Child Rearing, Minimalish

How to Make & Use Reusable (Cloth) “Paper” Towels, Wipes & More

There is certainly more than one great reason to switch to reusable items in any area of your life. Household items commonly made out of paper are a great place to start or continue your journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle!

In our home, we use cloth paper towels, baby wipes, toilet wipes, cleaning rags, facial cleansing rounds and feminine products (and cloth diapers, but that will be a different post!). I only use regular toilet paper or tissues for my nose and I use actual paper towel very sparingly – only when what’s being wiped won’t wash out easily or really should just get thrown away.

Switching to cloth was a gradual process, so don’t feel overwhelmed or like you have to toss all of your paper products immediately just because you want to use, or think you should be using, reusables instead. This post covers the factors that contributed to my desire to switch to cloth, how I actually made my cloths (fabrics, sizes, etc.) as well as my experience as I went through the transition. I hope you will find it helpful or, at the very least, entertaining!

The items are listed in the order in which I switched from disposables, but your journey may begin somewhere down the list!

Cloth Menstrual Pads/Pantyliners

Prism Pack from Sew Fussy on Etsy.

Make Them:

I did not make my own cloth pads/pantyliners (well, I did make one as an experiment, but it looks kind of like a wet cat). I purchased these, handmade, from Sew Fussy on Etsy. They are great and I would definitely recommend them. It’s also a bonus that the “prism pack” comes with a variety of fabrics so you can get a feel for what you may want to use to make more of your own (or on other projects), if you weren’t previously familiar with the materials and weaves. I will note that the Sherpa pad from the “prism pack” did not hold up as well as the others (sherpa is a less durable fabric than hemp and basic cottons); the snap eventually tore away from the fabric. Speaking of snaps: if you make your own pads you’ll need to buy snaps and snap pliers like this, unless you plan to go snap free.

The pads in the “prism pack” also do not have a waterproof layer. This keeps them breathable, but they will leak through if heavily wetted. PUL is a plastic coated fabric that is commonly used as a waterproof layer for pads and cloth diapers. I have seen special nylon fabrics being used for cloth diapers that are supposed to be more breathable than PUL, but I am not sure if/where you can buy them.

Other brands of pads that I have been interested in, but have not tried are the following:

Pretty much anything off Etsy!

Use Them:

I mainly use these as daily pantyliners, period back-up or for “light days”. If you want a full period replacement you’ll need to make or find something larger and/or thicker than the ones I have. The larger styles can also be used as “mama pads” for the postpartum period.

To wash them, you can just throw them in with your other clothes (hot cycle preferred), but make sure they are dry and/or rinsed before putting them in with other laundry to avoid stains. It may be a good idea to put them in a mesh delicates bag, but I don’t do this and haven’t had any issues yet.

Why I Switched and What it Was Like:

I made this switch simply to reduce waste. Other positives I have experienced since using cloth pads are that they save money and are more comfortable on sweaty days when a disposable might shred or stick to you. Downsides are that they do not absorb as quickly or feel as “dry” as disposables. Since I mainly use them for backup, this just is a minor discomfort that doesn’t outweigh the positives and that I have simply gotten used to. The only other downside is that the snap can be uncomfortable to sit on at times, especially while bike riding. There are some snapless varieties available, however (see links above).

Toilet Wipes (a.k.a. Family Cloth)

My first toilet wipe storage box. They didn’t all fit, so now I just keep them in the cupboard.
Top: hemp French terry. Bottom: hemp Sherpa. Both have smooth back-sides.

Make Them:

These are most commonly made out of flannel, but before I knew that, I made half of mine out of hemp sherpa and half out of hemp french terry. I actually prefer them to flannel because they are easier to grip while wiping. Mine are a bit smaller than my paper towels, measuring 8″ by 8.5″ (I’m lazy, so I just traced a random book), and I find them to be the perfect size, folded in half. I just cut them out and serged the edges, but if you don’t have a serger, you might want to use a no-fray fabric. A lot of people just cut up old t-shirts, which don’t need to be serged, but I feel like that material might be too smooth/thin for me, personally. I think I have 25-30 wipes and they last me at least a few days or so, which is how often I wash whatever’s in the diaper pail. Your number will depend how often you’re home and how often you go!

Use Them:

You can probably figure out how to use these, but I will note that I usually use them dry unless I go #2. We used to have a toilet sprayer which I loved, so I would spray with that and then wipe dry. Now, I just wet the wipe if needed. I throw these in with our daughter’s cloth diapers for washing, but before she was born I would wash them with our white clothes because that’s the only load I wash on hot. If you’re not comfortable washing them with your other clothes, you can do a separate load, but it will be quite small!

Why I Switched and What it Was Like:

I wanted to switch to cloth TP for both environmental & economical reasons. It’s also nice to not have to store so much TP in the cupboard, but I do still keep a few rolls on hand for guests and for when my husband goes #2 (he has not converted to cloth yet). I also use paper TP for my nose, but intend to switch to cloth for that as well, at some point.

And now, your questions will be answered. Isn’t it gross? Does it smell? Do you share wipes with other people?

I don’t think it’s gross, especially if you are rinsing yourself first, but if you’re not already versed with cloth diapers and the like, you may need to wrap your head around it for a little while before you’re entirely comfortable with the idea. I’m just talking about the cleanliness of the cloths themselves. If you think your butt won’t be as clean, it’s actually the opposite if you wet the wipes first (dry paper TP does not do as good of a job as you think) and basically the same as paper if you keep them dry.

Nothing smells, everything comes clean in the washing machine and I don’t believe we had poop all over our other clothes when they were washed together. One bonus to cloth diapering is that the wipes can just get thrown in the diaper pail and they don’t need their own separate receptacle. Some people use a small garbage can or even a bucket filled with water to soak them before washing (I think this method is more mess than it’s worth and may emit a smell). I honestly can’t remember what I did with my dirty ones before we had a diaper pail. I think I threw them in a woven basket. I don’t think it smelled at all, but there wasn’t any poop on them. If yours have poop on them, you should use something with a closed lid (a big cookie jar or canister come to mind if you want it to be decorative). Be sure to wash them at least every 3-4 days if you are using a closed lid receptacle or if the wipes are quite wet to prevent mold.

I don’t have a need to share mine with other people unless I run out of wipes for our 20 mo. old (or vice versa). Though, it is probably a good idea to have different sets for each family member. I have seen others use different patterns of fabric to differentiate them. Our daughter uses flannel wipes, so I can tell hers from mine, but we do use each other’s when necessary.

Overall, I will admit that I didn’t like them as much as paper TP at first, simply because they don’t absorb as quickly as paper does and they can be difficult to keep a grip on while wiping (if the cloth and your hands are both dry). However, I have gotten used to it and don’t really enjoy the paper fluff as much anymore (it’s all about what you’re used to!). I really enjoy not spending money on toilet paper and trying to fit it all somewhere in the bathroom.

Cotton Facial Rounds

Decorative storage jar for clean facial rounds.

Make Them:

I made these out of hemp sherpa fabric which scrubs away dirt and dead skin really nicely. I feel much cleaner using these than disposable cotton rounds. I used something round to trace them out and sewed the edges with a serger. They ended up around 2.5″ dia., but a bit bigger might have been nice (especially since they shrank in the wash – be sure to shrink your fabric first! I made about 20, I believe, for full time use and now only have 6 or so (passed the rest onto a friend who was interested in trying them!).

Use Them:

I actually don’t use these very often anymore since I usually only wash my face when I take a shower once a week! However, I do keep a few in my travel bag for when I may need to freshen up between showers. They work famously with Leanne’s “Quickie” Cleansing Lotion & Toner which is my favorite, super quick & easy, no rinse face wash. You can use them with the concentrated solution as directed or pre-saturate them with 50% cleanser and 50% water. Then, store them in an airtight jar for an even quicker cleansing. Sherpa cotton rounds are also awesome for removing makeup (not that I’ve ever tried it, but my spidey senses tell me it is so) and Leanne’s “Quickie” Cleansing Lotion can be used undiluted for effectively removing makeup.

To wash the rounds, just toss them into a small mesh bag and wash with your regular laundry. I kept a bag hanging in the bathroom for easy access, but you could also store them in a decorative canister or the like until wash day. I would not recommend this, however, when used with Leanne’s “Quickie” Cleansing Lotion and other 100% natural cleansers as they may mold in an airtight environment once exposed to the dirt from your face.

Another bonus use for these is as a “cup spot” if you use a reusable menstrual cup. Sometimes it’s nice to have a clean spot to set the cup down in the bathroom and these are the perfect size to keep on the counter or even the window sill (whatever is most convenient). You can also keep one in your purse to use in public restrooms where a clean surface is nonexistent!

Why I Switched and What it Was Like:

I made this switch purely for eco-friendliness. At the time, I was going through quite a few disposable cotton rounds and it just seemed like a more luxurious alternative. It was definitely a good choice because I really do enjoy these a lot more than the disposable ones and I saved a little money in the process.

Paper Towels (a.k.a. Un-paper Towels)

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Make Them:

Our un-paper towel collection is pretty sad, actually. I wasn’t exactly sure what fabric would be best and I was concerned with color, so I ended up with half grey flannel and half green cotton (some kind of fine linen-like material, I believe). I wanted two different colors because paper towels get used for food applications and also for cleaning up gross stuff (we use green for food and grey for the gross stuff). Neither of the fabrics I chose work that great for their intended uses. The green cotton is not very absorbent at all. The grey flannel is more absorbent, but still quite thin and smooth, so not super for scrubbing stuck-on or dirty messes and not so good for wiping up spills that require a lot of absorbency.

Since I was sort of just experimenting with the fabrics, I purchased a half yard of each and ended up with only a handful of each color. It has actually been almost enough, for the most part, but I never used a ton of paper towel to begin with, so you’ll have to gauge how many you’ll need for your family. It’s really about how many you’ll use before you’ll be able to wash them. Like everything else, I just cut them out and serged the edges. Since I had a small amount of fabric, I just cut equal rectangles to get as many as I could out of it. They ended up being 10.5″ x 7.5″ and I find them to be a good size (kind of in-between a full sheet of paper towel and a select-a-size sheet).

Use Them:

Green Food Towels

The food ones have a few intended uses (for our family, that is; there could be lots more!), but only one that really works out well with the fabric I chose. The first is to absorb moisture in boxes of berries after they’ve been washed (to prolong shelf life). This works famously with real paper towel, but my green cloths are not absorbent or breathable enough, so the water just gets trapped inside and does not help the berries out at all. If I were to make more for this specific use, I would probably try muslin or cheese cloth. Flannel would work well for absorbency, but you’d have to make sure to remove the cloth from the box as soon as all the moisture is absorbed in order to allow for air flow.

The second use that works sort of okay is for squeezing excess liquid out of food before cooking (frozen spinach, shredded veggies, etc.). They do actually absorb liquid when pressed this way, but they just don’t hold very much, so I have to use a few of them to complete the task (I suppose it would be the same with real paper towels).

The final use that I enjoy the most is basically more like a cloth napkin. I use them in this way primarily if we have packed a picnic or are eating lunch in the car. Mine happen to be just the right size to make a sandwich on top of (or fold the napkin over for temporary protection once the sandwich is made). I don’t usually pack dishes in our “to-go” meals (unless they are already in a tupperware), so the napkins have been put to use for “lap sandwiches” on several occasions.

Grey Cleaning Towels

The grey ones get used to wipe up pretty much anything that happens on the floor. Also great for dusting/cleaning off bins that have been in storage, outdoor toys/furniture/etc., pretty much any kind of cleaning that does not involve where you prepare or eat food. As I said earlier, our thin flannel wipes work okay for this, but they don’t scrub well when you have stuck-on food spills on the floor (unless you are also using baking soda) and they don’t absorb well when your toddler just dumped 16 oz of water on the floor or forgot to sit on the potty before peeing. If I were to make these again I would definitely use some kind of terry cloth or just buy cheap washcloths.

Since I don’t have very many of the grey ones, I ended up stealing some of our daughters flannel baby wipes to use for bathroom cleaning (I sewed an X across them to differentiate them from her wipes). I find that the thin flannel works fine for this application and I don’t think I would prefer a washcloth in this case, so a half-and-half stash for general cleaning might be the best bet, depending on your preference.

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Bathroom cleaning wipes.
When Does Real Paper Towel Fit The Bill?

As for actual paper towel, it still has it’s time and place, so I keep a roll or two stashed away for those times. For instance, I use it when wiping excess waxy lotions off of bowls and utensils after making Ben’s Magic Salve, Body Balm or Coconut Aloe Face Cream for [Terra]cotta Paste. Anything with wax in it will not wash out easily, so I wipe as much as I can off with real paper towels and throw them away before washing the dishes. I also use them if there’s something really gross to clean up that I don’t even want to rinse out of the towel before washing or would not want coming in contact with our clothes in any way, shape or form (really greasy stuff, primarily, but now that I also use cloth for my butt, I can’t really think of anything gross enough to justify using paper, lol – except maybe dabbing raw meat before searing?) Secondly – but also in the grease category – real paper towel is your best bet for absorbing grease off of bacon as it cools (unless you have a drip rack). You can get grease out of cloth towels, but it will take some hand scrubbing with a lot of baking soda! I do actually use a cloth towel for oiling our cast iron pieces, but I keep it in a Ziploc in the fridge to keep it from going rancid and will probably replace it instead of washing it when the time comes.

Why I Switched and What it Was Like:

This switch was definitely to reduce waste, but also to save money. We didn’t go through a ton of paper towels, but it was still an expense along with the toilet paper, so I’m glad to be saving that money when I didn’t feel good about throwing the paper stuff away anyway. My husband, on the other hand, still uses a big handful to do a crappy job wiping something off the counter (and then leaves the wad on the counter for the magical cleaning fairies to throw away). I suppose he does it less now that I have the real paper towels in a less convenient location, but he’ll still go get them for certain things. Not having to store six big rolls of paper at a time is a definite bonus as well.

Baby Wipes

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Ilamay’s potty box. No, it never stays organized.

Make Them:

Last, but not least, I made flannel baby wipes before our daughter was born. They measure 8″ by 8″ (similar to a standard wipe) and are also serged on the edges. I’m happy with the flannel for this application. Again, if you don’t have a serger, try cutting up cotton t-shirts instead. I made about 36 initially, but now have more like 24 since I stole some to use for bathroom cleaning. 36 is a good number for a newborn baby, but we slowly needed less and less as our daughter got older.

Use Them:

There are several ways to use cloth baby wipes. You can pre-moisten a whole stack and have them ready to go in an airtight container. However, depending on your wipe solution, you may have issues with them getting moldy. I tried this at first using Wellness Mama’s wipe solution and they got moldy pretty quickly, even with boiled water. We found that it was a waste of the solution anyway, since you don’t usually need the entire wipe soaked. Now, I keep the solution in a squeeze bottle and just wet half the wipe (unless it’s a big mess) before use. Some people just use water on their wipes. I’ll do this in a pinch, but with the flannel fabric, I don’t find that they glide well enough on baby’s skin and it just makes wiping difficult. The soap and oils in the wipe solution create a bit of a “slick” effect that makes wiping much easier and more similar to traditional disposable wipes (though, much, much, healthier!). Plus, I know she’s getting totally clean and it leaves a fresh orange-lavender scent on her booty.

Why I Switched and What it Was Like:

At this point in our reusables journey, I really didn’t need a reason to use cloth wipes. It would seem pretty silly if I were to use cloth everything else (including diapers), but buy disposable wipes. That said, this is probably the biggest cost savings, environmental savings and, most importantly, health savings – have you actually looked at the ingredients in baby wipes? Even the “natural” ones have things I wouldn’t use on my own body, let alone on an infant. Plus, natural wipes with a homemade solution smell much, much better and you can customize the scent. The solution is not hard to make at all, but you will need to keep a few extra ingredients on hand if you don’t already have them for other things!

Please leave your questions below or share your experience using cloth alternatives!

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