Label: Ultra Strong
Hidden Ingredient: Formaldehyde
A 2010 study investigating the possibility that toilet paper is to blame for chronic irritation of the vulva discovered that formaldehyde is sometimes used to improve the wet strength of toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels. In addition to being a skin irritant, formaldehyde is a known cancer-causer.
Label: With Lotion
Hidden Ingredient: Petroleum-based mineral oil
We couldn't find much data about the safety of toilet paper infused with lotions or fragrances, but our instincts say to be wary. Some online reviewers of toilet paper infused with aloe and vitamin E (thanks to petroleum-based mineral oil and paraffin) complained that the paper burned when they wiped.
Label: Recycled or Post-Consumer Recycled
Hidden Ingredient: BPA
Sure, some recycled rolls may be a little rougher on your behind, but that's something we can live with when we know virgin forests haven't been slaughtered just to be flushed down the toilet. In case you're wondering, "recycled" on a package generally means leftover scraps from the paper and printing industries, while "post-consumer recycled" indicates the stuff you put out on your curb once a week. Basically, recycled toilet paper is pretty much the best…except for one small thing—BPA.
Yep, research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found traces of that notorious endocrine disrupter in toilet paper, which is often made up of, among other things, receipts printed on thermal paper, which is coated in dye and a developer like BPA. During printing, heat triggers a reaction between the dye and the developer, causing the black print to appear. When we send receipts (and lottery tickets, luggage tags, and shipping labels) off to be recycled, they get mashed up with everything else, and BPA eventually ends up in our eco-friendly wipes.
The good news is that we absorb far less BPA from handling paper products than we do from plastic and aluminum food containers, and since the concentrations of BPA in toilet paper are so small (micrograms per gram), the exposure risk is tiny. You'll absorb far more BPA (micrograms per gram) from fingering your credit card receipts since the BPA is coated on top, rather than mixed in—though paper products still account for only 2% of our daily BPA exposure.
Label: PCF or ECF
Hidden Ingredient: Bleach derivatives
These are acronyms that tell you what kind of bleaching process was used on your roll. PCF (processed chlorine-free) shows up on recycled toilet paper packages to indicate no bleach was used in the toilet paper manufacturing, but it may have been used on the paper fibers previously. ECF (elemental chlorine-free) means chlorine dioxide was used in lieu of straight-up elemental chlorine, which the EPA phased out in 2001, due to the high levels of cancer-causing dioxins it was pumping into the environment. ECF processing still releases dioxins, but at hugely reduced levels. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, PCF is preferred, since it signifies recycled content.
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