The Great Paper Towel Test: What Brand Is Your Best Value?

paper towelsThe paper towel is one of the greatest inventions ever and, frankly, I think too many of us take them for granted.

Think about it: They’re not only invaluable for cleaning up spills and other messes, but the best ones can also handle tough jobs like cleaning the kitchen stove.

Paper towels are the brainchild of Arthur Scott who, as the story goes, developed them in 1907 from a cartload of rejected toilet paper. I know.

Today, the United States is the biggest consumer of paper towels, consuming 50% more towels than Europe and five times more than the folks in Latin America — so it’s no wonder that American grocery stores devote such an unbelievably large portion of their paper-products aisle to paper towels.

With so many brands of varying price and quality to choose from, it’s tough to know which paper towel offers the best value. Of course, the answer depends upon which factors one considers to be the most important when it comes time to evaluate them.

In 2009 Consumer Reports evaluated paper towels based upon absorbency, scrub strength and wet strength — but I’m most interested in: 1) cost; 2) absorbency, and; 3) scrub strength. And so, with that in mind, I decided to perform my own experiment comparing a host of paper towel brands based on those criteria.

How I Conducted the Test

PaperTowels2The first step was to hop on down to my local grocery store where I bought six different brands of paper towels: Sparkle, Bounty, Bounty Basic, Scott, Shoppers Value, and Kleenex Viva. I also went to my local Costco and bought their Kirkland Signature brand.

Next, I had to devise a couple of tests to measure absorbency and scrub strength.

To measure absorbency, I dipped a paper towel into a large glass full of water. Once the towel was saturated, I removed it and squeezed the water into a beaker and measured it (in milliliters). To ensure an apples-to-apples comparison, I used 11 x 12 inch samples for all brands being tested.

To measure scrub strength, I wrapped a wet paper towel around a sponge and scrubbed it back and forth over a laminated counter top. I then counted the number of scrubs before the paper towel tore.

For each paper towel sampled, I conducted three separate absorbency tests and three scrub tests. The results were then averaged.

Next, scores were assigned to each of the paper towels. The top-performing towel was given a score of one hundred and the other towels’ scores were then scaled appropriately.

The final ratings for each brand were simply derived by averaging the three scores for cost, absorbency and scrub strength.

The Results

It turns out that no single brand excelled in all three categories. That being said, Kirkland Signature and Scott provided the best overall value. As such, they have been given the coveted “Penzo Pick!” designation. (I know, but just play along.)

When it came to absorbency, Bounty was the undisputed champion. It soaked up an average of 65 milliliters of water, far outdistancing its closest rival.

Not surprisingly, Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand was the least expensive paper towel at just a hair under two cents per square foot. Despite the low price, it performed very well in my absorbency test; at 40 milliliters, it absorbed almost as much water as the Viva brand although not as much as the Bounty.

When it came to scrub strength, the Scott brand proved to be the most durable. My test results showed Scott to be more than twice as hardy as the next-best brand, Viva.

Here is a complete summary of my test results:



  • If price is your most important requirement, then the Kirkland Signature brand from Costco is by far your best bet. Kirkland’s price-to-performance ratio is unmatched.
  • If you buy paper towels primarily for their absorbency, then Bounty is your best bet. However, keep in mind you are going to pay for it, as Bounty was the second most expensive brand on a cost per square foot basis.
  • For those who prefer paper towels that can stand up to the toughest cleaning jobs, then Scott paper towels are the way to go.
  • The two bargain brands tested, Bounty Basic and Shoppers Value, ended up being nothing more than, ahem, paper tigers. They both performed so poorly that unless you were using them as over-sized napkins you’d probably be better off spending a little extra on a better quality paper towel.
  • Viva was the most expensive brand surveyed. Unfortunately, its price-to-performance ratio was quite poor.

So there you have it: my great paper towel test. Hopefully you learned a few things from this little experiment. I know I did!

Photo Credits: milajake (top); Len Penzo

(This is an updated version of an article originally posted on April 28, 2010.)


  1. 1

    Jeanie says

    Nice job! I’ve always used Viva, but now I think I’ll switch over to the Scott brand for a little bit and see if it is worth the savings.

      • 3

        Disappointed says

        Have you tested Bounty recently? Quality has degraded considerably lately. They seem to be worse that cheap paper towels now, thin and leaves lint all over.

        • 4

          Len Penzo says

          No, I haven’t tested Bounty recently. Maybe it’s time for me to perform an updated test.

  2. 5

    Bob says

    Like Kristia, I only use rags instead of paper towels. I haven’t bought paper towels in more than 10 years. I do about one washer load of rags per month, then hang them up to dry. I doubt that the energy use of doing this is in any way comparable to creating, shipping, merchandising, and travelling to purchase paper towels; plus I don’t have to support some large or multinational pulp corporation that I’m sure is doing its share of polluting to produce paper towels.

  3. 7

    Jetty says

    Len – take a closer look at Bounty towels. It absorbs more liquid because it has a lot of air in the towel. However, as soon as you lift it up, the liquid leaks out. VIVA has a lot more fiber in their towels (you can feel the difference)so the liquid stays inside the towel and does not leak all over the place.

  4. 9

    Ava says

    This was an amazing experiment and it’s helped me a lot! I love how you did all the tests and thank you so much for your advice.

    • 12


      Oh, I am very domesticated, Sam. Did you know I am the family cook too? (Notice I said, “cook” and not “chef.” LOL)

      I would love to be a tester for Consumer Reports. You know I am an engineer, so I never look at performing these kind of tests as work. I really enjoy doing them!

  5. 13


    We rarely use paper towels. I think I have had a roll for about a year. For big spills, I use some old towels and then just throw them in the laundry with other stuff. I use smaller towels/rags for clean-ups and smaller messes. I’m not sure if this save me money since I have to wash the rags, but I like to think that it does…less trash too.

    • 14


      I wonder if it does save you money… In addition to water and soap, you also have to include the energy cost of running the washer and dryer. It might be close, but I would need data. If you are in the mood and want to track your cloth towel/rags usage for 30 days, and estimate the number of paper towels you would need to clean up each spill I’d be happy to figure it out for you, Kristia! If not, I completely understand. That is something only someone as financially nerdy as me would (ab)normally do. :-)

  6. 18


    You’re a man about the house just like me Len!

    It isn’t surprising you came up with the Costco brand as to price/performance. I favor Sam’s Club’s Members Mark brand.

    There’s cheaper, but you end up using more of them because they fall apart. There’s more expensive, but who wants to pay top price for “premium” paper towels???

    That middle ground seems to be where the best value is.

    • 19


      @Kevin: The cheaper brands I tested were absolutely terrible. They absorbed very little and they fell apart like a cheap suit at the first hint of any scrubbing. Absolutely not worth the savings. Have you tried the the Costco brand? We shop at Sam’s Club too, so maybe we’ll try their brand and compare.
      @Barb: I use a scrub brush to clean the toilet, Girlfriend. LOL

      • 20


        Haven’t been to Costco yet, but hearning a lot of good things about it, including from you, so I might have to move out of my comfort zone and mosey on over. They aren’t even far away.

  7. 21


    OK that was really cool, but I need more help, which one should I use to clean the toilet? I use so many sheets because I don’t want to get near anything yucky! Thanks for another entertaining post! Best regards, Barb

  8. 22

    James says

    i love paper towels they are a total staple in my house.

    at times i have to admit that i feel guilty that i use to many of them. i am not a fan of germs and therefore use paper towels over your standard kitchen towel.

    it is just so easy to use them as plates for a sandwich or snack they really are the all purpose kitchen item.

  9. 24

    badfrog says

    Every single tattoo artist in the USA uses Bounty, because it leaves behind almost no bits of paper when you wipe down a tattoo. My wife, or “scrubber,” as I call her when she is a little too aggressive about cleaning up my delicate skin, puts them (and her clients)through the torture test, and they win every time, holding together until the end. Only when they are a rainbow and blood soaked mess does she consider a new one.

    • 25

      Len Penzo says

      Now that’s interesting to hear! I think your expereince definitely verifies my testing — at least in the absorbency department. I hope your wife doesn’t scrub freshly tattooed skin with the same force I used to determine scrub strength though. That would be a torture test! LOL

  10. 26

    consolegoddess says

    What about Brawny? We’ve been using them for years. Hate the pick a size ones. We don’t use them hard but they perform well. They are good at wrapping around cold glasses in the summer preventing the dripping. They hold up well when something spills on the floor and we want something we can throw away. In that case they are absorbent and handle the “foot scrub”. The regular ones are hard to find though. Have you tested Brawny?

  11. 29

    tv teacher says

    We have been testing towels in class. I question the students who use procedures similar to yours. If you have a great towel that lets go of none of its water when you ring it out, wouldn’t you end up scoring it poorly? Is this fair? How do you know you have left 0 ml of water in the towel? Your operational definition seems to show which paper towel will let go of the most water . . could this change your rankings?

    • 30

      Len Penzo says

      That is an interesting point, however, I think your concern is not a factor. I am certain that upon squeezing a paper towel that has been fully saturated with water, the amount of water ultimately NOT released from the towel will be minimal compared to the amount of water released. In other words, the remaining water in the towel will not be enough to affect the absorbency rankings. :-)

  12. 31

    Niamh says

    I would disagree on your conclusion on the Viva paper towel.

    We are using the Viva Giant Roll Paper Towels and are very happy with them

  13. 32

    Sanne Larsen Bagby says

    Thanks for this awesome review. I have a rather different question for you. In your research, did you come across a brand that had two sides, one a soft, smooth surface and the other, a rougher, scrubbing surface? Had em once, but threw out the wrapper and don’t recall the brand. My elderly father insists upon using the towels for everything – napkins, hankies, as well as their intended use as clean-up tools. (I’m fairly certain they were the select-a-size variety, but I can’t be absolutely certain I’m remembering that correctly.)
    We actually like Viva best, as it is so soft and cloth-like, but I cringe at the cost. Like the other commenter said, it actually seems to hold onto what it absorbs much better than the “absorbent” Bounty, which loses much of its water on the way from the spill to the sink/trash. (OTOH, spills that large surely are handled far better with a real cloth towel. Just my opinion, naturally.) 😉

    Thanks, keep up the good work.

  14. 33


    Cool test! Scott is the best and it’s not even the most expensive among the tested brands. This just shows that the best product is not always the most expensive one. Thanks for the test. :)

  15. 36


    you know i don’t recognise any of those brands, we have our own brands of paper towels in the UK, Charmin, plenty & thirst pockets being the main players – with a bunch of supermarket own brands.
    I think this was a good test one which i will create for my own blog.


  16. 39

    Janet says

    We buy Kirkland towels, too. The one thing I don’t like about them is the size. We use paper towels for a lot of things like drying our hands, napkins, etc, where we use one ‘towel’ and the Kirkland ones are just a little too big. If they were square, they’d be perfect.

  17. 40

    Malcolm Armstrong says

    Wonderful experiment. Greatly appreciated. I agree that Bounty has sadly gone down-hill since your experiment. We (the wife and I, and dog) were faithful to Bounty until just recently. For some reason, the quality of their product line has completely deteriorated. Flimsy, thin, doesn’t do much in regard to cleaning up anything now-a’days. So sad. Will check out the other brands you’ve mentioned. Thanks again! Malcolm


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