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15 Things You Shouldn’t Be Cleaning with Paper Towels

If you stop to think about it, you realize 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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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 pretty 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 with them, you’re guilty of doing just that.

And that’s not the only problem you’ll encounter when using 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 the 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.”

There’s another problem with using paper towels on your carpet, warns professional cleaner Olivia Monash of Fantastic Services Group in Australia. “Scrubbing the stain will make the lint go deep into the fiber, and it will be difficult to vacuum afterward,” she explains.

What to use instead: “Use a sponge,” suggests Monash. 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

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, the best way to remove soap scum and residue from your bathroom is to use a mixture of vinegar with Dawn dish soap to cut through the grime and then wipe dry with a clean, reusable cloth. For nixing lime, calcium deposits, and water stains, try the cordless, rechargeable Clorox Scrubtastic Power Scrubber‚ which will also save your back since it has an extendable handle. Here are more quick ways to clean your bathroom to make the most of your time.

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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, and chances are, you’ve already got one you’ve been neglecting in the kitchen. Put it to good use! It won’t only protect your clothes—it will also protect your paper-towel stash. After washing your hands, dry them on your apron before moving onto the next step in your cooking process. By the way, make sure to wash your hands immediately after touching these items.

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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 explains, “not to mention that [the] tiny particles might stick to dishes and later on end up in your digestive system.”

What to use instead: Use a damp kitchen towel to wipe off those plates or mugs.

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Electronic screens

Keep paper towels far away from your TV screen, laptop, and even your 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, which has around 1,000 positive reviews on Amazon, is alcohol- and ammonia-free, and it comes with two MagicFiber microfiber cleaning cloths.

And that’s not the only thing you need to know if you want your devices to last as long as possible. “It’s also important to not apply too much pressure when cleaning these screens,” adds Smith, “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 when you want to add a little shine to silver—whether it’s formal silverware, home decor, or jewelry—but you’re better off using a tool made specifically for the job.

What to use instead: Use a polishing cloth like this one from Mayflower Products, which has 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 your 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, such as tomatoes and cauliflower. A produce drying mat and/or cloth will also protect your items from scratches and bruising, which might result from using paper towels.

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Dusty decor

If your goal is to move dust from one spot to another, go ahead and use a paper towel! However, if you want to pick up the dust completely, use a product that was actually intended for dusting.

What to use instead: These tools—which include mitts, cloths, and formal dusters—collect dust and trap it on the cleaning surface. You can’t go wrong with the 13-piece Swiffer Dusters Heavy Duty Extender Starter Kit. Not only does it pick up more dust and allergens, but it also extends up to three feet, so you can get those hard-to-reach spots like bookcases, light fixtures, and fans.

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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. What is it she’s converted to?

What to use instead: When cleaning windows and mirrors, use microfiber cloths—a favorite of professional cleaners—instead of paper towels. Microfiber cloths, Klahre explains, 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. And the best part: None of them leave lint behind the way a paper towel can.” These brightly colored Mr. Siga microfiber cloths get the job done, and people love them—namely, more than 12,000 Amazon reviewers. While you’re probably sticking to Windex for your windows and mirrors, here are some things you should never clean with it.

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Nope, you probably don’t want to put your hands in there in the first place, but even if you did for some reason, 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 suggests.

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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 suggests. For stains, try using cutting board soap and a sponge or scrubber. Here are a few other ways you might be cleaning your kitchen wrong.

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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: Monash adds, “Always use a microfiber cloth, as it cuts the oils that cause smudges and wipes them away.” Using smaller microfiber cloths intended for small surfaces, like these super-soft MagicFiber cloths, will make it easier to clean your glasses. 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 using paper towels when cleaning your car’s interior, says Jennifer Gregory, brand manager of Molly Maid. “Don’t dust your dashboard with a paper towel. 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 be enough to achieve a high-intensity shine.

What to use instead: You won’t know how you ever lived without these Relentless Drive Ultimate Plush Microfiber Towels, which are fluffy and super absorbent. They’re soft enough to protect your car’s windows and paint, but they’re also sturdy enough to be used on tires. Check out these other everyday things auto experts will never let touch their cars.

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Don’t even think about using a paper towel to clean your grout. The bottom line: That paper towel is going to all apart as soon as you start scrubbing.

What to use instead: Klahre suggests using an old toothbrush on grout, as well as on brick and other textured surfaces. You could also try a small detailing tool, such as Rubbermaid’s Reveal Power Scrubber (a cleaning tool TikTok swears by), which 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. It’s just one of the 95 uses for vinegar you never knew about.

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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 explains. “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 are 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.” Next, learn even more cleaning hacks from the pros you’ll wish you knew all along.


Rachel Sokol
Rachel Sokol is a longtime contributor to Reader's Digest, tackling mostly cleaning and health round-ups. A journalism graduate of Emerson College, she's a former education writer, beauty editor, and entertainment columnist.
Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a Phoenix-based freelance lifestyle reporter who covers home, health, wellness, and travel-related topics for people and their pets. In addition to having two kitties of her own, Wendy loves all animals and is always game for meeting new floofs. She holds a journalism degree from the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism and has a second bachelor's degree in Philosophy. You can follow her on Instagram @wendyrgould.