Pretty much everybody has heard of wet wipes these days. They seem to have become an almost indispensable everyday household product. People use them primarily for cleaning and personal hygiene purposes.
But are they really the cheap and wonderful answer to convenient clean up problems? Wouldn’t it be great to have an inexpensive and eco-friendly alternative to all wet wipes?
Let’s look at this subject a little deeper.
2 - Where Did The Wet Wipe Come From?
Essentially a wet wipe, also known as a wet towel or a small moist towel, is a small moistened piece of plastic or cloth that often comes folded and individually wrapped for convenience.
They were originally conceived back in 1957 by an American cosmetics industry worker named Arthur Julius – he trademarked the name Wet-Nap in 1958. After fine-tuning his product Julius exposed his new product to the world at the Chicago National Restaurant Show in 1960.
Very early after this, his soon to be become seemingly ubiquitous product was used by Kentucky Fried Chicken customers to mop up the grease after consuming their KFC’s.
3. What Is In A Wet Wipe?
Ninety percent of wet wipes on the market are produced from non-woven fabrics made of polyester or polypropylene. If you ask are wet wipes made of plastic? For clarification purposes polyester is petroleum-based synthetic product and polypropylene is a thermoplastic, i.e. a high volume commodity plastic.
Above and beyond the wipe itself, 90% of them are also presented in plastic packaging. So that means they, nor their packaging, is biodegradable and they don’t break down.
To make the wipe more ‘user-friendly’ this material is often moistened with water or other liquids (e.g., isopropyl alcohol) and/or treated with softeners, lotions, or perfume to make them feel or smell more acceptable to the general public.
You might also find that fungal or bacterial growth within the package is prevented by adding such chemicals as methylisothiazolinone which acts as a preservative. Not to worry you but, this preservative is a powerful synthetic biocide and has been linked to lung toxicity, allergic reactions and possible neurotoxicity.
Above and beyond this, they often contain harsh ingredients such as synthetic fragrances, triclosan, propylene glycol, SLS, alcohol and more.
So,I'm sure you would agree,not great for you or the environment so far.
4. What Are Wet Wipes Used For?
You don't need qualifications in rocket science or brain surgery to answer this question as they were primarily devised as a convenience clean up towel.
As mentioned above, they are used in a number of everyday personal and household situations. However, today if you were to conduct a high street poll the chances are that the top use put forward would be as a wipe to clean baby’s bottoms at nappy changing time.
They are also used in a variety of other baby care-related activities. The next common use by consumers is to clean floors and other surfaces around the home.
So despite being first used in the fast food market, their use then migrated into the baby care sphere and that is probably where we most associate them. However, if you just stop and think for a moment you will realise that you will probably have used wet wipes in an unrelated environment.
They are frequently seen as part of a standard sealed cutlery package offered in restaurants or along with airline meals but frequently encountered dispensed in motorway service stations, restaurants, service stations, doctors' offices, outdoor music festivals and other places with public use.
You can still find them being used as cleansing pads in hospitals and even as industrial wipes in factories and garages.
5. What Dangers Are Associated With Their Use?
Where to start? Apart from some of the possible obvious health and ethical impacts mentioned above there are major impacts to our infrastructure and eco systems that have been exposed in numerous media outlets when wet wipes have backed up sewage systems across the world, not just in the UK.
The problem being that users have flushed wet wipes down their toilets without considering the fact that they are a product that does not biodegrade. Unlike your usual toilet paper which will biodegrade, these have helped create what have become know as 'fatbergs' - these are the outcome of combined flushed cooking fats and wet wipes tending to cling together. The name pretty much describes how this disgusting consequence looks.
In the last five or six years there have been at least two large class action cases filed in the USA against both the producers and outlets selling wipes marketed as flushable. The prosecution alleged that the wipes were a public health hazard as they were clearly not flushable as demonstrated by the fact that they clogged sewer pipes and waste treatment services.
Back in 2016 UK water companies started to publicly advertise that flushing wet wipes down toilets was demonstrably ill-advised and increased maintenance costs. This was soon followed by a new standard for flushable wet wipes being announced by the UK water industry body.
This new measure required that they would be subjected to a demanding standard test to ensure that they were indeed flushable and then allowed to use a logo approving that they were ‘Fine To Flush’ in their marketing.
In case you think this is all scare-mongering, here’s some evidence to backup these claims and fully demonstrate the problem. You may recall a recent TV series featuring Anita Rani and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall called ‘War on Plastic’.
During one episode the team visited a West Country sewage plant to see a 16 ton mountain of wet wipes extracted from the waste flushed down the toilets in just 3.5 days. It is estimated that this type of sewer pipe blockage adds in the region of £100 million a year to the maintenance costs of Water UK!
To give some scale of the size of the problem just one US manufacturer, the one founded by Arthur Julius inventor of the first wipe, produces over 125 billion wipes a year.
Arewet wipes biodegradable? Most wet wipes aren’t biodegradable, so it could take 100 years or more for them to disappear from landfill. Even worse, all too often people flush wipes down the toilet, so they end up clogging up sewers, damaging marine life and littering our beaches.
Of course, there are alternatives to using wet wipes. You can make do with reusable cotton pads, damp cloths, cleansing foam to pre-moisten your toilet paper, micro-fibre cloths and reusable baby wipes.
Arewet wipes flushable? The key here is that if your wipes don’t have the Fine to Flush logo then don’t flush them - better still, read on and make your own safe wet wipes!
6. The Best Alternative - Simply Make Your Own Wet Wipes.
Now it's time to ditch the plastic and get creative. This is an easy and environmentally safe alternative that I’ve personally been using since my son was born back in 2013. I have found it to be extremely useful to have by the baby changing area, in the car in a travel bag with nappies, the lavatory, the bathroom and the kitchen.
You can use them for wiping clean mucky hands (or anywhere else!) and wiping down messy surfaces after meals.
If you put the solution in a handy pump bottle, this can be sprayed onto recyclable kitchen roll, biodegradable toilet roll, compostable napkins, cotton wool, re-useable cotton wipes, cloths and more.
About 12 drops Essential oils (optional - see below*)
200g Pre-boiled water - let cool until still warm
3g ‘Preservative 12’ - vegan, biodegradable (as here - I don’t recommend skipping preservative for any water-based formulas, you can probably get away with it if you use this up in 1-2 weeks but it does last longer than you’d expect, so safety is best!)
Just pour ingredients straight into an 8oz bottle with funnel or pour into a pyrex jug and then pour into multiple bottles.
When you need a wet wipe, just spray some of this eco formula onto recyclable kitchen roll, biodegradable toilet roll, compostable napkins, cotton wool, re-useable cotton wipes, cloths and away you go!
NB*Essential oils are optional. If using on a baby under three months, then leave them out. Otherwise, for a wet wipe/toilet wipe/hand wipe, add a few drops of Sweet Orange essential oil which is inexpensive and has natural cleaning properties, for baby wipes, Tangerine essential oil is a nice option, as is Lavender, Chamomile (though more expensive).