Are there toxic chemicals in paper towels? Yup.

We recently discussed toilet paper, and much of the information is the same for paper towels. So in this article, we’ll talk about the common toxins found in conventional paper towels, and what to use instead.

Are Paper Towels Toxic?

You may think, “How can paper towels be toxic—it’s just paper!”

But just like a lot of household and personal care products, toxic chemicals are used to process these goods. Let’s look at a few of the problematic ones.

This post may contain affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if you choose to make a purchase. We only make recommendations that are genuine and meet our ingredient/material safety standards.

Dioxins & Furans from Chlorine Bleach

Most bleaching processes use chlorine, which produces toxic dioxins. Dioxins are considered persistent environmental pollutants (POPs), which accumulate in the food chain (mainly in the fatty tissue of animals).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dioxins “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”

That’s why unbleached paper towels are best. But there are also a few chlorine-free ways of bleaching as well, which we’ll talk about more in a minute.

BPA

You’ve probably heard that BPA (and its family of chemicals that include BPS and BPF) is problematic. This group of chemicals (called bisphenols) are known endocrine disruptors, which means they can cause infertility, breast cancer, early puberty, and more.

When you think of BPA, you probably think of plastic products, not paper. But unfortunately, bisphenols can make their way into recycled paper products since things like thermal receipt paper, lottery tickets, and shipping labels are used to make recycled paper.

The one “positive” thing to note here is that most recycled paper towels include a much smaller BPA amount compared to those other products (especially receipts and certain plastics). So if you want to go with recycled paper towels, it’s not the WORST choice.

Formaldehyde

We’ve talked about formaldehyde before when it comes to shampoo. It’s actually a naturally occurring chemical that exists in small amounts in our bodies and in the air.

Formaldehyde can become toxic, however, at higher concentrations. It can cause things like watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; skin irritation; and possibly cancer.

What About Other Processing Chemicals?

In this article we talked about the toxic chemicals involved in making conventional bamboo fabric. (Hint: it’s not pretty.) It takes a lot of chemical intervention to turn something like wood or grass (bamboo) into a stretchy and silky fabric. A lot fewer chemicals are needed to make a thin, one-time-use piece of paper.

As far as we can tell, the toxic chemicals used to manufacture bamboo fabric (specifically, sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide, and sulfuric acid) are not used to manufacture bamboo paper towels and toilet paper. But just to be sure, we reached out to a few companies that manufacture bamboo paper towels and toilet paper to get some more info. They confirmed that none of these chemicals are used to make their products. (It should be noted that we reached out to more conscious brands like the ones listed below that prioritize eco-friendly, safe practices as well as transparency with customers. We’re not sure the same can be said of conventional paper companies.)

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Chlorine-Free Bleaching (Whitening) Methods

Why do paper towel brands bleach their products in the first place? Well, bleach does two things: it makes products less scratchy, and it makes them white. While these factors might be more important for toilet paper, they’re not really necessary for paper towels, are they?

But, there are a few chlorine-free methods that conscious companies use to whiten their paper towels. These methods (while they may not be perfect) are much safer than conventional chlorine bleaching.

Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) Whitening

Instead of chlorine, this method uses chlorine dioxide, which is a chlorine derivative. Although it’s not 100% non-toxic, it’s a much less toxic method compared to regular chlorine bleaching.

Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) Whitening

This method uses zero chlorine or chlorine-derived products at all. Only about 3% of worldwide pulp production uses this method because it requires more energy and more pulp compared to ECF.

Process Chlorine Free (PCF) Whitening

This process is often used in recycled paper products that have not been re-bleached using chlorine or chlorine derivatives.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Some brands use hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine-based products to whiten their paper towels, which is a much safer and healthier option.

Paper Towels & Deforestation

Just like with toilet paper (with the “tree-to-toilet pipeline”), paper towels and other paper products can be extremely detrimental to our environment.

A lot of our paper towels come from old-growth and endangered forests, including the beautiful boreal forest in Canada. This crucial forest “acts as a massive storehouse for climate-altering carbon, is also vital to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.” This is reason enough alone to consider decreasing our paper towel consumption.

Purchasing paper towels that are certified sustainably sourced by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a great place to start. But an even better option is to reduce your paper towel use altogether and/or switch to tree-free paper towels.

Best Reusable Paper Towels & Alternatives to Paper Towels

The thing about paper towels is that you don’t really need them the same way you need, oh, underwear or laundry detergent. Switching to reusable paper towels is actually pretty easy, and it’s just as effective. Here are some great alternatives to try:

UNPaper Towels and Paperless Towels (a.k.a. Cloth Towels)

Honestly, this is probably the best option when it comes to paper towel alternatives, especially if the cloths are made from healthy fabrics like organic cotton, hemp, and linen, and colored using non-toxic dyes.

Many people prefer using UNPaper Towels and Paperless Towels as opposed to regular cloth kitchen towels because they are smaller (so less bulky for small messes) and less expensive. Plus, they’re almost endlessly reusable. You can check out these Full Circle Organic Cotton Dish Cloths and there are SO MANY great, handmade brands on Etsy!

Swedish Dishcloths

These are a favorite in the zero waste community. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of replacing your conventional paper towels with Swedish Dishcloths:

PROS:

  • very absorbent
  • can double as a sponge
  • 2 Swedish dishcloths equal about 34 rolls of paper towels
  • compostable/biodegradable

CONS:

  • Made from 30% cotton (which can be organic, virgin, or recycled) plus 70% cellulose. Cellulose just means “sourced from plants.” But the problem is that there’s a good chance this 70% part of Swedish Dishcloths are made from rayon/viscose, which is often produced using toxic chemicals. We’d like to see some more details and transparency here.

Where to Buy Swedish Dishcloths:

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Image: Coyuchi

Regular ‘Ol Cloth Kitchen Towels

You can always just use regular kitchen towels and/or washcloths to clean up messes and dry things with! Check out this article for the best organic towels and washcloths.

Old Rags, T-Shirts, etc.

This is a really easy DIY paper towel alternative that also helps you increase the lifecycle of what you already have. You can always cut up old rags, t-shirts, or other fabrics around the house that you don’t use anymore and use them instead of paper towels. You can cut them into different sizes for different needs, and hem the edges (if you want) to keep them from fraying and make them last even longer.

How Do You Make Your Own Reusable Paper Towels?

If you’re a crafter or have a sewing machine, you can make your own DIY reusable paper towels relatively easily. These are going to be prettier and more durable than using just a regular cut up rag or old t-shirt. Here are some great tutorials:

What About Microfiber Cloths?

When you see ‘microfiber’ cloths, that almost always means there are synthetics (a.k.a. plastic) involved, like polyester or nylon. Because plastic/petroleum materials are involved, they can contain toxic chemicals like bisphenols. Plus, they’re harsh on the environment both in their production and their end of life. Microfiber fabrics lead to microplastic particles filling up our oceans, negatively affecting our food chains, and ending up practically everywhere—even unborn babies.

For these reasons, we recommend you skip the microfiber cloths.

“But Don’t Reusable Paper Towels Use More Water?”

It’s a great question. Using reusable paper towels require more laundry, and therefore more water. How do you weigh using less water versus creating less waste?

In this article from Sierra Club, “Mr. Green” answers this question very thoroughly.

According to “Mr. Green,” at the end of the day, it just depends on things like usage and washing machine efficiency. It’s likely that the total water usage of paper towels and reusable towels are actually very similar.

For this reason, water use probably won’t be a significant factor when you’re deciding which eco-friendly paper towel option is best for you.

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Best Bamboo Paper Towels

Although using organic cotton, hemp, and linen fabric paper towel alternatives might be the best option in terms of overall waste, we’re realists here at The Filtery. We know that kicking that paper towel habit might be more difficult than it seems. We know that when it comes to things like kids or travel, paper towels might just work better. So, if you’re going to stick with paper towels, there are most definitely some much better brands to buy from.

Why Bamboo Paper Towels Are Better

Bamboo is a more sustainable option than sourcing from trees because it:

  • requires less water (about 30% less than trees)
  • grows really fast (it can grow 3 feet in just 24 hours!)
  • requires no herbicides and pesticides
  • doesn’t have to be replanted (it regrows itself)
  • gives out more oxygen (about 35% more than trees)

Plus, bamboo fiber is actually stronger than wood pulp, so it’s often even more effective than conventional paper towels at getting the job done!

Here are the best brands making bamboo paper towels:

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Reel

PROS:

  • 100% bamboo paper towels
  • no inks, dyes, or BPA
  • plastic-free
  • you can subscribe to save money
  • now available at TARGET!
  • gives back a portion of profits to SOIL

CONS:

  • not 100% toxin-free (whitened using elemental chlorine-free – ECF)
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Cloud Paper

PROS:

  • 100% bamboo
  • free to BPA, scents, pesticides, and dyes
  • plastic-free
  • subscription model available

CONS:

  • not 100% toxin-free (whitened using the ECF method)

Public Goods

PROS:

  • bamboo and sugarcane blend
  • free of inks, dyes, fragrances, and BPA

CONS:

  • not completely toxin-free (whitened using ECF method for the bamboo and TCF for the sugarcane)
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Who Gives A Crap

PROS:

  • bamboo and sugar cane blend (which uses TCF and hydrogen peroxide to whiten)
  • free of inks, dyes, and scents
  • plastic-free
  • subscription model available
  • B Corp certified
  • 50% of profits are donated to non-profit organizations
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Grove Co.

PROS:

  • 100 % bamboo
  • B Corp certified brand
  • every purchase helps restore American forestland
  • plastic-free

CONS:

  • not 100% toxin-free (whitened using elemental chlorine-free – ECF)
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Bumboo

PROS:

  • whitened using a mix of oxygen and hydrogen peroxide (TCF method)
  • one tree planted with each purchase
  • plastic-free, soy-inked packaging
  • free from pesticides, fertilizers, scents and dyes, and lint
  • based in UK

Best Recycled Paper Towels

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Seventh Generation

PROS:

  • 100% recycled (FSC-certified)
  • made without added dyes, inks, or fragrances
  • available at many stores such as Walmart, Grove, and Thrive Market
  • also available in unbleached (see below)

CONS:

  • not 100% toxin-free (could contain bisphenols and “bleached” using ECF method)
  • not plastic-free
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Thrive Market

PROS:

  • 100% recycled
  • completely free of fragrances and dyes
  • B Corp certified

CONS:

  • not 100% toxin-free (could contain bisphenols and “bleached” using ECF method)
  • not plastic-free
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Everspring

PROS:

  • 100% recycled (FSC-Certified)
  • no added fragrances and dyes
  • available at Target
  • made in the USA

CONS:

  • not 100% toxin-free (could contain bisphenols and “bleached” using ECF method)
  • not plastic-free

Unbleached Paper Towels

Many people wonder: are unbleached paper towels safe? Does “unbleached” = “not clean”? Are brown paper towels better?

The good news is: unbleached paper towels are completely clean and sanitary. The bad news is: so far, we’ve only found ONE completely unbleached brand of paper towels, and that’s Seventh Generation.

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Seventh Generation

PROS:

  • 100% recycled (FSC-certified)
  • completely unbleached
  • made without added dyes, inks, or fragrances
  • available at many stores such as Walmart, Grove, and Thrive Market

CONS:

  • could contain bisphenols
  • not plastic-free

If you know of any other unbleached paper towels, let us know!

What’s the Deal With Bambooee Reusable Paper Towels from Shark Tank?

You should be wary of reusable bamboo towels like Bambooee. Although they’re technically tree-free and reusable, these towels are almost always made from rayon/viscose, which requires very toxic chemicals to produce. Since there are so many other great alternatives to paper towels, we recommend skipping the Bambooee or other bamboo fabric towels.

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Don’t forget your paper towel holder!

This one is made by a certified B Corp company (Full Circle) out of bamboo, recycled aluminum, stainless steel, and ceramic.

Conclusion:

Whether you go with bamboo paper towels, reusable cloths, or something else, there are so many great alternatives to conventional (toxic) paper towels!


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Image credits: Michael Payne, Vlada Karpovich, all product photos belong to respective brands