Many of us who try to lead eco-conscious lifestyles are likely already using many reusable, washable fabric items for both household and personal use. Cotton dish cloths, washable baby diapers, handkerchiefs, and Glad Rags-type menstrual cloths are growing in popularity, but there’s one area in which we may all be eco-offenders: the ‘loo. Enter “family cloths”, also known as reusable toilet paper. These are washable strips of cotton flannel that folks can use to wipe with, but are they just too gross for most people to consider?
The fluffy white toilet tissue that most of us use to dab at our nether-regions is usually made of virgin tree fiber, unless we’ve gone for a brand that uses recycled materials. UsingTP with recycled content is better for both trees and the planet’s water supply, but there’s still a lot of processing that’s required to create it, and there’s likely to still be some old-growth forest wood pulp in there too. If we’d like our personal care habits to be as eco-friendly as possible, what other options can we look into? Short of keeping a pile of mullein leaves or a bucket of water and a ladle beside the toilet, there aren’t too many alternatives that don’t involve something disposable.
Enter “Family Cloths”
There aren’t many of us who would truly balk at the thought of using washable cloth diapers for babies and toddlers, but the thought of wiping away our own excretions with strips of flannel cloth and then washing them later seems to be an entirely different story. Most people seem to go a bit green and twitchy at the mere thought of these cloths, so actually using them would be out of the question — despite how much better they are for the environment (and our bodies) than toilet paper is. Have we always been so squeamish about our bodily functions? Would switching over to washable fabric wipes really be that disgusting? Most pro-cloth websites do a good job of dispelling the hideous imaginings that many may have about whether the practice is sanitary or not, and advocates have described a variety of methods that they use for keeping things clean and tidy.
It appears that the standard method of using these cloths is to keep a pile of clean cotton flannel strips near the toilet (apparently a facial tissue box is great for storing them), and something akin to a diaper pail with a lid nearby for the soiled wipes. Apparently these pails are half-filled with solutions made with either vinegar, peroxide, or essential oils to stave off bacterial growth and unpleasant odors once the used cloths have been tossed in, so that pail can just be up-ended into the washing machine every other day to swish everything clean again. That doesn’t sound terribly impractical, but it does seem to add up to more laundry being done, and that’s another source of wasted water.
Pros and Cons
Let’s take a look at some of the positive and negative aspects of these washable wipes.
- They’re reusable and eco-friendly
- They can be made from old sheets and t-shirts, so no purchase is necessary
- Using them reduces water waste/pollution from the paper industry
- No trees get chopped down to create them
- They can last for years before being replaced
- They’re softer and more gentle on skin
- There’s that “ick” factor, and it’s a significant one
- Textural differences might be an issue (both clean and soiled)
- If dropped in the bowl, they have to be fished out so they don’t clog anything
- They need frequent laundering
- Not all stains will disappear in the wash, so they’ll get manky-looking over time
- Cross-contamination in case of yeast infections or illness if not washed properly
It would appear that the pros and cons are pretty much equal. Proponents claim that hemp or bamboo cloths have natural anti-microbial properties and are thus better to use than cotton, but it’s very difficult to get around the mindset that the piece of cloth you’re holding in your hand and are about to wipe yourself with was used for wiping purposes just a few days beforehand—and not necessarily by you. Maybe it’s different if, as in some families, each member had their own color/print cloths so they don’t end up being shared? After all, cloth menstrual pad users don’t mind washing and re-using a pad month after month as it’s their own and isn’t being used by anyone else, but somehow, the idea of washing blood out of a cloth and using it again doesn’t seem to squick people out quite as much as the though of re-using poop-cloths, even if they’re clean.
In theory, using family cloths seems to be a great idea—they’re eco-friendly, reusable/sustainable, and would save us hundreds of dollars a year—but how many of us would actually go this route? Some people seem to be “okay” with the idea of using the wipes solely for after urinating, but would never consider them for any other use. Others claim that they would use them so long as each family member had their own set of cloths (as the thought of sharing other people’s bum-wipes is just too much for them) and some would just flat-out refuse to even consider trying them out at all. It’s quite possible that we’ve all become so accustomed to the habit of tossing away anything perceived as soiled that we can’t shift gears on this one unless there comes a time when we really have no other choice.
Have any of you used family cloths at home? If you have, what did you think of them?
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