Why Do Paper Towels Smell Bad?

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This is a tad bit funny, don’t you think? Well, to answer the question; Why do paper towels smell bad, it is only right for us to ascertain if, in actual fact, paper towels do smell bad.

Bad smell on paper towels

There are so many brands of paper towels with different kinds of odors. But on average, paper towels do not really have a noticeable smell.

Most times, the offensive odor from your paper towel could be as a result of the fact that they might have been either stored or transported together alongside some other items with a very bad odor.

This is one of the possible reasons why the smell gets fully lodged in them. Ordinarily, the smell of paper towels ought to be subtle, unrecognizable. Not dominant or harsh.

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Even as paper towels are said to have an unrecognizable smell, there abound so many complaints from consumers all around the world about smelly paper towels in the market.

Why do paper towels smell so bad? Is it normal? Are there health issues we should be wary of? Is it possible to find those with a pleasant smell at least?

To begin, let us get down to analyzing the possible causes of the influx of smelly paper towels in the market.


What makes up a paper towel?

Acquainting ourselves with the different chemical properties found in paper towels would help us understand further if, they are responsible for the stench on one hand and, injurious to users on the other hand. 

One thing is for sure; most paper towels contain Chlorine. Chlorine is responsible for giving it that whitening effect. Other chemical substances used in the production of paper towels are:


Antimicrobic in nature. It reduces or prevents completely bacterial corruption. Other than paper towels, triclosan can be found in furniture. 

Bisphenol S

The interesting fact about this chemical is that it was formulated as an alternative to the toxic  Bisphenol-A. Now here’s the funny thing; the bisphenol S initially created as an improvement on the toxic BPA, has also been found to likely have the same effect on people’s health!

Interesting, isn’t it? Products such as paper towels and newspapers have been found to contain Bisphenol S in them. A school of thought actually attributes the addition of BPS to the recycling process.

 You should know though, that the BPS chemical may have an adverse effect on the hormone systems.


Belonging to the group of what is called the volatile organic compound and other off-gases into the air. Studies show that people can be at risk with formalin through touching of products especially when wiping hands.


Chlorodibenzofurans:  A chemical family with over hundreds of different chemicals. They affect the eyes and skin, the respiratory system plus the nervous system. CDF can be found in not only paper towels, but also cartons and cardboards. 

It is imperative to note though, that there are companies that do produce paper towels with nontoxic ingredients. For example, peroxide can be used in place of chlorine for whitening. Others leave out substances like dykes and inks in the making of paper towels.

 However, the problem lies in the fact that manufacturing companies are not obligated to state the ingredients on paper towels so, it is somewhat difficult to know for sure what they are made out of.

Although, some paper towels categorically state on the packs for buyers to know that they do not contain bleach or fragrance.

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Are there any health implications I should be wary of?

It has been such a scary ride, hasn’t it? I’m sure the talk of the different chemicals used in the production of paper towels and the likely effect on us has us all worried but, it was absolutely necessary as a step by step analysis beginning from what makes up a paper towel, would greatly help us in our quest to answer the ultimate question: Why do paper towels smell bad. Not only that, the spelt out implications for consumers too.

It is a known fact by now that paper towels do contain some chemicals that might be detrimental to our wellbeing. These chemicals are partly responsible for the horrible smell as, the stench from the chemicals are prone to linger on the finished product, but as harmful as these chemicals are described to be, do they pose as a threat to us healthwise?

 A supplier of paper towels once opined that some paper mills do get bacteria latching onto their pulp. These bacterias are usually heated at 850 degrees and so far, has not been proven to be dangerous. 

But, even though harmless, they are, however, laced with a very offensive smell which is then transferred to the produced paper towels.

Also, the chemicals released from pulp and paper mills are eventually subdued by the clean air in the atmosphere so, health issues are really not expected to arise.

While it is possible to notice the smell of sulfur-based chemicals, such as Sulfur gases, health concerns are put at bay due to the fact that the odor is perceived at extremely low concentrations. 

Furthermore, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency as a body does not totally excuse these odors. They described it as a “nuisance” but, not something to be of concern to us healthwise at least, at the levels normally found in the environment.

Reasons behind that horrible smell of paper towels

There is a special kind of technique called KRAFT PULPING. It makes use of heat and some chemicals to pulp chips of wood meant for making paper.

The reaction that follows is a production of gaseous sulfur compounds known as “TRS gases” or better put; minor reduced sulfur gases. The stench that emits out of TRS gases can be likened to that of eggs gone bad. 

We have three (3) general groups of odor-producing compounds that emanate from the pulp and paper industries. The smelly chemicals include ammonia, reduced sulfides, and other organic compounds.

Asides from Kraft Pulp Mills, odors can also come from sulfite pulp mills, wastewater treatment plants and land fills.

Each of these substances has its own unique odor. For instance, sulfite mills emit sulfur dioxide (SO2)Which is a very strong odor capable of choking.

In fact, Hydrogen Sulfide does have a terrible smell. Sulfur itself has a nasty smell which is mostly caused by its tendency to form compounds known as S8.

But the stench from hydrogen Sulfide can be likened to that of a spoilt egg. It is naturally created by certain types of bacteria that break down organic matter. 

Wastewater treatment plants just like the name implies, do have a rotten garbage odor, and lastly; odor from landfills can be likened to decaying organic matter.

One other reason why paper towels might smell could be as a result of the particular solvent used in cleaning paper machines.

Most of these solvents do have a very cogent smell that lingers on the paper towels till post-production.  Paper towels made out of 100% recycled fibers are sure to have a foul smell.

Researchers are of the opinion that the recycled and unbleached production process is likely to be the cause of the offensive odor lingering on the finished product.  Finally,  paper towels are likely to stink if it gets wet.

Does using smelly paper towels put me in harm’s way?

The argument as to whether or not paper towels are toxic has dragged on for quite a while. Nonetheless, it is a debate worth having.

Originally, paper towels are made from wood pulp, just the same as any other paper product we have out there. Now, the chemical substances used in manufacturing paper towels are toxic in nature, they are toxic in themselves but, according to a series of studies, they do not cause any serious damage.

Now that we have put to bed the question of if paper towels are harmful to us or not, it is only right we shine the light on the effects the manufacturing and production of paper towels have on the environment.

In Massachusetts, some scientists had a Life Cycle Assessment of various technologies ranging from paper towels to cotton roll towels, hand dryers, and the like.

The result was an eye-opener, very shocking to say the least. We all know that the most important raw material used in the production of paper towels is wood fiber.

It can either be new, recycled, or both. Now, from the results, recycled paper towels were discovered to have the second most negative impact on the environment.

How are paper towels harmful to our environment?

Considering the tons of paper towels humans purchase and consume daily, it is safe to say that they are unknowingly encouraging the fast depletion of trees and the pollution of water bodies. 

Secondly, paper towels are packed up in materials usually made of plastic. The implication of this act is that it increases the overall indestructible waste generation post-disposal.

Truth is, these plastics would take thousands of years, if not more, to either degrade or get consumed by microorganisms.

You should know also, that paper towels are dumped in water sources. This pollutes the water and wrecks havoc on marine as well as human lives.

Most importantly, paper towels coupled with anti-bacterial chemicals can be said to be a health hazard when dumped in landfills.

There is absolutely no way to reuse or recycle most disposable paper products. The duration of time paper towels take to rot is typically about a year. Thicker paper towels take even longer to decay.

Paper towels – the smell or the strength?

When it comes to paper towels purchase, different people factor in different things. For some, extremely strong and thick paper towels, with the ability to clean better, soak in liquids and scrub well is their major priority.

They cannot be bothered about the smell. But there are others that cannot stand the foul smell of paper towels. To them, strength and absorbency is secondary. Whatever it is for you, there is a paper towel that meets your needs. 

Affected by the smell of paper towels? What you should do

As stated earlier, there are no serious health issues related to the use of paper towels. This is because these odors though offensive, are often mild and sniffed at very low concentrations.

All the same, if you somehow still get affected by it, the options available to you are to either change brands or drop the unscented paper towels altogether and switch to the scented ones.

Also, when going for paper towels, do ensure that you take time out to read customer reviews of the particular product you intend to buy. Reviews by customers gives you an idea of what to expect and also a chance, to make an informed purchase.

Worthy of mention also, is the fact that there are odorless pulp and paper mills. Some paper mills make use of pulp from other mills in producing paper. Such paper production will have a less noticeable odor. You can search for such brands to purchase.

Why Do Paper Towels Smell Bad – Conclusion

Paper towels no doubt, are ideal for sanitary use in households. They are more convenient, saves time and energy.  As a plus, they are very hygienic. They can also help you prevent cross-contamination in the home.  

But, let’s picture this; imagine washing your hands, then wiping with a paper towel which leaves your hands with a repugnant smell.

The smell makes you feel so uncomfortable that you are forced to rewash your hands, only that this time around, you prefer wiping them on your clothes. This pretty much defeats the aim of purchasing the paper towels in the first place, don’t you think?

Even though we have established the fact that smelly paper towels do not pose any serious health risk, it is still worthy to note that there are people who feel totally uncomfortable with the smell. 

It is advised that such persons make the decision to go for hand dryers instead. A hand dryer is an electric machine that uses a heating element to dry the hands after washing.

These hand dryers are mostly activated by a motion sensor, you simply place both hands directly under the air knob and warm air would flow to dry your hands.

No smell whatsoever and asides from that, it is a cost-effective alternative to paper towels, especially in public toilets, they have a lower environmental impact, better factoring cost and is guaranteed to be hygenic and safe for all to use.

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