How Toilet Paper Works

Making TP for You and for Me
Toilet paper rolls move down a conveyer belt for packaging at Potlatch Corporation Consumer Products Division in Lewiston, Idaho. Jeff T. Green/Getty Images
Toilet paper rolls move down a conveyer belt for packaging at Potlatch Corporation Consumer Products Division in Lewiston, Idaho. Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

As you probably know from personal experience, modern toilet paper comes in a wide range of quality and construction, but it's all similar in that it's made to degrade easily in a septic system. Most TP is made from tree pulp, water, and bleach, as well as chemicals that extract fibers, making the paper cushier and less coarse.

Manufacturers often use a blend of soft- and hardwood (oak, maple or gum) trees. The trees are shredded into chips to make them easier to handle, and then the chips are fed into a big digester, which is essentially a large pressure cooker that breaks the woody material down into wood pulp. Then, the pulp is cleaned and bleached to remove color.

The pulp is mixed with water, and together, the materials create a basic paper stock. The mixture is pressed onto a large screen, which drains off the water, leaving behind a nice white paper product. Large metal blades scrape the paper from the screen, and then the paper is spooled onto rolls. Finally, a machine cuts the rolls and perforates the paper [source: Industrial Shredders].

Industrial-grade toilet paper, like the kind found in prisons or your work office, contains more fibers, which equals a coarser texture, and it's almost always thinner, too — so you need more to do the job.

Recycled toilet paper, which makes up only 2 percent of American TP sales, is processed differently. Instead of trees, manufacturers gather together different kinds of used paper. Then, they remove inks and colors from that paper before beginning the creation process. Due to its recycle-paper origins, the end product is not a nice, uniform white color. It's also made of longer fibers, which as you already know, are coarser and not as comfortable.

Regardless of whether it comes from virgin trees or recycled sources, toilet paper has shorter fibers than, say, facial tissues or paper towels. Those short fibers are the key to making TP more flushable and faster-decomposing than most paper products. It's a fine line between making the fibers too short, though, because those papers tend to be noticeably flimsier.

Even with modern TP's flushable design, in many places, you still can't flush the paper. Instead, it has to be placed into a trash receptacle' because some weaker plumbing systems may clog too easily.

Then there's the matter of color. The majority of American toilet paper is plain white. But back in the 1970s, manufacturers churned out rolls in a rainbow of colors, from blue, to yellow, to pink, letting homeowners coordinate all aspects of their bathrooms.

So why isn't toilet paper still offered in pretty hues? Because the dyes used were linked to potential health concerns, such as cervical cancer and inflammation in the nether regions. Suddenly, color coordination seemed much less important than staying healthy. Dyes also slow the decomposition rate of TP, which is a very bad thing, particularly in places with less-than-powerful plumbing. It's also worth pointing out that dyes add to the expense of manufacturing, which would be passed along to the customer [source: Smallwood].

The same concept applies to aromatized papers — the scented versions are rare in the U.S. because some claim they irritate people's behinds. However, scented and colored TP is very popular in countries like Mexico and France and presumably these places are not overrun with anal issues [sources: Harwell, LostinFrance]. Not to mention doesn't bleached white toilet paper have the possibility for bum irritation too?