Can You Use a Paper Towel as a Coffee Filter? (Plus 4 More Alternatives)

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That big bag of paper coffee filters looked like it would last forever, but now it’s empty. Worse still, that was your last box. EEK! But wait, can you use a paper towel as a coffee filter substitute?

Paper towels can be used as coffee filters alternatives. You’ll just need to fold them and create a pouch. This isn’t a good permanent solution, but it can work in a pinch as long as you’re aware of the disadvantages.

In this article, I’ll show you how to use a paper towel as an improvised coffee filter until you get time to replace it with a real one. We’ll also look at what type of paper towel is best to use, a few reasons not to use paper towels, and a handful of other coffee filter alternatives.

Can You Use a Paper Towel as a Homemade Coffee Filter?

When folded correctly, a paper towel is a reasonable substitute for a coffee filter. It shouldn’t be your long-term solution, but it can be used when you’re out of regular filters and desperate for your next cup of coffee. 

The paper towel does need to be folded in a certain way to fit in position and act as a filter. The common paper towel found in a kitchen is not dissimilar to the modern coffee filter. It has an approximate thickness that’s comparable, and its power for absorption is a key factor too. However, it’s not exactly like a standard coffee filter.  

Are Bleached Paper Towels a Health Concern?

Paper towels do go through a bleaching process to change their color. Some of the chemicals used in this procedure may be a cause for concern if using the paper towel trick too many times. 

Chorine is included in the bleaching, which can result in chlorinated dioxins remaining in the product. When using the paper towels as a filter, these chemicals can begin to leach out from the material in response to hot water being introduced. 

One thing to know about this is that harmful dioxins are not only in paper towels; they’re present in manufactured coffee filters too. A research paper from the 1980s determined that there was a small chance – one in 10,000 cases – of the leaching effect being harmful to coffee drinkers. In a worst-case scenario, the dioxins can be a cause for some types of cancer, but it’s incredibly rare. 

So, long-term use of a paper towel as a homemade coffee filter isn’t recommended. But the bleaching agents aren’t a concern for a one-off use, especially if you avoid using boiling hot water.

Should You Use Recycled Paper Towels or Not?

Paper towels are intended only to be used to wipe surfaces, clean up spills, and so on. They shouldn’t normally come into contact with food or drinks because they were never designed for that purpose. 

Regular Paper Towels

Pulp is used to make paper towels. To produce it, various color dyes, agents to increase its strength, and other substances are mixed in. These are designed to alter its color and give it durability, so it won’t come apart in your hands. 

Depending on the manufacturer, the paper towels might have phthalates like BPA. These aren’t considered harmful at low levels, but remember that paper towels aren’t intended for long-term contact with your food and beverages.

Recycled Paper Towels

With recycled paper towels, there is more concern about what’s come into contact with it when it was used and after that. The recycling and remanufacturing processing isn’t going to remove all unwanted chemicals that it came into contact with along the way. That’s just the way it is.

Recycled paper towels would be the second choice of paper towels to use as a temporary coffee filter. Recycled products are environmentally friendly, but as a coffee filter, we’d prefer to use a regular, non-recycled version. 

How to Use a Paper Towel as Coffee Filter

A paper towel when torn off is a rectangular block. As you’ve probably noticed, that’s not the shape of a normal coffee filter, but that’s something we can fix.

Here is how to automagically turn a paper towel in a coffee filter for your drip coffee maker in just 8 steps:

  1. Tear off a piece of paper towel (a full-sized one is best). Place it flat on the table. If you have a window open or a fan going, we’d advise you to fix that first to prevent breezes from making the next steps harder.
  2. Halve the paper towel by folding it in half vertically.
  3. Now repeat the fold to create another half. Because paper towels are rectangular, it’ll only look kind of like a square at this point.
  4. Lift the paper towel carefully. Create an opening at one end, ready to pour in your fresh coffee grinds. It now has a pocket. Place the fancy new filter inside the filter cup of your coffee maker. 
  5. Pour your selected coffee grounds into the pocket that you’ve created. 
  6. Take care with the edges of your new filter to ensure it won’t prevent the coffee pot lid from closing fully.
  7. Pour hot, but not boiling, through the filter cup. Your new paper towel filter will gradually let the coffee drip into your pot.
  8. Settle in for your first taste of coffee today. Between the imperfect filter and the lower temp of the water, your coffee probably won’t taste as good. But at least you’ll have a shot of caffeine to start your day.

Are There Any Other Alternatives for Coffee Filters?

If you don’t have a coffee filter or a paper towel handy, there are a few other options you can try, including napkins, cheesecloth, tea bags, or a mesh sieve.

Napkin (Cloth)

A clean, cloth napkin can be a useful alternative to produce some brewed coffee.

The cloth napkin needs to fit over a mug and be secured by a rubber band to prevent it from slipping. It’s normal to see part of the cloth material slip inside the mug. This doesn’t matter so much. 

A couple of tablespoons filled with ground coffee should be carefully added to the napkin. Pour hot, but not steaming, water over it. Then remove the rubber band and the napkin. 

You’ll find that some coffee has gone down the sides of the mug and onto the surface below it. It’s not to be helped. Just dry this up. 


A cheesecloth is another alternative to paper towels. Not everyone has this item in their kitchen because it’s used to produce cheese.

It looks like a piece of gauze because it strains the cheese to retain the solids and let the liquids pass through. The same process works when using it as a substitute for a coffee filter.

Cheesecloth is tougher than a paper towel, but it makes an excellent coffee filter alternative. That is, assuming you are lucky enough to have some cheesecloth lying around.


Tea drinkers may have reusable tea bags. While it’s a little unconventional, steeping coffee is possible when using them. 

Add some finely ground coffee to the teabag. Use the seal to close the teabag. Fill a coffee mug with slightly warmed H2O and lower the teabag into the mug. Steeping should last for a decent amount of time, otherwise, it will produce a weak-tasting mug of coffee. And no one wants that! 

Remove the teabag once the coffee is to the strength that you prefer. While it won’t have anything like the strength of percolated coffee or espresso, you should be able to brew it as strong as a drip coffee.

Mesh Sieve

Our last alternative is the mesh sieve. It needs to be finely perforated to work for this brewing task. 

To use this method, start with a cup and add a couple of tablespoons of ground coffee to it. Then pour in some water that’s hot—but not boiling—and let it brew. For weaker coffee, allow 5–6 minutes and for stronger coffee, 10 minutes is better. 

Hold the mesh sieve and empty the coffee from the cup into a coffee mug below it. You’ll be using both hands here. It’s a simple method to create coffee when you’re out of coffee filters to make it. 

The two negatives to using a sieve to produce coffee are that the oils from the coffee beans won’t stop at the filter level. They’ll find their way into the coffee. The second negative is that fine coffee grounds will slip through the sieve, so coarsely ground coffee is better to reduce that.

Because of the extra oils, mesh sieve coffee will taste more like French press coffee than your usual drip-brew.

What’s Next?

These hacks are great for a moment of need, but they aren’t a permanent solution. If you want to move away from paper filters forever, you should consider a coffee maker with a permanent filter, like any of the Ninja coffee makers.

You could also opt for a Keurig coffee maker or an espresso machine, neither of which requires paper filters.

But for now, at least you know how to use a paper towel as a temporary coffee filter. So just enjoy your cup of coffee and get on with your day.