Wipe Out

Spills, sneezes, and other stuff that needs cleaning up. We test and rate the best in towels and tissues.

Illustration by Michael Sloan

Let other journalists travel the world in search of scoops. My story is in the kitchen and the living room—and in the toilet. In researching this piece, I turned my apartment into a paper torture facility as I compared the wiping power of 10 brands of paper towels, six lines of facial tissues, and 11 types of toilet paper. Not all my experiments were successful, and as I mop up the spills I can only hope that my landlady doesn’t read Slate.

Thanks to late-stage capitalism, the supermarket shelves sag with scores of brands in the three main paper categories. This is not as daunting as it sounds, because the market is now dominated by four companies: giant Procter & Gamble (Bounty, Charmin, and Puffs), and three other products of merger mania Kimberly-Clark (Scott, Kleenex, and Viva), Georgia-Pacific (Coronet, Sparkle, Angel Soft, and MD), and Fort James (Brawny, Quilted Northern, and Green Forest). In picking the 37 contestants for this survey I strove to find representatives of the three price points—premium, middle-of-the-road, and generic—and to give recycled and novelty products an equal opportunity to impress.

All paper—facial tissues, writing paper, newsprint—is created equal. What makes “sanitary wiping paper” (to use the wonderful cadences of marketing-speak) stretchy and absorbent is a process called “creping”: A metal blade removes the paper as it dries from the steel cylinder on which it was formed, lowering the paper’s density. The premium wiping papers are also embossed, which creates pockets to hold more “moisture.” (Kimberly-Clark’s Web site boasts that “On the East Coast only, Kleenex Cottonelle has been given a unique, patented, gentle texture that is designed to give consumers a clean, fresh feeling.” Apparently, we hardy westerners don’t deserve such luxury.)

Paper towels contain more fibrous pulp. This increases their strength, and the manufacturers usually give them more pronounced embossing for greater soaking power. Whereas little girls and babies appear on toilet paper wrappers, paper towel packages depict beefy, brawny guys, indicating their toughness. In this category the contestants were:

Bounty Rinse & Reuse
Versatile Viva
Kleenex Viva Job Squad

Scott Towels
Brawny Pick-a-Size Big Roll
Kleenex Viva

Seventh Generation
Second Nature Plus
Envision Preference
Natural Value

To see if the towels really could provide the implied strength and security, I tested the ability of a single sheet to hold the moisture produced when a damp tea bag was left on it for two minutes. Unfortunately for me and my security deposit, none of my towels succeeded. I didn’t have any of the blue liquid ad agencies use in commercials to indicate absorbency, so I gauged the soaking power of individual sheets with tap water. Absorbency varied little as I poured a quarter-cup of water onto towel after towel. Not a single one could hold all the fluid, but even the cheapest towel stayed solid as it was wrung out and used to wipe up the excess from the counter.

These tests convinced me that while paper towels can’t perform miracles, even the lowliest example of the species can soak up liquid and dry your hands. If you’re faced with a big, messy job, it might be worth spending the extra money for a premium product such as Bounty Rinse & Reuse or Kleenex Viva Job Squad but, under normal circumstances, a budget recycled product such as the ones on offer from Natural Value or Second Nature offer good value and provide the desired durability.

I drew the line at catching a cold for this story and instead subjected six brands of facial tissues to a “spray test.” The contestants were:

Purely Cotton
Kleenex ColdCare With Aloe and Vitamin D

Heritage Hearth (my local store brand)

Seventh Generation 2-Ply Facial Tissue
Envision Preference Ultra

Using a squirt bottle, I simulated a big, soggy sneeze to test their absorbency. To my amazement, all the subjects survived the soaking. While absorbency did not vary, the softness factor is significant—the downright decadence of the Kleenex ColdCare range makes everything else seem almost abrasive. (And ply—the number of layers of paper in the product—isn’t everything, the Envision Preference Ultra is a three-ply “premium” product, but it still feels like a scouring pad after touching a virgin fiber tissue.) Thicker tissues also keep germs off your hands, which is nothing to sneeze at.

You’ll come to no harm if you use tissues as lavatory paper, but your plumbing might—while the strengthening cellulose fibers they contain are biodegradable, facial tissues don’t break down as quickly as toilet tissue, so flushing is not recommended. If you’re cold-free, you almost certainly don’t need the mattressy softness of an ultra brand (and you can’t clean your spectacles with the aloed hankies).

Illustration by Michael Sloan

Americans are sheet scared of running out of toilet tissue— the average family stash of eight rolls doesn’t even take Y2K hoarding into account. Scanning the supermarket shelves, there’s a vast price difference between the budget brands and the premium products, but are the latter worth the extra? The contestants were:

Ultra Soft Quilted Northern
Kleenex Cottonelle Ultrasoft

Heritage Hearth Ultra Soft
Kleenex Cottonelle
MD Twin Quilted

Seventh Generation
Natural Value

Novelty Papers
Purely Cotton
Cottonelle Moist Wipes
Blue Label

I didn’t conduct any fiendish experiments on loo paper—I figured that the product’s purpose is specific enough that a trial “in the field” would tell me all I needed to know. All contestants went through the rotation in my bathroom. For novelty value, I also tried Cottonelle Moist Wipes, which offer “a fresher clean than with bathroom tissue alone.” The packaging promised that that I’d “feel cleaner, more refreshed, and confident,” but somehow using the adult equivalent of baby wipes failed to enhance my self-esteem. In the interests of internationalism, I imported a package of “smooth” Blue Label toilet paper—the medicated, waxy retro-wipe so beloved of government offices—from Britain. It’s a harsh wipe and seems completely unsuited for contact with one’s soft bits, but drape a sheet of it over a comb and it makes a wonderful kazoolike musical instrument.

The latest marketing angle in toilet tissue is the double or triple roll. There doesn’t appear to be any agreement on what constitutes a standard roll—so-called double rolls measure anywhere from 187 square feet to 280 square feet, and the Charmin triple roll is a giant 462 square feet (though we’re assured it “fits almost all standard dispensers”). The implied economies don’t pan out—in my local supermarket the perfectly adequate single-roll store brand (Heritage Hearth) was considerably cheaper per square foot than any of the double or triple rolls (only half the price of the most expensive premium brand I tried, Kleenex Cottonelle Ultrasoft Double Roll), and it doesn’t take up as much room in my Y2K storeroom.

Recycled toilet tissues have improved since the sandpaperlike sheets of the early ‘80s, but they just can’t compete on the softness front. The recycled ingredients include rough stuff like cardboard boxes as well as office paper. Still, the case for recycling is persuasive. The packaging for Seventh Generation toilet paper claims that “[i]f every household in the U.S. replaced just one roll of 500 sheet virgin fiber bathroom tissues with 100% recycled ones, we could save: 297,000 trees; 1.2 million cubic feet of landfill space, equal to 1,400 full garbage trucks; 122 million gallons of water, a year’s supply for 3,500 families of four.” Since most Americans get through 48 to 55 rolls of TP per year, that’s a lot of trees, trash, and water.

The mainstream brands base their sales pitches on descriptors such as “gentle,” “plush,” and “cottony softness,” but although names such as Cottonelle trade on the image of cotton, the products are wood-based, whereas one relative newcomer to the market is actually made from the fluffy plant. Purely Cotton bathroom and facial tissues are made from “cotton linter”—what’s left over when fibers and cottonseed oil have been harvested. As a byproduct, cotton linter is considered 100 percent recycled/recovered and, although it is bleached to make it snowy white, the process doesn’t produce dioxins as with wood pulp bleaching.

After my experiments, I’ll probably stick with Purely Cotton, which costs no more than the premium brands, is environmentally sound, acceptably soft, and appropriately absorbent. Even the cheapest toilet paper gets the job done, so if you want to impress guests or if you don’t want to keep paper hankies in the bathroom, buy the expensive stuff, but I’ll bet your delicate bits won’t notice the difference.