Are Flushable Wipes Safe for Septic System Tanks? {To Flush or Not}

Sign seen recently in public restroom.

There’s nothing worse than using the restroom for your personal business only to leave and feel like you aren’t fully clean. You can’t think about anything else all day. You’ve surely heard the expression, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” If that’s true, then flushable wipes must be some sort of holy sacrament.

Or, maybe not?

As a replacement for or complement to regular toilet paper, flushable wipes have been marketed as the simplest and most reliable way to clean your nether regions. Unfortunately, like so many well-marketed products, the truth about flushable wipes is less impressive than they would have you believe.

Short answer: NO do not flush wipes down the toilet especially if you have a septic system. Continue below for full story and alternatives.

What are flushable wipes?

Maybe you have never heard of flushable wipes and you’re wondering what’s wrong with regular toilet paper. Well, the basic answer is, nothing. Toilet paper is still a great product, and honestly one of the most transformative inventions in modern human history. No, really, toilet paper changed the world.

Some people, though, want to get a cleaner wipe when they use the restroom, and that’s where flushable wipes come in. Flushable wipes for adults are very similar to baby wipes, but are made with special fibers to make them suitable for sewage systems and septic tanks.

Lots of companies make flushable wipes, and unsurprisingly, many of them are big names in the toilet paper industry. Charmin has Freshmates, while Scott sells Natural Flushable Cleaning Cloths. Cottonelle and Andrex are also big movers in the flushable wipes industry, and it is an industry that is growing bigger every year.

Down the drain

You might be thinking of going right out and buying some flushable wipes, but not so fast. Believe it or not, “flushable” wipes really should not be flushed down your toilet. For the pedants out there, yes, of course, you can technically flush these wipes in your toilet. You can also flush nails down a toilet, but no one would recommend it.

Despite the fact that wipes marketed as “flushable” technically pass requirements to be safe for sewage or septic systems, cities around the world have been finding out the hard way just how un-flush friendly these wipes are. The same reason that wipes are so useful as cleaning instruments is the same reason they are so bad to flush: they don’t break apart easily.

When normal toilet paper comes into contact with water, it pulls apart and deteriorates, like most paper products. Wet wipes (or disposable wipes), by contrast, are designed to maintain their consistency when soaked. That’s great for your cleaning purposes, but lousy for city sewage systems. When you flush that wipe down the toilet, you’re sending a soggy, solid mass down into the sewers.

Wipes can’t be that bad, can they?

Sewer pipe blocked by wipes (Image Source: Colorado.gov)

You’re probably thinking, even if wipes don’t break down, they can’t be that big of a deal, right? It’s just paper.

You should ask the city of London how big of a deal they are. For the last few years, the capital of England has been dealing with a scourge of wet wipes and other assorted products that are running through their sewers. This plague has clogged their sewers and required hundreds of manhours and millions of dollars to fix.

At the heart of this sewage traffic jam is something known as a “fatberg.” Now, a fatberg probably sounds like something you could order in an Irish pub along with a Guinness, but in fact it is a disgusting, rock-like mound of fat, diapers, condoms, and hygiene products, including wet wipes.

The building blocks of a fatberg are all products that should never be flushed, but most people have probably flushed at least one non-flushable item in their life. It happens. The problem occurs when eight million people all do it.

London’s older sewage system plays a part in the mess, but New York City has spent millions of dollars to deal with their own fatberg problems. Sewage workers in cities all over the world know just how much of a pain wet wipes and the other fatberg building blocks can be. And if you’re a tax paying resident of such a city, you’ve been footing the repair bills.

Are flushable wipes bad for my septic tank?

The industry that makes and markets flushable wipes swear up and down that their product is safe for both sewage and septic systems. So far, there hasn’t been much indication that individual septic tanks have been as negatively affected by these wipes as large-scale sewage systems, but of course, septic tanks consume far less waste.

It’s probably fairest to say the jury is still out on whether or not flushable wipes are safe for septic tanks, but most experts would recommend you avoid it all the same. The issues that make wet wipes such a hazard for a sewage system will almost certainly be a problem for your septic tank.

While toilet paper will mostly break down inside a septic tank and healthy bacteria can also feed off some of the organic material they are made with (cellulose in the paper fibers), wet wipes often contain a mix of fibers including cotton and rayon as well as plastic resins like polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene. This adds to the solid sludge layer at the bottom of the tank and since it really doesn’t dissolve it will need to be pumped out which is the biggest recurring expense of maintaining a septic system.

Bleach bottle bleach-free cleaning

One of the basic rules of keeping a healthy septic tank are avoid the use of harsh chemicals (like solvents, bleach and drain cleaners and lysol) and use septic safe toilet cleaner and septic safe laundry detergents.  This, along with limiting the things you throw in the toilet (like wipes and tampons) will help maintain a healthy septic stystem.

Why take the risk?

Should you stop using flushable wipes?

So-called flushable wipes really are a great product, but they should never be put down your toilet (if you still aren’t convinced, check out this entertaining video about this topic made by the Adam Ruins Everything TV program).

That doesn’t mean that you should stop using the product. If you like the clean way a wipe makes you feel, you can continue to use them, just don’t flush them. Many families have a bin specifically for disposing of diapers, you could use a similar trash can for wipes.

For the record, there are plenty of places in the world where regular toilet paper is never flushed, and they manage just fine.

Is there any brand of flushable wipes that comes out better than the rest? 

If you still want to use wet wipes and flush them into your septic system, you may be wondering if there are any on the market that dissolve better than the rest.  This guy here did a very exhaustive test between 7 different popular wipes on the market. The video lasts a full 20 minutes.

If you don’t want to watch the whole thing (Spoiler Alert), the Scott Flushable Wipes broke down the best. This same channel (the Fit RV) had done a similar test on toilet paper to see which major brand broke down (dissolved) the best for use in an RV (or septic tank).

The winner in that comparison test was the Charmin Ultra Soft Toilet Paper which we think is probably one of the best options out there (there are special single ply “RV and Septic” Toilet papers but many of those are pretty expensive especially for a family living on a septic system year round (compared to a short trip in an RV).

Is there a good alternative to flushable wipes?

If you’ve gotten used to flushable wipes but are now thinking about giving up the habit, there are a few options. The first one will probably be a let down, but it really is a great option: toilet paper!

Toilet paper literally transformed the world, and for well over a century, it was good enough for almost everyone. One of the reasons why some people switch from to moist wipes is that paper irritates their skin.

If standard tissue really irritates your skin you may want to consider these toilet papers for sensitive skin. You may find that these relieve many of the problems with standard toilet paper that can contain dyes and chemicals that irritate your skin.

If that answer doesn’t satisfy and you need to have the feeling of total cleanliness for your posterior, have you considered a bidet? For those who are unfamiliar, a bidet (pronounced buh-day) is a plumbing fixture that looks similar to a toilet, but you use it after you have finished your business. It shoots water out to wash your undercarriage.

Most Americans are reticent about using bidets, but they are very common in eastern Asia and in Europe. Fortunately, for the adventurous, one need not install a separate bidet in their bathroom. There are attachable bidet products on the market that can be added to any regular toilet.

We’ve researched the options and came up with these top affordable bidet toilet bowl attachments, if you are considering adding one to your toilet you might want to check it out.

Of course, if you love flushable wipes, feel free to keep using them. Just remember that while the industry continues working towards making better, more flushable wipes, consider just throwing them in a trash bin for the time being.