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5 Toilet Paper Alternatives That Will Definitely Clog Your Pipes—And 2 Things That Won’t

Running out of toilet paper? Make sure you don't make matters worse by flushing something that could clog pipes or sewers.

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Wet wipes and traditional toilet paperMarioGuti/Getty Images

To flush or not to flush?

During this global COVID-19 pandemic, one thing that people seem to be talking about a whole lot is toilet paper. People buying up enormous amounts of it, stores running out of it, people using up the last of theirs and not knowing what to do. Toilet paper is having something of a moment as people realize that they took the use of it for granted. Find out how to avoid falling victim to the coronavirus shopping frenzy.

Households with little or no toilet paper left are turning to other options. Bidet sales are seeing massive spikes. More concerningly, some are using wipes, other paper goods, or other toilet paper "alternatives" and flushing them down the toilet as they would with TP. But they're not TP, and sewage systems are not handling them well. People are sharing warnings not to do this, including nightmarish photos of sewers packed with trash and toilets overflowing.

So...what can you do—and what items should you absolutely not use? Of course, the general guideline from plumbing companies is that you shouldn't flush anything down the toilet besides waste and toilet tissue, so err on the side of "don't flush it." Here are several things people have been trying to use instead of toilet paper that are likely to clog pipes—and a couple of things that you can get away with using if you're smart about it. (And keep in mind that you can use most of the "don'ts" we mention to clean yourself—if you throw them in the garbage, or into a plastic bag and then the garbage, rather than attempting to flush them.)

wipes dont flushGetty Images, rd.com

Don't flush: Lysol wipes, baby wipes, and other wipes

Yes, their packages say "flushable"—but if you weren't ignoring that warning before, it's time to now. No, you can't safely flush Lysol wipes, Clorox wipes, baby wipes, or any other type of wipes down the bowl. "Though flushable wipes may degrade faster than 'non-flushable' wipes, they still don’t degrade fast enough," Mark Dawson, chief operating officer at Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, explained to RD.com. "Whereas toilet paper breaks apart pretty much as soon as it gets wet, it takes time for flushable wipes to do the same. Before they break down, they’re just sitting in your toilet pipes, slowing everything up." While we're on the subject, have you ever wondered the reason toilet paper is white?

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Don't flush: Paper towels

Yes, they both have "paper" in the name. But that doesn't mean that you can safely flush paper towels. The reason paper towels—and wipes, for that matter—don't dissolve quickly like toilet paper does has to do with the way they're made. "[They] are built with a heavier or tighter weave than toilet paper to have a scrubbing capability," explains Doyle James, president at Mr. Rooter Plumbing. This heavy weave will not breakdown or disintegrate and result in a bigger headache than homeowners may consider." This means that even if your toilet escapes unscathed, the paper towels could build up in the sewer system and cause even bigger problems. Does all this TP talk have you curious about what people used before toilet paper existed? Find out.

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Don't flush: Kitchen napkins

More bad news: Not even the square paper napkins that you use in your kitchen are healthy for your toilet. "We receive hundreds of calls per year from customers who flushed paper towels or napkins, but the materials from those don’t dissolve quickly in water and will likely cause toilets to back up," says Sam Blakely, Plumbing General Manager with home service company Bonney. By the way, did you know that there is a "right" way to hang toilet paper?

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Don't flush: Newspapers

"And they say print is dead!" joked Stephen Colbert about the suggestion that pages from newspapers and magazines could make viable toilet paper alternatives. Alas, this is not in fact a viable solution. Not only will newspapers clog your pipes, the ink could actually irritate your skin. So you'll want to stay away from using this at all. If your toilet does get clogged, watch out for this one mistake that'll make a clogged toilet worse.

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Don't flush: Coffee filters

Some people have suggested using other miscellaneous home items like coffee filters, cotton rounds, and even the empty cardboard toilet paper roll. And though, again, you're welcome to use them without flushing—bag them up and toss them in the trash—you shouldn't be flushing any of these. Take coffee filters, probably the most-suggested of those, for instance: Their entire purpose is to come into contact with liquid and stay intact. That means that they're certainly not going to dissolve quickly or easily in the plumbing. And as for cotton rounds, anything cotton makes our list of things you should never flush down your toilet.

toilet seat covers be careful flushingGetty Images, rd.com

Use with care: Toilet seat covers

Toilet seat covers are the only product on this list that, like toilet paper, is designed to be flushed. As you may have noticed, they're incredibly thin—this is so that they won't clog pipes. And the fact that they're so thin is a big reason toilet seat covers don't actually protect you from germs when you sit on the bowl. So they're not great at serving their advertised purpose—but now, they're probably the best toilet paper alternative when it comes to flush-ability. Just make sure they're approved for septic and traditional tanks, and use your common sense and don't try to flush several at once.

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tissuesGetty Images, rd.com

Use with care: Tissues

Tissues might be the lesser of several evils right now. They're still definitely not ideal, and using large amounts of them—or even the amount you'd use if you were using toilet paper—could clog your pipes as surely as any of these others. But if you're careful and don't use much of it, you should be able to get away with flushing it. (Say you use up the last of a roll but are not quite done.) "In the absence of toilet paper, you can use it in small amounts if you flush frequently," suggests Roto-Rooter Plumbing.

But if you're going to rely heavily on it, you're probably best off throwing it in the trash rather than flushing; tissues still weren't designed to be flushed down the toilet the way toilet paper was. We may be lamenting about toilet paper shortages, but could now actually be the perfect time to break up with TP?

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