Paper towels have become a basic staple of most modern households. They can be used for almost any type of cleaning job that would have traditionally required a cloth rag or towel, and their disposable nature eliminates the need to wash or rinse them out. Beyond mere convenience, paper towels also help reduce the spread of germs found on damp cloth towels that get used many times between washings.
In the early 1900s, Arthur Scott—head of a Philadelphia-based paper company now called Kimberly-Clark--received a shipment of defective paper that had been rolled too thick for its intended use of toilet tissue. Scott had heard of a local school teacher who was using soft paper in the school's bathrooms instead of roller towels, which were commonly used at the time. Inspired by this discovery, he created the first paper towels from his defective shipment of toilet tissue and soon began selling them in perforated rolls.
The production of paper towels starts with the process of changing trees into pulpwood. Long fibers from trees like pine and spruce are commonly used. The trees are debarked, turned into chips and then cooked to remove the natural glue that holds everything together. The resulting pulpwood goes through several cleaning steps, often being bleached to increase absorbency and create a homogenized white appearance. Resin is added to increase the paper's strength and the implicated water is then removed, allowing the fibers to bond and form paper sheets. Two layers are combined to create moisture-absorbing air pockets, and shapes are pressed into the paper to further improve absorbency.
Durability and absorbency are key features that should be considered when buying paper towels. Some additional steps used to increase absorbency are creping and embossing. Creping gives the towel extra flexibility and creates more openings for liquid to be absorbed through. Embossing helps to develop a "void area" between the two separate tissue plies, allowing the towel to retain more liquid. Using just the right amount of wood fibers is essential in creating a durable paper towel. As the production process has been refined, newer brands of paper towels can now be rinsed and used multiple times.
Cleaning and wiping up spills are the most common uses of paper towels. Some people use them in the microwave to assist in food preparation, and as a substitute for coffee filters. Manufactures warn that heating up paper towels can sometimes cause a fire, especially when used in conventional ovens. It is generally OK to use them in microwaves, but not for anything that requires prolonged exposure, like drying herbs or flowers. Also keep in mind that because paper towels are made from wood, they can potentially scratch glass surfaces that they come into contact with.
Sometimes paper towel manufacturers "puff up" their products in order to make each roll appear larger. When pricing paper towels, it is a good idea to check the packaging for actual weight and sheets per package; this will enable you to calculate the cost per sheet and determine which brand is actually a better bargain. Another point to consider is the intended use of the paper towels. If you will be using them for demanding chores, you might be better off spending more money on a brand that offers better durability and absorbency, thus reducing the number of individual sheets that you will go through in the end. If you only plan on using them for simple tasks like drying your hands, you are probably better off buying a basic brand.