March 18, 2020

How To Survive Without Toilet Paper

While the rampant TP jokes and memes on the internet are good for a laugh these days, I'm sure there are a few of you who didn't have the foresight to snatch up the 240 rolls that so many think are the required number for the recommended 2-week supply. If you are running low, you aren't laughing and may even be worried about what you're going to do.

Did you know that toilet paper wasn't invented until the late 1800s? Have you ever wondered how people managed before that? Jokes aside about leaves and the old paper Sears catalogues, they obviously managed very nicely. And you can too.  I raised two babies on cloth diapers without a diaper service, so I speak from experience when I say that you can survive without toilet paper!

No, I'm not suggesting wearing diapers (no more jokes, please). I'm suggesting DIY reusable toilet wipes. Often called "family cloths," these are made from soft cotton and when properly laundered, are a more ecologically conscientious and cost effective that purchased toilet paper.

You can make them by cutting up old cotton t-shirts, towels, worn articles of clothing, even socks, or use wash clothes. Don't use synthetic fabrics. They are petroleum based and not absorbent.

Keep a basketful in the bathroom along with a soaking bucket. The bucket can be any size; preferably with a lid. The soaking solution is the same as for a cloth diaper pail: 1/2 cup of borax (as in 20 Mule Team) to 1 gallon of warm water. Mix until dissolved. The borax removes odors and stains.

In the unfortunate circumstance of a messy clean-up, you have a couple of choices. We used to rinse out messy cloth diapers in the toilet with our bare hands! (gasp). Or since the cloths are just rags, they can be thrown away just like you would a disposable diaper.

To launder, drain soaked cloths and wash in hot water with laundry detergent. If you'd like, add a little bleach to the wash water. Don't use fabric softener. Fabric softener makes fabrics less absorbent. If you use a dryer, dry on the high setting. To line dry, hang them in the sun for the sun's extra bleaching effect.

Speaking of bleach, I learned in nursing school that the best disinfectant is bleach. Much more so than alcohol. Alcohol is effective in pushing germs out of the way, but less effective at actually killing them. A bleach water solution was what we used to wipe down exam tables. Make a bleach solution of 1/2 to 3/4 cup bleach to 1 gallon water (3 to 4 teaspoons to 2 cups water) and use a rag for your countertops, door knobs, toilet seats, sinks, and faucet and flush handles. It's cheap and highly effective. The bonus is less trash to dispose of.

Along those lines, soap, water, and briskly scrubbing your hands is more effective than hand sanitizer. (Check out this grammar school science experiment to see the difference for yourself.) Why is this so? It's the friction heat of the scrubbing that kills the germs. Then you rinse them away. When you use hand sanitizer, you leave a pile of hopefully dead germs sticking to your skin.

Recommended scrubbing time for soap and water hand washing is at least 20+ seconds, or about as long as it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song (something else I learned in nursing school!) Hand sanitizer is useful to carry in a car, purse, or backpack, for times when you can't properly wash your hands. But it needs to be at least 60% alcohol, or it isn't effective. Then do a thorough soap and water scrub as soon as you can.

Hopefully, things will resume some sense of sanity soon! In the meantime, how is everyone faring? I'm hoping to get my first spring seeds in the ground soon if the weather cooperates.


  1. The summer before my 7th grade year, we moved from SoCal to my step-dad's family farm in the TX Panhandle. There were still a couple outhouses on the place, complete with old catalogs – and we used them occasionally when the one bathroom in the old farmhouse was occupied. My mom used cloth diapers on my baby sister at that time, so I got experience with the toilet-rinsing and bucket depositing. My son is 18, and I used mostly cloth diapers on him, too. Yep, we can certainly survive without TP.

  2. Reading your article, a smile came to my face remembering all the times I've come across a "well used" pair of jockey shorts in the woods left by a hunter! - lol

  3. Flannel works and feels better than cotton and us more absorbent. That's what I use. Granted it's a cotton flannel. I bought second hand flannel sheets and cut them up. I think I've got enough for 10 people for a week from 1 set. I wear homemade cloth diapers just like used with cloth diapers for my kids. Disposables were only bought for daycare. I use disposables when traveling. So much easier and cheaper to use cloth.

  4. Michelle, those rustic experiences are priceless. Most people wouldn't think of alternatives to diapers and toilet paper as "skills," but knowing how to do things without modern conveniences is valuable knowledge.

    Gorges, oh no! I'll take a pass on that experience, lol.

    Jo, cotton flannel would definitely be a softer choice. And while no one could argue the convenience of disposables, knowing how to do without them is one less thing to worry about.

  5. Hi Leigh - I knew I could count on you to offer practical advice! And re: the garden, good luck with your planting - it snowed here yesterday but I started my "serious" list for Gardens 2020 this morning, combing through all the notes I've made since last Autumn, and wow, I'd better borrow some land from the goats this year. Nitrogen content would NOT be a problem ;)

  6. Fortunately we have a bidet seat in one of our bathrooms but we also have an asian culture where not having toilet paper is the norm. When "in country", they use a dipper with water called a 'tabo' and their left hands to do their cleaning.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this very "usable" and common sense post! Flannel cloths sound so much better than pages from the Sears & Roebuck catalog(!) or corn cobs. Ever heard of that one? (((Shudder)))

    I don't know of anyone who uses cloth diapers for their little ones anymore. And do you remember diaper services? I never used one but am wondering if they even exist these days.

  8. No worries on tp here... Been using mostly cloth for long time now an just keep a few rolls of tp for the rare guest. An I to grew up with an out house and a sears catalogue... There was indoor plumbing but an outhouse at the barn an it got regular use. The catalogue was more for the carbon layer in the hole but occasionally used if the tp was out or sometimes wet from heavy dew. That outhouse was situated among some grapefruit trees an the fruit they produced was the sweetest I've ever had. I haven't been shopping lately but see pics of empty shelves. I've never been a fan of hand sanitizer but do wash hands often an got use to wearing exam gloves at work an now keep some in my truck that'll likely get used more now....

  9. My hand washing song is the ABC song. Yeah, I don't want to go back to using alternatives but early in my life it was done on occasion. I just hope everybody will use common sense, but that may be asking too much.

  10. So many folks don’t know how to do things. I too used cloth diapers for both my babies. And they were so well cared for I have three of them as clean as they always were for home cleaning purposes. And the the babies who wore them are 45 & 42 now.

    My account ,who is a long time family friend and is kind to me even when my math skills fail me , and I were discussing this subject just yesterday.

    Although we always had toilet paper in our home growing up. I was well acquainted with out houses and a myriad of clean up choices. Pat did too and availed herself of the recycling cloth method.

    I also was made aware of monthly reusable items. I feel the general population has been made so afraid of any fluids or solids that come out of their bodies as nasty or unclean is part of the reason that totally disposal items are used by so many.

    Returning to the “old ways” for so many practices makes a good deal of sense. For so many of these items currently in use ie paper towels in my mind fall into the convenience category.
    Not necessity.

    On how am I doing? I am getting a lot done at home. Not because I have chosen to “self isolate “ but because it is winter again with rain, frost and colder temps. Even a low level snow this last Sunday.

    Also this weather and incident happened to fall into a two week period where I have only one off the farm appointment.

    Great post my friend!

  11. Quinn, this definitely seems the year to put in a good garden! Hopefully, your goats won't mind sharing the land. It will likely mean some garden treats for them too. :)

    Ed, interesting! I saw some story wondering why the US is wiping out all the toilet paper but Korea isn't. That probably explains why!

    Mama Pea, some of need common sense these days! I've seen the corn cob memes, but hopefully no one takes those seriously!

    I think there still are cloth diaper services these days, but with a very upscale green focus. Probably not something most of us could afford nowadays.

    Annie, your mention of dew-soaked TP brought back memories of my own outhouse days! Good point about the catalogue paper. We used to sprinkle with wood ash as well. Some folks use barn lime.

    It's nice that you don't need to go out shopping. I don't mind making a few diet changes while we weather the storm.

    FFG, the ABC song! That's a good idea. We do seem to have lonst our sense of common sense, haven't we? I puzzle over why this particular virus is getting such a panicky reaction. It's certainly not the most dangerous nor widespread pandemic we've seen in the past couple of decades. And the recovery rate is excellent. But folks pretty much blew those off and, for some reason, are going bonkers over this one. Some sort of sign of the times???

    Goatldi, well said. Convenience items have their place, but look at the price society is now paying for thinking they are the only way. I should think that the environmentally conscientious would have adopted many of these more basic strategies long ago. Recycling cotton rags leaves a zero carbon footprint, with no packaging to go to the landfill.

  12. Good info and I knew that about bleach too. We did teach our K students the ABC song as well for handwashing times.

  13. Hello Leigh! Very familiar with alternatives to TP... got a small box of flannel squares up stairs...just in case. We are really looking forward to the garden. It’s incredibly wet here on the ridge, with more rain coming. It has been good coffee drinking weather, however. We have prepared for these troubled times, and hope and pray for the best, for everyone. Have you started your tomato plants yet?

  14. Thanks for posting this. This is our backup plan when/if we run out. We have a good supply but this crisis will only be ramping up in two weeks, IMO.

    We also have “Luxe” bidet attachments on two of our toilets, which significantly reduces any messy cleanup. I highly recommend them. The regular version (cold water only) is around $40 and takes a few minutes to install.

  15. Nancy, good for you for teaching kids proper handwashing technique! It's something everyone ought to be doing on a regular basis anyway, but knowing the best way to do it is key.

    Wyomingheart, "good coffee drinking weather," I like it! It's been pretty wet hear too but it's on my list to get tomatoes started indoors. I should make tomorrow the day!

    Annie, you're welcome. We should always have a back up plan! Thank you for the link. Very useful addition for a toilet. I notice they are currently all sold out!

  16. Oh yes to all of your suggestions. We are going to learn new ways of doing things - and it will be good for us.

  17. I gave away nearly all old baby clothes, but not the fabric nappies and not the brushed cotton inlays! while everybody was laughing at me using fabric nappies I had to wash - I didn't have to pay a fortune in rubbish fees - and now would have a load of tp replacement ready made. who's laughing now?:)though apart from sanitizing stuff and tp so far we don't really have any shortages. if something is gone one day - it comes in the next or can easily be replaced. I don't usually go out anyway and we keep to ourselves mostly, so no big changes, other than DS can't go to college right now. stay well!

  18. Thank you for this post. I raised two babies on cloth diapers too and would use cloth diapers today if I had a baby. I was just telling Dan yesterday about how I rinsed the dirty diapers in the toilet...with bare hands. None of the grocery stores here have toilet paper so I may be cutting up cloths. I did not know about using borax. Thank you.

  19. Growing up "in the sticks" we would use leaves if we were caught in need away from the facilities. My oldest niece once offered some advice: don't try sagebrush. It doesn't work very well. We had fun harassing her:-) I use borax quite a bit, easier on the skin than bleach. Good common sense article!

  20. What is funny to me is how foreign it is to the younger generation to use cloth diapers.
    Fortunately, there is some movement for their return from the more ecologically minded.
    I used cloth with my seven kiddos except at the beginning with the youngest. It's a very grounding experience.
    Great post! I was counting on you to comment on the situation.
    I used to have directions for sanitizing handmade bandages with my old pressure cooker. Ever heard of that? These are essential skills that are almost unheard of now.

  21. Hello Leigh,

    We are "on sale stockpilers" but not prepper/hoarders. So we do have a closet of TP and paper towels, but it won't last forever. However, prior to Coronavirus we did start using cloth rags more to cut down on paper towel use.

    I remember reading in The Tightwad Gazette reading about the diaper pail. It seemed to make a lot of sense (We have no children so I never got to test it).

    Thanks for all the practical advice alternative TP advice. My husband is an immigrant from a left hand culture and I told him a long time ago, "I don't want to know the details." However, sometimes you need to know them!

    City Creek Country Road

  22. "Feminine hygiene products" weren't always disposable either.

  23. RT, to me, simpler is always better. And make that cheaper is always better, too. I like having less to buy and less to throw away.

    Bettina, I'm glad to hear you aren't having many shortage problems. Friday is my regular shopping day, so I'll be curious as to how much has changed in a week. I frequently buy an extra 4-pack of toilet paper, so between that and our DIY alternatives, we're doing quite well. Nice that you saved your cloth diapers. I can't remember what I did wiht mine.

    Henny, we washed dirty diapers with bare hands and lived to tell about it! LOL. I'm guessing borax isn't in short supply, as not many people would know what to do with it.

    Lady Locust, I remember thinking mullein leaves were the nicest to wipe with. ;) Good tip on the borax; definitely kinder to the hands.

    Debby, there are a number of homemade sanitizer recipes floating around the internet, but I've not heard of making bandages in a pressure cooker. I'm intrigued! Two years ago I planted lamb's ear, after reading how it's leaves contain a natural antibiotic and so back in the day it was used for bandages. It's a shame that modern invention pushes so many essential skills aside. It does come in handy to know these things.

    City Creek Country Road, 'on sale stockpilers.' That describes me as well. I never considered myself a prepper, but it has always seemed sensible to keep as many supplies put by for emergencies as possible. When Dan was jobless, that served us well. Just like the lifestyle we lead, to me it's just common sense.

    Catladymac, yes! That's another one! I've seen patterns for homemade sanitary pads; another useful alternative.

  24. A friend of mine was being silly and offering her TP for $10 per roll (she was totally kidding), but fired back at her that when we ran short that I would just make reusable wipes. I met her by doing sewing jobs for her, so she knows that I am not kidding.
    Somehow I got lucky and bought TP on sale right before the rush so for now we are good...but if we do get low, I already have the fabric ready... I can even serge the edges if we want. Hummm wondering if Borax is still in the stores. I still can't get flour. I am wondering when all my neighbors decided to take up baking or if they have another use for it. *eyeroll*

  25. Thanks Leigh. Your common sense instructions are much needed in these scary times. Keep us posted. You're better than the CDC!

  26. Renee, I found all the flour gone as well. Fortunately, I still have wheat berries, but I do like to add the unbleached to my bread. I suspect people scooped up things they saw were running low, just in case they wanted them.

    Some people aren't kidding about $10 per roll. Have you checked out the prices for TP on eBay? $9.95 plus $6.95 shipping for one refurbished roll of Scott brand TP. (Refurbished toilet paper???) 4-roll packs are selling from $20 (plus shipping) to $35. That's shameful. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

  27. Kris, I don't know about that, but thank you! Common sense makes the most sense. That includes not watching or reading too much of the "news!"

  28. Hi, Leigh! Great advice, as always!

  29. For the cloth? My basket has a variety of sizes, because of the things I cut up for rags. They range anywhere from individual TP square side to washcloth size.

  30. I always used cloth diapers as disposables weren't out yet with my first child and by the rest, I already had the diapers plus it was much more cost-effective. Yes, I remember dipping those diapers in the toilet. I also worked in a medical lab so I never went in for long nails as they were germ collectors. I still like my nails kept short. thank you for the great info as usual. I'll be ordering groceries this coming week so I'll see how it goes. I am not fearful and I am not worried...what will be will be. I wish everyone to be healthy and happy all the time.

  31. Thanks for the tips. I was thinking about that because I didn't make it to the store to get any toilet paper. We don't use much, maybe two rolls a week so I had enough to hold us through for now. All of your self sufficiency efforts will be really paying off right now. We decided to self isolate in the city rather than at our off-the-grid cabin. To be closer to health services was more important. Take care! - Margy

  32. Sam, it seems like a number of us have had the pleasure of the diaper experience! :)

    I agree about the finger nails. When I worked in both hospital and doctor's office I had to keep them short. I still do.

    Margy, I'm glad to offer a potential solution. Sounds like you are in the right spot for the duration. I'm glad you can still get out of the house. I enjoy your walks and explorations!

  33. Hi Leigh :) Great post! I was thinking the same thing, how people are going coocoo for TP when there are so many good alternatives. Alex and I and the furbabes are all healthy and well, waiting until closing day for the house next week, then planning the move, so much going on! :)

  34. I used cloth diapers and no diaper service for my kids as well. We have become such a society of "use once and throw away" that people have forgotten how to live otherwise I still live (mostly) the old fashioned way - use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without!!

  35. Thanks for the post. Really good information here. I love the bread experiment!

  36. Rain, I'm glad to hear you all are safe and in good spirits. So exciting that you soon will be in your very own home! Everyone needs something positive to focus on now.

    PK, the general dependence of people on convenience is a very sad thing. Its hidden costs (manufacturing, transportation, and disposal waste and pollution) have been swept under the rug and now folks are helpless to know how to take care of themselves. I wonder if society will learn anything from all of this. I hope so, but I doubt it.

    Donna, thanks! Yes, the bread experiment is an eye-opener, isn't it?

  37. there is no bleach to be found or borax or any soap. But thank you for the lesson! I was wondering what they do with used cloths, i guess I can figure something out

  38. Serenity, even without soap I would hand wash and boil. It's too early in the season for leaves!

  39. I think we can learn a lot by looking at what was done in 'yesteryear'. People didn't always have access to TP. And I know a lot of people who have used cloth diapers. I mean, I don't want to scrub out soiled rags but if it comes down to it, I will.

    I also realize that a lot of people shy away from bleach. I don't use it on my clothes anymore, unless something is completely soiled (see comment about soiled rags above!) but I still like it as a good disinfectant.

    I hope you all are doing well. I know you are in a good place to ride out this current health crisis. I'm happy to have caught up on my blog reading with some of my 'spare' time.

  40. Kristin, it pays to have alternatives, doesn't it?

    Disinfecting is exactly why we keep bleach on hand.

  41. Crazy times. I'm going to have to make those reusable sanitary items, I've stashed old flannel sheets for. As the stores were cleaned out of them too. I have a different take on the medical mayhem, which I may write about on my blog. As I have some experience, living with a compromised immune system.

  42. Chris, good for you for stashing those old sheets! I look forward to your blog post, as always!

  43. One could also go the Artisan route:

  44. Ron, ha! I got behind in my comments, but I noticed the video date - April 1st - good one!


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