I Gave Up Snotting Into Paper Tissues For Cloth Hankies 3 Months Ago—Here's What I Learned

Here’s the blow-by-blow of embracing the snot rag!

May 26, 2017
giving up tissues for handkerchiefs
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Seasonal allergies aren’t really a thing where I live in Northern California—instead I have allergies at least half of the year, which means I frequently need to blow my nose or blot my eyes. Add in a neti pot habit to try to combat the allergies, and I'm typically cruising through half a box of tissues or more in a week at my peak—a fact that weighs on my conscience considering how completely terrible disposable paper products are for the environment.

Softer tissues, including most name brand options, are often exclusively made from virgin wood pulp. Kleenex, for example, sources 30 percent of its wood pulp from the Atlantic Forest, according to their website. The Atlantic Forest is an important UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Amazon that was once one of the most biodiverse forests on the planet. And though Kimberly-Clark, the company that makes Kleenex, says they’re committed to conservation, the Nature Conservancy reports that deforestation and clear-cutting have already decimated 85 percent of the forest (though, of course, not all of that lumber has been used to make Kleenex tissues). Ancient forests around the world are being destroyed to keep up with our demands for tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, and other single-use paper products. These forests are an important part of removing carbon from the atmosphere and maintaining animal habitats.

Related: The Truth About Recycling In America

And then there’s the manufacturing process. Most wood pulp, virgin or recycled, is heavily processed and bleached in order to make soft, bright white tissues. The bleaching process releases harmful chemicals into the air and water according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. To top it all off, many tissue brands are not compostable because they use unlisted additives to reinforce the tissues.

Wouldn't it be easier on the environment—not to mention my wallet— I wondered, to use a cloth handkerchief instead? Hankies appealed to my sense of thrift and environmental responsibility. They can be used for years, and they’re small enough that don’t create any extra water-wasting loads of laundry.

Still, something held me back. For a long time. I wish I could say the reason I held on to (recycled) tissues for so long was because handkerchiefs grossed me out. But the truth is that I was embarrassed.

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Handkerchiefs are such an uncommon sight these days that I was afraid of being stared at or judged. Family members had made comments about how disgusting it was to watch someone blow their nose into a handkerchief and put it back in their pocket. Did I really want to be that person? Could I really embrace ‘snot rags’?

Social pressure kept me going back to the store for more boxes, but those boxes were stacking up.

The bathroom trash is what finally broke my resistance to hankies. It felt like the tissues were self-multiplying every time I turned my back. The bin was frequently overflowing, and my tree-killing habit was constantly staring me in the face. It got to the point where I would leave little piles of tissues around the house to try to avoid the guilt, but that was only more disgusting and guilt-inducing.

After months of deliberation and hoarding links to handkerchiefs, I finally made the plunge. Here’s what I learned. 

handkerchief
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Not all hankies are created equal

I nearly gave up on my first day as hankie user. I scoured the internet for tips on how to fold a standard 16- or 20-inch handkerchief to create multiple nose-blowing surfaces, but they overwhelmed me. I’m no origami master, and I couldn’t figure out how to keep the hankie precisely folded without having to carry it in my pocket, something that most women’s pants make impossible.

Related: I Tried To Eliminate All Of My Food Waste For A Month—Here’s What Happened

Intimidated by traditional handkerchiefs, I instead bought small reusable cotton wipes that are meant to be used for babies bottoms and used them for hankies like the product description suggested. The size was perfect—from afar they look identical to a normal tissue—but I completely regret buying them. The baby wipes were way too thick. It seemed like no matter how well I wiped, I always had some residual moisture on my nose. The thick cotton and my small nostrils meant I couldn’t easily wipe clean the inside of my nose post-blow. At first I was only using the wipes when I used my neti pot, but I was forced to go all in when the tissue box ran out a week later.

When my boyfriend bought another box of tissues, I thought I would go back to only using hankies for heavy duty blowing, but the flimsiness and roughness of the first tissue disappointed me, so I re-committed to searching for better handkerchief options. I ordered some cotton flannel hankies, but they were disappointingly less absorbent than the baby wipes—at first. They’ve thinned out a bit and are significantly more absorbent after multiple washes.

Related: How This Woman Fit A Year’s Worth Of Trash Into A Mason Jar—And You Can, Too

 

vintage hankies
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Used hankies are better than new

While the flannel hankies turned out to be keepers in the end, there are better options that would have made the transition from tissues to handkerchiefs easier and more pleasant.

I recommend buying vintage or used handkerchiefs to skip the transition period. Yes, that sounds kind of gross, but I promise it's completely sanitary (we all use towels that strangers have used at hotels—how is this any worse?). The advantage of vintage hankies is that they’ll already be soft and absorbent. They will likely also be beautiful and extremely inexpensive. Local thrift shops and garage sales are a good place to look for vintage, but you can also buy them on eBay and Etsy.

Be sure to buy natural fabrics like cotton, linen, and hemp – they are more comfortable on your nose and more absorbent than polyester. Amazon also has loads of options, including organic cotton and bamboo ones, and Etsy is a great place to find handmade and organic versions. (I’m anxiously awaiting my recent purchase of tissue-sized single-layer handkerchiefs that are supposed to be small and thin, perfect for women's pants pockets.) 

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hankies are better for your nose
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Hankies are gentler on my nose

Handkerchiefs benefit more than the environment. My nose has never felt better. This was the first spring that I didn’t walk around looking like Rudolph. The cotton flannel is more gentle on my nose than any petroleum-based ‘moisturizing’ tissue has ever been. It’s honestly less of a hassle to toss them into my regular load of towels each week than to deal with taking out the trash of overflowing cans.

Related: 6 Things Your Mucus Says About Your Health

hankies are good an cleaning up messes
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Handkerchiefs are way more handy than tissues

Handkerchiefs are also more versatile than tissues. My thermos of tea leaked all over my jeans on a cold spring morning. Instead of walking to the office sopping wet, I used my hankie to blot myself dry. I then shamelessly used the same handkerchief to blow my nose a couple hours later once the tea was dry. (What can I say? Green tea and lemon are good for the skin.)

I also use them to clean my sunglasses, wipe food off my clothes before it stains, mop delicately blot my sweaty forehead, and dry my hands in a pinch. They’re soft enough to wipe off makeup smears…or the after lunch chocolate. Sure, you can’t stash your gum in them, but since most gum is made with plastic, maybe it’s time to kick that habit anyway.

 

old handkerchiefs
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I'm never going back

It’s been three months, and I haven’t gone back. As far as I know, no one has noticed the secret in my pocket. My boyfriend made a face the first time he saw me use a hankie, but I’m pretty sure it was easier to tolerate than my constant fretting about the growing piles of used tissues around the house. The last tissue box ran last month, and my boyfriend has been happily (I swear) using handkerchiefs ever since.