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

If you ask me, the paper towel is one of the greatest inventions ever and I think too many of us take them for granted.

They are absolutely invaluable for cleaning up spills and other messes, and I even use them for tough jobs like cleaning my kitchen stove.

According to Wikipedia, paper towels were first made by Arthur Scott from a cartload of rejected toilet paper.     (I know.   Go ahead and insert your own joke here.)

Today, the United States is the biggest consumer of paper towels, consuming 50 percent more towels than Europe and five times more than the folks in Latin America.   I believe it too.   After all, I know when I go to the grocery store, an unbelievably large portion of the paper products aisle is devoted to paper towels.

But with so many brands of varying price and quality to choose from, how could we reasonably know which paper towel offered the best value?

Well, that depends on which factors you consider 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 for me, when it comes to paper towels I know I’m most interested in the following three factors: 1) cost; 2) absorbency, and; 3) scrub strength.     And so with that in mind, I decided to perform my own experiment that would compare a host of paper towel brands based on those three 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 when testing for absorbency, 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 then 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.

Scores were then assigned to each of the 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

The results of the testing revealed that no one brand excelled in all three categories, but it was the Kirkland Signature and Scott brand paper towels that were shown to provide the best overall value.   As such, they have been given the coveted “Penzo Pick!” designation.   (Please stop snickering and just play along.)

When it came to absorbency, Bounty was the undisputed champion, sopping up the competition.   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 durability, it was the Scott brand paper towels that came out head and shoulders above the rest.   In fact, it was really no contest at all.   The test results showed Scott to be more than twice as durable as Viva, which was its closest competition.

Here now is a complete summary of my test results:

PaperTowels

Recommendations

  • 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 think a paper towel should first and foremost be able to stand up to tough cleaning jobs, then the Scott paper towels are the only 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, however, 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!

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

  • Jeanie

    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.

    • Cool! Give it a go and drop me an e-mail after a month or so and tell me whether or not I steered you in the wrong direction, Jeanie.

      • Disappointed

        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.

  • 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.

  • Bob

    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.

  • Jetty

    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.

  • Ava

    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.

  • Len, I am very impressed by your domestication!

    Have you ever thought about being a professional reviewer for Consumer reports? I’m sure they’d hire you!

    • 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!

  • 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.

    • 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. :-)

  • I’m eagerly waiting for the toilet roll test!

  • I guess I can’t say no, can I!! Sure did open a NICE CAN OF WORMS!!!

  • 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.

    • @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

  • 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

  • badfrog

    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.

    • Len Penzo

      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

  • consolegoddess

    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?

  • i agree scott products are the best buy for your money

  • tv teacher

    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?

    • Len Penzo

      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. :-)

  • Niamh

    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

  • Sanne Larsen Bagby

    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.

  • 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. :)

  • Catherine

    I would agree with Niamh. The Viva Giant Roll Paper Towels are brilliant.

    There is a review here: http://best-gear.org/viva-giant-roll-paper-towels-66-sheets-per-roll-white-8-count-pack-of-4/

  • fred

    kirkland? what about the Bounty Basic for price?
    Kirkland: $1.45
    Bounty Basic: $1.29

  • 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.

    ——
    Gareth

  • dillian

    i think bounty would be the best :}

  • Thanks for the tips;3 it helped me alot in my science fair project !(:

  • Janet

    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.

  • Malcolm Armstrong

    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

  • grannyfrugal

    Sorry, folks–if you want to pinch pennies, use rags and cloth towels. I stopped using paper towels a couple of years ago, except for the rare occasions when I need to drain bacon or something greasy. Costwise, two dishtowels and about 4 rags per week do not add appreciably to laundry cost. And drying is free (clotheslines).

  • The Woe

    Can i clean my bun with kirkland?

  • Pam C

    Scott brand Naturals are, in my frugal opinion, THE best and THE strongest paper towels on the market. Their only flaw: once people discover these amazingly strong paper towels, they can’t stop using them. p.s. Len, I love your web site. Keep up the good work- and, Thank You for all the useful information.

  • Zoey

    For science fair, I actually did a project similar to this one.

  • S. Hasenyager

    I totally agree with the Kirkland towels receiving top rating. And I also am sold on the Kirkland toilet paper. I’ll be curious how you rate it. Glad I found your site!

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