Parents carry baby wipes in their diaper bags and use them for diaper changes and emergency cleanups. Many adults stock so-called ‘flushable’ wipes in their bathrooms for better cleaning than what they get with ordinary toilet paper. Hospital staff and classroom teachers frequently wipe down surfaces with antibacterial wipes. Travelers stock their bags with wipes for emergency hand cleaning.
They’re everywhere, so it should come as no surprise that the wet wipes sector in the United Kingdom alone is worth a whopping £500 million a year, or roughly US $778 million. But there are several big problems behind this widespread obsession with wet wipes.
First: The environmental havoc wreaked by their ubiquitous presence
Just because wet wipes are technically ‘disposable’ doesn’t mean they magically disintegrate; instead, they are simply shuffled off somewhere else, out of sight, where they proceed to wreak environmental havoc.
Most contain plastic fibers that are not biodegradable. When the wipes make their way into the ocean, they get ingested by sea creatures, such as turtles, who mistake them for jellyfish and eventually die. (The same thing happens with plastic bags.)
“When marine wildlife eats that plastic, which they quite often do, it just stays in the stomach of the animal and quite often they just die of starvation,” says Charlotte Coombs of the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).
The wipes wash up on beaches all around the world. A 2014 estimate from the MCS says there are approximately 35 wipes per kilometer of beach in Britain – a 50% increase from 2013.
Second: The disgusting results of flushing wipes down the toilet
Many users erroneously choose to flush wipes down the toilet, clogging and causing it to overflow. The Guardian reports that New York City has spent $18 million on “wipe-related equipment problems” in the past five years, and residents of Kent, a city in the UK, were dumping an estimated 2,000 tons of wet wipes into sewers.
When wipes clog city sewers, overflow occurs, or, at the very least, a serious blockage made from accumulating fat. “In 2013 a lump of congealed fat the size of a bus was found in sewers beneath London.” Yuck. So much for convenience.
Third: The nasty toxic chemicals contained in the wipes are best avoided
Several years ago, Reuters reported that wipes cause rashes in uncomfortable places. A Mayo Clinic report cited the experience of one man, a postman, who “had a rash around his anus so painful that he couldn’t walk for months… It wasn’t until he stopped using Kimberly-Clark’s Cottonelle moist wipes, some of which contain MCI [methylchloroisothiazolinone, a chemical of concern], that the problem cleared up.”
Baby wipes contain preservatives and fragrances that should not come into contact with human skin, particularly that of infants and small children. (See the Environmental Working Group's report on the hidden hazards of antibacterial wipes.)
Fourth: The spread of bacteria
When hospital staff use the same wipe to clean multiple surfaces, they succeed only in spreading the bacteria further, rather than eliminating it. Researchers from Cardiff University found that wet wipes have great variability when it comes to killing bacteria and was more frequently spread across all consecutive surfaces. Sounds like good old soap and water would be a much better alternative.
Fortunately, the solution for personal wipes is simple.
Ditch the disposables. Make your own wet wipes from pieces of flannel cloth or baby washcloths. Mix up an easy cleansing liquid: 4 cups boiled and cooled water, 3 tbsp olive oil, 2 tbsp Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap, and a few drops essential oil, if desired. Store in a spritz bottle in the bathroom for convenient use.
Alternatively, stack the cloths in a baby wipe warmer, douse in the above liquid, and keep close to the toilet or change table.
Or, just use a bar of soap and a regular washcloth.