What’s the Difference? Tissues, napkins, kleenex, and other paper products

Napkins, tissues, tissue paper, Kleenex, paper towels, toilet paper… How are they all different? What are they used for?

Several students have asked me this question. I’ve also noticed that there are many cultural differences in HOW each culture uses these products.

So I am going to explain what they are and how we use them in American culture!


Tissues / Kleenex


What are they?

These are tissues. We also call them kleenex/kleenexes. Tissue is the generic name. Kleenex is a popular brand name. It has become so common, that we often call ALL brands Kleenex, even if it is a different brand.

It is never called “tissue paper.” Tissue paper is something totally different (explained below).

What do you use them for?

Tissues/kleenexes are used for blowing your nose, wiping your nose, sneezing, coughing, wiping your watery eyes, crying… Many tissues have special oils or lotions to help keep your skin from getting too dry or cracked from sneezing or rubbing too much.

We do NOT use these as napkins at the kitchen table for wiping your hands as many Asian cultures do. If you have a box of tissues like this on your kitchen table, your American guests will probably ask you, “Do you have any napkins?” if they need to wipe their hands. For Americans, a napkin to wipe your hands is different from a tissue to blow your nose.

We also do not use these for cleaning up spills unless there is nothing else around. Tissues are not good at absorbing liquid.


toilet paper


What is it?

Toilet paper is used in the bathroom.

What is it used for?

Toilet paper is only used in the bathroom to wipe after going to the bathroom.

Like with tissues, we never use toilet paper at the table as a napkin for wiping our hands.

We also do not use toilet paper for cleaning up spills unless there is nothing else useful nearby.


paper towels

What are they?

Paper towels are bigger than most other similar paper products.

Common brands include Bounty, Viva, Scott, Basic, and Brawny. (There are many other brands too).

You can often find 2 or 3 different sizes of paper towels. The typical size is a bit bigger than a normal sheet of scrap paper. (11×11 in.). However, many brands sell options with a half sheet size – the same height, but half the width.

What are they used for?

Paper towels are made to be absorbent. On the packaging, you’ll see a lot of advertising that says “30% more absorbent than other brands!” and “Tough when wet!”

Paper towels are best for wiping up spills. Many people often use them for cleaning. I, personally, use them for cleaning the kitchen, the bathroom, and even for wiping off the table or cleaning mirrors.

It’s also common for people to use paper towels for napkins during a meal to wipe their hands or mouths or any spills at the kitchen table. This is when the smaller sizes come in handy!


cloth napkins


What are they?

There are 3 main kinds of napkins.

  1. Cloth napkins
  2. Party or specialty napkins
  3. Regular paper napkins

What are they used for?

Napkins like this are usually used at the kitchen table during a meal. They’re used for wiping your hands, mouth, and any spills around your plate.

Cloth napkins are sometimes called “table linens”. Most nice restaurants use cloth napkins. Some people also use them in their home for a special occasion or an unusually nice dinner.

It is also an unspoken and generally accepted table rule to place your cloth napkin in your lap during the meal. When you are totally finished with your meal, you may place your napkin on the table.

party or specialty napkins

Party or specialty napkins
are often used for (obviously) parties or special occasions. They are almost always a variety of paper napkin. If you go to any big party store, you can find all varieties! Different colors, different patterns, characters from your favorite disney movie, symbols from a specific holiday, special words and phrases. You can probably find napkins for any special occasion!

Many people like them simply because they are fun and colorful!

The only negative thing is that many specialty napkins are made for looks and are less effective than a generic napkin at cleaning up your mess.

generic napkins


Generic napkins are usually my personal favorite.

They’re usually the cheapest and are often sold in bulk packages of 250-500. Many of the big paper towel brands also sell napkins.

The best brands are soft, small in size, cheap, and absorbent.



tissue paper

What is it?

Tissue paper is NOT the same as tissues/Kleenex.

What is it used for?

Tissue paper is used in gifts that are given in a gift bag. It’s used to hide the gift inside of the bag.

Tissue paper is also used in many kinds of arts and crafts projects.