What is the Correct Way to Hang Toilet Paper?

In 1977, one of the most influential women of the 20th century, newspaper columnist Esther Pauline Lederer, better known as “Ann Landers” (and funny enough twin sister of one of the other most influential women of the 20th century, Pauline Esther Phillips, aka “Dear Abby”), wrote a seemingly innocent article in which she cited a preference for hanging her toilet paper in the “under” orientation as opposed to the “over”. Said column promptly received over 15,000 letters from irate readers protesting this opinion, making it one of the most controversial in the famed columnist’s near half century long career. It turns out some people take toilet paper orientation VERY seriously… In fact, in a poll we ourselves conducted which included around 32,000 respondents, 42% stated they have strong opinions about toilet paper orientation, 34% claimed they have a preference, but don’t feel strongly, and only 25% said they don’t care either way. Further, in a separate poll, of the 26,000 voters on that one, almost 40% claimed toilet paper roll orientation has been a source of argument in their home.

This argument apparently extends all the way to the furthest reaches of the Earth, with it noted in a 1999 Daily Express article that researchers at the Amundsen-Scott Research Station at the South Pole had been frequently clashing over the correct way to hang toilet paper.

So today we’re going to look into whether there is an objectively superior way to hang toilet paper and, while we’re at it in the Bonus Facts in a bit, we’ll be discussing the results of a series of defecation related polls we did which revealed some rather interesting things about people’s bathroom habits.

But first, as to toilet paper roll orientation- statistically, hanging toilet paper in the Over orientation is the more popular choice with a 1989 survey for the book, The First Really Important Survey of American Habits, finding that 68% of Americans prefer to hang the TP roll in this way.

Similarly, in our own poll delving into this same question with about 20,000 voters, the numbers skewed at 71% preferring Over, 6% Under, 8% vertical, and 15% not caring.

In yet another poll posted a few minutes later looking at what people actually do, instead of preference, this one with 22,000 voters, 78% claimed the usual orientation in their household is Over and 14% stated vertical is their norm.

Moving on from our polls, many others we looked at more or less all agree with the fact that approximately 2/3 of people across all ages and genders prefer the Over orientation for hanging toilet paper. One potential discrepancy to this, however, had to do with earning power, with one survey finding that whereas approximately 2/3 of people who earned $50,000 or more a year preferred Over, approximately the same percentage who earned less than $20,000 actually preferred Under- something the authors of that one were forced to admit was interesting, but they had no reasonable explanation for. And, we’re not going to lie, that one had us stumped too, so we went ahead and ran our own poll to see if our audience results matched this oddity or not.

And it turns out, for whatever it’s worth, our audience showed no such significant discrepancy. Of the approximately 60,000 voters, about 18,000 of them made more than $50,000 per year, with 10% of those reporting they preferred Under to Over. Similarly, about 15,000 voters reported making less than $20,000 per year, with 12% of them opting for Under instead of Over.

So that’s people’s preferences- But is there an objectively superior way to hang toilet paper? It turns, out, yes. Or at least, when talking multiple excrement ejectors using the same toilet.

You see, as noted by a 2011 study, Microbial Biogeography of Public Restroom Surfaces, as is probably a surprise to no one, bathrooms are absolutely caked with microbes of all sorts. In this specific study, they were interested in the types and distribution of certain microbes, examining various parts of 12 restrooms such as toilet seats, door and sink handles, floors, etc.

For the curious, the same microbes were present in both men’s and women’s restrooms. However, the ladies’ rooms had much higher concentrations of certain ones, such as Lactobacillaceae, with these higher concentrations attributed to the high prevalence of said microbes in a certain ladybit and the urine of women- thus more frequently finding its way from said ladybit onto the surfaces of those facilities.

So what does this have to do with toilet paper orientation? The surfaces around the toilet seat, like the flushing control mechanism, toilet seat, etc. contain an awful lot of potential pathogens. (And a fun aside, presumably owing to people triggering the flush with their feet, they found that the flushing mechanism in some cases also had similar microbe concentration types as the floor around the toilet, which had the highest diversity of any surface in the bathroom.)

Thus when looking at toilet paper roll orientation at facilities in which a plurality of people use the marvel that is the modern toilet, the argument is that the Over orientation is superior because the Under significantly increases the likelihood of users of the toilet paper touching the wall. This would have the dual affect of both spreading microbes from their potentially soiled hands to the wall and also will transfer what’s on the wall to said individuals’ hands. The Over orientation has no such wall touching problem.

That said, given the rather exposed nature of the toilet paper in some public restrooms, it’s potentially already got a lot of such microbes on at least the first squares you tear off. But it’s all about minimizing exposure where possible and then washing your hands after. So avoiding touching the walls, which are not always frequently cleaned by maintenance staff unlike other surfaces in the restroom, is a generally good idea.

On that note, we should probably mention here that while you might think, “Well, I can just wash my hands after, so who cares what I touch?” It turns out that according to the 2011 study, Bacterial Hand Contamination and Transfer after Use of Contaminated Bulk-Soap-Refillable Dispensers, the common refillable liquid soap dispensers themselves are contaminated approximately 25% of the time, including the soap containing some potentially harmful microbes such as Klebsiella pneumoniae (which in the gut isn’t usually an issue, but elsewhere can be, for example causing about 5% of all cases of community acquired pneumonia).

On top of that, those who use these contaminated dispensers actually showed a 26 fold INCREASE in gram-negative microbes on their hands AFTER washing their hands than what they had on them before. As the researchers summed up, “We therefore conclude that washing with contaminated soap not only defeats the purpose of hand washing but may contribute to the transmission of potentially harmful bacteria.”

That’s not to mention the microbes often found on the paper used to dry your hands… and don’t even get us started on the concentration of microbes if you use the air blowers in public restrooms instead. And even with uncontaminated soap, you aren’t necessarily going to get all harmful microbes off your hands by washing them, which was also very clearly illustrated in the aforementioned 2011 study.

So let’s just say here that while studies do show a rather large net benefit in most cases when you wash your hands after using the restroom, particularly if the restroom is equipped with refill soap containers that are sealed from the factory, overall even if washing your hands it still behooves you to minimize contact with surfaces in public bathrooms where possible.

Of course, in your own home, given studies generally show your gut and skin surface microbe colonies are approximately the same as those you cohabitate with, this microbe argument perhaps isn’t quite as big of a deal as when you’re out and about.

So at home what’s superior? As for the reasonable pros for Over, this is mostly summed up by saying that Over is easier to grab and tear thanks to the dangly bit flapping in the wind as God intended for all dangly bits.

Others do advocate many other reasons Over is superior, but these are objectively mostly inconsequential. For example, it’s often claimed by Over supporters that it is the correct way because manufacturers print their patterns assuming you will hang them in this orientation. But that’s only a thing because manufacturers know it’s the preferred hanging method. And anyway, does anyone actually care that the pattern appears embossed correctly or not? We’re guessing not, outside of novelty toilet paper.

Others argue that because Seth Wheeler’s 19th century patent for rolled toilet paper explicitly shows toilet paper hung in the Over orientation that this proves this is the “correct” way. But we’re guessing those same people aren’t caring that they pronounce UFO as U-F-O instead of “yoofo” as the coiner of said term intended, among countless other examples like this where the creator of something’s thoughts were ignored. So we’re guessing the only reason individuals putting forth this argument care what the fittingly named Mr. Wheeler drew on his patent application is that it vaguely supports their position. In the end, what the original creator of something thought was best doesn’t inherently matter to what’s actually superior. If it did, we’d all be advocating for Greedo shooting first and using bubble wrap as wallpaper which is what it was originally invented for.

On the flipside, advocates for the Under orientation note that it tends to provide a slightly more tidy appearance rather than just dangling out there in its best imitation of a kilted Scotsman. And, most importantly there, if one has beings of the feline or human parasite persuasion, the more concealed Under orientation tends to prove less tempting for these two groups to play with.

So to sum up, in public restrooms, to minimize microbial exposure as much as humanly possible, the Over or occasional “parallel to the wall” orientation would seem to be the definitively “correct” orientation via minimizing the potential for your fingers to touch the surface of the wall.

And as for in your own home where this is less of a potential problem as you already regularly share fecal matter and associated microbes with those you live with, the answer is slightly more sullied, varying based on factors like majority preference of the members of the household and whether or not you happen to have a toddler or cohabitate with one of our feline overlords. However, given about 2/3 of humans and 100% of cats seem to prefer the Over orientation, it is probable that in your household, if it be a bastion of democracy, rather than ruled by a ruthless dictator or governed via an archaic monarchical system, the correct orientation is generally going to be Over.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

Just for fun, we ran several other wiping and toilet paper related polls. Here are the results. First, of 32,000 voters, 65% report that when they’re wiping, they fold the TP, 20% crumple, 9% wrap the TP around their hands, and, oddly, 6% voted for “Other”… We’re not going to lie, we only put “other” in because it’s always a good thing to put in polls, but we’re not really sure what people are doing here. Like… origami?

Whatever the case, other interesting data points include of 48,000 voters, 28% primarily wipe while standing up, 64% primarily wipe while sitting down, and 7% are ambi-wipers, reporting wiping sitting or standing approximately equally.

Moving on from there to a poll where approximately 43,000 people revealed their primary wiping method. In this, approximately 70% of men reported primarily wiping front to back, while 30% wipe back to front. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ladies voted at a slightly greater clip for primarily using front to back wiping at 80% of respondents, with the remaining 20% going with back to front as their primary wipe, much to the horror of many a commenter on that particular poll.

In yet another poll, this one with just shy of 50,000 voters, 82% of people reported using toilet paper as their primary cleaner after rear expulsions, with a mere 10% reporting using some form of water or bidet system.

It is at this point we feel compelled to make a public service announcement that good bidet seat add-on devices cost only $30-$50 and take a mere ten minutes to install with no special skills needed to do such installation. This reduces toilet paper usage to almost nothing save a little drying and leaves you vastly cleaner (including for the ladies for a bit of extra cleaning during periods) while also being much easier on sanitation systems. This is also significantly more environmentally friendly given the massive amount of water, chemicals, and trees used in toilet paper production. And even if you don’t care about any of that, everybody likes saving money and the annual savings on toilet paper, particularly for households with many humans, is significant.

In any event, as to the rest of the respondents on that one, 4% note using their hand as the primary wiping method. The remaining 4% went with “Other” which we can only assume primarily is people using wet wipes.

Although note on that one, another public service announcement, as we outlined in our surprisingly interesting article “What Happens After You Flush” no matter what the wet wipes package says, if you flush them, your local sanitation workers despise you. As stated, sure, they are technically flushable, but so is a kitten. It doesn’t mean you should.

As with kittens, these wet wipes must be removed, in some facilities manually, from the waste water and sent off to a landfill, unlike toilet paper which naturally breaks down quickly. Further, wet wipes are frequently the source of clogs in the systems at various points, which means they’re just a big and constant headache for them, which in turn means more tax money spent to deal with the issue.

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7 comments

  • Not only is the “Under Orientation” less tempting for cats and toddlers, when they do play with it, it doesn’t spool out the whole roll onto the floor like it does in the “Over Orientation”.

    Of course, if you don’t have cats or toddlers, the “Over Orientation” is the best way to go.

  • There is a physics reason why the Over configuration works better. When you pull the paper outward it exerts a rotational force on the roll. In the Over configuration, this force lifts the roll, reducing friction on the roller. In the Under configuration, this force pulls the roll down, increasing friction with the roller and increasing the likelihood of the paper tearing.

    • Thank you for the interesting articles. Very informative. Could you please do an article or study about whether toilet seat protectors are protective/effective rather than not using a toilet seat cover? As a woman, I always use one except if they’re in available then I put toilet paper down on the toilet seat to cover it. This was what my mom taught me and I though most women did this However recently I found out that at least three of my friends don’t even use the toilet seat covers. This really shocked me. Doesn’t it add at least a layer of protection against germs on the toilet seat? I’d really like to know.

  • It’s not a matter of finding the correct way but of the more convenient way.

    The over configuration is more convenient because with the under configuration, the loose end of the paper is next to the wall, which may make it harder to grasp, and because the over configuration puts the loose end closer to you, which is another factor making it easier to grasp.

  • Would note that the patent for the toilet paper roller showed it in the Over configuration. So the legally recognized method is Over. Suck it, Unders!

  • Walter Schmidt

    Let us put this stupid argument to an end. Since only 1% of us has served in our military, only 1% of us know the answer. IT IS OVER!!!! with a 45degree under fold. Any thing less Will result in being “gigged”. Being “gigged” could result in the loss of liberty. Anyone want to loose LIBERTY? Unders spend time in the brig.

  • which way to hang bog paper makes the ‘which is the better fighter, lion or tiger’ argument seem like an important intellectual debate.

    btw, if anyone is interested, such as karl himself, (presuming he is the same karl smallwood with a youtube channel called fact fiend, who stated confidently tigers were more powerful while comically not checking his facts first and dismissing the whole debate as trivial), the lion is totally dominant over the tiger (based on all historical examples i can find) and thus, is objectively more powerful. this is based on masses of actual historical evidence not baseless opinion and dubious sources, like ‘what the romans thought’ (there is actually no evidence what they thought). look up what clyde beaty had to say, who the most famous big cat circus trainer, thus THE authority on the subject. and most other big cat trainers agree. and its not even close either. not debateable. the answer is clear cut; tigers are poor fighters with poor situational awareness and prefer to flee than fight a lion. apparantly there are hundreds of recorded cases of lions besting and killing tigers in captivity (confirmed by newspaper records etc, not heresay) but as far as i can tell, not one verifyable case of a male tiger killing a male lion. whenever lions are kept with tigers, the lion is always much more aggressive and dominant. lions are much more socially aggressive, have more powerful fore quarters, MUCH better fighters and being ‘cursorial’ ie fairly long distance runners for a cat species, have almost dog like heat tolerance and endurance. most people assume tigers are also bigger but it turns out siberian tigers, said to be the largest races of tiger, (but no bigger than bengal in actual fact) average about the same as lions, and the biggest examples of both on record are actually lions…ie the sadly extinct barbary lion (african lion subspecies). the biggest wild lions from contintal africa, confirmed on record are over 600lb, easily equalling the biggest confirmed tigers on record. museum lion skulls are bigger than tiger skulls too, suggesting lions are the bigger species. they also stand inches taller at the shoulder, making them by far the bigger looking, and have a protective mane, preventing even a skillful tiger, if such existed, to kill a lion. btw this is not a favorite animal debate at all. its definitely trivial (esp relative to the conservation aspect), but important so far as there is an actual answer available as to which is the stronger of the two. and as it is very clear cut, why not defend it. do some research before stating facts instead of jumping to conclusions.

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