Should You Be Worried About Chemical Exposure From Your Toilet Paper?

Depending on the roll, you may be exposing your bum to serious chemicals and contributing to deforestation all at the same time.

March 22, 2016
toilet paper
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Most days, you probably don’t give your toilet paper a second thought. It’s simply there when you need it, like an old reliable friend. But we had to wonder, does the bleaching process expose our bums to some unsavory chemicals? And what's really in the recycled content of our recycled rolls? (See how easy it is to grow your own remedies for joint pain, heartburn, cold symptoms, and 30+ other ailments with Rodale's Grow It Heal It!)

Unless you’re ready to go the paper-free route with a bidet or reusable cloths (which are, admittedly, not for everyone) wiping and flushing paper is a necessary evil. Here's our guide to choosing a product that's best for the environment and your bum. 

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Related: Biobased Versus Biodegradable Laundry Detergent: Which Is Better?

Recycled or Post-Consumer Recycled

Sure, some recycled rolls may be a little rougher on your behind, but that’s something we can live with when we know virgin forests haven’t been slaughtered just to be flushed down the toilet. In case you’re wondering, “recycled” on a package generally means leftover scraps from the paper and printing industries, while “post-consumer recycled” indicates the stuff you put out on your curb once a week. Basically, recycled toilet paper is pretty much the best…except for one small thing—BPA.

Yep, research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found traces of that notorious endocrine disrupter in many recycled paper products, including toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, and napkins, thanks to thermal paper. It turns out that thermal paper, which is widely used for receipts because it doesn’t require ink to print, is coated in dye and a developer—often BPA. During printing, heat triggers a reaction between the dye and the developer, causing the black print to appear. When we send receipts (and lottery tickets, luggage tags, and shipping labels) off to be recycled, they get mashed up with everything else, and BPA eventually ends up in our eco-friendly wipes.

So should we be worried about using recycled toilet paper? Probably not, say most authorities. We absorb far less BPA from handling paper products than we do from plastic and aluminum food containers, and since the concentrations of BPA in toilet paper are so small (micrograms per gram), our exposure risk is tiny. You’ll absorb far more BPA (micrograms per gram) from fingering your credit card receipts since the BPA is coated on top, rather than mixed in—though paper products still only account for 2 percent of our daily BPA exposure.

The bottom line: Recycled toilet paper is still a greener, healthier option when compared with the bright white, fluffy stuff made from virgin timber.  

Related: The Dangerous Thing That's Ending Up In Your Drinking Water

TCF, PCF, and ECF

These are acronyms that tell you what kind of bleaching process was used on your roll.

You’ll see TCF (Totally Chlorine-Free) on toilet paper make from virgin fibers if it was whitened using oxygen-based compounds rather than chlorine bleach.

PCF (Processed Chlorine-Free) shows up on recycled toilet paper packages to indicate no bleach was used in the toilet paper manufacturing, but it may have been used on the paper fibers previously.

ECF (Elemental Chlorine-Free) means chlorine dioxide is used in lieu of the straight up elemental chlorine, which the EPA phased out in 2001, due to the high levels of cancer-causing dioxins it was pumping into the environment. ECF processing still releases dioxins, but at hugely reduced levels.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, PCF is preferred, since it signifies recycled content, followed by TCF and ECF.

Related: The World's Greatest Toilet

Chlorine-Free

This basically means nothing, according to Conservatree.org, a nonprofit advocate for eco-friendly paper products. Sure, it tells you that chlorine gas wasn’t used in processing, but it says nothing about chlorine derivatives. It could mean your toilet paper was Processed Chlorine-Free, but more likely it’s only Elemental Chlorine-Free.  

FSC Certified

If you see this, the Forest Stewardship Council has approved the timber used to make the product as coming from sustainably managed forests.

OTHER STUFF TO BE AWARE OF:

Formaldehyde

You won’t see it on the label, but embalming fluid may be lurking in the whitest and brightest rolls. A 2010 study investigating the potential that toilet paper is to blame for chronic irritation of the vulva discovered that formaldehyde is sometimes used to improve the “wet-strength” of toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels. In addition to being a skin irritant, formaldehyde is a known cancer-causer.

Roughness

It’s worth taking note that one study found participants were more likely to suffer irritation from recycled toilet paper than that made from virgin pulp. The authors conclude, though, that this is likely caused by the rough texture of recycled paper, not the presence of toxic ingredients. 

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