What Are Paper Towels Made Of? The Secrets Revealed

In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about what modern paper towels are made from. We’ll discuss the main ingredients, why these ingredients are used, and how paper towels are manufactured.

You’ll learn about different paper towel brands, factors that affect performance, environmental impacts of production, and alternatives to conventional paper towels. By the end, you’ll have an in-depth understanding of this essential household product.

The Main Ingredients in Paper Towels

The two primary components that form the absorbent sheets we know as paper towels are:

Virgin Wood Pulp

The majority of today’s paper towels are made from virgin wood pulp as the primary ingredient. The wood pulp gives paper towels their absorbency, softness, and wet strength. Trees like spruce, fir, and pine are the most common sources for virgin wood pulp in paper towel manufacturing.

Recycled Fiber

Recycled fiber from waste products is also used as a material in some paper towels. Recycled content can come from old newspapers, cardboard boxes, office paper, and other recovered paper products. Using recycled fibers reduces deforestation impacts.

Why Wood Pulp is Used


Wood pulp has several properties that make it well-suited for paper towel production:

  • Absorbent: The fibers from trees can easily soak up water and expand when they get wet. This allows paper towels to soak up spills and liquids quickly.
  • Soft and Strong: Wood fibers are flexible and bind together to form sheets. This gives paper towels strength, even when wet, while still maintaining a soft, flexible feel.
  • Renewable Resource: Trees are a renewable resource that can be replanted sustainably. The wood used for paper towels comes primarily from tree farms and managed forests specifically designated for wood products.

What Kinds of Trees Are Used to Make Pulp

The wood pulp in paper towels can come from either hardwood or softwood trees:

  • Hardwood Trees: Hardwoods like oak, maple, eucalyptus and aspen are sometimes used to produce paper towel pulp.
  • Softwood Trees: The most common source is softwood trees like spruce, pine and fir that grow quickly in sustainable forests across Northern hemisphere. Softwoods make particularly good paper-grade pulp.

How Paper Towels Are Made

Now that we’ve looked at the main ingredients, let’s examine the manufacturing process:

1. Tree Harvesting

Trees are harvested from forests and transported to the paper mill. The trees are debarked and chopped into small wood chips to prepare them for pulping.


2. Pulping

The wood chips are cooked at high temperature and pressure in a chemical pulping process to soften them. This chemically separates and frees the cellulose fibers that will form the absorbent paper pulp.

3. Paper Making

The wood pulp is mixed with water and run through giant paper machines. These machines press and filter the pulp to form continuous sheets.


4. Pressing and Drying

The continuous sheet then runs through a series of heavy rollers that press out excess water and flatten the sheet to a uniform thickness. It passes over heated drums to fully dry the paper fibers and evaporate any remaining moisture.

5. Finishing

The big roll of paper towel material is cut into separate sheets and rolled into larger rolls for stores. These rolls are sent to companies that put them into the branded paper towel products we find in stores.


Additives That Give Paper Towels Their Properties

In addition to wood pulp, paper towels contain a range of additives that enhance their properties:

  • Wet strength resins –  Increase strength of paper when wet.
  • Softening agents – Give paper towels a plush, flexible feel.
  • Dyes – Add color to plain white paper.
  • Fragrances – For scented varieties like lemon or floral.
  • Cleaning agents – Improve cleaning performance for some towels.

Factors That Impact a Paper Towel’s Performance

Several factors affect how well a paper towel can absorb liquids and perform cleaning tasks:

  • Basis weight – Refers to the density and thickness of the paper towel. Higher basis weight means more durability.
  • Ply – Ply refers to the number of layers in each sheet. Paper towels can be single, two, or even three-ply. More plies generally make a more absorbent towel.
  • Embossing – Textured surfaces increase absorption and cleaning power.
  • Perforations – Easy perforation lines allow clean tearing while keeping the sheet intact when wet.

Major Paper Towel Brands

Popular paper towel brands showcase the range of products on the market:

  • Bounty – Proctor & Gamble’s market-leading brand. Available in multiple patterns and thicknesses.
  • Brawny – Produced by Georgia Pacific. Known for strength and absorbency.
  • Viva – Premium paper towels by Kimberly-Clark designed to be extra durable when wet.
  • Sparkle – Also from Georgia Pacific, Sparkle provides a mid-priced paper towel option with decent absorbency.
  • Marcal – Marcal manufactures budget-friendly recycled paper towels made from 100% recycled fibers. One of the more eco-friendly brands.

Environmental Impact of Paper Towel Production


The paper towel industry has faced criticism over its environmental impact, mainly because of:

  1. Deforestation – Reliance on trees raises forest sustainability questions, though most US brands use wood pulp from responsibly managed forests with replanting protocols.
  1. Bleaching – Chemicals used in processing may be harmful if released into ecosystems.
  1. Recycling – Reusing waste paper diverts material from landfills. But only about 50% of used paper towels get recycled currently.
  1. Energy and Water Usage – It takes significant energy and water resources to produce paper towels, especially for drying and treatment processes.

However, the manufacturers have made improvements in recent years by increasing recycled content and pursuing eco-friendly bleaching methods. Still, paper towels generate significant waste and consumption of natural resources.

Best Alternatives

For those looking to reduce their paper towel usage, some alternatives include:

  • Reusable cloth towels – More eco-friendly, washable and reusable. But laundering uses energy and water.
  • Reusable sponges – Cellulose or man-made sponges absorb liquids for cleaning.

The Future of Paper Towels

As more and more people care about being eco-friendly, companies are coming up with new ideas to make paper towels better for the environment.

  • Companies like Seventh Generation and Marcal are at the forefront of increasing the use of recycled materials in paper towels, with some products made entirely from recycled paper. This significantly reduces the need for fresh tree pulp.
  • Big names like Bounty and Viva have committed to getting their paper pulp from sources that responsibly manage forests, ensuring they replant trees to counteract deforestation.
  • Investments are being made to cut down on water use during production. They’re using closed-loop systems that recycle water multiple times on-site. This can reduce water use by up to 90% compared to the usual methods.
  • Companies are also making the shift to renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, at their manufacturing plants. This move helps them lower their carbon footprint.

As more people who care about the environment choose eco-friendly products, companies making paper towels are working on new ideas to be more sustainable. They want to keep paper towels easy to use while also being better for the planet.


Paper towels provide a convenient, disposable way to quickly absorb spills and clean up messes. They are made using wood pulp and recycled fibers to ensure they are soft, strong, and can absorb well. Knowing what materials go into making paper towels can help you choose the right one for your needs.

It’s also good to be aware of some of the environmental effects to make more eco-friendly choices. The next time you grab a paper towel, think about how these essential cleaning helpers are created.

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the raw materials of paper towels?

Paper towels are primarily made from two main raw materials virgin wood pulp and recycled fiber. Virgin wood pulp is sourced from trees like spruce, fir, and pine. While recycled fiber is sourced from waste products like old newspapers and cardboard boxes.

What are cloth paper towels made of?

Cloth paper towels, often known as reusable or washable paper towels, are commonly made from materials like cotton, bamboo, or microfiber. These materials are chosen for their absorbency and durability.

Do paper towels contain toxic chemicals?

Yes, it’s possible. Many conventional paper towels may contain toxic chemicals such as chlorine, dyes, and fragrances. These chemicals could be risky for your health. To reduce the risk, think about choosing paper towels that are labeled as chemical-free or made from recycled materials. Also, using reusable cloth towels can be a better and healthier option.


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