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15 Things You Shouldn’t Be Cleaning with Paper Towels

Most things can be cleaned with a reusable sponge or cloth. Save paper and clean a lot more efficiently with these expert tips.

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Paper Towel Pyramid

The Problem With Paper Towels

As the saying goes, waste not, want not. That’s certainly true for paper towels, which most people use for every wipe, swipe and spill, as well as some clever household hacks.

They’re a hot commodity these days, so the last thing any of us would want to do is waste them. And yet, if you’ve recently cleaned your mirrors, bathrooms or dusty dressers, you’re guilty of doing just that.

And that’s not the only problem you’ll encounter with these kitchen staples. For starters, paper products aren’t great for the environment, and they’ll also cost you a bundle over time. Plus, this seemingly innocuous choice could be damaging the very items you’re trying to clean!

Here are 15 things you should instead clean with reusable cloths, sponges, brushes or other gadgets. Make these easy swaps and you won’t believe you ever used so many paper towels.

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Carpets and Rugs

Accidentally spill soda on the rug? Don’t reach for a paper towel.

“Wiping up spills or scrubbing stains with a paper towel will leave paper residue on carpeting, and it does not do a thorough job of wiping up,” says Deretta Richards, a crew leader for Housekeeping Associates of Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Instead, use a clean, dry cloth to soak up spills, let [the area] dry, then vacuum.”

Professional cleaner Olivia Monash of Fantastic Services Group in Australia warns of another problem. “Scrubbing the stain will make the lint go deep into the fiber, and it will be difficult to vacuum afterward,” she says.

What to use instead: “A sponge,” Monash says. This gentler approach will not only help you get your carpet clean, it will also keep it in tip-top shape over the long haul.

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The tub

The Tub

Think twice before reaching for a paper towel to remove that icky residue from your sink, shower or bathtub.

What to use instead: According to Sara Hernandez, another crew leader with Housekeeping Associates, remove soap scum and residue from your bathroom with a mixture of vinegar with Dawn dish soap to cut through the grime, then wipe dry with a clean, reusable cloth.

For nixing lime, calcium deposits and water stains, try the cordless, rechargeable Clorox Scrubtastic Power Scrubber. The extendable handle also makes it easy on your back.

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Your hands while cooking

Your Hands While Cooking

It’s easy to grab a sheet off the roll to dry your greasy, sticky fingers, but try to resist.

What to use instead: Martha Stewart Living recommends wearing an apron while cooking. Chances are, you’ve already got one in the kitchen you’ve been neglecting. Put it to good use! After washing your hands, dry them on your apron before moving onto the next cooking task.

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Dinner plates

Dinner plates

Wiping kitchen plates and cups with paper towels because they’ve been sitting unused in the cupboard for a while is a bad idea, says Monash. “This would be anything but nature-friendly,” she says, “not to mention that [the] tiny particles might stick to dishes and later on end up in your digestive system.”

What to use instead: Go with a damp kitchen towel.

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Electronic screens

Electronic Screens

Keep paper towels far away from your television screen, laptop and cell phone. “We would never recommend using paper towels on delicate glass surfaces like LCD or plasma TV screens,” says Carol Smith, owner of the Toronto-based cleaning company Hire a Maid. “The fibers can cause permanent etching on the screen.”

What to use instead: “Use a product and microfiber cloth designed specifically for these surfaces,” says Smith. The cleaning solution from Altura Photo, with about 2,000 five-star reviews on Amazon, is alcohol- and ammonia-free and comes with two MagicFiber cleaning cloths.

“It’s also important to not apply too much pressure when cleaning these screens,” Smith says, “because it may cause damage to the crystals inside an LCD.”

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You might be tempted to tear off a paper towel to add a little shine to silver, whether it’s formal silverware, home décor or jewelry. But you’re better off with a tool made specifically for the job.

What to use instead: Use a polishing cloth like this one from Mayflower Products, with non-toxic polishing ingredients infused in it, or apply a product like Wright’s Silver Cleaner with the included sponge. Bye-bye, tarnish!

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While rinsing your produce isn’t the most enjoyable chore, it’s a required part of your post-grocery shopping tasks. But a paper towel isn’t the best way to dry these foods.

What to use instead: After rinsing in a colander, lay small produce such as grapes and blueberries on an absorbent towel or drying mat. You can also use an absorbent towel to hand-dry larger produce items like tomatoes and cauliflower. A produce drying mat and/or cloth will also protect your items from scratches and bruising.

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Dusty Decor

Dusty Décor

Paper towels only move dust from one spot to another. To pick up the dust completely, use a product actually intended for dusting.

What to use instead: Mitts, cloths, and formal dusters collect and trap dust on the cleaning surface. You can’t go wrong with the 13-piece Swiffer Dusters Heavy Duty Extender Starter Kit. It picks up more dust and allergens because it extends up to three feet, accessing hard-to-reach spots like bookcases, light fixtures and fans.

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Bonus: Here’s how to clean your duster — not only does it prevent you from spreading old dust around, but also keeps the duster in good condition.

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Mirrors and windows

Mirrors and Windows

“I used to be a firm believer in Windex and paper towels to get my windows and mirrors sparkling, but I’ve since converted,” lifestyle expert Ayn-Monique Klahre writes for The Kitchn. Read on for her solution.

What to use instead: Go with microfiber cloths, a favorite of professional cleaners. Klahre says they work just as well if not better, and they’re reusable. “If you don’t have cloth, newspaper or even a paper bag will also work,” she says. “And the best part: None of them leave lint behind the way a paper towel can.” More than 40,000 Amazon reviewers praise these brightly colored Mr. Siga microfiber cloths, awarding 4.8 stars.

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Nope, you probably don’t want to put your hands in the toilet in the first place. But even if you did, don’t bother. “Paper towels are not effective in cleaning toilets,” says professional cleaner Carolyn Osborne of Housekeeping Associates.

What to use instead: “Use Lysol Toilet Bowl Cleaner or Comet Toilet Bowl Cleaner with bleach and a toilet bowl brush to make your toilet bowl sparkle,” Osborne says.

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Cutting boards

Cutting Boards

“When cleaning up stains such as meat juices on a wooden surface like a cutting board, do not use a paper towel, as it will not thoroughly soak up all of the liquid,” says Lisa Sorensen of Housekeeping Associates.

What to use instead: “Use a clean, damp cloth with disinfectant on it to remove all residue,” Sorensen says. For stains, try cutting board soap and a sponge or scrubber.

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“Raw paper can be hard enough to scratch your lenses, and it will leave lint,” says Monash.

What to use instead: “Always use a microfiber cloth, as it cuts the oils that cause smudges and wipes them away,” Monash says. Choose smaller ones intended for small surfaces, like these super-soft MagicFiber cloths. Bonus: It’s so thin you can store it in your eyeglass case so you’re never without it.

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Car Interiors and Exteriors

Avoid cleaning your car’s interior with paper towels, says Jennifer Gregory, brand manager of Molly Maid.

“Don’t dust your dashboard with a paper towel,” he says. “Again, microfiber is ideal, as it removes the dust versus moving it around. A dry paper towel never seems to fully remove the dust, and applying a cleaning product leaves a sticky residue that attracts more dust. The grooves in microfiber capture and remove the mess.”

The same goes for your car’s exterior. Paper towels can scratch and dull paint, and regular microfiber cloths might not achieve a high-intensity shine.

What to use instead: You won’t know how you ever lived without these fluffy, super absorbent Relentless Drive Ultimate Plush Microfiber Towels. They’re soft enough to protect your car’s windows and paint, but sturdy enough for use on tires.

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Don’t even think about cleaning your grout with a paper towel. It’ll fall apart as soon as you start scrubbing.

What to use instead: Klahre suggests an old toothbrush on grout, brick and other textured surfaces. You could also try a small detailing tool. Rubbermaid’s Reveal Power Scrubber will do all the hard work for you, since its oscillating head scrubs 60 times per second. Up your scrubber’s cleaning power by dipping it in vinegar.

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Most other things

Most Other Things

In reality, you should replace your paper towels with other products for most household chores.

What to use instead: According to Jeri Fritz, founder and owner of Highland Park Housekeeping, her housekeepers have swapped out paper towels for microfiber cloths to clean almost everything. They’re must-haves in a cleaning arsenal.

“Microfiber is better than paper towels, which leave streaks and create waste,” she says. “Cloth works perfectly with a multipurpose [cleaner].” Try Lemi Shine Everyday Cleaner, an all-purpose surface cleaner with a fresh lemon scent.

Not sold yet? By making this simple switch, you’re doing more good than you realize for the environment, your wallet and your things. “It’s ideal to use something sustainable like microfiber whenever possible,” says Gregory. “Microfiber cloths can be reused and laundered — though don’t use dryer sheets or fabric softener.”

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Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest

Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a freelance lifestyle reporter based in Phoenix, Arizona. You can find her work at NBC, Allure, Brides, Total Beauty, BravoTV, PopSugar, Spotlyte, and others.