A paper towel is an absorbent, disposable towel made from paper. In Britain, paper towels for kitchen use are also known as kitchen rolls, kitchen paper, or kitchen towels. For home use, paper towels are usually sold in a roll of perforated sheets, but some are sold in stacks of pre-cut and pre-folded layers for use in paper-towel dispensers. Unlike cloth towels, paper towels are disposable and intended to be used only once. Paper towels absorb water because they are loosely woven, which enables water to travel between the fibers, even against gravity (capillary effect). They have similar purposes to conventional towels, such as drying hands, wiping windows and other surfaces, dusting, and cleaning up spills. Paper towel dispensers are commonly used in toilet facilities shared by many people, as they are often considered more hygienic than hot-air hand dryers or shared cloth towels.
In 1907, the Scott Paper Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, introduced paper tissues to help prevent the spread of colds from cloth towels in restrooms. Popular belief is that this was partly accidental and was the solution to a railroad car full of long paper rolls meant for toilet paper that were unsuitable to cut into such. In 1919, William E. Corbin, Henry Chase, and Harold Titus began experimenting with paper towels in the Research and Development building of the Brown Company in Berlin, New Hampshire. By 1922, Corbin perfected their product and began mass-producing it at the Cascade Mill on the Berlin/Gorham line. This product was called Nibroc Paper Towels (Corbin spelled backwards). In 1931, the Scott Paper Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, introduced their paper towel rolls for kitchens. In 1995, Kimberly-Clark acquired Scott Paper Company.
Main article: Paper tissue
Paper towels are made from either virgin or recycled paper pulp, which is extracted from wood or fiber crops. They are sometimes bleached during the production process to lighten coloration, and may also be decorated with colored images on each square (such as flowers or teddy bears). Resin size is used to improve the wet strength. Paper towels are packed individually and sold as stacks, or are held on a continuous roll, and come in two distinct classes: domestic and institutional. Many companies produce paper towels. Some common brand names are Bounty, Seventh Generation, Scott, and Viva, among many others.
Tissue products in North America, including paper towels, are divided into consumer and commercial markets, with household consumer usage accounting for approximately two thirds of total North American consumption. Commercial usage, or otherwise any use outside of the household, accounts for the remaining third of North American consumption. The growth in commercial use of paper towels can be attributed to the migration from folded towels (in public bathrooms, for example) to roll towel dispensers, which reduces the amount of paper towels used by each patron.
Within the forest products industry, paper towels are a major part of the "tissue market", second only to toilet paper.
Globally, Americans are the highest per capita users of paper towels in the home, at approximately 24 kilograms (53 lb) yearly consumption per capita (combined consumption approximately 7.8 million tonnes (7,700,000 long tons; 8,600,000 short tons) per year). This is 50% higher than in Europe and nearly 500% higher than in Latin America. By contrast, people in the Middle East tend to prefer reusable cloth towels, and people in Europe tend to prefer reusable cleaning sponges.
Paper towels are popular primarily among people who have disposable income, so their use is higher in wealthy countries and low in developing countries.
Growing hygiene consciousness during the COVID-19 pandemic led to a boost in paper towel market growth.
Further information: Environmental impact of paper
Paper towels are a global product with rising production and consumption. Being second in tissue consumption only to toilet paper (36% vs. 45% in the U.S.), the proliferation of paper towels, which are mostly non-recyclable, has globally adverse effects on the environment. However, paper towels made from recycled paper do exist, and are sold at many outlets. Some are manufactured from bamboo, which grows faster than trees.
Electric hand dryers are an alternative to using paper towels for hand drying. However, paper towels are quicker than hand dryers: after ten seconds, paper towels achieve 90% dryness,[clarification needed] while hot air dryers require 40 seconds to achieve a similar dryness. Electric hand dryers may also spread bacteria to hands and clothing.