After dozens of hours of research, interviews and testing, I found that Bounty's Select-a-Size paper towels had more scrubbing strength than anything else available. They're also very absorbent, and the smaller individual sheets let you use (and waste) less.
We prioritized scrubbing ability and wet strength over softness or absorption. But if getting the most absorption is your number one priority in a paper towel, Viva by Kleenex is your best pick. If you’re indifferent between absorbency and scrubbing ability, just go with whatever’s cheaper.1 If you’re willing to sacrifice performance for environmental friendliness and want towels made from recycled materials, we recommend Marcal’s Small Steps.
Why paper towels (versus cloth towels)
Not that a few good cloth towels, separated for different jobs, aren’t handy to have around. You might complement paper towels with these “bar mops,” which I have bought and continue to use, or Skoy eco-friendly cleaning cloths that Amazon reviewers seem to truly love.
But we are discussing paper towels here. Paper towels are mighty convenient for cleaning up grills and lining plates under greasy foods. They’re able to clean up messes you don’t want to clean a second time when washing reusable cloth towels.
You might already have a brand you pick up at the grocery store, or you might have stuck with your parents’ choice. What could be so different about the towel we recommend?
What makes a good paper towel?
A good paper towel picks up the most liquid or semi-liquid mess with the fewest sheets torn off. But absorbency is not king, despite what has been shown to you in blue-liquid advertising fantasies.
Here is how Consumer Reports summed up its criteria for its ratings of paper towels (subscription required and recommended): the towel’s ability to absorb water, to (withstand) scrubbing along a rough surface and (the) force needed to tear while wet.
And a good paper towel should come from a good, sustainable source of wood fiber. As with toilet paper, buying the most environmentally friendly product and having to use more of it is just as wasteful, especially when you factor in packaging and return trips to buy more.
At first, I was hopeful that we could find an even more environmentally friendly towel that was made of recycled materials. We could stand to use fewer resources to make paper towels, and it’d be similarly good to be able to recycle them more often after they are used. That said, there is an essential, inescapable compromise in recycled paper towels that I was glad to have explained.
I spoke with Gary M. Scott, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Paper and Bioprocess Engineering at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry about the nature of making paper towels using recycled materials and sustainable fiber sourcing. Long story short, paper towels made with recycled materials are inherently inferior because they use pre-processed pulp, which makes for a weaker product. Scott told me, “Every time you recycle, you create these bonds and mechanically break them apart. The results come out something like folding a piece of paper. You can only fold it so many times before it’s worn out.”2
But all is not lost on the environmental front. Generally, Scott told us, major buyers like Bounty buy wood harvested on cycles as long as 60 years, and refuse to buy from unverified sources. If this is important for you, and you don’t want to settle for an inferior product, use resources like GoodGuide to check for certifications from organizations such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
How we decide on a seemingly simple thing
Finding an expert opinion on paper towels is not easy. Professional kitchens have clean white towels and laundry services. Cleaning services, daycare providers and kennels tend to buy thin recycled towels on bulk contracts. More than anything, though, there is hardly an “typical use case” for paper towels. Some people depend on them for just about every cleaning task, while others save them for kitchen work.
That said, there are sources out there, and I am not entirely new to disposable paper goods. I recently performed hours of research and testing and interviews in the service of choosing a best toilet paper (for most rumps). Many of the concerns are the same: feel, absorbency, dry and wet cleaning strength (termed “grip” in the toilet paper review), and environmental and waste concerns. As with toilet paper, I tested paper towels by buying a dozen brands rated highly by outside sources, contacted experts, and then tested them and used them in real cleaning and cooking in my home and an office, trying to pin down the best value.
Those outside sources we referenced and relied on include the testers and labs at Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping and Real Simple. They have done detailed work in measuring the physical properties of each towel, as well as the softer criteria of feel and scrubbing strength. I also found a few bloggers with smart takes and opinions on paper towels, and one in particular who took it on himself to do his own rigorous tests (which I somewhat recreated with the newest versions of the major contenders).
Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping tested paper towels in their laboratories. In short, they used both humans and finely calibrated instruments to test how much liquid a towel can hold, how easy it is to break apart when wet (either by puncture or scrubbing) and how much lint is left behind. They both concluded that the top two towels were Bounty and Viva, but CR liked Bounty more and GH gave the crown to Viva.
On the other hand, Real Simple just picked one towel, Viva, with little explanation. Personal finance blogger Len Penzo’s paper towel tests were far more documented and explanatory. He found that Bounty and Viva were the best performers out of the seven brands he tested, but gave Bounty third place and Viva fourth place behind the more budget-oriented Costco-brand and Scott towels because his criteria were more heavily weighted towards value. (Which makes sense because he blogs about finance.)
Overall, it was clear that the two major contenders for the title of best towel were Bounty and Viva, depending on which attributes you consider more important: absorbency or toughness.
Why and how we tested
In practice, we wanted to know what the exact delta in performance was between absorbency and toughness between the most current formulations of Viva and Bounty. After all, our theory would go out the window if either Viva or Bounty was significantly tougher or more absorbent than the other. So we decided hands-on testing was needed.
To find out the performance differences between the two paper towels, I replicated modified versions of Len Penzo’s tests.
For scrubbing strength, I wrapped each paper towel in a uniform way around a new scrubbing sponge. I soaked the side with the scrubbing surface with a very close approximation of 15 milliliters, then ran it back and forth across the textured strip of a wooden coffee table, examining the towel after every back-and-forth for any tears of 1 mm or greater that would presumably lead to greater tears. I chose my unique coffee table after discovering that polished granite and wood did almost nothing to the towels at hand. I tested five times each for each of my contenders.
I then dropped, removed and held up the paper towels for a set number of seconds at each stage before weighing again. I tested five sheets each of Viva and Bounty, and two eco-friendly alternatives.
Bounty Select-A-Size is just Bounty, but with more tear-off points that many find convenient for reducing unnecessary use. And Bounty is quite good at what it does, as we and other testers see it.
In general use, I found that Bounty had that most unique kind of home-goods appeal: no problems. It picked up liquid, it was strong in most of the applications I needed it for, felt good in my hand, left no noticeable lint, and was easy to find at any store that carried paper towels. It is also available as a Subscribe & Save item on Amazon in big rolls with simple packaging. But all of this would be moot if it didn’t have the performance to back it up, which it does.
Bounty earned top honors in Consumer Reports’s February 2013 tests (subscription required) with 90 points—the nearest competitor, Bounty’s soft variant, had an 84 with the Up & Up Target-only brand scoring an 81. So: it smoked everyone, even with less absorbency and fewer square feet per roll (41 square feet a roll; most range between 38-65 feet.)
They said this about Bounty Paper towels in general, in their laboratory tests: “Among the nearly two dozen products we tested, two Bounty products were best, but a third version absorbed less than its brand mates.”
That third version, the low-cost Bounty Basic, was still better than half of the total paper towels tested. “Standard Bounty” received a 90 out of 100 in overall score, a score of “Excellent” in scrubbing and wet strength, and a “Very good” in absorbency. The only towel to receive an “Excellent” in absorbency was Kleenex’s Viva brand. That’s pretty much how CR’s 2009 tests shook out, too, but with Bounty Extra Soft faring better, and both being bested slightly by Kleenex’s Viva brand.
Good Housekeeping has some words. Standard Bounty scored just one notch below Viva. The “Pros” list for Bounty’s entry are Bounty’s strength, speed, absorbency, thickness, lack of lint and absence of dye bleeding from printed versions. So, basically, everything you want in a towel. Good Housekeeping’s take: “These paper towels proved the strongest of the 19 brands we tested when wet, meaning they’ll be great for cleaning tasks like scrubbing the sink. Plus, they didn’t leave any lint, a big plus when cleaning glass surfaces.”
Finance blogger Len Penzo took his own review of paper towels very seriously and given the extent of his testing, so did we. He measured milliliters of absorbed liquid in beakers and wrapped towels around a sponge, scrubbing them back and forth across a laminated countertop. He did each of these tests three times for each of seven major brands he tested, using uniform towel sizes. As a personal finance blogger, he also focused on the cost per roll and per sheet in his rankings.
Bounty didn’t earn the top pick for Penzo, edged out by Costco’s majorly affordable Kirkland Signature brand and Scott. Bounty did finish third, however, and was “the undisputed champion” of absorbency, pulling up an average of 65 milliliters of water, compared to the next closest competitor, Viva, at 42 milliliters. Factor in Penzo’s bias toward cost, and Bounty still performed quite well.
Bounty was the best at scrubbing compared to Viva, and sometimes much better. On average, it could take 17.4 scrubs across what amounted to a wooden rumble strip, versus 16.2 for Viva. Those averages don’t include one test where Bounty made it 25 times back and forth or another when Viva broke down after just nine. (In Consumer Reports’s latest test in 2013, Viva’s wet strength was its shortcoming, for what it’s worth.)
It’s pretty close between these two towels in performance, but we prefer to lean towards scrubbing. Add up our tests, other publications’ and bloggers’ findings, and Bounty stands out as the towel that makes the most sense for the most applications.
Bounty isn’t the most environmentally conscious towel brand—it uses an elemental chlorine-free (ECF) bleaching method instead of the processed chlorine-free (PCF) method preferred by environmental groups. But you can take some comfort in Bounty’s certification with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and other industry and regulation standards. It’s also among the most environmentally friendly non-recycled towel makers according to Good Guide.
Even if Viva was outright beaten in the latest Consumer Reports tests by Bounty, Viva outperformed Bounty in Consumer Reports’s 2009 tests, received the only “Excellent” in absorbency in CR’s 2011 tests, and was the top pick of Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, and a 2002 California State Science Fair project in which Claire Y. Eisenberg found that Viva picked up the most orange soda every single time.
It is worth noting that in Consumer Reports’s February 2013 paper towel test, Viva scored only a score of 74, far below Bounty’s score of 90. There is unconfirmed speculation, not too hard to believe, that the later variants of Viva are constructed using a different material composition and/or technique, which some user reviews claim is not as good as previous generations of Viva. Still, it is a very good paper towel according to our tests and a clear second choice for us.
The recycled alternative
Consumer Reports rated Marcal as very good in scrubbing and wet strength in 2011. Good Housekeeping pretty much echoes what I found in my tests: “Though a middle-of-the-road performer in our tests, Marcal Small Steps will certainly get the job done. These sheets weren’t quite up to par with the non-recycled varieties in our sample, but they still turned in an average performance at absorbing spills and for a recycled paper towel, these sheets proved fairly strong when wet.”
I tested Marcal against Seventh Generation, a top recycled performer in Consumer Reports and other tests, in the same way that I tested Bounty and Viva. Marcal soaked up 6.7 times its dry weight in water, while Seventh Generation (very, very slowly) absorbed under 6 times its own weight. In scrubbing tests, Marcal lasted an average of 4.9 times across the coffee table, while Seventh Generation averaged 3.2 passes. Seventh Generation is more expensive and not as good.
A near-exclusive Wal-Mart brand, White Could, has a recycled Green Earth variety that consistently rates just a bit higher than Marcal. But, having used it for a few weeks alongside Marcal, I would only recommend it over Marcal if Wal-Mart was a regular shopping stop. You don’t want to drive extra miles to get better recycled goods, after all.
The Green Forest brand is more expensive than Marcal and the new-cut brands (relative to the general inexpense of paper towels), rated better only at absorption by testing publications, and not as good at something as simple as drying just-washed hands (even if you do it the right way). Green Forest is just not quite good at anything in particular, as Consumer Reports can attest.
Generally speaking, Bounty’s competition doesn’t rate as well in almost any legitimate third-party testing (other than the luxurious dark horse Viva), and often costs more. Then again, some brands are pretty close, and sometimes might cost notably less with coupons or other incentives.
Brawny was recommended to me by a local, experienced housekeeper, and it rates just below Bounty in Consumer Reports’ rankings. In my own general use, I found it to be nearly as good, but in a casual absorbency test (using a small brick of water-packaged tofu), it was slower to pick up liquid than Bounty. It was also hard for me to find, with three out of four local grocery or big-box stores not carrying it.
Target’s Up & Up paper towels absorbed about the same as Brawny for me with slightly less scrubbing strength.
Costco’s Kirkland Signature towels are very aggressively priced, with roughly B or B+ ratings from Good Housekeeping and Consumer Reports, but unless you’re a die-hard Costco shopper, it’s likely not worth the extra trip. Even finance blogger Penzo, who loves them for their price, did not find them to be top-shelf towels; they’re just really good for the price.
Do not buy Sparkle, unless there is a mess in your car parked just outside a convenience store where Sparkle is the only available option. It is not very good at being a paper towel; you will use more of it to do less.
Among other brands I personally tried out for initial impressions, Bounty Basic, Scott and Great Value (Wal-Mart) did not come anywhere close to Bounty or Viva when it came to scrubbing strength, fast absorbency, or, in the case of Great Value, ease of tear-off.
I did not test every other brand nationally available (such as CVS Big Quilts, Walgreens Ultra, or Trader Joe’s), or every environment-friendly variant. Why? These all rated far lower on outside publications’ tests.
Wrapping it up
There are cheaper, more ecologically friendly towels on the shelves. There’s a better towel if you only care about softness and absorption: Viva. But Bounty Select-a-Size takes the prize for the best overall value on performance, convenience and price, and it’s widely available. And while many brands have since copied the “Select-a-Size” perforations, the incremental use (and occasional reuse) of a towel that is so strong and absorbent will alleviate some of your natural paper product guilt. You can spend more to get somewhat better performance, but there’s not much reason. Bounty is really good for its price.
Interview, Department of Paper and Bioprocess Engineering at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry,
How We Tested Paper Towels, Good Housekeeping
Paper Towel Buying Guide, Consumer Reports, February 2013
Bounty Paper Towels, Good Housekeeping, May 2012
Marcal Small Steps Recycled Paper Towels, Good Housekeeping, May 2012