Best Paper-Towel Alternatives

After a lifetime of obsessive paper-towel use, a CR editor explores greener options for his mess-prone family of five (plus two dogs)

By Paul Hope

For as long as I can remember, paper towels have been a household staple. Starting at the age of 5, it was my job at the supermarket to head over to the paper goods aisle and hunt down a few rolls of Bounty Select-A-Size for my mom’s cart each week. While my family used cloth napkins, recycled religiously, and barely turned on the air conditioner, we seemed to draw the line at paper towels.

That carried over into my adult life. But whereas I grew up an only child, I now have a partner, three kids, and two dogs in my household. Naturally, we burn through paper towels at a far greater clip, peaking during the height of the pandemic at nearly two dozen rolls per month.

Apparently, my family’s paper-towel obsession isn’t unusual. As a 2018 article in The Atlantic noted, American households spent about $5.7 billion on paper towels in 2017, which is almost as much as all the other nations on this planet combined. And unlike many other paper products, paper towels typically get tossed into the trash (as opposed to a recycling bin) and end up in a landfill. Wracked with guilt, I set out to find an alternative. 

What Are Paper-Towel Alternatives Anyway?

Beyond the basic shared goal of helping folks kick a paper-towel habit, alternatives—aka reusable paper towels—are not all that similar. Some, at about 12 inches by 12 inches, are basically smaller versions of kitchen hand towels. Others are a range of sizes, made from a host of recycled or sustainable materials, including cotton, polyester, viscose, or cellulose. A majority are either biodegradable or compostable (as are unused paper towels and certain soiled ones), but a handful of them aren’t, which offsets their environmental benefits once they eventually end up in a landfill.

Nevertheless, most fall into one of two categories: Those that are absorbent right from the pack, and those that need to be wet and wrung out before they pick up a drop of liquid. I staunchly favor the former. If I’ve got damp hands or oat milk spilled all over my counter, the last thing I want is the added step of wetting and then wringing out a towel. If a towel can’t be used in an instant, particularly for an emergency, then it’s just too tempting to grab an actual paper towel. 

How I Evaluated Paper-Towel Alternatives

With encouragement from my partner, who was pretty appalled at my nearly roll-a-day habit, I set out to kick it once and for all. The biggest challenge would be finding a suitable alternative because my family and I weren’t going to get any neater or tidier. The teens were still going to make syrupy drinks on the counter. My 6-year-old would still insist on pouring his own milk for cereal. Our dogs would still track in who-knows-what from the outdoors. 

My criteria were simple, albeit challenging: Any good paper-towel alternative should have the same characteristics as my beloved rolls of Bounty: absorbent, abundant, and equal parts pliable and strong. There is nothing I despise more than those brittle paper towels in public restrooms, the ones that somehow leave your hands damper than they were before you tried to dry them. The towels sampled in this article were chosen because they are popular and seemed promising as suitable replacements for traditional paper towels.

After ordering each online, I evaluated their performance in my kitchen for dinner prep (cleaning veggies, cutting up meat, and even trying a few for draining bacon). I also used them for hand-drying, table wipe-downs, and spilled water. In addition, I simply lived with each option in rotation for a few weeks at a time to tackle real messes as they emerged, taking note of how my family used them and how they held up in real life. Lastly, I dived into the fine print and specifics of each pack, noting those that provide 60 or even 80 towels vs. those with only 10 or 12. (After all, if you were to use just two per day, 10 isn’t nearly enough to get you to your weekly laundry day.) Naturally, I considered the price per towel, too. Here’s what I found.

Surprisingly, the best alternative to paper towels is the only choice that isn’t meant to replace them at all. There’s something effortless about the cotton Utopia washcloths. With 60 in a pack, we’ve always got one on hand. They’re endlessly absorbent, even when dry, and at 12 inches square, they’re the perfect size for wiping up spills or drying your hands. A few of us even started to use them as napkins. They’re definitely as soft as the cloth variety. 

When they get gross, we just toss them in with our other laundry. And because we opted for white (there are 17 colors available) they’re also safe to bleach if you really want to sanitize them. They do tend to show stains more than some of the other options, though. But I’m okay with that. A handful got really gross, so I just repurposed them into outdoor cleaning rags for our patio table and grills.

I love these wipes for all of the same reasons I love the Utopia washcloths above. Abundant and absorbent even when dry, these polyester and viscose cloths hit the sweet spot between disposable and reusable. And at about 16 cents a piece (when you buy the 80-pack), you won’t be heartbroken to toss one or two if they fall apart.

They’re double the size of the Utopia towels, 12 by 24 inches, but because they’re very thin, they don’t hold as much liquid. They can feel a little scratchy, so while they certainly work to dry hands, I’d never suggest using them as a napkin. 

They’re also arguably the least environmentally friendly option of the bunch. Because they’re made from polyester, they aren’t biodegradable, and they have a limited life cycle. (The manufacturer claims they can be washed up to 25 times in a regular cycle; I haven’t gotten there yet.) In theory, many of the cotton options can be kept indefinitely, as long as you wash them periodically. 

At about $2 apiece (for the 10-pack), the MioEco are about triple the price of the Utopia towels and no more absorbent. But they’re soft, made from organic cotton, and the basketweave design does seem to help with soaking up spills and scrubbing pans. Because they’re white, stains can show up, though not as noticeably as with the stark-white Utopia towels. 

What you’re really paying for is a more environmentally friendly product. They’re made from unbleached organic cotton, and the manufacturer claims to use carbon-neutral manufacturing processes. In my assessment, they were soft enough to use as napkins, strong enough to scrub, and satisfyingly absorbent. They’re a stellar choice if you’re willing to pay a bit more for a towel that’s more environmentally friendly than the competition. 

The Unpaper Towels are just a bit too pricey to be taken seriously. At $38 for a 12-pack, you’d have to shell out around $150 to get the same number of towels you’d get from Utopia’s 60-pack. (It’s understandable; Marley’s Monsters towels are handmade in Oregon of cotton flannel.) Worse, the Unpaper Towels are not as absorbent.

Still, they’re far more absorbent when dry than some of the options below, and their best attribute may be their softness. The cotton flannel feels so gentle on the skin you almost don’t want to use them on something like spilled jelly. They could certainly sub in for a napkin, and they’re great for hand-drying. Available in tons of colors and patterns (cacti, miniature mustaches, and more), they’re the cutest option here if that matters to you—though they may not stay cute forever; cotton stains easily with tough spills. Because they’re flannel, they tend to stick together from static electricity, so if you’re motivated, you can wrap them one at a time around a tube and dispense them as you would regular paper towels. 

These wildly popular Swedish dishcloths are the darling of sustainability blogs and a top seller on Amazon, but I just couldn’t get what the fuss is about. Made from cellulose and cotton, they feel like a dehydrated sponge when dry, and wipe up spills only reluctantly. To be fair, they’re not designed to work from a dry state; you’re supposed to wet them, wring them out, and then wipe. But even then they don’t seem as absorbent as most of the other options. 

On top of that, it’s tough to wring them out to the point where they’ll actually leave a dry surface behind. That’s especially annoying on a dining table. It’s like being in a busy diner where the tables are barely swiped clean between customers. 

Like all of the other options, they can stain but they’re machine-washable, too. They’re also biodegradable, which is good because I foresee a fair number of these not cutting it in busy households. They’re sold in packs of 10.

Aside from absorbency, the fatal flaw with Wowables is that their best feature—being dispensed from a paper-towel-style roll—is actually their biggest downfall. It didn’t even occur to my family that they might be reusable and, as a result, everyone routinely tossed them after a single use. I can’t blame them. You’ve got to wet these towels—a blend of wood pulp and cotton—to wipe up most spills, and even then they feel rough, brittle, and less absorbent than the Swedish cloths. Worse, they’re not as tough. Despite perforations every 12 or so inches (there are 30 towels to a roll), they routinely tore off the roll in irregular shapes instead of in a perfect Bounty-style square.

They also came apart in the wash more easily than the other options here. My stepson nailed it when he used a Wowable to dry his hands and said simply, “What is this?” I didn’t have a great answer for him, other than to say it’s not something he, or anyone else in the house, needs to get used to. 

These organic cotton towels are the priciest option here, and while they’re strong performers, there’s little reason to choose them over more modestly priced picks. Like the Utopia and MioEco options, they’re very absorbent, regardless of whether you use them wet or dry. They’re also durable and easy to wring out when soaked to capacity. But like any white cotton cloth, they’re also prone to staining. At $4 per towel (for the largest, 12-inch size), they’re just too pricey to be a practical replacement. Look instead to the MioEco or Utopia options above.

These abrasive-to-the-touch towels feel like a cross between Swedish dishcloths and recycled paper towels. They’re made from a blend of cotton, cellulose, and mirabilite, which is a mineral salt. They’re almost brittle on the roll, and like other cellulose-based offerings, they really need to be dampened, then wrung out, before they work decently. When dry, they seem less capable of soaking up spills. 

The manufacturer makes the claim that each towel can hold up to 16 times its weight in water. While that may be true, that’s not super-impressive absorption given that each towel weighs about three-tenths of an ounce. By that math, you can expect each towel to hold a little less than 5 ounces of liquid, not quite enough to clean up, say, a toddler’s toppled cup of milk. The towels come on a roll of 12, with perforations separating them. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to tear off a partial towel. They’re also one of the only options here that isn’t machine-washable. Instead, the manufacturer recommends hand-washing and using each towel for about a week before replacing it, more life than you’d get from that approach with traditional paper towels, but a far cry from what you’d get from other, more durable options, that you don’t have to hand-wash.

How I Ultimately Kicked My Paper-Towel Habit

The trick to switching to reusable paper towels is to make them abundantly available and easy to grab. For our family, the Utopia washcloths were the easiest way to make that happen. I bought a 60-pack and kept them in bowls placed strategically around our kitchen, including one bin that deliberately blocked access to the cabinet containing a lone roll of real paper towels. 

I kept that roll of Bounty on hand for tasks I deem too gross for reusable towels—wiping drippings from raw chicken, for instance, or mysterious goop from our dog’s paws. By making it easy to access reusable cloths and a little harder to get to real paper towels, I found it easy to curb my habit, and I’m happy to report that I’m down to just one or two rolls per month. 

This product evaluation is part of Consumer Reports’ Outside the Labs reviews program, which is separate from our laboratory testing and ratings. Our Outside the Labs reviews are performed at home and in other native settings by individuals, including our journalists, with specialized subject matter experience or familiarity and are designed to offer another important perspective for consumers as they shop. While the products or services mentioned in this article might not currently be in CR’s ratings, they could eventually be tested in our laboratories and rated according to an objective, scientific protocol.

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