towel's shelf life, says Stephen Treffinger, resident product tester and technology geek at Domino magazine.

Treffinger tested about 40 brands of towels. He washed each about 12 times, used masking tape to measure lint production and dunked the towels into water to test absorbency. Based on his informal lab results, Treffinger developed these rules for washing and drying towels:

No bleach. "Heat and bleach both break down a towel and make it meet its end sooner," he says. If you're addicted to bleach-whitened towels, use bleach only every few washes.

Reduce heat. To increase longevity, wash towels in cold or warm water. Then dry at the lowest setting possible.

Use mild detergents. The owner of a high-end linen store shared this trade secret with Treffinger: For longer shelf life, wash towels in a mild detergent, like Dreft, that's recommended for diapers and babies' clothing.

Skip fabric softener. It coats the fibers of the cloth, which makes a towel less absorbent.

Price isn't everything. Some inexpensive towels are ineffective, stiff or "linty," he says. Meanwhile, some expensive brands are simply overpriced.

"You're not guaranteed that the cheap one will fall apart or the expensive one will last for years," Treffinger says.

His favorite bargain towel: Thomas O'Brien, $9.99 from Target, which was plush and large. Martha Stewart Everyday at Kmart ($3.99 to $7.99) was a runner-up in that category.

His favorite plush towel: Abyss & Habidecor "Super-Pile" for $68.

Kathryn Finney, author of

The Budget Fashionista

(Ballantine Books, $12.95) and a Web site of the same name (

), buys high-end towels at deep discounts at Marshall's. Ralph Lauren bath sheets that cost $30 each at department stores are $10 at Marshall's, which carries the overstock of the brand.