Why is toilet paper white?

With the current COVID situation, there has been a mass demand for toilet paper. But we are not going to delve into that today, let’s look at the toilet paper in greater detail, specifically on the colour.

Toilet paper has a critical job. Although it’s an essential bathroom item, thinking about it usually starts and ends with needing to buy or use some. Meanwhile, people spend hours looking for the perfect towel or shower curtain colors for their bathroom—but toilet paper is just plain white.

Before we start on that, let’s look at what people used before toilet paper. It’s a truly disturbing thought indeed. While missing toilet paper may be a mild inconvenience for us, this was a harsh reality for our not-so-lucky forefathers. Throughout the years, different cultures experimented with multiple substitutes and not too many of them are pleasant:

  • Ancient Greeks: Clay & Stone
  • Romans: Sponges tied to sticks. These were communal.
  • Colonial Americans: Discarded Reading Material and Corn Cobs. Yes, you read that correctly.
  • Others: Grass, Leaves, Fur, the Hand

In fact, many countries today still don’t use toilet paper. Countries such as India only use water to cleanse themselves and view the use of toilet paper as an unsanitary practice.

How did the toilet paper come about you ask? The first “official” toilet paper was introduced in China in 1391, but the first mention of toilet paper (paper for personal hygiene) dates back to the year 589 AD in Korea. Between 875 and 1317 AD, paper was produced in large sheets (2-foot x 3-foot sheets and even perfumed) for Chinese emperor’s family hygiene.

In the Colonial America, the common means was corncobs.

Paper was a rare commodity until the 17th or 18th centuries. The first reference to paper as toilet paper was recorded in 1718. After invention of paper pages from newspapers and magazines were also commonly used (newspapers became widely available at 1700s.)

Joseph C. Gayetty is credited as the inventor of modern commercially available toilet paper. “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper” was sold in packages of flat sheets, medicated with aloe and watermarked with his name. Gayety’s toilet paper was available as late as the 1920’s.

In 1871, Seth Wheeler (to some sources Zeth Wheeler) of Albany became the official “inventor” of toilet paper. Seth Wheeler patents rolled and perforated wrapping paper. His Albany Perforated Wrapping Paper Company began selling the first toilet paper on a roll.

Rolled and perforated toilet paper was invented around 1880. In 1879, Thomas Seymour, Edward Irvin and Clarence Wood Scott founded the Scott Paper Company in Philadelphia. Scott brothers came up with the idea of customizing rolls for every merchant-customer they had. They began selling packages of small rolls and stacked sheets. Scott Paper Company began producing toilet paper under its own brand name in 1896. By 1925 Scott Company became the leading toilet paper company in the world.

So what got the white toilet paper trend rolling? First, it’s important to understand how to make toilet paper. Toilet paper is made from cellulose fibers that come either directly from trees or recycled paper. The fibers mix with water to make pulp. Toilet paper creation comes in two basic parts: making the raw paper, and converting it to the end product you buy in the store. The raw paper starts as wood pulp just as any other type of paper. Brands bleach wood pulp with hydrogen peroxide or chlorine to make it whiter. This bleaching process is more than aesthetic—it removes the substance lignin, too, softening the paper.

Cellulose fibers are also naturally white. The glue holding them together, however, is brown which goes away thanks to bleach. So it’s not necessarily just the process, but also the raw material that makes toilet paper white. Plus, toilet paper from recycled paper uses mostly office waste or printer paper, which is already white. Although bleached virgin pulp produces the softest fibers to make tissue, unbleached and recycled fibers can also make high-quality tissue as well. So the white color of toilet paper is more conventional than functional since toilet paper doesn’t necessarily have to be white to be soft and absorbent. There’s no argument about smooth toilet paper—but there is an answer to the debate about how to hang toilet paper.

One of the primary reasons toilet paper is white is the same reason most toilets are, simply that white toilet paper looks cleaner than the natural brown-ish colour the paper is before it’s bleached. If toilet paper was the original brown hue, on a purely aesthetic level, would you use it? Or, perhaps more aptly, would you prefer it over the white variety? The consensus among toilet paper makers, like Kimberly-Clark who rang in on this issue, is that people consistently choose the white. One can only assume they’ve done extensive marketing studies to back that notion up, but even without access to those studies, it makes intuitive sense.

Although white toilet paper like this is the norm in America, color toilet paper was trendy in the past. In the 1950s, people would even coordinate their toilet paper with their bathroom color scheme. It reportedly died down, however, thanks to concerns about the safety of pastel dyes for the skin and the environment. Plus, color toilet paper increases the cost to make the rolls. Most toilet paper in North America is white because of consumer preference. But in places like South America and Europe, toilet paper comes in a rainbow of colors, even black.

If you want to try adding a pop of color to your bathroom with toilet paper, there’s still toilet paper brand Renova that sells various colors for more than the typical white variety. I heard that France has pink toilet paper. Someone has to be help out on the reason. No matter your personal design taste, toilet paper is a must-have to be clean. Wipe on.

Check out my related post: How Thinx makes your period wearable?

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