Could you live without toilet paper? What is reusable toilet paper or family cloth? What are the alternatives? These options are easy to use and affordable.
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You don’t need toilet paper. It is NOT a necessity. I was reading a survival site and they were trying to estimate how much toilet paper you should save up for the apocalypse and I had to chuckle because toilet paper is not the item I’d recommend trying to store for the (relatively unlikely) imminent collapse of our society. Can you imagine how much you’d need?!
Perhaps I’m an optimist, perhaps I’m just conscious of our storage space, or perhaps it’s because I’m a realist- but if there’s an apocalypse, I’ll be okay if toilet paper is the item I run out of. Let’s talk about why.
It’s 3/13/20 and I’m updating this blog post because I know many people are fearful of toilet paper running out during the quarantines and school closures. I feel like the stores will likely get these items back in stock, but I want to reassure everyone that THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES TO TOILET PAPER. In an emergency, you have a lot of options and it’s going to be okay.
Want options for other products as well? Products like paper towels, menstrual pads, and more? Check out my post, 15+ Products to Swap out for Low Waste Living. I also have a post on Reusable Paper Towels, Reusable Facial Tissues, and you can learn how to use a t-shirt as a diaper!
Table of Contents
About Toilet Paper
First, the use of paper for toilet hygiene is a relatively new concept and the modern toilet paper wasn’t invented until the late 1800’s. There is record of paper being used in medieval China, however, as early as 6th century A.D.
The United States uses much more toilet paper than other countries, something that is thought to be due to the more common use of bidets in other countries.
27,000 trees are used daily to keep up with the world’s toilet paper use. Considering the transportation and production costs of toilet paper, you can imagine the difference that could be made by cutting down on our use.
Historical alternatives to toilet paper included corn cobs, a communal sponge (barf), old newspaper and catalogs, and leaves.
Toilet paper is designed to break down in modern septic tanks, but depending on where you live and your septic system, some people still throw toilet paper away in a garbage can instead of disposing of it in the toilet.
Personally, we buy the “cheap” toilet paper because we find that the fluffy kind doesn’t flush well. Lots of toilet clogging issues, particularly with young kids who don’t understand how much to use.
Sources Wikipedia: Toilet Paper, Mental Floss: What did people use before toilet paper?
What can I use instead of toilet paper?
There are LOTS of things you can use instead of toilet paper. They’re just not ideal.
***IMPORTANT*** The first thing to understand is that you DO NOT FLUSH anything besides toilet paper down the toilet! That means any of the options I’m about to give you. It also means facial tissues/Kleenex, paper towels, etc. If you flush these items, you will be spending your toilet paper money on a plumber. Flushing those items can cause problems with a septic system, but they can make your public sewer systems back up into your home too. POOP EVERYWHERE. Do not tempt fate.
Okay now that we’ve got that disclosure out of the way- what are the options?
- Reusable Toilet Paper/Family Cloth/Cloth Wipes/Scrap Fabric/
- Paper items: newspaper, junk mail, political mailers, your pick.
- Organic items like leaves. I think my top choice (after family cloth) would be lambs ear which is a really hardy plant that I grow in my front garden. It’s soft, plentiful, and I usually need to cut it back anyways. Sometimes people use them for bandages too.
If you’re using a reusable option, you wash them after once use. You can reuse once clean.
If you’re using a disposable option (or wish to dispose of the cloth), you need to use a garbage bag and dispose of in the trash.
Some people do compost products with human manure, but there are a lot of health concerns related to that. I would not recommend doing this. If SHTF and there’s a zombie apocalypse, I guess I’d go with the bury as deep as possible, away from water and food sources option. But don’t… please don’t… do this unnecessarily.
Your sewer systems/septic system is made to handle toilet paper and germs from fecal matter. Theoretically the garbage collection service is too… or I would hope so, given that they’re the recommended option for disposing of dirty kitty litter, dog poop, and disposable diapers.
What is Reusable Toilet Paper, Otherwise Known as Family Cloth?
We began using cloth wipes and cloth diapers on my first son in 2011. I liked the idea of the soft fabrics of cloth diapers against my son’s skin instead of plastic. At the time, I was super grossed out by the idea of cloth wipes as an alternative to toilet paper for the whole family. Eventually, after reading other peoples’ experiences with cloth, I became curious. Now I’m a convert.
Cloth wipes are often called “family cloth” and they are like using a washcloth to wipe yourself. They’re comfortable, they’re clean, and they’re affordable.
Yes, it seems gross when you hear it. But consider it. You launder soiled underwear. Most people don’t just throw their underwear away. And if you have children, then you’ve likely dealt with a diaper explosion before- and you probably didn’t throw those clothes away. You just deal with it and launder the clothes. Laundering cloth wipes is no different.
By using cloth wipes, you can save money and decrease your impact on the environment. We still buy toilet paper for guests and occasional use, but we have been transitioning more and more to using just cloth. We’ve noticed a significant decrease in how much we spend on many disposable products. And once you switch to family cloth, using regular toilet paper is akin to using the cheapest toilet paper on the shelf. “Ew, toilet paper.”
Family Cloth FAQ
Wetting the wipes with water first is the most comfortable option. Wipe as usual. Dirty wipes are put into a wet bag and then laundered together after a few days. Very simple.
It’s also a lot easier to use than disposable wipes or toilet paper when potty training a child. Unlike toilet paper, fabric doesn’t leave “residue” behind on your body. It also seems to do a better job cleaning you than toilet paper does.
Many families have everyone share all of the clean wipes. There’s a community pile of clean family cloth for everyone to use. People DO NOT SHARE the dirty wipes. These are a one time use item and get washed between uses.
If you’re not comfortable with that, you can always give each person their own set and their own bag to place dirties in. I recommend letting everyone pick their own fabric (if you’re sewing them) because it’s easier to keep track when laundering.
To wash family cloth, I put them through with our cloth diapers when we have a child who is being cloth diapered. But you could wash them by themselves too.
I run my wipes through the washer on a quick cycle with NO detergent first- this is just to rinse the wipes with cold water. Hot water is rumored to set stains so I avoid that for the rinse cycle.
Next I put them in for a full “heavy soil” cycle with high heat, my cloth diaper friendly detergent, and a bit of white vinegar.
My current washing machine offers a steam clean option which I often like to use on cloth products as an extra option to sanitize the wipes.
Some people choose to use bleach.
You don’t want to put any solids (poop) through the wash. If this is confusing, think of it this way- if you would launder your clothes with that degree of soiling, then it will be fine in the wash. But you probably would shake out anything loose on your clothes to avoid having it stay in your washing machine. For example, I’ve found that mud washes out, but if I launder sand then I end up with sand throughout my washer and dryer. Similarly, food particles tend to hang out in my washer and dryer. Hay. And poop. Poop will stay in your washer.
Curious what happens when your child has an accident in their underwear and it goes through the washer and dryer? Yeah, look no further because I wrote a post on that and explain how to clean the washer and dryer after. Click here to read more on “How to Clean Poop Out of the Dryer” (this is funny). But this has only happened once in over nine years of using cloth and it had nothing to do with my use of cloth diapers or family cloth ironically.
When you launder cloth products, don’t use any detergent that has fabric softener in it- fabric softeners tend to decrease the absorbency of fabrics so they’re not a good option for cloth diapers or wipes. I use regular Tide.
If you don’t want to deal with #2, then you can use the cloth wipes for #1 and save your toilet paper for #1. This will GREATLY reduce your use of toilet paper! You can also use family cloth to dry off after using a bidet.
While I feel pretty confident that my washing machine is doing a FANTASTIC job of cleaning everything I put into it, I do clean my washing machine regularly. This is a good habit, even if you don’t use cloth toilet paper!
Most people use a zippered wet bag to store dirty family cloth until it’s time to wash it. Do not let them sit too long. 4-5 days between washes is the best bet, although if you don’t have many wipes then you may need to wash more frequently.
Don’t have a wet bag? You can easily use a plastic bag. Just make sure you don’t accidentally toss the bag in the garbage.
If you need someplace to store your clean cloth wipes, consider making your own cloth toilet paper holder. This gives guests the option of using regular toilet paper while allowing you the option to keep wipes handy.
You can also put them in a basket or just lay them on the counter in the bathroom. Whatever works for you! Some people add snaps to their wipes and put them on a roll. This is too much work in my opinion.
How to Make Fabric Toilet Paper or Cloth Wipes (family cloth)
Are you new to sewing and want to learn? I have lots of sewing 101 tutorials on how to sew, how to thread your sewing machine, and you can learn about sewing needle types and thread.
Sewing cloth wipes is very easy. You just use squares of flannel. I use “two ply” or two layers and serge/sew them together. They’re cheap to make, easy to sew, and easy to wash.
The size doesn’t really matter but I like a 6-8″ square. If you use a quilting ruler, you will find it’s the right size to use as a cutting “pattern” with your rotary cutter/mat (these make cutting a lot faster).
How to make reusable toilet paper
Learn how to make reusable toilet paper, otherwise known as FAMILY CLOTH or CLOTH WIPES. These simple squares of fabric will work in the case of a toiler paper shortage. They are washable and you wash them between uses. They're also very easy to sew. If you can't sew, wash cloths do the same job! You can also just cut up squares of fabric from old teeshirts, towels, etc.
- Flannel Fabric
- Sewing machine or serger
- Scissors or Rotary Cutter/Mat/Quilting Ruler
- Start by prewashing and drying your fabric. This helps prevent the item from shrinking after you make it! Iron your fabric if needed
- To cut them more easily, I use my rotary cutter with a mat and quilting ruler. I fold the fabric wrong sides together first.
- Once folded, I use my quilting ruler as a "pattern" (it's 6" wide) to cut the wipes. I just zip up the edge with the rotary cutter, cutting two squares at once. Once I cut a long 6" row, I flip my ruler to cut the row into multiple squares!
- Now I have a square of fabric to sew.
- I have three options to sew these: I can serge around the outside with a special machine called a serger. I can sew right sides together, leave a gap, turn, press, and top stitch. Or I can use a zig zag stitch along the edges of the fabric (wrong sides together). The video below will give you a better demo on how to do this.
I recommend picking up flannel when it’s on sale. Some people just cut up old towels or other scrap fabric and use them until they break down. No sewing required.
I wrote all about using reusable cloth products and other products that save me money in my book, “How to Sew, Use, and Clean Cloth Diapers” The book includes more information on cloth wipes for family cloth and baby, sewing cloth diapers, unpaper towels, reusable snack bags, and more!
An Alternative to Toilet Paper: Bidets
While this hasn’t taken off in the United States yet like it has in other countries, bidets are a wonderful alternative to using toilet paper and cloth wipes. And consider how clean you get if you wash those areas each time you use the toilet, rather than just patting your areas with dry toilet paper.
It’s really much cleaner. And there’s no laundry involved so that’s even better. And it’s an absolute blessing post-partum or if you have any other issues, surgeries, etc. ‘down there.’
Eventually I’d like to replace our toilet seats with bidet seats. In the past, you would need to replace your whole toilet, but now you can just replace the seat or add a sprayer to your current toilet.
There is some plumbing required if you want to make the water warm, but cold water isn’t as uncomfortable as you might expect and sticking with cold water makes install much easier (and more of a DIY project). Some of these seats offer heating and other perks too. Kind of awesome and the prices on them have gotten much, much more reasonable.
You have four options for bidet use:
- Handheld sprayer: If you plan to cloth diaper, these are nice because they double as a cloth diaper sprayer. Upside? They attach to the side of your toilet and you can target the sprayer in whatever direction you wish. Downside? You can target the sprayer in whatever direction you wish. If you have a toddler, you can probably guess the potential problem with that.
- Attached toilet seat sprayer: These appear to install under your current toilet seat and shoot water up at your wipable areas. Make sure you’re sitting over it when it goes on, haha.
- Separate bidet toilet: These are the separate bidets you see at fancy homes and in Europe (and Asia maybe?). I find them intimidating, even though I think bidet use is awesome. I also don’t like that they take up extra space which makes it difficult to install in most American homes (unless you customize your bathroom space so one will fit).
- Bidet toilet seat: These seats can get pretty fancy and they include a sprayer for use as a bidet, some have the option for heated toilet seats and air drying your tush. I think it’s neat and my stepmom has one like this, but I don’t spend so much time on the toilet that I want to invest in the electrical and plumbing work required to make all of those features work. Also, I don’t want to sit and wait for my butt to dry. I get impatient with hand dryers at the public restroom too. These are probably less expensive than getting a whole separate bidet, but more expensive than a sprayer or hand sprayer.
Here are some of the options available online.
Sprayer only that attaches to your current toilet seat.
Handheld Bidet Sprayer: These work great for rinsing cloth diapers too. I used something similar for our cloth diapers.
Bidet toilet seat with heat and drying function.
Seeing the prices on some of these bidets, I may have to pick up one or two to try them out. They’re much more affordable than they were in the past! We have special toilet seats for our children to potty train so I need either the handheld bidet sprayer or the toilet seat attachment sprayer.
If you don’t want to buy the attachment that dries you, you can always use cloth wipes for drying only, but to my understanding it’s not absolutely necessary.
I wrote a post about how to install a bidet toilet seat if you’re interested in learning more!
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Friday 3rd of February 2023
The best thing we did was put a bidet in our bathrooms! Did in 2019, just in time for the pandemic.
I use old towels for wiping after bidet. Thanks for your great article!
Wednesday 12th of June 2019
this is ridiculous...the amount of energy and water to wash these things is not helping the environment...
Saturday 2nd of July 2022
@Sarah, Absolutely! I love the bidet sprayer TBH. One of the women in my FB group says they have one and her daughter is about to go off to college- and she said, "Ugh now I have to poop like a peasant" LOL! I was dying. Best quote ever.
I use cloth pads, but I'm hoping to try the discs soon. I was sold by someone telling me they forget it's there. Which might be a problem. But... that's a nice concept.
Saturday 2nd of July 2022
@Danielle, You are so gracious! Thank you for sharing advice on a personal matter that some people find very off-putting. I loved cloth diapering and much preferred baby washcloths to wet wipes, and I still use cloth pads. I think I'm going to try "family cloth" though I highly doubt I can convince my teenager to try it. I already have a bidet sprayer but found it intimidating to use. I'm afraid of directing the water the wrong way and giving myself a UTI. I'm excited about using family cloth both to save the environment and because I think it will be more comfortable and will get me cleaner.
Thursday 13th of June 2019
That's really not the case. Producing these products takes a lot of water, among other things. And then there's transporting them to the store as well as many other factors. However, a bidet is a great alternative if you're uncomfortable with using cloth toilet paper.
Friday 1st of March 2019
I have been using family cloth since 2004. I bought a bunch of white wash cloths and put them in a basket in my bathroom. They go into a lidded, empty cat litter bucket after use. I launder them in hot water with vinegar by themselves, and then again with a load of towels. I use a portable bidet that I got on Amazon for a few dollars for rinsing, so the cloth is for drying after everything is rinsed off. I take an extra bidet when I'm on the go, and put the cloth into a plastic bag in my purse after use, take it home and toss it in the bucket until it gets laundered. Cloth is so much cleaner than paper, and more economical too!
Sunday 3rd of March 2019
It's also cleaner IMHO! I'll have to check out the portable bidets. It might be too much to bother with while my kids are little, but in a few years!!
Friday 4th of January 2019
How about when you go out? How do you deal with the dirty cloth on the go? Looking forward for your reply. Thanks
Friday 4th of January 2019
Hi! Thanks for your comment. Honestly I don't use family cloth when we are out because I am a hot mess already with the three kids in tow. Plus I don't get out much, lol. HOWEVER we have used cloth diapers and cloth wipes for the baby. I bring along a small wet bag like this one: https://diydanielle.com/how-to-sew-wet-bag/
All dirty wipes go into the wet bag to be dealt with when we get home. You can bring a small spray bottle to wet the wipes if you want. Or you can bring wipes pre-wetted but you really need to plan for it. You don't want to leave wet cloth wipes sitting in a container in your bag for months because they will get yucky. Some people claim they have the magic wipes solution that doesn't get yucky, but I've tried a few (particularly for home use in a wipes container) and haven't been happy with the results. If i carry wet wipes with me, I wet them so they're damp (but not soaking) and store them in an empty disposable wipes container.
If you're okay with using the wipes dry then you don't need to worry about that part though. And realistically it's just as dry as toilet paper, just less likely to fall apart in your hands :)
Also clean dry wipes will SAVE THE DAY occasionally. Like if you spill coffee all over yourself and need clean up.
Monday 11th of July 2016
we are trying to go greener in our house... I used cloth with my first but found it was too much with my 2nd and 3rd... I've been using it for 2 years now with my twins, even started making my own cloth diapers and wipes. I was introduced to cloth pads about a year ago, so we have started using cloth TP too (just for #1 though but with 4 girls in this house, I think it has to make a difference!)... my serger is new to me though so I don't know how to do the nice clean edges like yours ;) I use unpaper towels for washcloths and LOVE my Norwex cloths for cleaning up most things with just water. now I just need to remember to bring my reusable bags into the store with me!
Monday 11th of July 2016
Yes, I struggle with that too! Although we shop at Costco a lot so we don't use bags or boxes there usually- I occasionally use the boxes but those get composted so no big deal. And I LOVE paper bags when we go to the grocery store. They are great for making sewing patterns on.
Once you start using your serger, you'll be in LOVE. Trust me. It'll allllll come together. And cloth wipes are the best thing to practice on. Or unpaper towels/cloth napkins. Nice and square. Small to sew. Repetitive. :)