What to Do If You Run Out of Toilet Paper

updated Mar 30, 2020
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Credit: Kath Nash

Wiping after going to the bathroom is an activity you probably typically take for granted and don’t talk about much.

But nothing is normal right now, including the availability of toilet paper. Producers are ramping up TP production as people across the country hoard the stuff—anyone who’s tried to buy some in the past couple of weeks knows it’s gotten very hard to come by. 

All of this begs a question that you might not have previously contemplated: What should you actually do if you run out of toilet paper? 

Full disclosure: You don’t have many options. 

Toilet paper is formulated to break down when it’s flushed, while products that seem really similar—like disposable napkins and paper towels—aren’t made to come apart quickly. Therefore, they cause clogs in pipes much more easily. “People assume if it’s paper, they can flush it, but that’s not necessarily true,” says Paul Abrams, spokesperson for Roto-Rooter Plumbing and Water Cleanup. “If you have a newer home with a nice, new PVC sewer line, it may sail right through, and then the problem becomes the city’s. You may not experience a backup in your home, but it is going to create problems downstream.”

Tissues are discouraged, too. “It may feel a lot like toilet paper, but it doesn’t break down nearly as quickly in water, so even that can be very problematic in an older sewer,” Abrams says. If you decide to risk it with tissues, use a very small amount and flush often

Oh, and bummer alert on those wipes that say they’re flushable: “The problem is that the industry doesn’t really have a standard that they’ve agreed upon yet,” Abrams says, “so you might have a brand that is flushable and breaks down pretty quickly, but you can’t really tell the difference because there’s no regulating authority that is putting any sort of judgment on that.” It’s best to avoid them completely, he says. The last thing you want is a massive clog or overflow while you’re hunkering down at home.

Again, all of this is for everyone’s benefit. NBC News wrote on Wednesday that there have been reports of clogged sewage systems and toilets across the U.S. during this toilet paper shortage. “Main drain lines don’t just clog in one day,” says Brian McMahon, owner of Rocket Plumbing, which operates in Chicago and Los Angeles. “If you’re putting excessive toilet paper, baby wipes, Lysol wipes, it takes a good couple weeks.”

Okay, so what exactly is a person to do if you’re clear out of TP?

You can use any of those aforementioned things—as long as you don’t flush them. “We just recommend putting a wastebasket in the bathroom with a liner and putting those things in the wastebasket and changing it often,” Abrams says. “That obviously could get nasty very quickly, so [use] lots of those little trash bags, and take it out often.”

Some other alternatives include attaching a portable bidet to your toilet (no paper, no problem, right?), or, if you’re feeling up to it, trying out the family cloth.

If all else fails, McMahon says he’s heard about people creating makeshift bidets of sorts with a pitcher of lukewarm water. Or maybe you have a handheld shower head. We know: gross. But desperate times…