Bamboozled by Big Toilet Paper
Fuzzy math at the supermarket
So, toilet paper. The other day I was at the store and restocking on TP and trying to figure out where the best bang for my buck was. It’s very clear that toilet paper manufacturers these days are trying to steer consumers toward bigger, pricier offerings. They’re given names like “MEGA” or “JUMBO” rolls, and the packaging always prominently features some sort of mathematical conversion factor: 6 mega rolls = 24 regular rolls, or 12 jumbo rolls = 18 regular rolls or what-have-you.
“Yes, the mega rolls are more expensive on a per-roll basis,” the companies are suggesting. “But in terms of wipes per dollar, they actually save you money!”
But is that actually true? To find out, I decided to calculate the wipes-per-dollar for a variety of different toilet paper products available near me. My primary interest was to see if, when all other variables are held constant, the so-called mega and jumbo rolls were really the bargain they promised to be.
The answer to that question turned out to be an emphatic “no.” Here’s what I did:
My sample included five different toilet paper products from local stores.
A 12-pack of Quilted Northern Ultra Soft and Strong, advertised as a “double” roll with twice the value of regular rolls;
A 6-pack of the same product but in “mega” size, advertised as equivalent to 4 regular rolls each. The nice thing about this: the 6-pack of megas and the 12-pack of doubles theoretically contain the same total amount of butt-wiping power (24 regular roll equivalents each), making it easy to run an apples-to-apples comparison;
A 12-pack of Charmin Essentials Soft double rolls, although note that rather confusingly a Charmin double is equal to only 23 regular rolls. Some evil marketing genius at Charmin apparently decided to make true cost comparisons even more difficult by making their customers divide by prime numbers;
A 12-pack of Charmin Mega Ultra Soft rolls, equivalent to 48 regular rolls, although with a slightly different weave and texture than that of the Essentials Soft doubles;
Finally, a four-pack of trusty old Scott single-ply toilet paper at 1,000 sheets per roll.
The first thing that you’ll notice, going through the list, is how fucking confusing this all is. There are not only many variables to keep track of — number of rolls per package, number of sheets per roll, roll-to-roll conversion rates, etc. — but the product names (“Ultra soft,” “Soft Essentials,” “Soft and Strong”) are all just similar enough to make things hard to differentiate.
One of my first discoveries: the so-called “regular roll,” the benchmark against which all other TP is measured, simply does not exist. I always imagined it as something like a small roll of Scott single-ply, but Scott only sells massive 1,000-sheet rolls that are equivalent in size and thickness to the megas and doubles offered by other companies. You can’t find a “regular” Charmin or Northern roll anywhere — or at least I couldn’t, at the multiple stores I visited.
Materials in hand, it was time to run some tests. The crucial variable — the one thing unavailable to you as you’re browsing the store — is the size, in TP sheets, of your average wipe. This will obviously differ between different people, as well as between products for the same person. In order to calculate an honest average wipe for each product, I simulated my home wiping environment by mounting each roll on a toilet paper dispenser, sitting on the toilet, and pulling off whatever felt like the amount of TP I would typically use. I repeated this five times for each product to derive average wipe values.
This, incidentally, led to my second discovery: the difference between mega, double and (presumably) regular rolls isn’t the thickness of the sheets — it’s the number of sheets per roll. This isn’t clear anywhere on the packaging. All my life I erroneously assumed that a mega roll was made of thicker, fluffier, more butt-friendly paper than a double or regular roll. But no, it’s typically the exact same stuff, just more sheets of it. Science! Is there anything it can’t teach us?
At any rate, I discovered I am a consistent wiper: for all of the products except the Scott single-ply I used just about 4 sheets per wipe. For the Scott I found myself needing about 10 sheets to form a wad of comparable bum-cleaning power. It seemed much, much thinner than could be explained by single vs double ply, and the surface was noticeably… less smooth.
With average wipes obtained, it was just a question of arithmetic: multiply average wipe by sheets per roll to get wipes per roll, multiply by rolls per pack to get wipes per pack, and divide wipes per pack by price per pack to get wipes per dollar. And, voila:
I’m primarily interested in the within-brand comparisons here, and for both Northern and Charmin they tell a consistent story: the double rolls provide anywhere from 50 to 100 percent more value on a wipes-per-dollar basis. In the case of Northern this is a true apples-to-apples comparison: the individual sheets in the two products were exactly the same. The Charmin products, by contrast, had a slightly different pattern but beyond that I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. It may be that the Ultra Soft is pitched as a more premium product than the Soft Essential, although in terms of butt-feel they were indistinguishable.
The Charmin example is also interesting because the package sizes weren’t the same: the mega rolls were advertised as 48-roll equivalent, while the doubles were advertised as 23. In theory, you’d expect this difference to bias the results toward the mega rolls: you’re purchasing a larger quantity of paper, so economies of scale should kick in. But even so, the smaller package of double rolls ends up providing roughly twice the butt-wiping value. And again: at no discernable quality difference I could detect.
Another big surprise was Scott. It’s pitched as the budget-conscious option, and has kind of a reputation as a trade-off between sandpapery feel and low cost. But despite feeling a lot rougher it provided minimal additional wipes-per-dollar value over the Northern doubles purchased in the same store.
So to sum up: for optimal butt-wiping value, choose a manufacturer’s “double” rolls over its “mega” or “jumbo” offerings. Look for that 2x conversion factor (or, in Charmin’s case, (23/12)x).
Given how much of a pain in the ass this was to figure out, The Why Axis also makes the following recommendations for policymakers. First, establish a Truth In Toilet Paper Advertising commission to produce guidelines for fair toilet paper price comparisons. Outlaw misleading roll-to-roll conversion factors like 12/23. And finally, direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology to estimate a measure of average sheets-per-wipe for each toilet paper product on the market, in order to allow consumers to make more accurate cross-product price comparisons.
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