After spending nearly 40 hours researching the history of tissues, interviewing experts, and testing more than a dozen facial tissues—first with a panel of sniffly humans, then with $40,000 worth of equipment in an engineering lab—we recommend Puffs Basic facial tissue for most people. There are tissues that are softer, tissues that are stronger when pulled apart or punctured, and tissues that claim to balm your nose with aloe or menthol. But Puffs Basic was the most absorbent of all those we tested, arguably the softest non-lotion tissue (more on this in a moment), and fared remarkably well across all our toughness tests—better than Kleenex—while being the cheapest per tissue.
To reach this conclusion, I devised tests to check for softness, absorbency, and lack of linting. I made about a half-dozen friends blind rate 15 tissue samples. Then I took the samples to the lab with a universal testing machine in a controlled lab room, pushing a rod through each tissue and measuring the resistance and breaking point. I looked into the pore-clogging potential of tissues with lotion, blasted soaked tissues from an equal distance using compressed air, and discovered that some modern tissues cannot be soaked with water, which made me question a lot of things.
For those who really bust their tissues apart in the throes of a cold, stepping up to Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong won’t cost you too much more and gives you a very tough tissue. It was the strongest tissue in dry puncture tests (my own and other publications’), stronger than Puffs Basic in wet strength, and almost as absorbent as Puffs Basic. It is also quite soft, though tests didn’t bear out the “ultra” qualifier.
Lotion tissues can feel “too soft” or otherwise off to some people, while other people (including doctors) worry about the additives clogging their pores. What’s more, tissues with lotion are less absorbent than plain tissues. But lotion tissues also feel better on chafed and raw skin. If your nose and upper lip get very raw during cold season, the very smooth-wiping Kleenex Tissues with Lotion may help.
And those who value sustainable goods above their own comfort can try Green Forest tissues. That’s not exactly a recommendation; the eco-friendly tissues in our tests filled out the very bottom rankings in our results. Green tissues are usually strong, or soft, but not often both. But Green Forest was the best of the recycled pack in absorption and wet strength, and all but tied for the most soft and most puncture-proof.
I was, like most people, born without an acute interest in the particulars of paper home goods. But in researching the best toilet paper, and then the best paper towel, I have picked up a good sense of how paper goods are made, marketed, tested, and used. I have interviewed experts on paper manufacturing, and read through perhaps hundreds of research papers, patent applications, and news articles about paper goods—along with just as many comments from readers, reviewers, and editors. I have made my friends wary and fatigued of mentioning paper towels and tissues around me; I get this look in my eye.
The main job of a facial tissue involves your face. A tissue removes cold and allergy gunk, tears, excess lipstick, and meals you just noticed you are still wearing.
When a tissue removes (or catches) those by-products, you want your tissue to absorb as much as it can, while irritating the skin it touches as little as possible. What matters is not just softness, but also pickup, skin comfort, and not leaving small paper fibers behind. Perhaps most important, a tissue should not break apart under the pressure of blowing your nose. When that happens, it’s a messy, germ-ridden, awkward mess.
Getting to a tissue should also be painless, no matter how many are left in the box, or how swiftly the last person grabbed their own tissue. It’s more than an annoyance when a tissue doesn’t come out right: Reaching a germ-covered hand deep into a box to grab the next one only extends everyone’s misery.
We weren’t likely to consider a tissue with lotion added as our top pick (and our results didn’t bear them out, regardless). Most tissues with lotion contain ingredients that some claim can cause acne or irritate existing skin conditions. But for those who appreciate a truly smooth glide under their nose, lotion tissues, including “cool” tissues formulated to feel refreshing against the skin, should be subtle, not greasy, and strong as well as soft.
The number of plies, or layers, in a tissue doesn’t really matter. It is perhaps true that three plies will, on the whole, be softer than one. But we found that many two-ply tissues were stronger than three-ply in our tests (and Consumer Reports’ tests, and Good Housekeeping’s tests), while many three-ply tissues were not as soft as some two-plies.
The tissue industry, as one expert told me, is incredibly secretive. The exact formulas used to make tissues soft or strong are not known outside the companies. Still, there are aspects common to the manufacture of all retail paper goods. Certain wood fibers from freshly cut trees make for soft paper, while others are strong; pulp from eucalyptus is favored because it’s strong, soft, and flexible.
That’s why recycled tissues have a tough go of it: We don’t recycle tissues, so the tissues are made from all kinds of paper fibers, now processed twice and at a loss in consistency and bonding strength.
While you may be using whatever paper product you find stuffed in your glove compartment, tissue is the better tool for the task. It is meant to be softer and less abrasive than paper towels, but tougher and less fragile than melty, septic-ready toilet paper. (That’s also why you should not flush tissues in your toilet. Do not flush anything but toilet paper in your toilet.)
Every cold, like every unhappy family, is miserable in its own way. Some “produce” a lot, with great force, while others are runny and constantly annoying. There was no one thing we had to test for in a good tissue, so we tested a lot of tissues many different ways.
The tissues we considered were available in most major stores and sites. While stores brands can be surprisingly good—indeed, one “control” brand from a local chain placed in the top third—we didn’t want to choose something available only regionally. You don’t have Wegmans, I don’t have Costco, and only a minority have a convenient Whole Foods.
Before testing, I talked to some people who know something about tissues. I spoke with Victoria Negrete, a dermatologist at Dermatology Associates of Wisconsin and Forefront Dermatology. I asked questions of Michael R. Kletz, a board-certified allergist and immunologist in the Washington, DC, area. And I spoke once more with Gary M. Scott, professor and chair of the Paper and Bioprocess Engineering Department at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. These interviews helped me to decide what criteria to look for in a tissue.
There are many ways to make a tissue fail, and we tried to test them all. I had seven panelists rate each tissue (from 1 to 5) for softness, resistance to tearing apart, and evidence of linting—the release of little bits of fiber when tissue is rubbed, shaken, ripped, made wet, or otherwise disturbed.
To test penetration strength (“berth,” in the trade), a kind engineer friend helped me run 15 kinds of tissues through a universal testing machine in a controlled lab room, pushing a rod through each tissue at 0.01 inch per second and measuring the resistance and breaking point.
I used the same dry/wet absorption testing I used for paper towels: weighing tissues before and after a timed dunk in water with a very accurate scale. I also graded tissues on how their dispensing tops held up to quick grabs and slow pulls.
I used air dusters and a quirky dining room table setup to test moist tissues’ resistance to blowing apart during a sneeze or blowing one’s nose. To test their strength when damp or wet, I soaked the tissues, weighed them across a Saran-wrap-guarded leaf gap in my dining room table, then hit them with a can of compressed (dusting) air, at a distance of exactly one tissue box.
It was nowhere near as scientific as the machine testing in a lab; technically, you’re not even supposed to hold a can of air like this. But adjusting every so often for seemingly bad tension or freezing air, and attempting to keep the pressure the same on each hit, I got a sense of how tissues can hold up to blasts of air far stronger than you might produce with your nose.
We compared our own results with the results seen by the labs at Consumer Reports (subscription required) and Good Housekeeping, and checked against the comments and trends in Amazon reviews. Finally, we took price into consideration, because even small differences in cost add up over years of tissue buying.
In a field with a lot of confusing names, oversold claims, and misguided features, the humbly named Puffs Basic surpassed expectations. This two-ply tissue rated softer than many three-ply tissues specifically sold as “soft,” stronger than most tissues that cost twice as much, and garnered good results in every other category: absorption, linting, and box removal.
It’s widely available in both family and single-box sizes (as well as a car-friendly soft pack), and it’s among the cheapest tissues you can get at almost any notable retailer.
In terms of raw absorption—the ratio of how much water a tissue weighs soaking wet to its initial dry weight—Puffs Basic was the best out of all tissues. It held an average of 10.13 times its weight in water, compared with the second best (and alternate pick) Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong, which picked up 8.59 times its weight. Most lotion tissues pick up between 5.5 and 6.5 times their weight in water, and other tissues span up from there.
Softness is usually an upsell on tissues, with extra plies or lotions added. But Puffs Basic (which does not have lotion) tied Kleenex Ultra Soft and Kleenex Plus Lotion for the top spot in Consumer Reports’ testing by sensory experts (subscription required). It tied with Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong in my (non-expert, but enthusiastic) friends’ ratings. When I pick it up, it feels far softer than it should for being the cheapest tissue I tested.
Softness is measured by humans. And humans, even trained humans, can’t necessarily be objective. A Universal Testing Machine, though, can.
I pushed a rod through a tissue from each of the 15 brands at five different points, measuring the amount of pressure applied to the tissue before the rod could move straight through.
Throwing out any obvious outliers, I arrived at my results:
Puffs Basic placed fifth in penetration strength. Out of the tissues that tested stronger, one was my regional brand (Wegmans), two were expensive specialty tissues (Kleenex Anti-Viral and Kleenex Cool Touch), and the very best was our upgrade pick, Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong.
Along with penetration testing, we wanted to test resistance to tearing apart. You’ve probably had a tissue fall apart on you at the worst time—right when everything is in it, so to speak, getting the contents all over your hands, or partly on your shirt. My friends blind tested dry tissues for their resistance to tearing, and Puffs Basic came out second of 15, losing only to Kleenex Plus Lotion.
I gave Puffs Basic a 4 out of 5, as it stood up until the very last of four blasts and showed no distress in other parts of the tissue. It tied with Green Forest and lost out to three lotion tissues, Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong, Kleenex Thick & Absorbent, and Kleenex Cool Touch.
Tissues, like paper towels and toilet paper, can feel extremely soft, but there’s a limiting factor: linting. After friends ripped, rubbed, and flung their tissues around, Puffs Basic came out fifth, losing only to the two recycled brands, the Wegmans tissue, and Puffs Plus Lotion. As one Amazon reviewer put it: “We tried the extra-soft Puffs and found that they left bits of tissue sticking to the nose. These are still soft and have less lint.”
Puffs Basic comes in three forms: a family box with a wide oval opening, a standard cube, and a soft pack, good for squeezing into desks, glove compartments, and other non-cubical spaces. The soft pack does a decent job of keeping a tissue upright and ready to grab, despite its lack of stiff sides. The cube, like every other tissue cube, gets easier to accidentally lift up as its weight decreases.
Finally, while availability and price were weighted less than performance, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Puffs Basic is available at just about every major retailer, and most smaller shops, too. And at 86 cents per 100 tissues (priced out at Walmart in Buffalo, NY), it’s the cheapest major brand tissue we tested. For comparison, Kleenex Anti-Viral tissues cost $5.13 per 100 sheets, and Quilted Northern 3-Ply Ultra cost $1.97 per 100. If you really do switch and stick to Puffs Basic, you’ll save some money over many colds and changing seasons.
As mentioned, Consumer Reports gave Puffs Basic a recommended mark and ranked it fifth overall in its facial tissues ratings, with a very good in strength and an outstanding in softness. Consumer Reports’ ratings page claims its overall scores are “based on strength and softness,” despite Puffs Basic receiving higher marks on those criteria than two tissues ranked above it on the overall chart. In any case, Basic is up there, despite not having lotion or markup-boosting features.
Amazon reviewers of a big Puffs Basic family box package love the stuff to the tune of an average 4.5 of 5 stars; the only negative review out of 15 as of this writing was based on a package with other goods inside being too large for the customer’s small door. Another bulk package of 24 single boxes gets 4.5 stars, too, with one of 17 reviewers finding it “too thin.”
Allergist Michael R. Keltz includes Puffs Basic among his recommendations to patients, and noted that the additions of lotions, three-ply layering, and labels of “soft” and “strong” are far from guarantees among tissue brands. Among my friends’ ratings, Puffs Basic did the best out of any non-lotion, non-specialty tissue.
As noted above, Puffs Basic was not the champ in every category. It placed fifth in mechanical puncture testing, and in the upper middle of the pack in my subjective wet blow-apart testing. And my friendly testing panel put Puffs Basic fourth in overall rankings, behind tissues with lotion, “ultra soft” markings, and cooling additives.
While reviewers on Amazon and other online stores generally appreciate Puffs Basic’s actual tissues, the boxes they come in are sometimes cited as too bold, “cartoonish,” and, being orange, not easy to fit into any particular room’s color scheme. There are other, many more subtle designs available, but most stores seem to carry the basic orange. It’s not a problem for everyone, and you can get a cover, but the box design is worth noting.
I also have qualms with the Puffs box’s reach-in opening, which seems to encourage people suffused with germs to touch the sides of stacked tissues. However, there are two other box styles to choose from if this grosses you out.
Puffs Basic does everything pretty well, but Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong does a few things notably better. It is probably the toughest retail tissue out there, wet or dry, it dispenses easily, and it is indeed quite soft. It doesn’t take the crown because it’s not as soft as Basic, it doesn’t absorb as much, and toughness is not what most people have as a primary tissue need. But if you feel let down by weak tissues that give way to pressure, or that can’t stand up to a few hours in a pocket—this is your pick.
The two-ply Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong won our mechanical tests with the universal testing machine, withstanding the most pressure from the very slow-pressing rod. It also fared third best in our informal wet blow-apart test, behind Kleenex Cool Touch and Kleenex Thick & Absorbent. In my hands, it does feel quite strong and resistant to tears.
I prefer the family box style of Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong, with a punch-out dispensing slot that’s just wide enough for a finger to grasp a top tissue. It should keep germ-ridden hands away from the remaining tissues. There’s not a lot of variation in tissue box design, but this one is nice (if you can get it—I’ve seen standard oval-cut boxes of this brand). The standard “cube” also has a smartly rounded end to its dispensing slit, which seems to hold tissues up and out a bit better than the usual straight cut.
On softness, Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong is quite good, if not the greatest. Good Housekeeping’s tissue review dubbed Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong a Best Value, noting it “scored very well on absorbency, dry and wet strength, and softness.” Consumer Reports tied Ultra with three other tissues, but gave Ultra its highest overall rating.
At $1.20 per 100 tissues (about 35 cents more than the Basic), Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong are not a big jump up from our main pick. They are priced about the same as other lotion and ultra-soft picks, but much stronger.
If you don’t use tissues for makeup or lotion removal, and you have absolutely zero issues with pore clogging, lotion tissues can be a nice thing to do for the abused skin under your nose. In our tests, we found that lotion tissues are good at being strong when wet because they don’t really get wet; the oil in their lotion repels water. You gain softness at the expense of absorption.
If you need or prefer lotion tissues, Kleenex Plus Lotion (sometimes labeled as Kleenex Lotion or Kleenex with Aloe & (Vitamin) E) provides a smooth and soft experience against the skin while providing decent strength and absorbency.
Kleenex Plus Lotion tied with Puffs Plus for the top softness rating from friend testing, and took the top spot for human-rated tear-apart toughness. Consumer Reports gave Kleenex Plus Lotion the edge in softness over Puffs Plus Lotion (an excellent rating over a very good), and rated Kleenex Plus Lotion as its Best Buy. Good Housekeeping gave Kleenex Lotion its Top Tissues nod, noting it as “thick, absorbent … and rated ‘very soft’ by testers.”
Good Housekeeping noted that Kleenex Lotion’s “wet strength was just average.” In my blow-apart testing, Kleenex Lotion performed just as well as Puffs Plus Lotion, firmly within a margin of error. Neither was as strong as Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong (or Kleenex Cool Touch, the perennial dark horse).
However, the Acne.org community (and treatment product) asks members to avoid tissues with lotion, as “the ingredients in these lotions may be pore clogging.” More specifically, some vocal opponents claim that isopropyl palmitate, an emollient found in some lotion tissues and cosmetics, can irritate pores.
The dermatologists we spoke with included tissues with lotion in their general recommendations, with the reservation that their patients should watch for irritation and clogged pores around affected areas. That said, even with lotion to very lightly coat the skin surface and soften the abrasion of wiping, it’s even better to wipe as little as possible.
Another thing to keep in mind: If your cold is causing a notable volume of mucus, lotion tissues can tend to leave some behind, requiring an extra wipe or two.
As it turns out, I’m working through a nasty weeklong chest and head cold as I write this, and I’m reaching for lotion tissues, despite my many options. When your nose and upper lip get terribly chapped, lotion tissues do feel the best against your skin.
Facial tissues are a luxury, being made of trees chopped down expressly for your convenience and sanitation. Seeking to make less of an impact with your tissue use is a noble goal. Unfortunately, the very things that make a facial tissue good—softness and strength—are difficult to achieve through the recycling process. Out of the recycled brands we tested, Green Forest fared the best.
The difference between recycled and “virgin fiber” products is more stark in facial tissues than in paper towels and toilet paper, said Gary M. Scott, chair of Paper and Bioprocess Engineering at SUNY’s Environmental Science and Forestry college. The post-consumer paper pulp going into recycled tissues comes from many sources: office paper, cardboard, and the like. Most people don’t recycle their tissues, and certainly not in dedicated “tissue recycling” bins.
So what gets used in recycled tissues is a grab bag of wood fibers, with whatever treatments and contaminants they contain. They’re a far cry from what top retail producers are using: eucalyptus fibers, as much as possible, due to their flexible but strong nature. Retail tissue makers work their products to make them softer and stronger; without that work, most turn out like the brown recycled tissues you find in workplaces and high-volume bathrooms.
Green Forest tested higher overall than Seventh Generation, Kleenex Naturals, and Scotties (which claims to be dye-free). It all but tied with Kleenex Naturals in puncture resistance, actually tied with Seventh Generation for human-rated softness, was best at absorption, and very much the winner at wet strength. It also happens to be just a teensy bit cheaper than the others.
Green Forest’s environmental credentials are legitimate: It is 90% post-consumer product, processed chlorine-free, and packaged with as little plastic as possible. It holds a 4.4 out of 5 stars in average Amazon reviews. It picks up comment recommendations and mentions across many environmentally focused blogs. And it simply fared the best among the environmental brands you can find at most retail outlets. The best of the bottom four, that is, but the best nonetheless.
The following tissues were tested but not recommended:
Kleenex Cool Touch was the most interesting tissue we didn’t recommend. It is barely a tissue; it’s the Hyperdyne Systems 120-A/2 android of tissues. It is, indeed, cool to the touch, and it mildly confused quite a few of my friends who couldn’t place what was happening to their fingers and faces. It also does not get wet in water.
Kleenex Cool Touch feels cool against your skin, the way menthol feels cool in mints or muscle ache treatments. They contain coconut oil and aloe along with stearyl heptanoate, stearyl alcohol, polyethylene, and mineral oil. It seems as though body heat activates some of the alcohol, which evaporates and provides the cooling sensation (and it lasts only as long as a few wipes). Kleenex hasn’t revealed exactly what is at work, other than a “proprietary blend,” to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or testing publications. My friend testers all noticed the coolness, but none thought it particularly remarkable; one or two labeled it “weird” before they knew what tissue it was.
Still, in testing, Cool Touch was almost always a contender: fourth in machine puncture, fifth (in a tie) for human toughness, top for softness in my friend tests (one comment: “Too soft!”), highly ranked for not linting, a very good in Consumer Reports’ softness and strength tests, and, not for nothing, it absolutely refused to be punctured when “wet,” no matter how hard I pressed on my air canister trigger. All that noted, it absorbs nothing, cost the second-most of any tissue we tested ($3.43 per 100 sheets), and is generally not better at the job of handling cold symptoms than Puffs Basic or Ultra Soft & Strong.
Puffs Plus Lotion is not a bad tissue. It did a tiny bit better than Kleenex Lotion in our mechanical testing, tied in softness ratings with my test panel, and absorbed a smidgen more than Kleenex Lotion. But other testing publications and Amazon reviewers rated Kleenex Lotion higher, and Kleenex removes from its box more easily, giving Kleenex Lotion the (very) slight edge.
Kleenex Anti-Viral is very expensive for a tissue: $5.13 per 100 sheets, as I priced them at Walmart in Buffalo, NY. That is nearly six times the cost of Puffs Basic, or four times Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong. It is made with a reworked, EPA-approved version of a pesticide, stuffed in a middle layer between plies. They did not perform four or six times better in any test. As to their antiviral properties, this says it best: “What you’re achieving with this, you’ll achieve better by washing your hands.”
Kleenex Thick & Absorbent, Kleenex Ultra Soft, and Quilted Northern 3-Ply Ultra all placed in the middle of the pack. Ultra Soft and Quilted Northern cost more than our top picks, while Kleenex Thick & Absorbent (which is, essentially, the “standard” Kleenex) excelled in only one particular test: wet blow-apart strength. Ultra Soft is indeed soft, but it tends to lint and is not very strong.
Kleenex Naturals and Seventh Generation tissues are, as noted in our environmental pick, generally outdone by Green Forest and cost more per sheet. Seventh Generation nearly tied Green Forest in some key tests, but was the worst at resisting air pressure while wet.
Scotties had the lowest average across all our tests, received a fair rating from Consumer Reports in strength, and is hit-and-miss in availability from retail stores.
There are, of course, store brands, regional store brands, and some hard-to-find tissues that didn’t make it into our testing. In particular, tissues from Target (Up & Up), Costco (Kirkland Signature), CVS (Total Home), Walmart (Great Value), Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Walgreens (Nice) were not considered. Most received middling or poor reviews from Consumer Reports and showed up on no other outside publications’ recommendations.
And, more so than towels or toilet paper, tissues are something you may need to grab on short notice; we wanted to recommend a tissue you don’t have to buy ahead to find useful. That said, if you happen to live near a Wegmans store, try Wegmans 3-Ply Unscented tissues. I tested them and a two-ply Wegmans brand for comparison’s sake. The three-ply Wegmans tissue technically ranked fourth overall in my calculations. They are made for Wegmans by the same firm that makes Scotties, yet they are remarkably better.
Puffs Basic is our pick not just because it’s among the cheapest major brand tissues, but because it does very well with human hands, unfeeling testing machines, bowls of water, cans of air, and the skin around your nose. As the name implies, there is room to upgrade: to serious strength with Puffs Ultra Soft & Strong, or a smoother contact through Kleenex with Lotion. Buy them in larger amounts and give your future sick self some little squares of relief.
Originally published: November 25, 2014