Know the hidden secrets of paper towels
Paper towels are a household staple. You wipe your counters with them, dry your hands, and maybe even pat your freshly washed lettuce like I do.
But have you ever paused and pondered over what’s lurking within those white sheets? The answers might surprise you.
First, let’s talk about how they feel. Ever notice the luxurious softness of VIVA compared to the rugged strength of Bounty? It’s no coincidence. Companies prioritize certain qualities over others. The tactile difference between brands can be attributed to the type of trees used for pulp.
Ironically, hardwood trees like oak produce softer paper, while softwood trees like pine produce a more robust paper towel that makes for a great “picker-upper.”
Processed with chemicals
However, beneath this benign exterior, there’s a storm brewing. The production process and the chemicals used can be startling! For example, bleaching agents and formaldehyde are involved, and contaminants like BPA are introduced.
White paper towels look pristine, don’t they? But the truth is, to achieve that snowy white, a bleaching process is employed that isn’t all that pure.
Chlorine, a primary agent, can give rise to harmful substances known as dioxins and furans. These persistent organic pollutants, or “POPs,” can remain in the environment for extended periods and may accumulate in the food chain.
While some companies have moved towards more environmentally friendly bleaching methods, many still rely on traditional, potentially harmful methods.
Formaldehyde, primarily recognized for its uses in plywood and cosmetics, serves a secret role in paper towels. It grants them that ‘wet strength’ — the ability to stay intact when damp.
But here’s the catch: Formaldehyde is a classified carcinogen. Even though the amount in paper towels is minuscule, the very idea of it being present might be disconcerting for many.
BPA, frequently found in plastics, has a hidden appearance in paper products as well. Recent scientific revelations regarding its potentially harmful effects led to its decline. However, its replacement, BPS, might not be any safer. Both chemicals can disrupt our body’s hormonal balance, impacting various essential hormones.
Even recycling contaminates
Recycled paper towels sound like the epitome of eco-friendliness. Still, the reality is complicated.
The recycling process, intended to purify and repurpose paper, can introduce a unique array of chemical contaminants. And there’s the ever-present worry: Is the recycling process foolproof? Or are we introducing unknowable contaminants into our homes?
But before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s put it into perspective. While these revelations might be alarming, the actual risk paper towels pose is low, especially when juxtaposed against other daily exposures.
That said, knowledge is power. Being informed can guide our choices towards healthier, more sustainable options. As for me, I’ve purchased some soft “flour sack” towels, and I’m using those more frequently in order to reduce my paper towel usage.
Paper towels undoubtedly add convenience to our lives, and I’m not giving mine up just yet. But using washable cloths and rags may help. As they say, every little bit helps!
Suzy Cohen is a registered pharmacist and author of The 24-Hour Pharmacist and Real Solutions from Head to Toe.