Why Is Everyone So Obsessed With Toilet Paper?

Like this Costco shopper in San Francisco, consumers feel the need to buy more toilet paper. Kevin McGovern/Shutterstock.com

If we could sum up the viral times in which we're living in just a few words, they might be: "Just two per customer."

Everyone gets anxious when the world takes an uncertain turn. And often, we treat that anxiety with a little panic buying.

A study published last year in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people buy things in troubled times as a means of exerting control over their lives. And it's not necessarily new clothes or gadgets. The researchers noted that utility items — specifically, cleaning products — tend to move most briskly from store shelves.

The hoarding of toilet paper, as perhaps the most fundamental cleaning product, may represent our most fundamental fears. An invisible enemy stalks us. It's shutting down countries like dominoes, forcing people to stay home, disconnected from public life as increasingly bad news about coronavirus rolls in.

Maybe people are squeezing the Charmin because, in uncertain times, we need to hold on to something. Maybe a stockpile of toilet paper brings assurances.

There's plenty of love in a time of coronavirus too. Retailers in Australia are giving seniors and people with disabilities their own time to shop. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma is sending America a gift of 1 million masks and 500,000 testing kits.

But mostly, there's fear. And it's nowhere more evident than in the toilet paper aisle.

The truth about toilet paper

The thing is, it's not actually going anywhere. For all the sharp words and even sharper elbows thrown around by toilet paper marauders, they seem to be missing one essential fact: There is no toilet paper shortage.

As The New York Times points out, retailers that see their shelves emptied often restock them in a day, often in just a few hours. Toilet paper makers are rolling with demand, but they're careful not to ratchet up production too dramatically.

That's because people with respiratory illnesses don't actually need more toilet paper.

So why should manufacturers dramatically ramp up production? Cupboards get filled. The market gets glutted. And then, prices go down.

"You are not using more of it. You are just filling up your closet with it," Jeff Anderson, president of paper product manufacturer Precision Paper Converters, tells the Times. "What happens in the summer when demand dries up and people have all this extra product in their homes?"

Probably the same thing that will happen to hand sanitizers and cleansing wipes — people will buy less. If any of these industries decides to cash in on all that panic buying now, it only hurts them down the road. Slow and steady seems to be the refrain from manufacturers in both the U.S. and Canada.

"We've got all the raw material, we've got all the assets running, we have all the production, our sites are at full capacity to recover from this spike," Dino Bianco, chief executive officer of Kruger Products LP, tells the Globe & Mail.

Toilet paper rolling off an assembly line.
Manufacturers are rolling with the demand, but they're not drastically increasing production. Studio Dagdagaz/Shutterstock

The thing is, the toilet paper-addled masses have been infected with something many times more contagious than any coronavirus: fear.

"People, being social creatures, we look to each other for cues for what is safe and what is dangerous," Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, tells Fox News. "And when you see someone in the store panic-buying, that can cause a fear-contagion effect."

"People become anxious ahead of the actual infection," he adds. "They haven't thought about the bigger picture, like what are the consequences of stockpiling toilet paper."

Or, of course, their dignity circling the drain.

And what about the run on paper towels? There's no data suggesting infected people tend to spill their drinks more often. Ahh . . . wait a minute. We know what you're planning to do with that stuff. Just know this: Paper towels do not go down easy on plumbing.

Unlike their toilet-friendly counterparts, paper towels and napkins aren't designed to break down when they come into contact with water. Just the opposite, actually. They keep it together, so they can soak up as much of a spill as possible. But that very sturdiness is what keeps them from circling the drain, eventually clogging pipes — and creating a very different kind of tempest in a toilet bowl.

If you really need the comfort of a well-stocked bathroom cupboard, but don't want to join the barbarians at the gates of Costco, there's another option: Make your own toilet paper.

It's a surprisingly simple process. It starts with a few sheets of newspaper — which, these days, may not be easy to come by. But yesterday's news, in addition to being a wonderful substitute for toilet paper, may also remind us of a powerful truth in even the darkest of times: All things must pass.