Here’s Why People Are Giving Up Toilet Paper – And Replacing It With “Family Cloth”

A trusty piece of toilet paper has been America’s bathroom go-to since the mid-19th century, but some individuals have swapped tissue for something that’s altogether stranger. Yes, an alternative known as family cloth is sweeping the nation. And when you learn what it’s made from, you’ll likely want it nowhere near your own bathroom.

Before family cloth came into fashion, though, it turns out that many did without a piece of tissue in the restroom. Even to this day, in fact, it’s believed that some 70 percent of the world’s population – that’s about 5.4 billion people – never use toilet paper. But what kinds of alternatives were out there to tempt people away from toilet tissue?

Well, the earliest information about how people wiped goes back to ancient Greek times. Those Greeks, it’s said, used stones or clay. The practicalities of that boggle the mind. Moving on swiftly, we come to the Romans, who cleaned themselves with sponges that were attached to the end of sticks. They even had special names for this implement: the xylospongium or the tersorium.

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But the Romans didn’t enjoy exclusive use of their own xylospongium. Rather, they would use a communal one that would be provided at one of their public latrines. And to make wiping easier, each individual toilet had the normal opening at the top, but also a gap between the legs. The user could then insert the stick through this second hole as needed.

Between uses, the sponge on a stick would be stored in a pot of vinegar or salted water. But since these public latrines could accommodate between ten and 20 people at a time, the potential for the spread of disease was a constant danger. And the Romans, ingenious though they were, never did get round to inventing toilet paper.

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In fact, the honor of being the first people to come up with paper designed for use in the toilet falls to the Chinese. Actually, it was the Chinese who invented paper full stop. Yes, according to tradition, a court eunuch called Cai Lun – who served the Emperor He of the Han Dynasty from 75 B.C. – created the first piece of parchment in 105 B.C.

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One story has it that Cai Lun came up with the idea of how to make paper by observing wasps as they built their nest. However, archaeologists have challenged his claim to be the inventor of paper. They found a scrap of parchment dating from between 179 and 141 B.C. – a number of years earlier than 105 B.C.

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And this ancient paper was discovered in Fangmatan – a settlement in China’s Gansu Province. This sheet wouldn’t have accompanied people into the restroom, though: instead, it was probably a map. In fact, many centuries would pass before the Chinese finally hit on the idea of using this marvelous invention to wipe their private parts. Yes, in the sixth century A.D., toilet paper began to take off.

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The first written evidence for the use of toilet paper comes from 589 A.D. In the fifth volume of Joseph Needham’s monumental 1986 work Science and Civilization in China, Needham quotes a Chinese scholar called Yan Zhitui who lived from 531 to 591. “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes,” Yan Zhitui wrote.

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So, we can deduce that if there was paper that Yan Zhitui would not consider using for wiping, then there must have been paper that was permissible to use in a bathroom context. And an Arabic traveler named Abu Zaid Hasan al Siraff backed up this assertion when he recorded the toilet habits of the Chinese. In fact, he recounted what he had witnessed in the early-10th century with some distaste.

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As quoted by historian Ian Maxted in an essay first published in 1990 on The Ephemera Society’s website, al Siraff said, “[The Chinese] do not take care for cleanliness, and they do not wash themselves with water after paying a call of nature, but they only wipe themselves with paper.”

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In the 14th century, it seems that the manufacture of toilet paper had become a fairly major Chinese industry. In one region alone – today’s Zhejiang Province – ten million packages of toilet paper were produced each year. And each of those packages contained between 1,000 and 10,000 sheets of paper – presumably enough to cater for the bathroom needs of many people.

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A record from 1393 details toilet paper supplies to the Imperial Chinese court in the nation’s then-capital city of Nanjing. The courtiers there were apparently wiping their way through 720,000 sheets each year. And their sheets measured two feet by three feet, so presumably they were torn down into serviceable pieces before use.

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In 1393 the Imperial Bureau of Supplies reported that Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, and his family got through 15,000 sheets of toilet paper all on their own. And this wasn’t any old tissue: it was particularly soft and impregnated with perfume. Nothing, obviously, was too good for the imperial butts.

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Of course, while the Chinese aristocracy may have been using paper in their bathrooms, we can be fairly sure that the peasantry – that’s to say most people – were not. Yes, just like all common people around the world during medieval times, they would have been using grass, sand, moss or whatever came to hand, so to speak.

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And other materials used in medieval times to mop up after bodily functions apparently included snow, corn cobs, seashells and wood shavings. According to some accounts, rags were also used. This may be a distant echo from the past of the current phenomenon favored by some forward-thinking Americans.

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However, in the Middle Ages, better-off people used lace, hemp or wool after using the toilet. And in the 16th century, the French writer François Rabelais wrote a passage in one of his satirical works, The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, that discussed the best materials for wiping. In the section, a giant named Gargantua considers many methods before reaching a conclusion as to the best of them.

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Surprisingly, one material that Gargantua firmly rejects is paper, on the grounds that the results are poor. But the method of wiping that he finally plumps for is not perhaps entirely practical. He asserts that, of all possible means of cleaning, “there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs.”

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The 18th century saw a boom in book publishing and this, for some at least, provided a ready source of paper that could be used in the restroom. For instance, Lord Chesterfield, in his 1747 volume Letters to His Son, described the use that an acquaintance had for a book of poetry by the Latin writer Roman Quintus Horatius Flaccus – better known as Horace.

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According to Chesterfield, this acquaintance “tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina; thus was so much time fairly gained.” Cloacina was the Roman goddess of sewers, charged with overseeing Rome’s main drain: the Cloaca Maxima. And somewhat bizarrely, her domain also included the sexual relations of married couples.

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Yet although toilet paper was readily embraced by the Chinese in the Middle Ages, there was an interval of several centuries before the item became commonplace in America. And the man we have to thank for the fact that it eventually caught on in the mid-19th century is Joseph C. Gayetty. We know little of his origins, though, other than that he was born early that century in Pennsylvania and later took up residence in New York City.

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But we do have a surprisingly precise date for when Gayetty first sold his toilet paper: December 8, 1857, a Tuesday. His paper was made from Manila hemp impregnated with aloe, and each sheet had the watermark “J C Gayetty N Y.” It was advertised as a counter to hemorrhoids, although some medics, er, “pooh-poohed” this claim.

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Doctors may have criticized Gayetty’s wares, but the man himself seems to have had no doubts about its efficacy. He proclaimed that his toilet paper was “The Greatest Necessity of the Age.” The Pennsylvania native also took a swipe at the widespread use of newspaper in the bathroom for anything other than reading material. Ink, he insisted, could be harmful to delicate parts of the body.

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A 1859 advertisement for Gayetty’s paper showed that his business was based at 41 Ann Street in Lower Manhattan – a thoroughfare that you can still stroll down today. Sadly, you can no longer buy toilet paper at number 41. But when the Pennsylvania native’s store was open, the price of 1,000 sheets of “Gayetty’s medicated paper for the water closet” was one dollar.

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Gayetty may have been first to market, but it was two brothers – Clarence and E. Irvin Scott – who brought toilet paper to the masses. They founded the Scott Paper company in Philadelphia in 1879. And their unique selling point was the fact that their paper came with perforations and was mounted on a roll instead of being sold as individual sheets.

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A 1915 advertisement claimed that the paper was “as ‘soft as old linen,’ snowy white and very absorbent.” And with the price set at 10c for 1,000 sheets, it was much cheaper than Gayetty’s paper had been back in 1859. Scott Paper enjoyed success throughout the 20th century, and it was eventually purchased by Kimberley Clark for $7 billion in 1995.

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So, it turns out that there is a surprisingly massive amount of money in toilet paper. In fact, Americans get through a bit more than seven billion rolls of the stuff every year. To put it into perspective, this works out as an average of 57 sheets per day – or 23.6 rolls per year – for every man, woman and child in the nation.

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The manufacture of toilet paper has become a high-tech process, too. The trick is to make paper strong enough to fulfill its purpose, but weak enough to break down easily after it has been flushed. This is achieved by making toilet paper from short fibers, less extended than those used in writing paper, for example. And it has to be just right so that it won’t block sewer pipes.

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But wiping with tissue might not be the most environmentally friendly choice. After all, according to one calculation, it takes the harvesting of about 384 trees to create enough toilet paper for one person to use in their lifetime. And lumberjacks chop down around 27,000 trees every day just to be made into toilet paper. So the question arises: how can this be sustainable?

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Well, it’s startling figures like these that have given rise to a new phenomenon: family cloth. And this tissue alternative isn’t made from paper at all. Instead, it’s a simple piece of fabric that’s used to wipe in the bathroom in the place of disposable paper. The cloth should be washed after one use and can then be used again and again.

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It’s environmental concerns that are driving some people away from the use of toilet paper. We’ve heard about the massive use of resources that goes into the supply of paper for the bathroom. Of course, as each sheet of paper is used only once, it could be difficult not to see this as wasteful. And Americans have been singled out as the worst offenders of all.

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Yes, it’s reported that Americans each use an average of some 50 pounds of toilet paper each year. And this rate of use is 50 percent higher than that of Western Europe and Japan. There’s also the fact that people in the U.S. have demanded increasingly soft paper. Unfortunately, this means that recycled paper is no longer an option, as the manufacture of soft toilet paper requires pulp from newly harvested trees.

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So the sad result of the insistence on soft toilet paper is that only 2 percent of that used in American bathrooms is made with recycled paper. Some people want to do something about that, hence the idea of using family cloth. And one woman has spoken publicly about her family’s use of cloth – albeit anonymously.

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Speaking to BuzzFeed in 2018, the woman said, “My family is myself and my husband, my six-and-a-half-year-old daughter and my three-year-old son. To be honest, I was the main driving force behind this switch from toilet paper to family cloth. We’ve been using family cloth for under a year, even though the plan to do so had been years in the making for us.”

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She added, “So far, it’s been wonderful, and I can’t imagine going back.” The woman then proffered a counter to one common criticism of family cloth, saying, “If you’re wondering, ‘Why would you want to reuse something that you wipe your genitals with?’, I’d answer this question with my own question: ‘Do you throw away your underpants after each use?’”

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She also did a little explaining about the practicalities. “Let’s also set the record straight: individuals who use family cloth do not only have ‘a’ single piece of cloth. We have dozens of smallish strips of cloth. Each visit to the toilet gets its own cloth,” she said. After use, the fabric is then placed in a bin to be washed later.

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However, even this devout user of family cloth had her limits. “At the moment, we don’t use the cloths for poop; they’re just for pee,” she conceded. She said that, in the future, she hoped to have a bidet fitted in her bathroom so that her family could clean themselves after defecating, and the family cloth could then be used simply for drying. But Beth Ricci, who blogs at Red & Honey, does go all the way.

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Ricci described her restroom routine on her blog in February 2019. She wrote, “Walk into the bathroom and grab a wipe. Use dry or wet with water (your choice). (I like to use it dry for #1 and wet for #2. In either scenario, I feel immensely cleaner than when I use paper. The cloth wipe is just…sturdier and more substantial for those purposes.)”

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But the very idea of using cloth instead of paper has got some into a terrible froth. For instance, many opponents of the fad contributed to the comments section below the BuzzFeed piece. “This is so disgusting, you’re sharing cloths that have been on other people’s parts,” a user called Oliverosa wrote. Meanwhile, a commenter named Morganm was brief and to the point, saying, “Ew. No.”

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Conversely, others were more skeptical of family cloth’s benefits. “Wouldn’t the sheer amount of products used to sanitize these and then your washing machine defeat the purpose of being environmentally friendly?” commenter Catmirfitt wrote. And BuzzFeed user Pretzelday was downright hostile, saying, “Nope. Hipster blogger nonsense.” So, cloth or paper? It’s your butt and your choice!

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But whether family cloth is a clever, sustainable invention or a kooky fad, there’s no denying that it’s creative. And it’s not the only useful home remedy around, either. Your own kitchen cupboard may even hold a natural alternative to antibiotics – and some people swear by it.

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Because antibiotics may eventually prove ineffective, their usage is generally considered to be a last resort. And as a consequence of our reliance on this form of medication, some diseases are gradually becoming more drug-resistant. But although that prospect may be worrying, a natural household solution exists that may just turn out to be a game-changer.

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General scientific consensus states that bacteria are among the oldest inhabitants of Earth. Indeed, the progenitors of modern bacteria are said to have first appeared some four billion years ago. And yet after all this time, the microbes are still here – with some variants even helping us humans.

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In fact, our bodies are apparently filled with roughly 39 trillion bacteria per person – many of which live in our gastrointestinal tracts. Experts refer to these microorganisms as gut flora, and in many cases they help with digestion, metabolize certain substances and create vitamins or useful acids. Other types of bacteria, meanwhile, live on the skin.

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And while the damaging impact of specific kinds of bacteria is typically nullified by our body’s immune system, this isn’t always the case. Some bacteria can prove very harmful to humans if they’re virulent enough, creating all kinds of diseases and health problems that may ultimately prove to be fatal.

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Take the infamous bubonic plague, for example, which was responsible for approximately 50 million deaths back in the 14th century. Even today, the bacterial infection tuberculosis claims around two million lives a year. And in addition, there’s the added threats posed by anthrax, pneumonia and respiratory infections, to name just a few potentially lethal conditions.

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Nevertheless, antibiotics can treat such infections by either slowing the growth of bacteria or destroying them entirely. And, in fact, historical evidence indicates that several of the more advanced ancient civilizations – such as those once found in Rome, Egypt and Greece – also used this kind of measure. Medical practitioners often cultivated their antibiotics from bread mold, it’s said, which they applied directly to the skin.

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In 1928, however, Sir Alexander Fleming revolutionized medicine through his discovery of penicillin. And after Fleming developed the drug with the help of his peers, it became available on a much larger scale. Yet this came with its own problems. Namely, as people came to overuse antibiotics, the substance’s effectiveness against infections began to be compromised.

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According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), medical professionals have in recent times tended to over-prescribe antibiotics. Yes, no less than 30 percent of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary, as the CDC revealed in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2016. It even seems that in some cases the medication is being used to treat non-bacterial conditions.

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In particular, experiencing a cold or the flu may prompt an individual to seek a magic pill to quell their symptoms. But these illnesses are viral rather than bacterial – which makes any attempt to treat them with antibiotics fruitless. In addition, popping one of these pills if not needed may help build up a resistance against the drugs.

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And somewhat disturbingly, so-called superbugs are apparently developing that can’t necessarily be combated by antibiotics. Tufts University School of Medicine’s Stuart Levy spoke out on the subject to National Geographic in 2014. “The bacteria have acquired the ability to destroy the antibiotic in order to protect themselves,” Levy said. “They’ve developed a gene for resistance to, say, penicillin – and that gene protects them.”

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“A genetic mutation might enable a bacteria to produce enzymes that inactivate antibiotics,” Levy continued, “or [a mutation] might eliminate the target that the antibiotic is supposed to attack. A bacteria may have developed resistance to five or six antibiotics, so in treatment you don’t know which one to choose.”

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“And the bacteria accumulate resistance by developing new genes,” Levy added. “Genetics is working against us – almost like a science-fiction story.” It may be the case, too, that the general public are ingesting antibiotics unwittingly. Individuals in the meat industry are feeding antimicrobials to their livestock, you see, as a method of growth enhancement.

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“This is a big issue,” Levy elaborated. “About 80 percent of antibiotics manufactured are given to beef cattle, chickens and hogs to help them grow better and put on more weight. [The animals] excrete them, and the antibiotics largely are not broken down. They enter the environment – the ground and the water – and retain their ability to affect bacteria and promote antibiotic resistance.”

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There are some powerful antibiotics in nature, however. And not only are these substances occasionally easy to get hold of, but some also apparently bypass the resistance of mutated bacteria. As a result of the current superbug crisis, then, some researchers are looking into these herbal remedies as potential alternatives.

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It should be noted, however, that certain cultures have long recognized the potential of nature to treat illness. Take Echinacea, for example; Native Americans have used the group of plants to deal with infections and manage wounds. Echinacea species are also thought to reduce inflammation and help with colds and flu.

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And science has also delved into the intriguing medicinal properties of Zingiber officinale – otherwise known as ginger. Experts widely acknowledge ginger root as an herbal antibiotic, and it can be effective in either powdered or dried forms as an essential oil or when consumed as a cooking ingredient.

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Goldenseal is another herb that can be drunk in a tea or taken in tablet form. And because the plant contains the alkaloid berberine, it’s particularly effective on the stomach, urinary tract and skin. In addition, lab tests have shown that goldenseal can help combat the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria.

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A couple of further microbials, though, have gained wider attention as an effective combination. Specifically, honey and turmeric are quickly becoming a dream team in the fight against increasing antibiotic resistance. And while both of these ingredients are each highly useful on their own, together they create something remarkable.

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The end result of that combination is called golden honey, and it’s perhaps no surprise that the medical world has shown interest. After all, honey – the by-product of nectar collection from insects such as bees – is a renowned antibacterial. Historians have even found evidence that the ancient Egyptians used the sweet substance thousands of years ago.

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And it’s said that older cultures once utilized honey’s medicinal properties to treat wounds and internal troubles. Until recent lab tests, though, modern mainstream science hasn’t paid too much attention to its unique properties. Nevertheless, we’re now discovering that the perfect solution to our superbug problem may have been under our noses all along.

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As previously mentioned, one of the key components of golden honey is turmeric – a plant that is genetically related to ginger and becomes a yellow-orange color in powdered form. And much as with honey, turmeric is an ingredient that has been used as a medicine for millennia – predominantly in India and China. In particular, the curcumin that the rhizomes contain can potentially provide significant benefits.

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Unfortunately, though, turmeric only has trace amounts of curcumin that the body doesn’t absorb very well. Consequently, any mooted beneficial effects that curcurmin may have on health have proven difficult to quantify. Then in 2018 researchers from Imperial College London found something interesting. After experimenting on rats using curcumin eye drops, the scientists noted results that looked fairly promising.

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“We used nanotechnology,” professor of ophthalmology Dr. Francesca Cordeiro told CNN in 2018. “The advantage of [curcumin] being so small is [that] it can cross into the eye as an eye drop into the back of the eye. Once [the curcurmin] enters, it can affect the nerve cells there, and that direct effect can lead to [the cells] not dying. It’s what we call neuroprotection.”

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In fact, the experiment apparently showed that curcumin reduced the treated rats’ retinal cell degradation by 23 percent. But what happens when you mix turmeric with honey – and why is it so special? Well, a 2009 study that was performed by the University of Sydney’s School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences may just answer that question.

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“Most bacteria that cause infections in hospitals are resistant to at least one antibiotic,” Dee Carter, an associate professor at the school, explained. “And there is an urgent need for new ways to treat and control surface infections. New antibiotics tend to have short shelf lives, as the bacteria they attack quickly become resistant.”

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Carter continued, “Many large pharmaceutical companies have abandoned antibiotic production because of the difficulty of recovering costs. Developing effective alternatives could therefore save many lives. Our research is the first to clearly show that these honey-based products could in many cases replace antibiotic creams on wounds and equipment such as catheters.”

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“We don’t quite know how these honeys prevent and kill infections,” Carter said. “But a compound in them called methylglyoxal seems to interact with a number of other unknown compounds in honey to prevent infectious bacteria developing new strains that are resistant to it.” Add turmeric to the mix, then, and you have the potential for something that’s even more special.

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And website Turmeric For Health has elaborated on this point with reference to a medical tradition known as Ayurveda. “A study has shown that an Ayurvedic medicine containing turmeric and honey as two of the active ingredients stimulated the production and functionality of immune cells,” the site stated. “And thus [it] could result in improved immunity against diseases.”

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Fortunately, the ingredients for golden honey are easy to obtain – indeed, you may already have them handy in your kitchen. All you need is three and a half ounces of honey and half an ounce of powdered turmeric. Put both of these into a glass jar and then stir the mixture with a wooden spoon.

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Some people also suggest adding a pinch of black pepper to aid with turmeric absorption. Once your golden honey is mixed well, however, leave it alone for a night to build its concentration. And that’s it! Your new antimicrobial is ready to go, and you can start taking it on a daily basis.

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The YouTube channel Natural Cures recommends consuming a spoon’s worth of golden honey every day before breakfast, for example, although you can also have three such measures a day if you feel unwell. If you don’t want to imbibe the mixture as is, though, just add the daily amount to a half-cup of warm water. And whatever you choose to do with golden honey, it’s worth being aware of some stipulations.

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When you make golden honey, try to use the best organic ingredients to make the most of its properties. Unscrupulous sources have been known to market counterfeit turmeric to turn a quick profit, you see, so only purchase ingredients from reputable sellers. And then you also need to keep your current health problems in mind.

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For example, Natural Cures warns against using golden honey if you have a liver or gall bladder condition. And as with any home remedy, be sure to clear it with a medical practitioner before trying. But so far, the herbal remedy channel’s video has received many people thankful for the golden honey recipe.

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And a couple of people also offered some extra hints and tips in the comments section. “I just started golden milk a couple weeks ago for toe arthritis,” one person wrote. “I add turmeric, honey [and a] dash of pepper to any milk and warm it. It’s extremely delicious and effective.”

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The commenter added, “My toes don’t have much pain at all only after a short time on this drink.” Another person described how they use golden honey to supplement another home remedy. “I’m dealing with Lyme disease,” they explained. “When I made my own colloidal silver, I started to feel a difference.”

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“I take [the silver] periodically,” the individual continued. “I use it in between [turmeric and honey].” And Natural Cures’ video explains in more detail exactly how golden honey helps to fight bacterial infections. “Honey is rich in antioxidants and essential vitamins,” it reveals, before going on to mention honey’s natural healing qualities.

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“Bee honey fights against the negative effects of free radicals against the cells, strengthening the tissue and increasing the number of antibodies,” the channel claims. “Furthermore, [honey’s] anti-inflammatory effect is widely known because it helps reduce mucus in the airways.” This means that golden honey may help with cold and flu symptoms, too.

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As for turmeric, meanwhile, Natural Cures has revealed what makes the ingredient so effective in certain cases of ill health. “Its characteristic color comes from curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory and natural painkiller,” the video opines. “[Curcumin] balances inflammation in our tissue, destroys harmful pathogens and creates a protective barrier against the agents that cause infections.”

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The Natural Cures clip adds, “To maintain a lasting effect, many people incorporate golden honey into their diets to strengthen their immune system. However, it can also be used periodically as a natural anti-inflammatory to treat infections.” And it’s amazing to think that something natural could in fact prove superior to advancements in modern science and medicine.

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Hopefully, then, with this knowledge, you can help combat the ever-increasing amount of superbugs. And Natural Cures encourages this notion, too. “Now that you have learned how to use turmeric as a natural anti-inflammatory,” the channel says, “take advantage of this ingredient to improve your quality of life and your family’s health.”

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