Functioning of Toilet Paper

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

When we eat, we also produce waste which needs to be cleaned. This is where toilet paper comes in. It is a white, sanitary paper that is used to clean up after defecation. Basic human hygiene demands that we clean ourselves after we use the bathroom. Dried fecal matter on our backsides can be very unhealthy and uncomfortable. Toilet paper is a big business in America and people spend $6 billion annually on it. North Americans consume about 50 pounds of toilet paper per capita every year and manufacturers use about 10 million trees to make enough toilet paper for the world. Toilet paper is growing in demand in other parts of the world too, with tissue market growth rates of 10.5% for China, 8% for the Middle East and more than 6% for Africa from 2014.

Although toilet paper is an amusing topic, it is a product that is very important for human hygiene. Toilet paper is not just a product, it is symbolic and is affected by social norms. Women tend to wad toilet paper while men fold it before wiping. Women wipe from front to back to avoid spreading bacteria into their genitals. The Americans use three times more toilet paper than their Western European counterparts. They also prefer softer toilet paper and recycled toilet paper does not sell in America as much as it does in Europe and Latin America.

Before the widespread use of toilet paper, people used leaves, rocks, sticks, mud, clay, corncobs, snow or any other object that could be used for wiping. In ancient Rome, a shared stick with a sponge at the tip was common. The sponge was soaked in salty water between uses to inhibit bacterial growth. Toilet paper is not a new invention, it was invented by the Chinese in the 6th century C.E. The Chinese used the pulp of mulberry trees to make paper, which was used for cleaning up after defecation.

The History of Toilet Paper

The typical American supermarket aisle is flooded with various types of toilet tissue. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Widespread use of toilet paper is less than 200 years old.

The man who invented toilet paper is unknown, but in the 6th century, a court official stated that paper containing quotes or commentaries from the Five Classics should not be used for toilet purposes. By the 14th century, a million packets of toilet paper were being produced in just one Chinese province. However, this Chinese invention did not catch on in Europe at the time, and rich people used cloth or hemp to clean themselves while the poor used rags, leaves, or their own hands. The rise in newspaper publishing in the 1700s provided a cheap source of paper for cleaning, and in the 1800s, Americans commonly used pages from the Old Farmer’s Almanac and Sears Roebuck catalogs. Toilet paper was not widely available for purchase until much later.

In the 1970s, when comedian Johnny Carson joked about a potential toilet paper shortage during major energy shortages, people took him seriously and bought up all the local supplies, resulting in a shortage that continued for weeks in some places.

Joseph Gayetty was an entrepreneur who began selling boxed sheets of a hemp-based paper product infused with aloe, marketed as a hemorrhoid preventer in the 1850s. However, his product, called “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper,” found limited success because people were used to using free catalogs. It wasn’t until Scott Paper pioneered the concept of toilet paper rolls in 1890 that another innovation rolled in – perforations, which made it much easier to tear away single sheets. Today’s toilet paper is much softer than the coarse and rough versions of the past.

Toilet paper used to be a single layer, requiring multiple folds to avoid getting your hands dirty. However, in 1942, St. Andrews Paper Mill in England created the first two-layered or two-ply TP. Today, you can find toilet paper in two-ply or even four-ply. Toilet paper became popular due to the invention of indoor plumbing. Americans gained access to flushing toilets and catalog pages and newspapers were no longer an option. Most toilet paper is made from a blend of soft- and hardwood trees, which are shredded into chips to make them easier to handle. The chips are then fed into a digester, which breaks down the wood into pulp. The pulp is mixed with water to create a paper stock and then pressed onto a screen. The water is drained off, and the paper is spooled onto rolls. Industrial-grade toilet paper contains more fibers, making it coarser and thinner. Recycled toilet paper is made from used paper, and the end product is not a uniform white color and is coarser and less comfortable. Toilet paper is designed to be flushable and fast-decomposing, but weaker plumbing systems may still require it to be placed in a trash receptacle.

The majority of toilet paper in America is white, but in the 1970s, manufacturers produced rolls in various colors to match bathroom decor. However, colored dyes were linked to health concerns, leading to decreased production. Scented toilet paper is also uncommon in the US due to claims that it irritates people’s skin, but it’s popular in countries like Mexico and France. There’s a debate about whether toilet paper should hang over or under, with both orientations having their benefits. Fancy patterns on toilet paper fluff it up and make it more absorbent, while also differentiating products from competitors. Some critics suggest changes need to be made to reduce the number of trees felled each year to make toilet paper. However, bathroom customs vary worldwide, and not all countries rely on toilet paper.

Water is a popular cleansing method in Muslim countries, as it is a religious requirement to wash the anus after defecating. The use of a small container, known as a lota, or a handheld sprayer is common, followed by drying with toilet paper. In Japan, the Toto Washlet is a popular option, equipped with a self-cleaning wand and a remote control for spraying water to clean certain areas. Recycled cloths, known as “family cloth,” can also be used as an environmentally friendly alternative. However, replacing toilet paper with any of these methods in the United States would require a significant cultural shift.

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Author’s Note: How Toilet Paper Works

As an ultramarathon runner, I have encountered gastrointestinal distress in inconvenient places, leading me to use various primitive wiping methods. While I appreciate modern toilet paper, wet wipes are my preferred choice.

Related Articles

  • Learn How Toilets Function
  • Get to Know Plumbing
  • Find Out How Tankless Toilets Work
  • Discover How Dual-Flush Toilets Work
  • Explore 10 International Toilets

More Great Links

  • History of Toilet Paper
  • Toilet Paper Reviews
  • 25 Toilet Facts You Won’t Want to Flush


  • Carl Bialik’s “Saving the Planet, One Square of Toilet Paper at a Time” on Wall Street Journal.
  • Charmin Corporate Page’s “History of Toilet Paper”.
  • Bryan Dugan’s “What Did People Use Before Toilet Paper?” on Mental Floss.
  • Cheryl Embrett’s “Trouble Down There: 7 Reasons for Your Kid’s Discomfort” on Today’s Parent.
  • The “Toilet Paper” article on
  • Suzanne Goldenberg’s “American Taste for Soft Toilet Roll ‘Worse Than Driving Hummers.’” on The Guardian.
  • Drew Harwell’s “The Rise of Luxury Toilet Paper” on Washington Post.
  • Amanda Kooser’s “Why an 1891 Toilet Paper Patent is All Over Facebook” on CNET.
  • Eric Mack’s “Over or under? The science of toilet paper orientation” on CNET.
  • Marina Manes’ “How is Toilet Paper Made?” on Recycle Nation.
  • Mary Beth Quirk’s “Original Patent For Perforated Toilet Paper On A Roll Solves Over Vs. Under Debate Once And For All” on Consumerist.
  • Karl Smallwood’s “Why is Toilet Paper Always White?” on Gizmodo.
  • Sam Thompson’s “How Much Toilet Paper is Used Per Year?” on Southeast Green.


1. What is toilet paper made of?

Toilet paper is typically made from bleached wood pulp or recycled paper. It can also contain additives such as aloe vera or lotion for softer texture.

2. How does toilet paper work?

Toilet paper is used to wipe away feces and urine after using the toilet. The soft texture of the paper helps to clean without causing irritation or discomfort.

3. Can you flush toilet paper?

Yes, toilet paper is designed to be flushed down the toilet after use. However, it is important to use a reasonable amount and not to flush anything else besides toilet paper to prevent clogs and damage to plumbing.

4. Is there a right way to use toilet paper?

There is no right or wrong way to use toilet paper, but many people prefer to fold it to create a larger surface area for cleaning. Some cultures also prefer to use water and a hand-held spray instead of toilet paper.

5. How much toilet paper should you use?

The amount of toilet paper needed depends on personal preference and the task at hand. Generally, a few squares are enough for urine, while more may be needed for feces.

6. Is toilet paper environmentally friendly?

Toilet paper production can have negative environmental impacts, such as deforestation and water pollution. However, many brands now offer recycled and sustainably sourced options to reduce these effects.

7. Can toilet paper cause health problems?

Using toilet paper alone is unlikely to cause health problems, but excessive wiping or using harsh wipes can cause irritation or damage to the skin. It is important to clean thoroughly but gently.

8. Why is toilet paper sometimes hard to find in stores?

During times of high demand or supply chain disruptions, toilet paper can be difficult to find in stores. Panic buying and hoarding can also contribute to shortages.

9. Are there alternatives to toilet paper?

Yes, there are many alternatives to toilet paper, such as bidets, wet wipes, and reusable cloth wipes. Each option has its own benefits and drawbacks.

10. How long does toilet paper last?

The lifespan of toilet paper depends on factors such as how often it is used and how much is used each time. A roll of toilet paper typically lasts a few days to a few weeks.

11. What is the history of toilet paper?

Toilet paper has been used in various forms for centuries, but modern toilet paper was first mass-produced in the late 1800s. It became widely available in the early 1900s.

12. Can animals use toilet paper?

While some animals, such as chimpanzees, have been observed using leaves or other materials to clean themselves, toilet paper is not a natural resource for most animals. Domesticated pets may accidentally ingest toilet paper, which can cause digestive problems.

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