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It took 96 rolls—88,608 sheets—to find one phenomenal paper towel.
Colorful Dutch ovens, turbocharged blenders, and flashy knives may hog the spotlight, but the most essential piece of equipment in our test kitchen just might be the humble paper towel. We use paper towels to sop up grease, water, and other messes; to blot meat and dry herbs; to scrub gritty stovetops and counters; to oil grill grates; to wipe out cast-iron skillets; and simply to dry our hands. A good paper towel is tough, absorbent, and versatile.
While many shoppers just buy whichever paper towels are on sale, we decided to test them to find out which product performs best. We focused on the smallest rolls sold by the top seven national manufacturers. Since people have very strong opinions on the issue of full-sheet versus variable-sheet paper towels, we included both styles: five full-sheet and seven variable-sheet, for a grand total of 12 products priced from $0.87 to $2.49 per roll.
Towels and cleaning supplies in hand, we set to work. We used single sheets from each roll to scrub all-purpose cleaner off six different surfaces—plastic, wood, metal, granite, marble, and glass—and examined the towels for tears, lint, and excessive wetness on the surfaces or our hands. We used folded towels to blot four steaks dry and drained fried bacon onto a triple layer of each towel, checking to see if any meat juices or grease soaked through. We loaded the rolls onto a paper towel holder and ripped sheets off with wet and dry hands. And then we scrubbed some more, examining the appearance of each towel after 100, 200, and 300 passes across a semiabrasive plastic cutting board.
We also took some measurements, examining the thickness and dimensions of each towel and counting the number of sheets on each roll. We got an objective read on absorbency by weighing single sheets dry and then fully soaked with water to calculate the amount of liquid they could hold per square inch, and we measured strength by lifting 30-, 200-, and 500-gram weights (about 1 ounce, 7 ounces, and 17 ounces, respectively) placed on top of both dry and wet towels. Finally, we rounded up 36 testers to try out the rolls at home over the course of four weeks.
The first thing we noticed: There was no performance difference between full-sheet and variable-sheet paper towels from each manufacturer. Though the variable sheets were about half the width of full-size sheets, they were equally as strong and absorbent per square inch. Testers were firmly split over which style they favored, so we called it a wash and agreed that style is a matter of preference, not performance.
But sheet style was the only thing our testers were split on—most towels completely bombed our tests, and in the end, we found only two products we liked. What set these two towels apart? Though manufacturers wouldn’t tell us anything about how they made their products, we noted that our favorites were twice as thick as lower-ranked towels—0.4 millimeters versus 0.2 millimeters. In most cases, the added thickness came from the towel’s ply. The 12 products we tested were made from either a single sheet of paper (single ply) or two layers of paper bonded together (double ply). Nearly all the low-ranked products were made from just a single ply; they consistently ripped and soaked through, leaving our hands and our counters soaking wet.
Perhaps not surprisingly, double-ply paper towels held twice as much liquid as wimpy single-ply towels—0.4 grams versus 0.2 grams of water per square inch, or about ¼ cup versus just 2 tablespoons of water for a full-size sheet. They were also much stronger: After 300 scrubs across a cutting board, we still hadn’t broken through the second ply on our top two products.
There were exceptions, however; two single-ply products from Viva were luxuriously soft and 1 millimeter thicker than all the other towels. But while they were plenty absorbent, their single-ply sheets couldn’t hold even ½ pound of pressure when wet—no good when drying and lifting heavy produce such as grapes—and they often tore when we scrubbed.
We also looked at ease of use, taking note of how the towels felt in our hands and whether they left lint behind when we dried glasses or patted steaks. One towel was so linty that we thought it had snowed on our expensive steaks after just a few dabs. Other towels were abrasive and uncomfortable to grip. Our favorites were plush and not at all linty.
While performance was clear-cut, price was not. Many of the lower-ranked towels, such as Viva Vantage or Bounty Basic, bill themselves as budget-friendly versions of higher-rated products, but something about these towels seemed suspect—the rolls were loosely wound and had deep embossing that made them look suspiciously thicker. We did some sleuthing and discovered something sneaky: Budget paper towels have about 17 percent fewer sheets than premium products. While they might be cheaper if you’re looking solely at price per roll, they’re not so budget-friendly once you calculate the price per square foot. Most of these budget products cost between $0.03 and $0.05 per square foot—on par with the prices we’ve seen for the premium versions of these products.
Our favorite product was the national top seller: Bounty Paper Towels. These two-ply sheets were thick, highly absorbent, and ultrastrong. We tested both plain and patterned versions and noticed that the patterned towels tended to rub dye onto light-colored surfaces, so we recommend buying white paper towels to avoid this issue. Though Bounty is slightly more expensive than other towels—$2.49 for a regular-size roll, or about $0.07 per square foot—every tester who tried these plush, durable towels was a convert.
We evaluated a mixture of full-sheet and variable-sheet versions of top-selling paper towels from seven national manufacturers, for a total of 12 products. Testers rated each product on absorbency, strength, linting, and ease of use. Thickness, water absorbency, dimensions, square footage, and ply were measured in house or verified with manufacturers. For each product, we purchased and evaluated the smallest roll size and quantity available online or in Boston-area stores. Prices shown are what we paid, and products appear in order of preference.
Absorbency: Our favorite products could hold almost 1/4 cup of liquid per full-size sheet and kept our hands completely dry while we cleaned up minor messes. Lower-ranked towels were saturated after picking up just a few tablespoons of liquid and left counters soggy and our hands wet.
Strength: We docked points if towels tore when we scrubbed, split when we tried to move food, or fell apart under calibrated lab weights—an indicator of how much scrubbing force a towel could withstand before starting to rip. Top products could hold more than 1 pound of weight while wet and dry.
Linting: Towels lost points if they left bits of paper on food or surfaces throughout testing.
Ease of Use: Products received full points if we could easily pull whole paper towels off the roll with either wet or dry hands. We docked points from towels that tore or stuck to rolls and deducted minor points from towels that felt stiff, abrasive, and uncomfortable to hold.