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Is a towel a conductor?

When we think about conductors and insulators, some common examples come to mind. Metals like copper are excellent conductors that allow electricity to flow freely. Rubber and plastic are insulators that prevent the flow of electricity. But what about everyday household items like towels? Are towels conductive or insulating? This article will examine the properties of towels and answer the question: is a towel a conductor?

What Makes Something a Good Conductor?

To understand if towels can conduct electricity, we first need to review what makes a material a good conductor in general. Three key factors determine how well a material conducts electricity:

1. Presence of Free Charged Particles

Conductors contain free electrons that can move through the material. These free electrons allow electricity to flow by carrying a negative charge from one point to another. Insulators lack free electrons that can move freely.

2. Crystal Structure

Metals have a crystalline structure with loose electrons in their outer shell. This allows electrons to flow with little resistance. Insulators have tightly bound electrons that cannot move easily.

3. Temperature

Increasing temperature causes more vibration and movement of atoms in a conductor, allowing electrons to move more freely. Cooler temperatures decrease conductivity.

So in summary, the best conductors have abundant free electrons, crystalline structures, and higher temperatures. Insulators lack these properties. Keeping these factors in mind, let’s look specifically at the composition and structure of towels.

Towel Composition

Towels can be made from a variety of materials, including:

  • Cotton
  • Bamboo
  • Linen
  • Microfiber
  • Nylon
  • Polyester

The most common towel materials are cotton and a cotton/polyester blend. Understanding the properties of these materials will shed light on whether towels conduct electricity.


Cotton is made of plant fibers, primarily cellulose. The cotton fibers are composed of many glucose molecules linked together in long chains. There are no free electrons that can move readily along these chains to conduct electricity. So cotton acts as an insulator against electricity due to its molecular structure.


Polyester is a synthetic polymer made from petroleum. The polymers have strong covalent bonds between the carbon molecules that make up the chains. This tightly bonded structure means there are no free electrons in polyester that can serve as charge carriers for electrical currents. So polyester is also an effective insulator.

Cotton/Polyester Blend

A cotton/polyester blend towel combines the insulating properties of both materials. The lack of free electrons in either fiber means blended towels will resist electricity as well.

Crystal Structure

Metals contain free electrons because of their crystalline structure. The molecules are arranged in fixed geometric patterns with spaces between them. This allows electrons to flow freely between the structured crystal lattice.

But cotton, polyester, and other towel materials have an amorphous structure. Their molecules are arranged randomly without rigid crystalline patterns. So there are no spaces that allow electrons to flow rapidly like they do in metals.

Temperature Impact

Temperature can improve conductivity in some materials. As temperature rises, increased vibrations make it easier for electrons to jump between atoms and carry a charge.

But household temperatures have little impact on conductivity in cotton, polyester, or other typical towel fabrics. Their amorphous structure and lack of free electrons prevent heat energy from improving conductivity significantly.

Technical Conductivity Data

The technical conductivity values for cotton, polyester, and other towel materials further demonstrate that they act as effective insulators:

Material Conductivity (S/m)
Cotton 10-12
Polyester 10-14 to 10-17
Linen 10-12
Nylon 10-12 to 10-16
Wool 10-12 to 10-15
Rayon 10-11 to 10-13
Copper 5.8 x 107

For comparison, excellent conductors like copper have a conductivity of nearly 108 S/m, while insulators have values ranging from 10-8 to 10-20 S/m. The low values for towel materials confirm their poor conductivity.

Impact of Moisture on Conductivity

One factor that could potentially increase a towel’s conductivity is the presence of moisture or water. Liquid water contains ions that could transport charges and improve conductivity.

However, cotton and polyester fibers do not readily absorb moisture. The hydrophobic polymer structure causes water to bead up on the surface rather than be absorbed. So even a wet towel will have low conductivity, since the water is not penetrating the fibers.

Extremely high moisture levels over long periods of time may allow some absorption of water. But the increase in conductivity would be minimal, since the basic crystal structure remains unchanged.

Can You Get Shocked by a Towel?

So can a towel actually shock you? Based on the insulating properties described above, a dry towel on its own cannot. If you shuffled across a carpet and built up static electricity, briefly touching a towel would discharge this and produce a noticeable spark. But the towel itself does not conduct electricity through its fibers to shock you.

The only scenario where a towel may contribute to a shock is if moisture makes it slightly conductive. If an exposed wire had voltage running through it, a wet towel could create a bridge for a small amount of current to flow. But the shock would be coming from the wire’s power source, not from the towel itself.

Other Factors Affecting Towel Conductivity

A few other factors can influence a towel’s conductive properties:

Dyes and Coatings

Some colored dyes or chemical coatings added to towels could potentially increase conductivity. However, these specialty chemicals are not typically used. Plain cotton or polyester towels do not have compounds to make them more conductive.

Bleach and Other Chemicals

Strong oxidizing agents like bleach can degrade and break down fibers over time with excessive use. This damage could increase moisture absorption and minimally improve conductivity. But bleach alone does not add any conductive properties.

Exposed Metal Parts

Some decorative towels may have metallic threads or embroidered patterns. Exposed metal on the surface could conduct electricity. But these are rare, and the metal would have to contact a power source and create a pathway through the towel to cause any shock risk.

Summary of Towel Conductivity Factors

To summarize the factors that determine whether towels are conductive:

  • Towels are made from insulating materials like cotton and polyester that lack free electrons
  • These fibers have an amorphous, non-crystalline structure, preventing electron flow
  • Ordinary household temperatures do not impact their conductivity
  • Technical conductivity data shows extremely low values for towel materials
  • Low moisture absorption means even wet towels have poor conductivity
  • Additives like dyes or bleach do not significantly change conductivity

Considering all these variables, towels can definitively be considered effective insulators, not conductors.

Examples of Conductive Towels

While standard cotton and polyester towels are not conductive, it is possible to create specialty towels with conductive properties by using metal fibers or coatings. Here are some examples of conductive towels:

Silver-Coated Nylon Towels

Nylon fabric can be coated with a thin layer of silver to transform it into a conductive material. The silver provides free electrons to transport electric charges. These specialty nylon towels are occasionally used in clean room or laboratory settings to prevent static discharge.

Copper-Infused Cotton Towels

Embedding thin copper wires into cotton terrycloth creates a towel capable of conducting electricity. The copper wires allow electron flow, while the cotton provides absorbency and cleaning action.

Carbon Nanotube Coated Towels

Carbon nanotubes have excellent conductivity. Applying a carbon nanotube coating to polyester or microfiber towels can create an electrically conductive product. However, these high-tech nanotube towels are currently prohibitively expensive for everyday use.

Conductivity Experiments with Towels

Simple experiments can demonstrate the insulating properties of standard household towels:

Circuit Test

Connecting a towel in a circuit with a battery and bulb will not allow the bulb to light, proving no conductivity. Replacing the towel with a conductive material like copper wire will close the circuit and power the bulb.

Electroscope Test

An electroscope is a device used to detect electric charge. The device will become charged when touched by a charged conductor. But bringing a charged towel near the electroscope will produce no effect, showing the towel does not conduct electricity.

Static Electricity Test

When two non-conductive materials are rubbed together, static electricity builds up. Rubbing a towel produces lots of visible sparks and crackling, indicating it does not conduct the generated static charge away.


Based on the molecular structure of materials like cotton and polyester, and experimental evidence of their insulating properties, standard household towels should be considered effective electrical insulators. Specialty towels with conductive coatings or threads do exist. But these are rare and only used in specific applications requiring conductivity. An ordinary towel cannot shock you and serves to discharge static electricity, rather than conduct flowing electric currents. So the answer to the original question “is a towel a conductor?” is decidedly no in most circumstances.