We use toilet paper multiple times a day in our most personal of areas. Yet, we hear about scary stuff that could be hiding in each roll. With so many options on the shelves it’s difficult to figure what to use and what to avoid. Here are the toxins to be wary of and a guide to help you choose the right brand for you.
Toilet paper brands made from virgin pulp (not recycled paper) are usually bleached with chlorine dioxide. When you hear or read about chlorine in toilet paper it’s misleading because chlorine dioxide is different from chlorine. Until the late 1990s, pure chlorine, or elemental chlorine, was used for paper bleaching and was a significant source of dioxin. Dioxins, which are persistent environmental pollutants and accumulate in the food chain, are among the most toxic chemicals on earth. The EPA began regulating the paper industry which led North American paper mills to convert from elemental chlorine to chlorine derivatives, such as chlorine dioxide, which are significantly less toxic and reduce the potential for dioxins by 90%. So, today’s toilet paper bleached with chlorine dioxide is safer than the paper produced decades ago with elemental chlorine. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean chlorine dioxide is safe. It’s strictly regulated by the EPA as a hazardous chemical. And it still releases dioxins into the environment which is detrimental at any level.
This background is important to understand when reading marketing claims on toilet paper packaging. The following acronyms are used by the U.S. Pulp and Paper Industry to describe “safer” bleaching processes. Here’s what they really mean:
(ECF) Elemental Chlorine Free: Paper bleached with chlorine dioxide instead of elemental chlorine.
As we know, elemental chlorine is no longer used in the U.S. to bleach paper products, so this does not mean that products with this label are any safer than others. In fact, we know that chlorine dioxide is still a danger to humans and to the environment. Some brands also claim “Chlorine-Free”. Be wary of this as it can simply mean that they use a chlorine derivative such as chlorine dioxide.
(PCF) Process Chlorine Free: This is used for recycled paper. It means no chlorine or chlorine derivative was added during the production process. Ozone, oxygen or hydrogen peroxide are used for bleaching.
(TCF) Totally Chlorine Free: This is used for virgin paper. Ozone, oxygen or hydrogen peroxide are used for bleaching.
Some brands of toilet paper use formaldehyde to make the paper stronger when it is wet.
Formaldehyde is a carcinogen as well as an irritant. One study linked toilet paper to chronic irritation in women. If a brand claims that it is particularly thick, strong, or absorbent, suspect that it contains formaldehyde.
Recycled toilet paper is made from paper scraps. Thermal paper, such as cash register receipts are a known source of BPA. When they get processes to make recycled paper, trace amounts of BPA can end up in the finished product. A 2011 study found that 80 of 94 toilet paper brands contained BPA. However, for perspective, BPA in toilet paper was detected in microgram-per-gram concentrations while thermal paper receipts were measured in milligram-per-gram concentrations. That’s 1000 times more exposure from receipts than toilet paper!
It’s difficult to get companies to disclose all of the chemical additives used for fragrance or added features like lotion. We know that fragrances are often a cocktail of chemicals and sometimes include phthalates, a known endocrine disrupter. Lotions can include parabens, which are linked to hormone disruption and breast cancer, as well as other harmful ingredients. It’s best to avoid any products boasting these features.
Avoid: Toilet Paper made with Virgin Pulp
Sadly, this is the fluffy, white stuff that most people prefer. If chlorine dioxide, dioxins and the possibility of formaldehyde are not enough to deter you, think of the fact that 54 million trees are harvested per year for toilet paper production.
Better: Recycled Toilet Paper
These brands will likely contain trace amounts of BPA. While it is best to avoid all exposures to BPA, humans are at far greater risk of exposure from food and beverage containers and cash register receipts than from toilet paper. If you choose this option, look for brands that contain 100% recycled content and are bleached with PCF. Some brands do use ECF so look carefully.
It’s worth noting that Seventh Generation openly addresses the BPA problem on their website and are actively working toward solutions. They should be commended for their transparency. Plus, they use hydrogen peroxide for bleaching (which is PCF)!
Best: 100% Bamboo or Bamboo & Sugar Cane Toilet Paper
These brands do not contain BPA because there is no recycled content. They do not need formaldehyde for strengthening because bamboo fibers are naturally strong. Most of them use hydrogen peroxide for bleaching, although some use a combination of hydrogen peroxide and ECF. An added benefit is that bamboo and sugar cane are grasses, not trees, which are naturally renewable.
Do they work?
None of these bamboo and sugar cane brands compare in softness or strength to traditional, virgin pulp brands. However, if you are used to using recycled brands you will probably find these less-toxic alternatives to be good options. Like the recycled brands, they vary widely in appearance and functionality. My family found 2 of the 5 brands we tried acceptable.
This was my favorite in the category. The 3-ply sheets are the strongest of the five tested and did not break down during tough cleaning jobs. It is relatively soft and thick and looks the most like traditional toilet paper.
Also 3-ply, this is soft and strong but not quite as thick as NooTrees.
This is not as soft as NooTrees or Wholeroll but it holds up and does an acceptable job.
This did not work for me. It is thin and rough and sometimes crumbles.
This did not work for me. It is thin and sometimes crumbles.