3 Civilized Alternatives to Toilet Paper (and 2 Rustic Options)

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When there’s a run on emergency supplies as people prep for natural disasters or, ahem, a pandemic, it might be time to consider some alternatives to toilet paper. 

In uncertain times, there are some other things to consider as well. Check these out.

woman on toilet

I’m always pretty blown away when people line up to buy toilet paper during hurricane season. There are plenty of alternatives to toilet paper that could work in a pinch (or even long term).

If I’m on a limited budget and preparing for some sort of emergency or shelter-in-place order, I’m going to spend that on food. Every single time. Skip the rolls and spend that money on some basic pantry supplies!

These people at a Costco in Denver? Nutters. People. You can’t eat toilet paper. If there is a disruption in our daily routines, whether it be hurricanes, earthquakes, or the current Coronavirus pandemic, I’m pretty sure you’d be happier with a full belly than a familiar…wipe.

And trust me — giving up toilet paper doesn’t mean you need to wander around with a dirty bum.

Toilet paper is a luxury

That’s right. I said it. The rolls of TP that are readily available in most American homes are a relatively new addition to what we consider “must haves.” The idea of toilet paper (originally sold as flat sheets of paper) came on the scene in the mid 1800s. Before that, people used a variety of methods. We’ve all heard stories about corn cobs in the outhouse, right?? Other methods over the centuries included things like a communal sponge, leaves, and old newspaper. While I’d give the communal sponge a hard pass, leaves and newspaper can be reasonable options in a real emergency situation.

But short of having to forage for leaves, there are a few more civilized ways of handling the daily bathroom routine. In America, using toilet paper is considered the norm. If you’ve never left the country, you might be surprised to find that this isn’t so for many other cultures. People are using the bathroom without toilet paper on a daily basis, not just when there’s a perceived toilet paper shortage!

Family cloth

Essentially reusable toilet paper, the idea of family cloth is a simple one. Instead of using and flushing paper when you’re done with it, use cloth wipes that can be laundered time and again. Now, I know that a lot of people will find the idea of “keeping” soiled cloth to be offensive. Our toilet paper habit coupled with flush toilets allows us to poop and forget about it. We don’t like to think about our bodily functions, let alone process our waste. Flick of a handle and POOF! off it goes.

Using cloth wipes instead of toilet paper is budget-friendly and eco-friendly. 

basket of rolled cloths

This is exactly how I cleaned my kids’ bums when they were in (cloth) diapers. The used cloth wipes went into the bucket with the dirty diapers and everything was washed in very hot water.

These reusable alternatives to toilet paper are easy to make at home — you can even upcycle items like old t-shirts and flannel sheets to make cloth wipes. Simply cut into squares and use a zigzag stitch around the edges to prevent fraying. If you’d rather not make your own, you can pick up a set of flat reusable wipes here or even a roll of “reusable toilet paper” here.

Keep a stack near the toilet. You can use the cloths wet or dry. A combination of both (dry for pee, wet for poop) seems to work well for a lot of people.

You’ll need a sealed container in which to collect soiled wipes. Wash these every two-to-three days in very hot water.

porcelain bidet

Bidets

A bidet is like a little shower for your bum. When you’re done using the toilet, a bidet directs a stream of water upward to clean your nether-regions. People often ask if a little stream of water is sufficient to thoroughly clean your bum, and in my experience, the answer is yes.

Once washed, you’re clean enough to use a small cloth or towel to dry off. Even if you opt to dry off with a bit of toilet paper, the amount of tissue you use will be greatly reduced. If you use cloths for drying, it’s a good idea to choose a different size or color than your face cloths so they don’t get mixed up.

family cloth in a basket

Bidets are commonly used in much of Europe. In addition to the toilet, bathrooms have a separate porcelain bidet. These require a person to stand and shuffle from the toilet to the bidet. Modern technology provides an after-market alternative for those of us with a standard American bathroom. Bidet seats are easy to install in minutes. Some people simply add a bidet sprayer to the bathroom near the toilet.  We use a Brondell bidet seat and our toilet paper usage has been drastically reduced. (In fact, when we had a house guest recently we were floored at how much TP he went through!)

cardboard toilet paper tubes in a pyramid

People who have used a bidet enough to get comfortable with it swear they feel cleaner using one than they do with toilet paper. And while I’m sharing too much information, women who deal with monthly courses will find a bidet very appealing. Another benefit of a bidet is that it’s great for people with mobility issues.

What about the waste of water? Scientific American addresses this issue, saying:

“To those who say that bidets waste water…the amount of water used by a typical bidet is about 1/8th of a gallon, with the average toilet using about four gallons per flush. Lloyd Alter of the website treehugger.com reports that making a single roll of toilet paper requires 37 gallons of water, 1.3 kilowatt/hours (KWh) of electricity and some 1.5 pounds of wood.”

toilet with bidet sprayer

Hand-held Rinsing

If you’re looking for an alternative to toilet paper but aren’t ready to install a bidet or a bidet toilet seat, there are a number of options to choose from.

  • This portable bidet is charged with a USB port.
  • In the Philippines, people use what is called a tabo as a sort of portable bidet. It’s essentially a deep ladle that is used to pour water over your dirty bits to clean them.
  • This travel bidet only requires a squeeze to work.
  • A peri bottle has a curved nozzle and is typically used by women after birth or during their menstrual cycle, but could work as a handheld bidet, too.
  • A spray bottle or upcycled sports bottle can do the trick.

Waste paper

Reverting to using paper other than soft-on-the-tush TP might seem archaic, and it’s probably not something you want to use in a normal scenario. But if there’s a situation that requires us to prepare for long-term outages, I’d rather spend my money on food than bum paper. (This made me laugh.)

Any kind of paper can be used as an alternative to toilet paper. Old magazines, phone books, newspaper, ad inserts — it all works. To make it easier on your bum, repeatedly crumple and uncrumple a piece of paper until it becomes more soft and pliable. To save the plumbing I definitely wouldn’t flush these wipes down the toilet, but they’ll do a fair job of replacing toilet paper if it becomes scarce.

comfrey plant with soft leaves suitable alternative to toilet paper

Leaves

Now we’re getting positively rustic, but again, if I’ve got to choose between a pantry stocked with food and special paper for after-doody cleanup, I’m going with food every time. People have been using leaves to wipe their bottoms for centuries upon centuries and there’s no reason that won’t work in a pinch these days. With the exception of hazardous leaves like poison oak and poison ivy, just about any leaf can stand in for TP. But if we’re talking about comfort, there are some plants that are better than others.

Mullein, for instance, has been called “nature’s toilet paper” for a reason. The leaves are large and velvety and perfect for use as a toilet paper alternative. Also consider leaves of comfrey, wooly lamb’s ear, yacon, or moss.

toilet paper shortage

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

9 comments… add one
  • Regi Mar 17, 2020, 1:05 pm

    Well you’ve prepared for this terrible time, I’m sure! Good job and thank you!

  • Lori Mar 18, 2020, 3:36 am

    A reasonable and well-thought out article.
    I’ve mentioned to people that old sheets or clothes no longer worn can be cut down into usable cloths for wiping instead of toilet paper and washed in hot water just like cloth diapers. I have also gotten the disgusted looks and the ‘NO WAY!” reactions. These are usually from people who have never used a cloth diaper in their life.
    I raised 8 kids and my first 5 were raised exclusively in cloth diapers (the old kind with diaper pins and rubber pants). I also used to babysit as a kid and changed plenty of cloth diapers for neighbor kids, cousins, and kids in the church nursery. I could probably do it in my sleep!
    Hard times make for hard choices.
    About 15 years ago, a friend of mine decided toilet paper was too expensive for her family as they were on a strict budget and so she went to the thrift store and bought good, used sheets, cut them up and used them in place of toilet paper. She only kept a small pkg of toilet paper in the house for when company came. She saved literally thousands of dollars over the years by reusing these washable wipes. Yard sales were also a great place where she found old sheets and other items suitable to cut down into bottom wipes.
    When I told my husband what she was doing he said to not even think about it!!! He was not open to this idea at all. But there are things to think about as people become more destitute and need other options ,

    • Kris Bordessa Mar 18, 2020, 9:46 am

      I know it skeeves some people out, but you know? You gotta do what you’ve gotta do!

  • Wayne Johnson Mar 18, 2020, 4:13 am

    I haven’t used toilet paper for a long time. We have an “electric toilet” which is only a new toilet seat, made by Brondell, it’s called Swash. This is simply a different toilet seat for your regular toilet. Water hookup is a breeze, but you do need an electric outlet nearby, which is rare next to a toilet. I installed a new electric box myself since I’m an avid DIY guy.

    This is a great product! All I touch is the electric remote, and I’m done. The seat and the water are heated, and there’s a cool blue light in the bowl at nightime. I had never thought about one of these until I stumbled on product reviews at the Brondell website. I was simply buying a water filter, which they also sell, when I started reading these wonderful reviews for this product. Like they say, once you try it– you don’t want to go back! Of course, I’m a guy, but my wife still uses a lot of toilet paper, but we have cut down our use by quite a bit.

  • Amelia Lopez Saltarelli Mar 18, 2020, 4:35 am

    Wonderful article! I’m going to share with family, friends and other people I know.
    I used the newspaper mode whenever I spent summers with my grandfather in Tampico Mexico
    Thank you so much
    Amelia

    • Kris Bordessa Mar 18, 2020, 9:45 am

      We do what we need to do, right??

  • Patty Mar 18, 2020, 9:43 am

    AWESOME!! Thank you 🙂

  • Cheryl Mar 19, 2020, 5:50 am

    Great article! My question is, what do you do with the leaves, after you use them? Do you bury them in your garden? Put them in the trash?

    • Kris Bordessa Mar 19, 2020, 7:47 pm

      Ah, great question. Definitely don’t flush them. If you have a garden, yes, bury them. Put them somewhere that won’t be disturbed for awhile. For more reading on this, check out the Humanure book.

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