After dozens of hours of research, interviews, and testing, we found that Bounty Select-A-Size paper towels had more scrubbing strength than anything else. They’re also notably absorbent, and the smaller individual sheets allow you to use (and waste) less.
In our tests, Bounty was the best paper towel for scrubbing wet surfaces. Head-to-head against our other top pick, the Bounty towel lasted double the scrub strokes across a variety of surfaces while wet before tearing. This added strength reduces the towel’s overall absorbency, but we think strength is more important than absorbency because not every spill occurs on a flat, waxed, and polished surface.
As mentioned above, in our tests 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 Choose-A-Sheet is your best pick. If you’re indifferent between absorbency and scrubbing ability, just go with whichever brand is cheaper. But don’t expect too much in savings between the brands: Looking closely at the pricing, we’ve seen that Bounty and Viva costs per square feet can fluctuate but stay competitively close.
If you’re willing to sacrifice performance for environmental friendliness and want towels made from recycled materials, we recommend Marcal’s Small Steps.
We’ve covered this topic for many years now and put more thought and testing into paper towels than nearly anyone else out there. And not just for paper towels, either—we’ve also performed hours of research, testing, and interviews in the service of choosing the best toilet paper. Many of the concerns are the same, including feel, absorbency, dry and wet cleaning strength (or “grip” in our toilet paper review), and environmental and waste issues. As with toilet paper, I tested paper towels by buying a dozen brands rated highly by outside sources, contacting experts, and then testing them and using them in real cleaning and cooking in my home and in an office, trying to pin down the best value.
For this article we spoke with Gary M. Scott, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Paper and Bioprocess Engineering at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. We also tracked multiple reviews from Good Housekeeping, Consumer Reports, and Real Simple, and we leaned on the obsessive paper towel research of blogger Len Penzo. Since first publishing this guide, we’ve used our top picks in our homes and offices for years, cleaning up an unholy variety of family-, work-, and research-related spills.
If you’re like me, you might sometimes feel as though paper towels are a first-world luxury, earning the scorn of your Great Depression–era ancestors. Could you make do with the studious use of clean white towels? Perhaps. But one toppled bottle of wine or leaking meat package can take out a slew of little white linens. To clean those white towels, you then have to use your washer, often in its own cycle, wasting water and energy. And using and reusing a dishrag is, according to food savant Alton Brown, a bacterial bacchanal.
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 with Skoy eco-friendly cleaning cloths, which Amazon reviewers seem to love. However, paper towels are mighty convenient for wiping grills and lining plates under greasy foods. They can clean messes you don’t want to end up cleaning a second time (namely, by washing reusable cloth towels).
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’s hardly a typical use for paper towels. Some people depend on them for just about every cleaning task, while others save them for kitchen work.
Over the years, based on critical reviews and our own research, we’ve looked at many brands and tested 13 paper towels and selected three finalists. The best outside sources we’ve referenced and relied on include the testers and labs at Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping. Both have done detailed work in measuring the physical properties of each towel, as well as evaluating 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, Len Penzo, who took it on himself to do his own rigorous tests, which were far more documented and explanatory than anything else we found online. Penzo found that Bounty and Viva were the best performers of the seven brands he tested, but he gave Bounty third place and Viva fourth place behind the more budget-oriented Costco-brand and Scott towels he tried, because his criteria were more heavily weighted toward value (a natural position for someone who primarily blogs about personal finance).
Overall, the two major contenders for the title of best towel were clearly Bounty and Viva, depending on which attribute is considered more important: absorbency or toughness. A good paper towel picks up the most liquid or semiliquid mess with the fewest sheets. But absorbency is not king, despite what blue-liquid advertising fantasies have emphasized. Consumer Reports sums up its criteria for its ratings of paper towels (subscription required and recommended) as including the towel’s ability to absorb water, its ability to withstand scrubbing along a rough surface, and the force needed to tear while it’s wet.
We think strength is more important than absorbency, because not every spill occurs on a flat, waxed, and polished surface, and if a towel breaks and lints all over your rug, car mats, or wooden floor, it isn’t a great towel. Furthermore, so long as a towel is decently absorbent, you can always grab a bit more of it if the few sheets you took earlier don’t do the job. In our tests, we wanted to determine what the exact delta in performance was between absorbency and toughness for the most current formulations of Bounty and Viva. After all, our theory would go out the window if either Bounty or Viva was significantly tougher or more absorbent than the other.
To discover the performance differences between the two brands of paper towels, I set up modified replications 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 close approximation of 15 milliliters and 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, which 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 the contenders five times each.
To test absorbency per a given amount of area, I cut each towel to the same size and weighed them dry with the American Weigh Signature Pocket Scale, which resolves to .01 gram.1 I then dropped, removed, and held up the paper towels for a set number of seconds at each stage before weighing them again. I tested five sheets each of Bounty and Viva, and of two eco-friendly alternatives.
A strong 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 still 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. Manufacturers could stand to use fewer resources to make paper towels, and it would be similarly good for users to be able to recycle them more often. That said, there is an essential, inescapable compromise in recycled paper towels that I was glad to hear explained.
I spoke with Gary M. Scott, PhD, 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 preprocessed pulp, which makes for a weaker product. “Every time you recycle, you create these bonds and mechanically break them apart,” Scott said. “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 not all is lost on the environmental front. Generally, Scott told us, major buyers such as Bounty buy wood harvested on cycles as long as 60 years and refuse to buy from unverified sources. If this factor is important to you, and if you don’t want to settle for an inferior product, check for certifications from organizations such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or the Forest Stewardship Council.
If you know you want an ecologically friendly pick, see our favorite recycled paper towel below.
Bounty Select-A-Size is just Bounty, but with more tear-off points that many people 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, it felt good in my hand, it left no noticeable lint, and it was easy to find at any store that carried paper towels. It’s also available as a Subscribe & Save item on Amazon in big rolls with simple packaging. But all of that would be moot if it didn’t have the performance to back everything up, which it does.
Bounty ranked sixth in Consumer Reports’s 2014 tests (subscription required) with 65 points—the top choice, Bounty’s DuraTowel (more on that later), had a mark of 96, with the Target-only Up & Up brand scoring a 65. So Bounty Select-A-Size did really well, even with less absorbency and fewer square feet per roll (41 square feet on each roll; most range between 38 and 65 feet).
At the time, CR had this to say about Bounty paper towels in its 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 score of 65 out of 100 overall, plus scores of Very Good in scrubbing, Excellent in wet strength, and Good in absorbency. Only Kirkland’s Extra Signature and Bounty’s DuraTowel and Extra Soft got Excellent ratings in absorbency; in CR’s 2013 tests, Kleenex’s Viva was the only towel to earn that rating.
Good Housekeeping has some words, too. Standard Bounty scored just one notch below Viva. The Pros list for Bounty’s entry includes Bounty’s strength, speed, absorbency, thickness, lack of lint, and absence of dye bleeding from printed versions—so, basically, everything you could want in a paper 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.”
Personal 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 the 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.
For Penzo, Bounty did not earn the top slot, as Costco’s majorly affordable Kirkland Signature brand and Scott both edged it out. Bounty finished a respectable third, however, and was “the undisputed champion” of absorbency, pulling up an average of 65 milliliters of water, compared with the next-closest competitor, Viva, at 42 milliliters. Factor in Penzo’s bias toward cost, and Bounty still performed quite well.
In our tests Bounty was the best at scrubbing compared with 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 survived 25 trips back and forth, or another when Viva broke down after just nine. (In Consumer Reports’s previous test in 2013, Viva’s wet strength was its shortcoming.)
It’s pretty close between these two towels in performance, but we prefer to lean toward scrubbing. Add up our tests, other publications’ evaluations, 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 that environmental groups prefer. But you can take some comfort in Bounty’s certification with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
For the most part, “paper towel” is a bit of a misnomer when applied to the soft-ish, papery stuff found in most kitchens—but that is not the case with Kleenex’s Viva towels. These towels feel less like paper and more like ShamWow. If absorbency is the key in your job or your home—you clean up a lot of pet leavings, perhaps—or you need a particularly soft paper towel to occasionally stand in for face towels or tissues, you might go with Viva. It is a notably soft and absorbent option that is still decent at scrubbing.
Even though Bounty outright beat Viva in the latest Consumer Reports tests, Viva outperformed Bounty in Consumer Reports’s 2009 tests, received the only Excellent score in absorbency in CR’s 2011 tests, and ranked as 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.
Note that in Consumer Reports’s 2014 paper towel test, Viva received a score of only 71. We’ve seen unconfirmed speculation, not too hard to believe, that the later variants of Viva are constructed with 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 it’s a clear second choice for us.
If you’re willing to sacrifice a lot of performance to get an inherently compromised product in the name of saving the environment, Marcal Small Steps is your best bet, though you might consider simply switching to reusable kitchen rags that you launder more regularly. Other reviewers found it viable, too, especially if you value cleaning strength over raw absorbency.
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 the Marcal towel against a Seventh Generation towel, a top recycled performer in Consumer Reports and other tests, in the same way that I tested Bounty and Viva. The Marcal towel soaked up 6.7 times its dry weight in water, while the Seventh Generation sample (very, very slowly) absorbed less than 6 times its own weight. In scrubbing tests, the Marcal lasted an average of 4.9 times across the coffee table, while the Seventh Generation averaged 3.2 passes. The Seventh Generation towel is more expensive and not as good.
A near-exclusive Walmart brand, White Cloud, has a recycled Green Earth variety that consistently rates a bit higher than Marcal. Having used it for a few weeks alongside the Marcal towels, however, I would recommend it over Marcal only if Walmart is 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 simply not great at anything in particular, as Consumer Reports can attest.
Generally speaking, Bounty’s competition (other than the luxurious dark horse Viva) doesn’t rate as well in almost any legitimate third-party testing and often costs more. Then again, some brands come pretty close, and sometimes they might cost notably less with coupons or other incentives.
Consumer Reports did give Bounty’s DuraTowel its highest ranking by far for paper towels in 2014. For the price, however, I’m not sure anyone who isn’t solely in need of an especially tough towel should spring for the rather hefty DuraTowel. Even then, you can find shop towels that will get tough jobs done for much less.
Besides the fact that DuraTowels are not available as an Amazon Prime purchase (at the moment), not entirely easy to find in stores, and not widely available in money-saving bulk boxes, they are according to our tests only slightly more absorbent than Bounty Select-A-Size (and not as absorbent as Viva), only slightly tougher than Bounty Select-A-Size, and almost 172 percent as expensive per roll. Bounty sells DuraTowels in “King Rolls,” which, on sight and in customer reviews, turn out to be just regular rolls, give or take two sheets.
CR also ranked Bounty Giant pretty high. It’s basically the same thing as Select-A-Size in slightly larger rolls, but it’s also very hard to find.
Another Bounty specialty roll, Bounty with Dawn, debuted in early spring 2015. It contains a specific “water activated” version of Dawn dish soap, and Proctor & Gamble pitches it as a towel that “blasts through messes and picks up more.” You can’t use it to dry vegetables, you need to wet it longer under running water to avoid leaving streaks behind on reflective surfaces, and if you use it for simple drying or non-germ-ridden tasks, you end up paying a real premium. Our top pick costs roughly $16.00 for 400 square feet of towel at the moment; Bounty with Dawn currently costs $9.00 for 80 square feet. That’s on top of the need to store a separate paper towel for distinct uses—uses that are not immediately apparent to many people. This towel did win a rave review (and a seal) from Good Housekeeping, however.
A local experienced housekeeper recommended Brawny to me, 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), Brawny 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 aggressively priced, with roughly B or B+ ratings from Good Housekeeping and Consumer Reports, but unless you’re a die-hard Costco shopper, these towels are likely not worth the extra trip. Even personal finance blogger Len 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 you have 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, and you will end up using more of it to do less.
Among other brands I personally tried for initial impressions, Bounty Basic, Scott, and Great Value (Walmart) did not come anywhere close to Bounty or Viva in scrubbing strength, fast absorbency, or, in the case of Great Value, ease of tearing 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? All of those rated far lower on other publications’ tests.
We’ve used our top picks in many of our homes and offices for over three years now (and sometimes well beyond that) without complaint. While most paper towels will do the job, not every paper towel will do the job well. Depending on the spill, Bounty, Viva, and Marcal are all strong and absorbent enough to handle almost any mess that life puts in front of you.
You can find cheaper, more ecologically friendly towels on the shelves. And you have a better towel if you care only 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. On top of that, while many brands have since copied the extra perforations of Select-A-Size, the incremental use (and occasional reuse) of a towel that is so strong and absorbent will alleviate some natural paper-product guilt. You could spend more to get somewhat better performance, but you don’t have much reason to do so. Bounty is really good for its price.
(Top photo by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: August 11, 2016
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