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Photo by: Javier Zayas Photography Curated by: Jackie Cruz

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced many new things we may not have considered before, from cloth face masks to… cloth toilet paper?

When toilet paper purchasing became difficult, “reusable toilet paper” entered our vocabulary. You can imagine the concept: You use cloth wipes instead of paper, clean them, and use them again.

In case you haven’t heard of reusable toilet paper (or are wondering if it’s even a safe idea), keep reading to find out more.

Reusable toilet paper is based on a similar concept to cloth diapers. You use strips, squares, or other configurations of cloth in replacement of toilet paper.

When you’re done with the cloths, you place them in a container, clean them, and use them again.

If you haven’t started searching the internet already, sellers or proponents of reusable toilet paper may also call it:

  • cloth wipes
  • family cloth
  • reusable toilet wipes
  • un-toilet paper
  • upcycled toilet paper

Some people may make their own reusable toilet paper using old clothing or other fabrics they no longer use, such as sheets, towels, or blankets. Others may purchase it from online sites, such as Etsy or other retailers.

It’s one thing to use cloth wipes for a single use, but is it safe to use them over and over again, as well as share them among family?

Paper originated in China in the 2nd century B.C., as did the first recorded use of paper for wiping purposes.

Toilet paper became commercially available in the Western world in 1857, when Joseph Gayetty of New York marketed packages of 500 sheets for 50 cents.

Since that time, alternatives to toilet paper haven’t been fully explored. There’s little information or research studies about the safety, precautions, or cleaning of reusable toilet paper.

The major concern isn’t the initial use of reusable toilet paper — it’s the handling and cleaning of the paper afterward. Here’s a general overview of the process:

  • Post-use storage. Internet searches reveal most people put the soiled cloths in some kind of container. These include a hamper lined with a plastic garbage bag or a pail or other container that has a solution with vinegar, peroxide, or other antibacterial chemicals.
  • Handling. Once the receptacle is full, you must handle the cloths in some manner to safely transfer them to the washing machine. If you wear gloves to do this, know how to remove the gloves to avoid contaminating your skin. Also be sure to wash your hands carefully with soap and water after loading.
  • Washing. The major bacteria to worry about with reusable toilet paper is E. coli. This bacterium can be found in the digestive tract (and sometimes urine) and can cause serious stomach upset. It requires temperatures at high heat combined with bleach to kill. Otherwise, it’s possible the bacteria are still present. Whatever you and the cloths touch can potentially contaminate surfaces — not to mention whatever you wash next in your washing machine. If your washing machine has a sanitize setting, use it.

These considerations are why many people are understandably skeptical over a reusable toilet paper revolution.

Toilet paper is largely biodegradable. Septic systems (and the bacteria that feed off them within) usually make quick work of toilet paper.

If your concern regarding using toilet paper is an environmental one, it’s important to consider the energy costs that come with achieving hot water and the amount of water and bleach needed to thoroughly wash the cloths.

Reusable toilet paper has its potential benefits and drawbacks. Here are some considerations that can help you decide whether reusable toilet paper is best for you and your family.

Pros

  • Since the cloths are reusable, you’re unlikely to run out until after multiple washings damage the material.
  • You can produce them from materials you likely have around your home.
  • Depending upon the material you use, the cloths can be gentler on the skin.
  • They can reduce pollution from paper production.

Cons

  • Reusable toilet paper could clog the toilet if you accidentally drop it (plus you have to get it out).
  • It requires careful handling and laundering to avoid transmitting illness.
  • Reusable toilet paper may not prove as environmentally friendly due to water and increased heating requirements to clean the cloths.
  • It can retain stains that make the cloths appear undesirable to use.
Healthline

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers some guidance on the handling and reuse of contaminated laundry for healthcare facilities.

Many advocates of reusable toilet paper use similar protocols for cleaning. These recommendations include the following:

  • Bag contaminated fabrics and avoid agitating them (excessive shaking or moving) to prevent air and surface contamination.
  • Refrain from sorting contaminated fabrics.
  • Wash in a hot-water laundry cycle that’s at least 160°F (71°C) for at least 25 minutes, or a sanitize setting if you have one. The CDC doesn’t make any recommendations regarding drying methods.
  • Keep dry cloths stored in a container that will help protect them against dust and other contaminants in the air while transporting the cloths. An example could be a tissue box or sealed plastic container.

Although not specifically mentioned in the CDC’s guidelines, bleaching the used cloths is an additional way to kill germs.

The American Cleaning Institute recommends reading bleach product labels carefully to determine the amount of bleach needed to clean a full laundry load.

The institute also cautions against mixing chlorine bleach with other cleaners, such as ammonia, ammonia-based products, or other products that have high acid levels, like vinegar. Mixing these cleaners can lead to dangerous, toxic chemical interactions.

You can make your own reusable toilet paper using cloths found in your home. Examples include:

  • old flannel sheets
  • shirts you don’t wear anymore
  • soft, well-washed towels

You can also purchase new material at fabric stores or online. Soft flannel seems to be a common recommendation among reusable toilet paper bloggers.

Once you have your fabric, cut it into squares. Baby wipes are usually an 8-inch square or 4 inches by 8 inches.

Once you have your squares, place them in a storage bin or box, and you’re ready for use.

Toilet paper hasn’t always been around. From leaves to moss to natural sponges, people have used a lot of different approaches to wiping over the years.

The first mass-produced toilet paper wasn’t available in the United States until 1857. We’ve clearly survived without toilet paper before — but should you now?

That decision is truly up to you. Just make sure that you use very careful storing and cleaning methods to protect yourself and your family from potential illness.