Skip to main content

BEACON Senior News

Paper towels: Soft on hands, hard on your health?

Mar 15, 2024 02:41PM ● By Suzy Cohen

Paper towels are a household staple. They’re perfect for wiping counters, drying hands and gently drying washed produce. Have you ever considered what lies within those innocent white sheets? The answers might surprise you.

Ever marveled at the plush softness of a VIVA paper towel compared to the rugged strength of a Bounty? It’s no coincidence. Companies prioritize certain qualities over others. The softness or strength is determined by the tree species used for the pulp. Interestingly, hardwoods like oak often yield a softer feel, while softwoods like pine lend themselves to stronger, more absorbent towels, perfect for tackling spills.

But there’s more than meets the eye. The chemicals used in manufacturing paper towels may raise eyebrows. 


The appearance of white paper towels suggest cleanliness, yet their production is less than spotless. To achieve that snowy hue, paper towels undergo a bleaching process involving chlorine, which generates harmful byproducts such as dioxins and furans. These persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, pose environmental and health risks due to their ability to remain in nature for extended periods and accumulate through the food chain. 

While some companies have moved towards environmentally friendly bleaching methods, many still rely on traditional, potentially harmful methods.

Formaldehyde isn’t just used in plywood and cosmetics; it grants paper towels that wet strength, which keeps them together when damp. However, formaldehyde is a classified carcinogen. Even though the amount of formaldehyde in paper towels is minuscule, the idea of it might be disconcerting for many people.

Bisphenol A (BPA), commonly associated with plastics, also sneaks into paper products. Its potentially adverse effects have sparked a decline in use, only to be replaced by bisphenol S (BPS), which may not be any safer. Both chemicals can disrupt our body’s hormonal balance and affect vital bodily functions.


Recycled paper towels may seem like the epitome of eco-friendliness, but the reality is complicated. The process of recycling paper, designed for purification and reuse, can ironically introduce a slew of chemical contaminants. This leads to a pressing question: Is the recycling process foolproof, or are we introducing unknown contaminants into our homes?

Although these facts may unsettle us, the actual risk posed by paper towels is minimal, particularly when compared to other everyday environmental exposures. 

Being informed guides our choices towards healthier, more sustainable options. Personally, I’ve shifted to using “flour sack” towels to cut down on paper towel consumption.

But supplementing their use with reusable cloths can make a significant impact. Every little bit contributes to a larger change. 

For more articles and advice, sign up for Suzy’s newsletter.