How Toilet Paper Works

Introduction to How Toilet Paper Works
Models pose at the 12th Annual Toilet Paper Wedding Dress Fashion Show in New York City, on June 16, 2016. Robin Marchant/Getty Images

What goes in, must come out. We humans eat a lot, and then we poop. Somehow, we must clean off those remnants of fecal matter. Hence, toilet paper, the bright white sanitary paper that ends its useful life as, well, not very white and definitely not very sanitary.

Toilet paper is kind of an amusing subject, but it's a product that addresses a truly absorbing problem — basic human hygiene. Running around all day with dried fecal matter on your backside isn't just itchy and uncomfortable — it's totally unhealthy, too.

Because Americans identify toilet paper as a necessity, it's a big business there. In the United States alone, people spend about $6 billion per year on this simple rolled paper [source: Harwell]. By some estimates, North Americans consume about 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of toilet paper per capita every single year. To make enough TP for the entire world, manufacturers blow through about 10 million trees annually [source: Worldwatch Institute].

The demand for toilet paper is growing in other parts of the world too. A 2015 report showed a growth rate for the tissue market (which includes toilet paper, facial tissues and paper towels) of 10.5 percent for China, 8 percent for the Middle East and more than 6 percent for Africa from 2014.

Toilet paper isn't just a product. It's replete with all sorts of symbolism and social norms. Women tend to wad toilet paper; men fold before wiping. Women wipe from front to back to avoid spreading bacteria into their genitals. Men wipe however they want to.

Americans use far more toilet paper than any other country, perhaps three times as much as their Western European counterparts. The Yanks like it softer too. Recycled toilet paper doesn't sell in the states like it does in Europe and Latin America [source: Goldenberg].

Toilet paper is a fixture and it's not going anywhere, except down the sewer pipes, anytime soon. Keep reading and you'll see where it all began for this humble yet vital paper product.

The Long, Stained History of Toilet Paper

The Long, Stained History of Toilet Paper
The typical American supermarket aisle is flooded with various types of toilet tissue. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

It may surprise you to learn that widespread use of toilet paper is a fairly recent thing — less than 200 years old. So, what did people do before that?

They used leaves, rocks, sticks, mud, clay, corncobs, snow, or any other objects that could be used for wiping, or (ouch) scraping. In ancient Roman times, it was common for people to use a shared stick with a sponge at the tip. Thankfully, between uses, the sponge was soaked in very salty water, which helped to inhibit bacterial growth [source: Wolf].

Still, toilet paper is not a new invention. As with so many other firsts, it was the Chinese who dreamed up the dandy idea of sweeping away doo-doo with good old paper. And they did so all the way back in the 6th century C.E. The Chinese invented paper itself in the 1st century C.E., using the pulp of mulberry trees.

We don't know the name of the man who invented toilet paper, but by the 6th century, a court official was opining that, "Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics ... I dare not use for toilet purposes." By the 14th century, a million packets of toilet paper — each with between 1,000 and 10,000 sheets — were being produced in just one Chinese province [source: Smyth].

Apparently, this Chinese invention of toilet paper never caught on in Europe at the time. Rich people used cloth or hemp to clean themselves. The poor used rags, leaves or their own hands. King Henry VIII had a designated "Groom of the Stool", and the job responsibilities were exactly what you think.

The rise in newspaper publishing in the 1700s provided a ready cheap source of paper for taking care of your business. And in the 1800s, Americans commonly used pages from the Old Farmer's Almanac and Sears Roebuck catalogs to clean themselves, although Sears received many complaints once it switched to glossy pages. The Almanac even had a hole punched in the corner, making it easy to hang in an outhouse [sources: Rodriguez, Dugan]. It took a very long time for toilet paper to be available for purchase and even longer for people to see a need to buy it.

The Evolution in TP Technology

An ad for Gayetty Medicated Papers, the first toilet paper available for sale in America.
Wikimedia Commons

It all started with a guy named Joseph Gayetty, an entrepreneur who saw a clean business opening unlike any other. In the 1850s, he began selling boxed sheets of a hemp-based paper product that was infused with aloe, which he marketed as a hemorrhoid preventer.

He found limited success with his product, called "Gayetty's Medicated Paper" (50 cents for 500 sheets), in large part because people were so used to using the free catalogs. It also didn't help that the subject was taboo — no self-respecting American would ever go to a store and ask for a product meant to wipe poop from their nether regions [source: Wolf].

Another three decades passed before boxed toilet paper made the revolutionary leap to rolls thanks to Scott Paper, which pioneered the concept in 1890. Yet because of the aforementioned cultural poo taboos, the company refused to be associated with the product, leveraging the names of its partners instead.

Less than a decade later, another innovation rolled in — perforations, which made it much easier to neatly tear away single sheets instead of ripping apart the roll. Why is TP perforated in squares that are just 4 inches (10 centimeters) long? Well, the product has plenty of uses other than bum wiping, such as lipstick blotting and nose cleaning, which don't require 12-inch-long sheets.

Even with the advent of rolls, the paper itself still needed some improvement. It was coarse and rough, very unlike today's cushy versions. Consider this: Until the 1930s, it was still common practice to market TP as "splinter-free." Suddenly, rocks and snow don't seem like such bad options after all, do they?

Early rolled toilet paper was just a single layer, meaning you had to fold it over a few times or risk seriously soiling your hand. In 1942, St. Andrews Paper Mill in England created the first two-layer or two-ply TP [source: Wolf]. These days, of course, you can find toilet paper in two-ply or even four-ply form.

So, with all the discomfort around the concept of cleansing our bums, how did toilet paper ever roll into the lives of everyday folks? Two words: indoor plumbing.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Americans were finally getting consistent access to indoor plumbing and flushing toilets. Suddenly, catalog pages and newspapers weren't feasible options for wiping — and flushing — unless you were cool with clogged toilets. Enter toilet paper.

Making TP for You and for Me

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

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?

Should Toilet Paper Hang Over or Under?

There is a TP controversy that roils the U.S. cesspool waters more than any other. And that, dear readers, is whether to hang the roll so that the paper flows "over" or "under."

In 1891, a man named Seth Wheeler, of Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company, submitted a patent for the first perforated toilet paper on a roll. The illustration included with the patent clearly showed the paper being fed from the "over" position [source: Willett]. And that should have settled the issue once and for all.

However, the underhand orientation has some nice benefits, too. It often thwarts curious toddlers and pets that would otherwise yank on the paper just for fun. It's also kind of nice from an aesthetic perspective, as the loose end can be hidden from view.

On the other hand, the overhand orientation makes it extremely easy to find the end of the paper so that you can start pulling. It's also clear that manufacturers intend for the product to be used in this manner — otherwise, their fancy imprints won't be as obvious to the user.

Speaking of fancy patterns in your toilet paper, do they serve a purpose? They do fluff up the paper a bit and make it more absorbent. And the patterns, sometimes called "ornamentation," do help companies differentiate their products from competitors. They also, you know, make your feel fancy while you are participating in a decidedly inelegant activity [source: Smallwood].

Is the Future TP Free?

Is the Future TP Free?
The various functions on the Toto Washlet — including a water spray for the butt — are displayed. Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Could we envision a future where toilet paper is seldom used? It may be hard to imagine in the U.S., but some critics have been concerned about the millions of trees felled each year to make toilet paper and say changes should be made. But what kind?

The first thing to remember is that toilet paper use is not universal. Bathroom customs vary widely around the world. In many places, particularly in developing countries, it's still common for some people to wipe with whatever's handy, although others will use toilet paper.

In Muslim countries, people cleanse with water. It's part of the Muslim faith, which says the anus must be washed after defecating. People often use a small hand-held container that looks like a watering can (called a lota) for this job — or the toilet may be equipped with a handheld sprayer. Some people follow up by drying with toilet paper [sources: Cromwell, Akbar].

In Japan, the Toto Washlet reigns supreme — this is a specially designed toilet with a self-cleaning wand and a remote control. By pressing the right buttons on the remote, the adjustable wand will shoot up a spray of water that cleanses you in all the right spots. The Washlet also has features that allow you to dry and/or heat your bum. (Some experts say water is the best way to clean yourself, even better than paper.)

A less-expensive, but also environmentally friendly method, is to use recycled cloths (aka "family cloth"). You cut up squares of old flannel sheets or towels and keep them in a pile by the toilet. After each use, they're dumped in a bucket half-filled with vinegar (to keep odors down) next to the toilet. Every few days, the bucket is tipped into the washing machine with a strong solution of bleach and detergent [source: Winter].

Sounds gross? Proponents say it's no worse than laundering baby diapers.

Replacing toilet paper with any of these alternatives in the U.S. would require a cultural shift of porcelain-shattering proportions. For now, TP is here to stay.

Author's Note: How Toilet Paper Works

As an ultramarathon runner, I'm extremely familiar with gastrointestinal distress in inconvenient places. That means I've used many (but not all) of the primitive wiping methods mentioned in this story. Suffice it to say, I have an extreme appreciation for modern toilet paper. I will admit, though, that wet wipes are even better.

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More Great Links


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