Tissues vs. Hankies: Which Is Better?

You may think your nasal discharge is a trivial matter, but it's not.

February 16, 2010

Do you really want to put that back in your pocket?

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—We're at the tail end of cold and flu season, but it's not cold weather that gives you a cold. Those pesky little cold germs are the cause. But when cold temps and inclement winter weather keep us indoors, the germs that cause the common cold and similar ailments find it a little easier this year to spread from person to person. Wiping your drippy nose on a forest's worth of disposable paper tissues doesn't seem like an environmentally friendly habit, but carrying around a reusable handkerchief is, well, gross. Is there a way to clear our pipes, and get rid of germs without clear-cutting a rainforest?



Pros: Aside from the obvious benefits of being able to throw away an entirely undesirable substance into the garbage, tissues are also hygienic, preventing the spread of ejected colds and other viruses back onto your hands and between you and your family members. You can also compost used tissue without worry, rather than send it to a landfill where it will never break down; the heat of a well-maintained compost pile will kill any lingering pathogens.

Cons: Tissues are made from paper, and paper comes from trees. The environmental group Greenpeace recently persuaded Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Kleenex, to stop using old-growth trees from Canada's endangered Boreal Forest to manufacture tissues, paper towels, and toilet paper. But Kimberley-Clark and most other conventional tissue manufacturers still use raw wood pulp in their products, meaning that trees that could be cleaning the air, filtering water, and preventing mudslides like the ones that happened last week in Southern California are instead being used to clean up runny noses. And that pulp is whitened using environmentally damaging chlorine bleach.

Opting for reusable products is easier on our forests, and it'll be cheaper for you in the long run, considering that a $9 box of six handkerchiefs will last you much longer than $9 worth of tissues. Plain cotton hankies can be tossed in the washer (or a sanitizing pot of boiling water), and they won't leave behind a trail of lint in your pockets or purse.

Cons: Most people aren't keen on the idea of carrying around a soggy hankie filled with gunk and mucous. And if you have a cold, handling your germy handkerchief can spread the bugs back onto your hands, the better to spread them to everyone else (it's kind of the opposite of a spritz from a hand sanitizer). Furthermore, unless you go for organic cotton, the conventional cotton used to make them uses lots of water, may be grown from genetically modified seeds, and, like paper, goes through a chlorine-bleaching process that pollutes the air and spews mercury into the atmosphere.

Are handkerchiefs a better alternative? Read on for the answer.

Which is better?

Go with tissues—but make them recycled. The nose harbors a number of undesirable bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus which can cause a wide variety of infections. So blowing your nose on a handkerchief and then shoving that into your pocket could not only keep you from getting well by reinfecting you, but also expose other people to nasty germs. Particularly if you're sick, disposable tissues can cut the spread of illness. Just make sure you buy recycled tissues made from post-consumer recycled paper, and that you send them to the compost bin rather than the trash can, to lighten their environmental impact. The best brands include at least 80 percent post-consumer recycled content (that's stuff which has been used and recycled, as opposed to "preconsumer" recycled materials, such as scraps from paper manufacturing facilities) and are bleached without chlorine. Greenpeace's top picks include Green Forest, 365 (Whole Foods' in-house brand), Seventh Generation, and Natural Value. You can download the organization's pocket guide here. They even have an iPhone app version.

That's not to say there's no place for handkerchiefs anymore. While disposable products may be best while you're sick, handkerchiefs can prevent you from getting sick. If you use an air hand dryer at a public restroom, a handkerchief serves as a handy barrier for opening germy restroom doors. You can also use one to cover your nose and mouth if others around you are coughing or sneezing and not being equally courteous.

To keep it earth-friendly and sanitary, buy enough handkerchiefs that you can use a separate one each day of the week. Launder and dry them on high heat to kill bacteria, or better still, line-dry them outside and let the sun do the disinfecting. Lastly, don't let others handle your handkerchiefs once you use them to blow your nose.

Tags: cold and flu