It seems impossible to imagine a world without toilet paper, but in the scale of human existence, it’s really just a blip.
In fact, if you imagine the timespan of human existence as an unfurled roll of one-ply toilet paper, actual toilet paper would only have existed for about the last seven squares! (A typical roll of industrial one-ply toilet paper contains around 1,000 sheets; the first Homo sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago; the first toilet paper dates back to the 6th century. You do the math.) And people got along okay before those last seven squares.
We could live to see a time when TP ends up in the toilet bowl of history, too. That's because, for all its ubiquity, cleaning up with rough, dry paper after a little bathroom time may not actually be the best option. Don't tell Big TP that, though—the top five manufacturers in the industry raked in nearly $6 billion in 2017. As a nation, we're hooked, and there are very powerful forces feeding our need.
Here are a few reasons why toilet paper might not be as great as you think:
1. We got along just fine without it...sort of.
While some early toilet paper options were paper-like, or equally soft, others were harsher—a lot harsher. Grass, leaves, stones, shells, and sticks are just a few of things our ancestors wiped with, according to “Toilet hygiene in the classical era,” an article published in the BMJ. In the Greco-Roman period, bathroom-goers used a sponge affixed to a stick—a tersorium, they called the contraption.
The use of paper for wiping first shows up in 6th century Chinese literature, and in the 14th century, toilet paper was used in the Chinese imperial court, according to the Washington Post. Yet beyond that, it didn’t really catch on.
Americans were big fans of the corncob for quite a long time, if you can picture that. Sometime after the advent of the printing press, they started keeping catalogs in the bathroom—and not for reading.
It wasn’t until the 1857 that the first bathroom tissue, as we might recognize it today, hit the scene. Inventor Joseph Gayetty manufactured stacks of soft, aloe-infused hemp paper. Gayetty's "medicated" paper was designed to ease hemorrhoids, or “piles,” as the ad termed them, but it also planted the seed of a much bigger idea.
In late 19th century, the Scott Paper Company started selling bathroom tissue on an easy-dispensing roll. This revelation brought TP into the mainstream. Soon, Scott became the leading toilet paper company in the world. (They're still doing alright; according to statistics site Statista, Scott was the fifth-highest seller of toilet paper in 2017, with $954 million in sales.)
As indoor plumbing became more prevalent, so did the popularity of toilet paper, and today, it seems impossible to imagine that there was a time people didn't use it. But just remember: Just as we moved past corn cobs, we could move past toilet paper if a more effective way comes around.
2. It's all about the marketing.
Considering the long history of not-so-soft wiping options, the development of extra-plush toilet paper was only a matter of time—nowadays, wood shavings and rocks aren’t exactly missed. And while the Scott Paper Company was the first to sell rolls of paper for post-movement cleanup, Charmin rules the roost when it comes to plushness.
Remember, modern toilet paper was originally marketed as a medicinal product. For years, it wasn’t anything fancy or luxurious. However, in 1928, Charmin revolutionized the toilet paper market. Their product came in very feminine packaging, emphasizing softness. Over the next few decades, Charmin became the leader in soft and fluffy toilet paper. From Mr. Whipple to the cuddly bears who grace their packages now, Charmin has been all about creating the softest product for all your bathroom needs.
But even the softest paper in the world is made out of the same basic resource as the harshest industrial single-ply: Trees. Given our appetite for the paper wipe, that could add up into a big environmental problem.
3. How much is enough?
Back in 2007, blogger Josh Madison set out to track his personal TP use, and found that he personally used 49 rolls in a year, which added up to $52.43. That’s a lot of tissue, and it's far from abnormal.
Beyond how much we use, there's another problem: Consumers also demand that major brands offer seriously soft, even fluffy, toilet paper options. That doesn't seem like a big deal until you consider that, in order to satisfy the rear ends of their customers, many toilet paper companies don’t use recycled materials.
Recycled paper, see, doesn’t always up when it comes to soft-and-fluffiness. The best way to achieve these plush qualities is by (you guessed it!) using material from freshly logged trees.
4. Flushing Our Forests Away
Each year in North America, the logging industry harvests millions of trees. According to the Washington Post, about 5 percent of those trees become toilet paper and facial tissue—we’re talking millions, remember, so that’s a lot of trees.
Environmental protection organization Greenpeace reports that U.S. citizens could remove more than 400,000 trees from the chopping block if every family in the country switched to fully recycled toilet paper—even if they each only bought a single roll of the greener stuff and then went back to the fluff.
Logging isn't the only impact TP has on the environment. It also takes billions of gallons of water to make toilet paper.
Toilet paper companies spend fortunes on marketing. But honestly, have we been duped to believe our bottoms really need to be delicately coddled that only the softest, least-environmentally friendly product will do? Do we really need all these products made from freshly felled trees?
5. It might not be the tenderest option.
We aren’t trying to make you feel guilty about your toilet paper use. Trust us, we want the best for you and your behind. But the fact is, TP isn't even the gentlest way to clean up.
In addition to the negative environmental impact of toilet paper, even the soft stuff can get pretty rough if you overdo it. Excessive wiping in order to get clean can lead to serious skin irritation and even hemorrhoids.
“Frequent and repetitive front to back motion [of wiping] can cause skin breakdown and thinning, which can lead to tearing, or skin build-up in in the area,” says plastic surgeon Evan Goldstein, who specializes in this tender region of the body.
Even the fluffiest toilet paper isn’t going to save your behind—or be very kind to your wallet. There is another option, though, that might drastically decrease the amount you spend on TP.
6. There's got to be a better way.
Oddly enough, the solution to the problem of toilet paper has already been fixed in many parts of the world. Take a trip to a European bathroom and you might find an odd device that fires a jet of water next to the toilet. That is not a drinking fountain.
The bidet is a toilet companion that shoots a stream of water out to wash nether regions clean after the flush—some use them exclusively, and some use them in conjunction with toilet paper, albeit a fair bit less of it. It seems weird to many Americans, but they're actually pretty great. Bidets have been around since the late 1600s/early 1700s, and Americans who try them often become converts.
Some have made the switch claim they will never go back to the days of purely wiping. Eco-friendly writer Kathryn Kellogg and her husband installed a bidet in their home back in 2015, and she says it’s changed their lives. “I was pretty nervous about using it the first time, but now I love it,” Kellogg tells Urbo. “It's cut our toilet paper usage down by 80 percent! We're saving so much money. Plus, you just feel so much cleaner.”
Bidets may even keep your whole bathroom cleaner, so say advocates for the technology. "Hand contact spreads many germs, using a bidet decreases the amount of germs being spread,” says Superior Bidet PR representative Susan Mackasey.
If you suffer from hemorrhoids or irritated skin, “bidets can provide valuable relief from discomfort,” says Mackasey. They’re a great way to keep yourself clean, alleviate any pain or irritation you might have, all while reducing your environmental footprint.
7. Seriously...way better.
But wait, you might say. Won't switching to a bidet waste more water? Not really. According to Scientific American, the typical bidet requires less than an eighth of a gallon per use. It takes about 37 gallons of water to make one roll of toilet paper.
Despite all the health and environmental benefits of using a bidet, they are not as popular in America as they may be in Europe or Asia. However, bidets are gaining some traction here, reports Pro Remodeler.
One issue that has held back the bidet in America is that many bidets in Europe and Asia are separate fixtures in the bathroom. Many people, understandably, don’t want to a complete bathroom remodel to install an appliance they don’t know anything about. Luckily, there are plenty of bidets that are toilet seat attachments, eliminating the need for a bathroom overhaul.
If you’re thinking about getting a bidet of your own, there are plenty of options available under $100. Many come with temperature control and can be installed in just a few minutes.
If you’re in America, you’ll most likely encounter a seat-attachment bidet. It’s easy and convenient to use these appliances. After you use the toilet, all you have to do is use the controls that are off to the side of the toilet seat. Turning the bidet on allows you to adjust the water pressure and sometimes even the temperature of the water.
Certain bidets have an air dryer built in you can use—otherwise, simply pat yourself dry with either a towel or with a small amount of toilet paper.
Toilet paper is still the American way.With the rise of the bidet, though, it could go the way of the tersorium.