Cloth Toilet Wipes: The Prepper World’s Worst Idea Ever

On April 17, 2017, I went to Costco and filled my huge shopping cart with a total of 180 rolls of toilet paper. Double rolls. I felt like a king walking out of there with the cart piled high.

Now, in early November, we have about 16 rolls left in a household of 2 adults and 2 older teenager. Two guys, two gals.

Not a bad investment, and I’ve always been the kind of guy who likes to stock up anyway so I can avoid shopping. In prepper circles, though, a TP stash is looked down upon and most survival types worth their salt will say something like this, “Forget stocking up on toilet paper. Use old t-shirts to make personal wipes, and just run them through the washing machine.”

On the surface, it sounds ideal. None of us want to go back to the days of using corn cobs, leaves, or phone books. I understand that. But think for a moment about what is involved with using cloth as toilet paper. Saving and cutting up old t-shirts is the easy part.

Cloth toilet wipes — a REALLY bad idea

First, used cloth wipes will have to be kept somewhere in a location that will not attract flies, pets, rodents, and other pests of all kinds. You may think that little bucket with a lid will do the job, but you haven’t met Lacey, our foster Great Pyrenees. We’ve had to place a filled water jug, the gallon size, on our kitchen trash to Lacey-proof it. She and her other four-legged friends would love nothing better than to wallow around in poop and pee smelling t-shirts.

Oh, the glory of it all!!!

Slightly off topic — a few weeks back, my wife and I pulled up to a CVS and right there on the sidewalk by the Redbox machine was a young couple washing down their 2 large dogs. The dogs were covered with suds and it was quite a sight. I asked why they were washing their dogs in front of a CVS store and was told, “We were out jogging on the trails and the dogs found some armadillo carcasses. They started rolling around on them and now they stink too much to take home.”

Animals love foul-smelling things, so if you go the cloth toilet paper route, keep that in mind.

A lot of preppers who took the cloth diaper/diaper pail route, swear that it’s the same thing with cloth wipes. To a point, they’re correct, but in a typical home, there is only one baby producing dirty diapers. In a household with many people, God only knows how many cloth wipes you’ll have on your hands in just a week.

Not all “greywater” is the same

I hope you aren’t planning on reusing the water from your loads of cloth wipes.

Reusing greywater makes a lot of sense as a practical way to both lower water bills and to manage scarce resources. Most people think all greywater is the same and can be used for gardening, laundry, and irrigation. However, water that has come into contact with feces, even water from washing machines if the laundry load included underwear, is not safe to reuse as greywater.

So, once the used cloth toilet wipes are ready to launder, you will have to use clean water for washing and then that water becomes unsafe to use in any other way. Also, I’d like to point out that a load of cloth wipes is going to be significantly dirtier than a typical load of laundry with a few random pairs of tightie-whities.

Once your cloth wipes have been washed, that greywater cannot be used for anything. If you aren’t able to drain the water into your septic tank or the city water system, then you’re left with having to find a draining location that is going to be as far away as possible from any groundwater source or well, and you won’t be able to recycle that water by using it for gardening or for irrigating crops.

See also  Waterless Hygiene and How to Keep Yourself Clean

What about the washing process without power?

With the grid alive and well and your washing machine putting out plenty of hot water, I suppose right now is the best time to experiment with cloth wipes. However, from a prepper point of view, the plan is to use these wipes when the toilet paper runs out, right?

In that case, consider this. You’ll have to keep those dirty wipes in a tightly closed container between washdays. I hope you’ve stocked up on plenty of air freshener.

Next, you’ll need the biggest metal container you can find to fill with water, bring it to boiling, and then mix in the wipes using a huge utensil of some sort. I don’t know exactly how long it takes for that boiling water to thoroughly sanitize the wipes, and my guess is there are very few preppers who do. The longer you boil the water, the more fuel you’re using, but if you cut the boiling time short, will it leave dangerous bacteria behind? How is that a good idea in a survival scenario?

In the winter, how are you going to boil that water inside the house if the power is out? How quickly will those cloth wipes take to dry, and don’t kid yourself if you think that in a chaotic SHTF scenario, everyone is going to be only using their color-coded wipes. It’s going to be every man and wipe for himself.

Is there a better option?

The plain truth is that cloth toilet wipes could be a catastrophically bad idea to the tune of cholera, typhoid, and diseases that are pretty much unknown in modern America. Perhaps you have an effective plan for dealing with feces-tainted water, but does your neighbor? Imagine how many times in a day toilets in your neighborhood are flushed. Now imagine all those households without the ability to flush, toilet paper is running low, and it will be a matter of a week or two before your neighborhood becomes a stew of awful smells and dangerous bacteria.

So is there a better option? The first best option is to do what I’ve been doing — stock up on a year’s worth of TP. I’m thinking that if those 170 rolls are going to last about 9 months, about another 50 would have given me a generous year’s worth. So for about $225, I could avoid going to the store for TP for an entire year, and be sitting pretty with my favorite brand of TP should the S hit the fan.

For prepping purposes, plan on making that Costo shopping trip every 5-6 months to stay on top of keeping that awesome stash intact.

TEOTWAWKI, the absolute worst case scenario you can think of, will probably last longer than a year (I’m talking about a Venezuela collapse). But even then, with a year’s worth, that gives me time to, first, establish rules about how much TP can be used per person. Next, I have a margin of 12 months to develop other plans, including a DIY composting toilet, which is the best way to go. A community compost toilet is one idea that beats the heck out of mounds of dirty cloth wipes.

It would be difficult enough to maintain even the lowest standard of sanitation by today’s standard without exacerbating the situation with cloth wipes. There are better ideas and plans out there, so let’s put the cloth wipes idea where it belongs — deep in the nether regions of “Really Bad Ideas”.

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37 thoughts on “Cloth Toilet Wipes: The Prepper World’s Worst Idea Ever”

    1. I do too. I believe urine is sterile, unless the donor has an active urinary infection. If you have a urinary infection, you know it! At least women do, I’m not sure about men.

    2. Urine is sterile inside the bladder, once it is exposed to air it begins to grow bacteria. Something to think about.

  1. The same thing goes for reusable menstrual pads. How are you going to sanitize them with no washing machine, no way to dispose of the contaminated water.

  2. I would consider having a small supply of wiping cloth, just as a backup-they can serve multiple purposes. But I would probably burn them.

  3. Consider using a pump spray wand as a “poor mans” bidet. They are easily sanitized with sunlight or homemade chlorine bleach. There are plenty of designs available online.

    Yes, you do need towels for drying, unless you are able to air-dry yourself (come on, you’ve done that before…). The towels will be MUCH less of a problem to wash. They may also be sterilized using the same methods as above.

    1. I completely agree with your suggestions. Women are often given a squeeze bottle after childbirth to help clean up the first few weeks when going to the bathroom. Its how I got the idea actually. Women also need to make sure to keep their “area” trimmed to help reduce further contamination and for easier clean up during menstruation and urination. Bathroom sanitation is one of my biggest fears if SHTF happened. I am so concerned about disease etc. It doesn’t help that I am a teacher and read about pandemics and such. I take opportunities though that come up to discuss preparedness with my students! I keep it light and appropriate, but I’m trying to “plant” the idea of being prepared!

      1. Modern Americans have zero concept of how far downhill we have to go in regards to sanitation. Unless they have lived in third world countries, have walked down the streets of most cities/towns in a country like India, for example, and smelled the air — they have no idea whatsoever of what daily life would be like without our modern conveniences of water, sewage, and power.

    2. Actually, a bidet system was in my notes and I overlooked it in my article. If water isn’t in short supply, that would be an excellent way to stay clean.

  4. we are stocked up with a yr worth of TP as well as a yr worth of baby wet wipes. The wet wipes (left outside to dry) can be burned. The baby wet wipes can easily be rationed to one a go and get most of the offending matter. then TP to finish. The wet wipes store well, too.

    1. Double check those packages of wipes. Many of the brands we’ve purchased over the years were not in a truly air-tight package and eventually dried up. We could still use them by adding water, but eventually began sealing them in vacuum sealed bags for long term storage.

  5. The UV rays from direct sunlight should sanitize them. Same with sanitary pads and diapers. That’s probably how you’ll be drying most of your clothes after TEOTAWKI, anyway. And as mentioned above, urine is sterile unless you have an infection.

    I am NOT using a corn cob!

  6. I prefer using cloth wipes for pee and put them into a large lidded jar with water until I’m ready to do laundry. It cuts my TP use way down.

  7. Composting toilet is a wonderful idea….but does not address the problem of removal of lingering feces on the human body. You need something to wipe that away or you are going to be faced with the exact problem you are trying to avoid….contaminated underware and stinky bodies from lack of cleaning. (I won’t go into the sores I have seen on bottoms from lack of cleaning properly…not something you want to deal with after the SHTF)

    If you have boiled the cloths properly the remaining water should be sterile. You boil your water source to make it drinkable, right? How long do you have to boil water to drink it drinkable? Double that time, to allow for the fact cloth isn’t liquid, and your cloths should be sterile again.

    As far as getting them dry again….moist is an asset when using for fecal removal, so I wouldn’t stress over getting them 100% dry. (people are planning on using baby wipes, right? Same idea.)

    As as I recall, most of you are stocking up on bleach and/or the ability to make bleach from pool shock. Why are you doing that? To kill germs, perhaps? Add some to your boiling water…presto, killed germs.

    So stock up on your favorite TP and hope the problem lasts only a year….or think ahead and pick up those wash cloths on sale every September…you know, just in case. Worst case? You have extra washcloths in your house for future use as, you know, washcloths.

    1. Cass, you offer practical alternative solutions to the problem. The author of this rant sees only one and then goes on to say after there is no way to get more TP he will look for a solution. Then it might be too late. If that is how he deals with problems, he won’t last long in a crisis so a substitute for TP won’t be a problem.

      1. You’re pretty far off base, my friend and read my article with a closed mind. In a SHTF scenario, sanitation issues will bring about some of the largest numbers of casualties. Thinking that having piles of filthy cloth wipes, spending the time, energy, and clean water to launder them and then pouring that feces tainted water in a random location is asking for trouble. Of course there are alterntives to TP. I am just refuting one of the naive prepper beliefs that cloth wipes are the solution.

    2. You’re welcome to the cloth wipes, Cass. In our first world system of sanitation and modern power grid, I have no issue with that. My article centered around the idea of relying on cloth wipes and all the complicated issues of sanitation in a post-SHTF world. Most people will not have easy access to water — huge issue right there and that alone makes cloth wipes risky. I’m going to keep about a year’s worth of TP on hand, both for convenience and to buy time until my community comes up with a solution, and believe me, it will take a COMMUNITY to deal with sewage issues because it will affect everyone.

      You may not know this, but workers at city sewage departments undergo special training, innoculations, and protective clothing because there are so many dangerous health issues related to human feces. I’m not taking any chances. Your mileage obviously varies.

  8. This is funny!
    Does no one remember we used to wash baby diapers?
    Your wiping not pooing in the wipes so why would that be
    different from a baby diaper?
    We rinsed them, soaked them and washed them-I rinsed them twice because baby bottoms are sensitive.
    I put some vinegar in the soaking water.
    Just get a pail with a tight lid, pour the water down your toilet.
    Your toilet will still work if it is only water going down it.
    Please, please we have not always been a disposable society.

    1. Actually, in a grid down scenario, your toilet will very quickly stop flushing because there won’t be any water pressure. Without a working city sewage system, water and waste will just sit in the pipes and, eventually, will start backing up into sinks, toilets, bathtubs, you name it.

      1. Water pressure isn’t the problem, since you can manually flush. But the backing up can be a major issue if you are on a city sewage system.

        A much bigger problem than what you wipe with.

    2. Well, I used my older brother’s soft flannel shirts a couple of times, and threw them in the wash, he never noticed. Thank you, Tide!
      To this day, I’m a big believer in not limiting our toilet tissue storage capabilities, and we the wipes, ( we seal those in the vacuuming sealer for up to one year of storage)

    3. Bebe – I was thinking the same thing, and wondered if the author of the article was too young to have experienced diaper pails. LOL! I noticed that the community compost project that was linked to said they don’t poo in it, only pee, so I guess it’s not working out so well. And since when will a toilet not flush without water pressure?

      CD in Oklahoma

    4. Thanks for reminding us Bebe. –Cotton cloth baby diapers, sometimes with a sheet of plastic as outer cover, was what I used 40 years ago for our babies. And reused after rinsing and washing. One procedure I have noticed while sailing in Croatia: Fisherman and wife goes out to sea in the dinghy. While the husband rows, wife trails diapers after the boat and rinse, rinse, rinse……
      So using cloth wipes for us grown ups , if necessary, is an option. Because eventually the paper TP will run out.
      My grandmother had a rather large washing tank, heated by wood fire. Dirty linen was put in, and moved around a lot and intermittent in the hot, near boiling water with a stick. The tank was called ( in danish “gruekedel”) and the procedure “cooking wash” 🙂 Of course this is a way to do it in a situation with no power/no washingmachine

  9. Outside of a handkerchief, I’ve always regarded cloth wipes to be my bridge too far. I stock up on cases of TP. 2 years worth isn’t enough. Just remember the second Golden Rule: “If Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.”

  10. Preferred Customer

    You read my mind. I’ve been stashing TP for years because I don’t care what “the prepper community” says, I’m not dealing with shitty cotton fabric.

    1. I spent 22 years living on an island out in the Pacific. Not first world, not quite third world, but I first hand experience in extremely rugged living conditions. I’ve used banana leaves for wiping, paper, my hand — just about anything that was around when TP wasn’t available. I lived through dozens of typhoons and spent weeks without power. I know what I’m talking about when I say that life without modern sewage systems will be a nightmare and cotton wipes are not a sanitary solution under those circumstances.

    1. You wouldn’t believe all the places I’ve stashed toilet paper. When I get home with one of my loads, no pun intended, I am able to store all of those packages in a single bathroom. The next time I load up, I’ll have to take some pics.

      1. I would like to see that photo. I even keep rolls in 5 gallon buckets in my car. If you have a special way of storing TP, please write that article!

  11. I experienced this the trial-by-fire way this past summer for two weeks, without transportation, internet (to order more tp), OR a washing machine. Did have electricity, running water, a sink, and an iron. (This sounds like the beginning of a horror story lol.)

    For a container for the used cloth wipes (family cloths), a large (or small, but emptied) re-purposed plastic Folgers coffee tin was perfect. It’s designed to keeps smells contained (and keep coffee fresh- haha.) I learned during my time working in nursing that a splash of pine sol in a container that uses urine helps immensely, so I put some in and washed the cotton by hand when the container got full or smelled like it was even just starting to become dying rotting grossness.

    Washing toilet wipes on a stove in boiling water sounds like a disgusting, terrible, and toxic way of dealing with them. Rinsing them after they’re washed, in boiling water, sounds good though.

    I filled the sink with water as hot as the tap could make it, dumped the cloths in, poked them with a grossed out expression to make them be under the water, and let them soak 20 minutes. When they’d soaked, I’d come back, put some unscented laundry detergent in the water (just a tiny amount), swish it with nitrile exam gloves on, then drain it and change out the water.

    Then I’d wash them, individually, with a second tiny amount of soap. Drain, refill sink, wash them again, until they were clean. Squeeze all the soap out. Drain, refill, and rinse them. Drain, squeeze dry, refill sink, and rinse well. One tiny sinkful of laundry in this way took maybe 20 minutes or longer, and only cleaned about 4 days worth of cloth tp.

    Was it worth it? Yeah, because otherwise it wouldn’t have just been clean tp I didn’t have. It would have been no clean underwear, socks, shirts, pants- nothing. When I was done washing, I’d gather up the clean stuff, hang it on a long string I finagled and attached by way of a couple metal clips, and let it dry. When it was dry, I ironed EVERYTHING with full steam on to sanitize the cra-ahem- …out of it.

    Clothes and toilet stuff got different washes, with the sink being cleaned extremely well between washes. A couple weeks later, being able to wash in a machine once again, was an experience of nearly tearful proportions hahaha x’D

    Moral of the story: It can be an excellent emergency measure, even if you don’t have access to a machine. Cloth wipes do a better job than paper. The danger isn’t really so much in “will it make you sick” (unless you allow your dog free rein? gross much?) in my opinion. The danger is more “oh CRAP. Did I drop it into the toilet?! That can’t be flushed!”

    But when you don’t have TP, don’t expect to be able to wipe with newspaper. Ink on my butt sounds nasty, but more than that, where are you going to get a stockpile of newspaper to last that long? Where will you throw it away?

    Cloth can be washed (even though it sucks) by hand. Newspaper can’t. And I don’t want to burn what I wipe my butt with. The smell of poop and fire doesn’t sound good to me. But maybe for someone else, it’d be the way to go, if they don’t have spare fabric laying around to rip up like I did.

    1. The TP I buy comes individually wrapped in tissue paper. I save all those tissue paper wraps (folded, stacked and stored) in 5-gallon buckets, to use as back-up TP, and as fire starters. The cardboard cores I flatten and store the same way. Will make great fire starters and kindling for one of the back-up stoves.

  12. Untextured silicone oven mitt , two pails of water and a brush with long handle. Using a two step process of wiping, rinse and brush in one pail of water (repeat as necessary), then clean mitt in second pail of sudsywater and bleach!
    They come in many colors for each family member.

  13. Hello people,
    I once found myself broke and stranded on my boat in a foreign country waiting a month for a cheque to be deposited.
    I had all kinds of food as well as fresh fish and crab. I remember buying four huge chicken legs for a buck and the locals taught me how to fry the (bleep) out of it in bacon fat so that it would keep for a day or three without refrigeration.
    I ran out of TP and flashed back to my young days watching mom wash the cloth baby diapers.
    I tore up a spare sheet that was saved for Band-Aids, padding, and many other uses around a boat and put a little bleach and salt water in a 5 gal bucket.
    My bum loved me for those 3 and a half weeks.
    I had two lids for the bucket One lid had an inch hole in the middle of the lid that the handle of a toilet plunger would fit through for “doing the wash”. Water was a problem but when isn’t water a problem when living on a boat. I learned to wash and rinse in salt water and save the fresh water for the last rinse.
    Just getting back into prepping.
    I have a very limited budget to say the least but manage a bit every month. This month was dried veggies, dried skim milk and some meat bouillon. I bottled seven pints of hamburger as an experiment to top it all off.
    My preps are myself and my abilities. I know the vast majority of people I’m surrounded by are real good at raising cows, pigs, and potatoes, but they could cook a meal or preserve a cow if their life depended on it.
    I stock up on twenty dollars worth of mason jar lids every month too.
    My mother canned all her life to keep the family fed and her basement is full of clean mason jars. A pallet full at least.
    Drying veggies is my new hobby and had a delightful surprise drying Hawthorn berries when the tea I made turned out really nice! I toss in a table spoon of hawthorn berries per mug of tea, simmer the heck out of it and even mashing the berries a bit.
    All the best, and have a great one.

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