Why Did the Pandemic Drive People to Purchase Tons of Toilet Paper?

Why Did the Pandemic Drive People to Purchase Tons of Toilet Paper?
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Though hard to believe, it's been about a year since SARS-CoV-2 arose and rapidly spread around the world. Amidst the fear, doubt, and disease the virus fomented in its early days, it also drove a massive run on a somewhat surprising commodity: toilet paper.

While other necessities suffered temporary shortages as well, toilet paper seemed to be uniquely affected, and it's disappearance widely heralded. News sources and social media lit up with photos of barren shelves that were brimming with bright white rolls of toilet paper just a few days before. A bustling re-sale market began outside of normal retailers. Toilet paper rolls were chained at some public toilets in Japan. There were even reports of armed toilet paper robberies across the globe.

According to a subsequent survey, 17.2% of North Americans and 13.7% of Europeans admitted to hoarding toilet paper during the mayhem.

Exactly why so many people chose to prodigiously stock up on toilet paper has been a focus of scientific study over the past months. Last Friday, a team of Spanish researchers published a systematic review in the journal PeerJ synthesizing the available research. They turned up a few potential reasons, some more likely than others.

The first explanation for the buying spree is simple and practical: people were having more gastrointestinal symptoms and diarrhea, perhaps induced by stress, or possibly caused by the coronavirus, itself. Studies suggest that roughly 12-13% of those afflicted with COVID-19 report significant diarrhea. However, the researchers consider this explanation unlikely, writing, "The relatively low proportion of diarrhea found in people with COVID-19 infection does not seem to justify the global trends in shopping for toilet paper."

A second, more likely explanation for the run on toilet paper is that it was a bit of a mirage. Shoppers stocked up on all sorts of necessities as COVID-19 triggered lockdowns around the globe, but while items like canned goods and cleaning supplies were more readily restocked on store shelves, toilet paper was not. Supply chains simply weren't prepared for millions of people to be stuck at home, clamoring for residential-quality toilet paper. But then thousands of people noticed those empty toilet paper shelves and shared the phenomenon on social media, transforming toilet paper buying patterns that were in line with those seen for other sought-after goods into a frenzy, thus initiating hoarding behavior and driving a real, albeit temporary, shortage of toilet paper.

A final explanation is that fear and uncertainty drove people to hoard toilet paper.

“Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk," Dr. Brian Cook, a member of the Disaster Risk Reduction project at the University of Melbourne, said.

And it's happened before. During the worrisome OPEC oil embargo in 1973, there was a nationwide toilet paper purchasing spree in the U.S. This phenomenon happened again in Venezuela in 2013 during turbulent times in the country.

Toilet paper is simultaneously useful, soft, and relatively inexpensive, making it a great item to hoard despite the storage space it requires.

In the end, none of these notions are mutually exclusive. All may have factored in to the toilet paper frenzy we witnessed last year.

Source: Labad J, González-Rodríguez A, Cobo J, Puntí J, Farré JM. 2021. A systematic review and realist synthesis on toilet paper hoarding: COVID or not COVID, that is the question. PeerJ 9:e10771 DOI 10.7717/peerj.10771

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