The Best Paper Towel Alternatives

For a less wasteful way to clean up spills, splatters, and messes effectively.

a group of paper towel alternative products

Vicky Wasik

Cooking and eating (and, really, living in general) are messy activities. Chances are you’re going to spatter pasta sauce on your stovetop often, knock over the occasional glass of soda or wine, and watch as your toddler throws a full plate of bright green broccoli purée directly onto a brand new carpet at least once.

When those inevitable messes happen, Americans are most likely to turn to paper towels to clean them up. According to a 2017 Euromonitor study described in an article in The Atlantic, the US accounted for just short of half of the world’s $12 billion spending on paper towels. The article also notes that a Nielsen report from 2016 showed that 80 percent of North Americans use paper towels regularly; in other parts of the world, less than half the population used paper towels regularly.

Tearing a paper towel off the roll to pick up everyday spills is undoubtedly convenient, and the absorbent little sheets definitely do the job, but the habit generates a lot of waste. The EPA’s latest numbers—for 2018—say we used just shy of 3.8 million tons of “tissue paper and towels” (which includes toilet paper and blow-your-nose tissue, too). That works out to about 23 pounds per American that year.

That’s…not ideal. And that’s why there are tons of paper towel alternatives out there, reusable and otherwise, that claim to be better for the planet. Incorporating these products into our daily lives in one way or another is a great way to cut down on waste. But which alternatives are right for your needs? I put a dozen of them through the wiping-up wringer—testing for water absorbency, oil clean-up, washability, and wear—and here’s what I found.

The Winners, at a Glance

The Best Overall Paper Towel Alternative: Scotch-Brite Heavy-Duty Scrub Sponges

These sponges soak up liquid like, well, sponges. They dominated when it came to absorbency, are pretty much indestructible, and clean up easily without needing a run through the washing machine.

Scotch-Brite Heavy Duty Scrub Sponge,

The Overall Runner-Up/Designer Choice Paper Towel Alternative: Sweetgum Swedish Dishcloths

Sweetgum’s hybrid cloth-cellulose “towels” are more absorbent than regular paper towels, and far more durable than they appear; you can reuse them many, many times. They’re also available in dozens of different prints, from all sorts of foods and flowers to abstract optical illusions and an adorable cartoon seal.

Bundle of Swedish Discloths

The “It Has To Be On a Roll” Paper Towel Alternative: Wowables

Similar to the Sweetgum's towels in composition, performance, and reusability, Wowables don’t come in cute prints, but they do come as a perforated roll of 30 cloths that’ll fit on your current paper towel roll holder (at least until you tear them off).

lola-products-wowables-reusable-paper-towels

The Best Value Paper Towel Alternative: Quickie Microfiber Cloths

These cloths did fairly well on all the tests, including water absorbency, oil clean-up, and washability, and ten bucks gets you enough of them to last a very long time. (And when they’re done in the kitchen, you can use them to wash your car, too.)

The Deep-Fryer’s Friend Paper Towel Alternative: Seventh Generation Unbleached 100% Recycled Paper Towels

If you’re a cook who’s used to oil spilling and splattering all over the place, these recycled paper towels are a great bet, beating out the entire rest of the field when it comes to oil clean-up. Otherwise, they’re...okay, both in terms of performance and because they aren't reusable.

The Criteria: What We Look for in a Great Paper Towel Alternative

To start with, a paper towel alternative has to do all the things a paper towel can do: Wipe up both water- and oil-based spills, scrub away the occasional stain from a carpet or pan, maybe even serve as a napkin when you’re making a quick PB&J. If it’s reusable, it should be reusable: It shouldn’t stain easily, or fall apart when you wash (or use) it. And, of course, it should be better for the Earth than the “standard” paper towel it’s intended to replace.

Why You Should Trust Us

I’m well-acquainted with spills: “Messy” is right there in my social media handles and URL. But these tests were also conducted with scientific objectivity in mind. I spent many damp hours weighing and measuring these products for science—and for you. We ordered and paid for all of the tested products, and none of the brands involved had any input on the tests, methodology or results. Besides Cloud Paper, which I learned about via a press release, I had no contact with any of the brands or their representatives prior to doing the testing and determining the results.

The Testing

a sweetgum reusable towel in a bowl of water soaking

Vicky Wasik

Our tests set out to measure the products' ability to absorb the two main kinds of spills you’d want to wipe up—water- and oil-based—as well as their ability to hold up to scrubbing, both wet and dry. For the reusable towels (seven of the 11 brands we tested), we also tested their reusability and washability with a stain test. (I also tested a standard paper towel as a control.)

Water-Absorbency Test

To determine the sheer amount of water a product could soak up, I weighed a bowl of water, submerged each product for 30 seconds, then removed it and weighed the bowl again. I repeated each test five times to get an average, and divided by the area of each towel to figure out the total absorbance per square inch. The reusable cloths beat all of the single-use ones here; the more durable materials held on to more water, and held on to it better. Unsurprisingly, the literal sponge absorbed more than twice the water per square inch than any of the rest.

Oil Swipe Test

a Wowable reusable towel soaking up spilled oil

Vicky Wasik

Soaking up a puddle of water is one thing; wiping up spilled oil is quite another, a task that often requires fistful after fistful of paper towels. I spilled a teaspoon of oil on my countertop, folded each towel into an equal-sized square, and wiped up the oil with enough pressure to pick it up but not too much to push the oil out from under the towel, measuring how long of a swipe was needed to pick up all the oil, and whether any was left behind. None of the tested towels did great at this test—they picked up some but not all of the oil, creating the need for another towel—except the recycled-paper ones, which blew it out of the water.

Abuse Test (Dry)

I rubbed each towel on my smooth, clean countertop 100 times back and forth, then inspected for damage. Then I did the same on my rough (but beautifully well-seasoned!) cast iron pan. The single-use towels did quite poorly here, but the flimsier reusables held up surprisingly well.

Abuse Test (Wet)

a wet recycled paper towel showing wear and tear after use

Vicky Wasik

Here, again, I conducted the same tests on both a countertop and a cast iron pan, but using a soaked-through towel. The results here mirrored those for the dry tests, but the towel that tore, tore faster. Everything generally held up better dry than wet, but the relative rankings were essentially the same.

Washability Test

I stained each reusable towel with two test stains—a cranberry cocktail syrup (it was expired in my fridge; I’m reusing!) and green food coloring—and let them set and dry overnight. Then I rated how dark each stain remained after three types of wash: a quick rinse in cold water, a wash in warm water with dish soap, and a standard washing machine cycle. To be honest, there wasn’t much variability here; warm water and soap got all the towels mostly clean, and the machine got them all almost completely clean.

The Best Overall Paper Towel Alternative: Scotch-Brite Heavy-Duty Scrub Sponges

Scotch-Brite Heavy-Duty Scrub Sponge on purple background

Vicky Wasik

When I started putting together my list of potential products to test for this review, “just a plain ol’ sponge” was the first thing I wrote down, and the plain ol’ sponge didn't disappoint. This sponge soaked up more than 4 grams of water per square inch, destroying the competition, and held up easily to the abuse tests, while coming in the middle of the pack on the oil test. The downside here is with what I’m going to call an “intangible”: Grabbing a dish sponge to wipe off your face when you sneak into the fridge for a late-night bite of leftovers just feels off. (If you’re a cloth-napkin household, though, a sponge is an otherwise perfect paper towel replacement.)

In terms of germs, the sponge should be rinsed with hot water after each use to reduce chances of bacteria growing. If it starts to look gross or smell, that’s a good sign that it should be replaced.

Scotch-Brite Heavy Duty Scrub Sponge,

The Overall Runner-Up/Designer Choice Paper Towel Alternative: Sweetgum Swedish Dishcloths

A trio of Sweetgum Swedish reusable dish cloths

Vicky Wasik

This cloth is a 70/30 mix of cellulose (a.k.a. wood pulp, the same thing paper is made from) and cotton; the method for combining the two materials was invented by a Swedish engineer. When dry, it feels like rough, flimsy-thick paper, but it’s as hard to tear as a cotton rag. Get it wet, and it turns as soft as a cotton rag, too. It came in second for the water test and fourth for the oil test, and held up perfectly to the abuse tests. But these things are friggin’ adorable, too—there are a ton of different prints available. At $7 a pop, they’re not cheap, but the brand claims each one will stand up to 50 washings and last 6-9 months. (You can even compost them when they wear out.)

Bundle of Swedish Discloths

The “It Has To Be On a Roll” Paper Towel Alternative: Wowables

Wowables reusable paper towel alternative

Vicky Wasik

Wowables are made of essentially the same material as the Sweetgum cloths, but they come in a cylindrical roll you can throw on a standard paper towel holder (and they only come in the one shade of blue—much less cute). They performed slightly worse on all of the tests than Sweetgum, but only slightly, and they’re quite a bit cheaper. As someone who (for shame!) always has a roll of paper towels on the counter, I think the roll format is very convenient.

lola-products-wowables-reusable-paper-towels

The Best Value Paper Towel Alternative: Quickie Microfiber Cloths

Quickie microfiber reusable towels

Vicky Wasik

The microfiber cloth I tested were both a little less absorbent than the Sweetgum dish cloths, but did a little better on the oil test. As for the abuse tests, it did well on both of them, performing similarly to the other cloth products. It also performed well, though not perfectly, when it came to the stain test. These are thick, scrubby cloths you could use to do dishes, mop your floors, or wash and dry your car, and I was kind of blown away at how huge a bag of them showed up for just $10.

The Deep-Fryer’s Friend Paper Towel Alternative: Seventh Generation Unbleached 100% Recycled Paper Towels

Seventh Generation Unbleached 100% Recycled Paper Towels

Vicky Wasik

These rough, brown towels feel exactly like “unbleached 100% recycled paper” sounds, and they didn’t do very well at most of the tests, but something about the texture of the paper here makes it soak up oil much better than any of the other brands I tested—only one other towel picked up all the oil on the first try, and this one did it in a shorter swipe. If you’re a deep-frying enthusiast and frequently find oil on your countertops, it might be a good idea to have a few rolls on hand. (Are unbleached recycled paper towels any better than “regular” ones? The package claims they are made using 37 percent less energy and 73 percent less water than virgin-paper paper towels.)

The Competition

Here are some notes on the other models we tested for this review:

  • The E-Cloth Microfiber Cloths are very similar (almost the same color, slightly different size) to the Quickie cloths, and performed similarly on the tests, but they cost quite a bit more.
  • Although available in similarly fun patterns and prints as Sweetgum, Marley’s Monsters UNpaper Towels, made from 100% cotton, are less absorbent (of water and oil) than I hoped they would be.
  • The Classic Kitchen Cotton Towels are what you’ll find at almost every pro chef’s side for wiping off plates and grabbing things out of the oven, but their rough material isn’t great for wiping up larger spills, and the cranberry syrup stained my test towel permanently.
  • Bamboo is touted as a good alternative to trees for sourcing cellulose to make paper, as it grows much faster and can be harvested more renewably. But it makes a stiff, almost waxy paper that isn’t very absorbent or strong, as I saw with the Caboo Bamboo Paper Towels.
  • Cloud Paper is all about saving the planet, touting its bamboo-based paper towels and toilet paper as a solution to deforestation, and eschewing plastic in its packaging. But its towels have the same shortcomings as the other bamboo towels I tested.
  • Made from a mix of bamboo and sugarcane, the Tree Free Paper Towels aren’t very absorbent and pretty much just fell apart as soon as they got wet.