On a recent trip to the grocery store, my husband and I stood in the middle of the isle where you find all the toilet paper, trying to decide what to actually buy. It’s an isle that runs half the length of the store, and my local grocery store is size of a city block. Honestly, how could there be so many choices out there on what we use to wipe our asses with?
My husband, being the cheap Dutchie that he is, frequently jokes about buying the cheapest brand of toilet paper on the shelf: a budget brand costing $3.50 for a packet of 12 rolls. According to the packet, it’s 2-ply and it comes in a variety of prints.
“Surely, that would be good enough,” my husband says. “All you do is wipe your ass with it, then send it to me at work.” He then promptly laughs at his own joke—he’s the manager of the wastewater treatment plant—meanwhile, I just narrow my eyes at him.
When we first got married, he offered to do the shopping and purchased the cheapest brand of toilet paper, not realising that there was a reason why I always paid that little bit more for the stuff. He learnt the hard way. I went back to the store and bought the good toilet paper for myself, and refused to share any with him until all the cheap stuff was gone.
For the sake of a happy marriage, while he might joke about buying the cheap stuff, he never would. He never wants to feel that raw in the nether-regions again.
Regardless, on our recent shopping trip, we both found it ironic that we now live in a society where you could debate with others about what brand of toilet paper you should use. In a way, my husband is right: all we do with it is wipe our asses and send down through the pipe network to our local treatment facilities. So why does the toilet paper need to fill an entire isle at the grocery story? Why must we be overwhelmed with choices on something that every household needs? What are the real benefits of choosing the perfect brand of toilet paper?
PAPER OR LEAVES?
In writing this article, I decided to do a little research into what they used before the common distribution of toilet paper. I was confronted with something called a salaka, which was a small stake or stick used as a “shit stick”. While the term salaka comes from India, many ancient cultures of the Orient had their own names for the stick used to wipe away excrement. There were different designs to the instrument used, some with a flat side, not unlike a spatula.
Of course, man has used leaves throughout history for wiping our bottoms while in the wild. There are many a movie and TV shows that make a joke of this, often with the character choosing to use a swig of poison ivy.
Personally, I think the leaves concept would be much more comfortable than using a stick, even if that stick was in the shape of a spatula.
Just like the “shit stick” can be associated with the Orient, so too can the first uses of paper for such a purpose. The Chinese first started using toilet paper in the 6th Century AD. By the 14th Century, the manufacture of toilet paper was a thriving industry. (Reference: Needham, J. (1986) Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 1, Paper and Printing. Taipei: Cave Books, Ltd.)
But what about in Western society?
If you troll through the internet and scrounge through historical documents, you'll see many references to the uses of rags, offcuts of leather, scrunched up pieces of wool and other such soft items, as well as a variety of items found in the wild, including stones, seashells and sand.
The mind shudders at the thought of wiping my ass with stones or seashells, and there are some places where sand should never go.
Were these concepts better than the salaka of the Orient? It's hard to say. While the wool and rags were gentler on sensitive areas, the salaka, and all its cousins, had the benefit of ease of cleaning after each use—much more economic.
With all of these ancient tools for wiping one's ass, I'm starting to understand the allure of things like bidets. Simple devices, really… You can clean yourself without the aid of a "shit stick". Does this mean that I'm going to install a bidet in my house and forgo the use of toilet paper? Of course not.
I live in the 21st Century where I have a choice of what type of toilet paper to use.
2-PLY OR 3-PLY?
This brings me back to my original dilemma. When standing in the toilet paper isle in the middle of the grocery store, how does one actually decide what brand of toilet paper to buy? There is a rafter of criteria to consider: softness, scent, price, environmentally friendly… Do I want to wipe my bum with flowers or dolphins?
Let's start with the most basic: 1-ply, 2-ply or 3-ply? In my mind, ruling out the 1-ply is a no-brainer. The whole argument about the number of layers of tissue is an absorbency and strength issue. Your finger easily tears through 1-ply toilet paper. This is NOT a pleasant feeling.
Growing up, 2-ply was all we had in the house. 2-ply is what I buy now. However, recently 3-ply has become a big thing. Should I consider switching to 3-ply?
I did a Google search asking that very question: why 3 ply toilet paper? One of the top articles was entitled "The Best Toilet Paper For Most Rumps". I couldn't resist. I had to look. Of course it was an ad for a brand of toilet paper that we can't get in New Zealand, but I read it anyway.
"A good toilet paper will be comfortable, friendly to plumbing, affordable and be durable enough to get the job done without tearing," the article says. It needs "grip". However, do I really need to purchase 3-ply toilet paper for all this?
Luxury or premium toilet paper is made of finely pulped paper layered in two to four plies. Sometimes, this luxury ass-wiping product contains lotion to help sooth sensitive areas. It's embossed, perfumed, has pretty patterns and colours, medicated or is treated with aloe.
My husband's Dutchie-ness must be rubbing off, because all I see when I read the above paragraph is wasted money. At the end of the day, that's the biggest factor that one needs to consider: the cost. With the increasing costs of managing the family budget, if you can make a saving on toilet paper then I know my Dutch husband will be all for it.
In the interest of saving money, many companies are starting to produce double-length rolls. The idea is that you get the same number of sheets in the packet, but less rolls and hence less rubbish in the way of the cardboard tubes. But do these double-length rolls save you money? Personally, I'm not convinced. The cost of a 4-roll pack from one of the leading named double-length rolls is commonly the same price as the equivalent 8-roll pack of standard-length rolls. In addition, a 12-roll pack from the same company is frequently on sale in my local grocery store for only $1.50 extra as compared to the 8-roll pack.
But let's say that the double-length rolls actually were the same cost, or cheaper, than all options of standard-length rolls. The ads for the double-length packs preach that because the rolls are double the length, you'll need to change the roll half as often. Clearly these ad-men have never had children or cats.
I have lost count of the numbers of rolls of toilet paper that my children have dropped into the bowl because they wanted to see how much water the roll would absorb. My oldest is 13, and he still drops rolls of toilet paper into the bowl. Granted, now it's because he's clumsy, but that's beside the point.
My daughter seems to think that her butt is as big as the entire country because she can never seem to use enough toilet paper. I've tried every trick in the book to teach that girl that you don't need to use so much toilet paper, including making her pay for the toilet paper out of her allowance. We once bought double-length rolls… She must think that the size of her butt is proportional to the size of the toilet roll.
Then, there is the number of times that the cat found a new toy just waiting for midnight fun. The newer the roll is, the longer the fun lasts for. Those double length rolls are double the fun!
Yet another option in the toilet paper isle that confuses the issue.
ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY OR JUST PLAIN MENTAL?
Let us consider the one thing that so many people these days have on their minds, and not just for toilet paper. Are the products we use environmentally friendly?
For those of us in New Zealand, this is an extremely important issue. We live in a small country and land space is precious. All companies that manufacture toilet paper and other wood-based products must do so from renewable resources. Most use pine forests and have complete reforestation programmes associated with their manufacture. Some even use the treated poohs and other bodily waste as a fertiliser in their forests with encouraging results.
The issue of environmentally friendly is so important to those of us in New Zealand, that we now have a "Environmental Choice New Zealand" tick that eco-friendly sanitary products and toilet paper can apply for. However, if you look at the list, almost every single brand of toilet paper that you can purchase in New Zealand is on that list.
Remember the size of the toilet paper isle in my local grocery store? And my grocery store doesn't stock every brand on the Environmental Choice list. Basically, this list leaves me to conclude that it doesn't matter what brand of toilet paper I buy. I'm still buying an eco-friendly brand.
Paper or leaves. 2-ply or more. Double length and environmentally friendly. Where does it all leave me? Standing in the middle of the toilet paper isle, surrounded by a mountain of choices, and debating with my husband which packet of toilet paper we should actually buy.