You’re Not Wrong: Something Strange Is Happening With Your Toilet Paper
MSN 09th Oct 2023
Not to be too gross about it, but earlier this week I was sitting down, in my bathroom, on the toilet, if you know what I mean,
and when I grabbed a new roll of toilet paper, I was dumbfounded. The toilet paper squares—blocky, functional, familiar—were no longer squares. Each perforated edge was not a straight line but a set of gentle curves, like a sound wave. It gave the toilet paper an elegant, scalloped look, as if an interior designer had been hired to class up my butt-wiping.
What on earth was going on? The roll came from a fresh 24-pack of Charmin Ultra Soft, the same brand I always buy, on the grounds that if there’s one area of your body where it’s worth it to spend a little extra, it’s your undercarriage. When I finished up, I went into the storage room to see if the packaging mentioned this new innovation in TP design. The big blue label—aficionados know that, like Beatles greatest-hits records, Charmin comes in blue and red, and you can tell a lot by a person by whether they prefer blue (Ultra Soft) or red (Ultra Strong)—did not, in fact, reveal any difference at all. Indeed, the piece of toilet tissue that the bear on the package was gently pressing to his face, luxuriating in its ultra-softness, was a true square with straight edges, not at all representative of the undulating delights within.
Had some whimsical craftsperson at the Charmin factory hijacked the perforation machine? Was I the subject of a slow-moving psychological experiment, meant to see if humans could become gentler, kinder, less animalistic if our toilet paper is made 7 percent more sophisticated? Googling suggested that others, too, had encountered this TP redesign. Last fall, Katie Arnold-Ratliff at Scary Mommy found a smattering of consumers weighing in on social media platforms and review sites, both pro (“I am in love with the scalloped edges” —Momof2PlustheDog) and con (“little pieces get stuck in my cooch” —laurenm669). While Charmin did reply to some of the posts—“We’re beary sorry to hear about your experience, laurenm669”—the company had not really explained the design change, and did not respond to Arnold-Ratliff’s inquiries. She wondered if, perhaps, this was simply the rare example of a brand injecting a little beauty into their product for fun.
When I emailed Charmin’s media relations department, though, they replied immediately—because I just happened to reach out during the week that the company was finally officially rolling out Smooth Tear, its new, improved, scalloped-edge toilet paper, and they were eager for the press. So that is how I found myself on a Zoom with Gregg Weaver, a senior scientist at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, to talk about toilet paper R&D. He informed me that the scalloped edges were not merely aesthetic, though he did allow that some people thought they looked good. Wavy edges, Weaver said, are designed to solve the No. 1 problem consumers have with toilet paper: the incomplete tear.
You know—instead of two full squares, you get 1 ⅔, with a long strip left dangling from the roll. “Most people can’t leave that there,” Weaver said. “They feel frustrated. And they tell us about it.” The incomplete tear, Weaver said, is the top complaint Charmin gets on their call-center lines. While I have occasionally been annoyed by an incomplete tear, I admit I have never thought to complain to the toilet paper company. I guess I just thought it was the price you pay for being a human being. I’m too cheap to buy a fancy Japanese toilet seat; therefore, poorly torn toilet paper is my cross to bear. Luckily, other Americans refused to take this problem sitting down, as it were. So the company’s R&D teams were sent out to solve this problem, and five years and 30 patents later, Charmin believes its new wavy-edged toilet paper does away with the incomplete tear.
“Wait,” I said. “Five years?”
The process started with identifying the causes of the problem. Toilet paper fibers mostly run vertically through the roll, Weaver said, which means that when you tear across, you’re tearing against the grain of the paper. And the motions people use to tear vary widely, depending on where the paper lives in their bathroom, whether they’re left-handed or right-handed, whether they prefer over-the-roll or under-the-roll. But most people tear in more of a downward diagonal than a straight line, which leads to that last straggling strand being left on the roll.
“We came to the table with a lot of different options,” Weaver said. In the R&D labs, Weaver and other scientists hand-punched perforations into blank rolls of paper, looking for the right shape. They tried a diagonal line, matching the angle of force of the average tear, but discovered, “well, it works great on one side, but not so great on the other.” The group found that the wavy line was best able to withstand the mix of downward and sideways forces in most consumers’ tearing actions. “Once we tried that, the feedback we got was, ‘That tears like a hot knife through butter.’ ”
What took most of those five years, Weaver said, was retooling the company’s six toilet paper factories to accommodate the new era of perforation. “Toilet paper as we knew it before Smooth Tear,” he said, a little grandiosely, “was created back in the Industrial Revolution. Go back 100 years or so, it’s created to run efficiently on a line.” Straight perforations—on a nice, simple, 90-degree angle to the toilet paper running through the machines at 60 miles per hour—are ideal for manufacturing. So once Weaver’s team was convinced that wavy edges were better, they had to oversee changing and replacing the company’s perforation machines in order to deliver that wavy line at speed.
No wonder they’re rolling out these, uh, rolls, with as much media fanfare as possible. They spent actual money on this innovation, which for now, at least, is only available on Charmin Ultra Soft. (“Our Ultra Soft consumers, they’re very experiential. The look, the feel, that bathroom experience, is all important to them,” I was told. Take that, red people, who in my opinion are little better than animals.) Charmin does like to encourage focus on its research and development; a delightful 2019 feature in Popular Science took readers inside the Cincinnati lab, with its robot tear-testers, its “balloon butts,” and its proprietary recipe for synthetic poop.
How does a person become a toilet paper scientist? Weaver’s dad also worked for P&G, he said, and told him that a person could basically get a college education from working at the company. “The majority of my paper science has been learned inside the company, more so than at a college,” he said. Weaver fils has been at Procter for 25 years. As befitting a guy who spends his days thinking about toilet paper, Weaver isn’t all that squeamish talking about the down-and-dirty of the bathroom. “It’s something everybody does,” he says, “and why not enjoy that experience?”
And have I enjoyed my experience with Smooth Tear Ultra Soft Charmin? Though I respect science, I can’t say I’ve seen much of a difference in my tear-completeness rates. I do enjoy the refinement of the curvy edge, which still seems fancier than my gross body deserves. Mostly I’m happy that this is a consumer products mystery of which I was finally able to get to the bottom.