In this report
December 2009 Ratings

Paper towels that clean up

Last reviewed: December 2009

"Messes happen!" says Brawny, and no one would disagree. But when it's time to clean up, is Brawny best or should you pick up "the quicker picker-upper" (Bounty), "the answer to life's little messes" (Viva), or one of dozens of other paper towels lining store shelves?

To find out, we tested 21. Some are embossed on one or both sides; some are perforated to create half-sheets; some are "green" (made of 100 percent recycled paper, with some post-consumer content). Most are two-ply.

There are also different numbers of sheets, sizes of sheet, and numbers of rolls per package, to say nothing of the shrinkage that sometimes occurs in the same product over time. As a result, it's difficult to compare costs. We've leveled the playing field by calculating cost per 100 square feet. Be sure to check that column in the Ratings (available to subscribers) because some paper towels cost three times as much as others.

How we tested

To measure absorbency, we dipped a sheet of each paper towel in a bucket and determined the weight of water it held per square foot. To assess scrubbing strength, we wrapped a wet sheet around a sponge and had a machine move it back and forth over ceramic tiles. Scores are based on the number of scrubs before the sheet tore. For wet strength, we clamped a sheet into an embroidery hoop and determined the weight of lead shot needed to break through.

What we found

Bounty Extra Soft, Walgreens Ultra Quilted, and CVS Big Quilts were winners overall, though Bounty is pricey. Very good and even cheaper than the drugstore offerings are the Kirkland Signature (Costco) paper towels sold in the East (those sold in the West did slightly worse) and Up & Up (Target).

Brawny proved most absorbent of all. In our tests 1 square foot held more than 2½ fluid ounces of water on average, compared with about one-half fluid ounce for the least absorbent products. The toughest sheets survived more than 175 scrubs over our tiles on average, compared with 15 scrubs for the worst. Other findings:

  • White Cloud Green Earth is the best of the products made from recycled paper and is very good overall. Most others with recycled content are only fair.
  • With toilet paper, we've found that more plies usually mean better performance, but high-rated Viva Kleenex has just one ply. The other single-ply products are in the middle of the Ratings (available to subscribers).
  • Some rolls squish easily, Mr. Whipple-style; others are firmer. To get the most product, look at sheet numbers and dimensions before you buy. Sheet sizes in the Ratings (available to subscribers) are to the nearest inch.