For me, choosing which type of diaper to use seemed overwhelming at first with all of the choices. I think it is important to think about who will be doing most of the changing and what will be most comfortable for them. If you will be using outside childcare, you may also consider their preference in your choice.
Generally, the pocket, AIO, and system diapers are very convenient for out and about situations as they all fold in over themselves for travel after use. I loved the simple pre-fold and wool cover myself at first but as my little one got mobile I loved the kinds that were together as it was one less step on a moving target diaper change.
Think about: up front price, ease of use, and type of material (synthetic/natural).
Your Diaper Choosing Guide
Pre-folds generally have multiple panels of absorbent material. While you can use folding and fasteners, the easiest way to use a pre-fold is to use a tight-fitting diaper cover and just lay the pre-fold inside the cover. See our Pre-fold Folding Guide. *A diaper cover is needed as it provides the waterproofing for the diaper.
Contours are like prefolds, except they are shaped around the legs. They do not have elastic around the waist and must be used with covers. They are between prefolds and fitted diapers in cost and ease of use. *Diaper cover needed
Fitted diapers need an outer cover to provide waterproofing. However, the diaper is one tailored absorbent piece and does not require any folding or fasteners as it has snaps or aplix of its own to stay on the baby. *Diaper cover needed
A diaper cover is needed with all three of the before-mentioned diapers. It is just a layer of waterproof fabric or wool that tightens with velcro (aplix) or snaps over the absorbent prefold, contour, or fitted diaper.
Diaper Hybrid Systems
Diaper shell systems have an outer waterproof cover and allows for snap-in absorbant liners. When changing, switch the inner liner for a fresh one and reuse the outer shell. Extra inserts can be snapped in for more absorbency. Some of these also have disposable snap in liners.
All in One (AIO)
All in one diapers have the absorbent diaper and waterproof diaper in one piece that is easily fastened on the baby with snaps or aplix. It is much like a disposable diaper. They are available in one-size varieties that fit babies from 7-35 pounds. They can take longer to dry because of the layers of the diaper being inseparable.
Pocket diapers have a waterproof outer with moisture wicking fabric interior. The diaper has a pocket where washable absorbent liners are inserted. You can easily customize the quantity/type of liners to match the absorbency that is required. They fasten with aplix or snaps. Pockets are one-size varieties that fit babies from 7-35 pounds.
Another thing to consider are the choices of fabric that go into making a cloth diaper. Some are cotton, hemp, bamboo, and waterproof covers are often wool, fleece, or a PUL or TPU fabric material.
We like the TPU which is a biodegradable waterproof material that we feel really good supporting. PUL unfortunately has a VERY long life meaning it does not really break down that well after its useful life is done… unfortunately for PUL. TPU on the other hand breaks down within 5 years and is fully biodegradable. Yeah- we have a choice!
Your baby is going to spend a lot of time in diapers so it makes sense to consider the materials they are made of. If you are still on the fence about using cloth here are some things to know about the materials disposable diapers are composed of:
Disposable diapers have become a great convenience in the modern world, but many parents question how safe the materials that constitute disposable diapers actually are. One might think that the reason the first disposable diaper was invented was to increase mobility among families, but that wasn’t the case. Disposable diapers were developed by Marion Donovan after World War II because of a cotton shortage. It wasn’t long, however, before mothers realized the benefits of Donovan’s 1950 diaper design: a rectangular plastic covering (initially from shower curtains) over layers of tissue paper.
Since then, disposable diapers have gone through many changes, including more than 1,000 patents filed in their name. Disposable diapers increased in popularity following the introduction of Super Absorbent Polymers in diapers in the mid-80’s (more on this below). Today, an estimated 90% of US parents use disposable diapers, much to the chagrin of environmental activists who consider the landfill impact unethical.
To understand the total impact, however, we first need to break down the components of disposable diapers into their many parts.
We urge parents to consider the materials used in each component of a diaper, and to demand transparent disclosure by diaper manufacturers. A summary of the basic layer components is provided below, but more interested parties will want to check out this article on Made How. IE (Diaper production does not produce significant byproducts; in fact the diaper industry uses the byproducts of other industries.)
- Inner Layer or Top Sheet – this layer sits next to your baby’s skin and thus is the front line on any toxicity or materials risk issue. This material is key. Require your diaper provider to disclose what their inner layer is made of.
- Absorbent Core – the theory is that this layer absorbs fluids, but the reality is that when baby repositions, fluid may be squeezed out of the core (potentially contaminated by the core materials) and back onto baby’s skin. To enhance absorbency, every one of the diapers we tested includes a matrix of fluff material and chemical crystals known as Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP) to soak up and trap fluid (more on this below). The role of the fluff, usually made from wood pulp and may also include wheat/corn based materials, is to distribute the fluid, while the SAP is intended to absorb fluid and locks it in the core away from baby. The bulk of the diaper, especially when wet, is composed of the core materials. We consider this the 2nd most important material to understand.
- Waterproof Outer Shell – all disposable diapers include some kind of waterproof material for the diaper’s outer shell. These materials are most often some kind of petroleum-based plastic or plastic-treated material. Some green diaper companies use a plant-based plastic (aka bioplastic) to provide the waterproof coating, which you may see referred to as PLA or polylactic acid in their ingredients.
Arrgh! The Mystery Ingredient May Be Toxic
Vexing to us is the lack of disclosure by many manufacturers about what, exactly, is in the diaper which they expect parents to place on baby’s skin 24 x 7 for the next 3-5 years. We urge you to buy from manufacturers who offer complete transparency in their diaper ingredients. It is safer to buy from manufacturers who are not afraid to disclose their ingredients. The biggest brands, Huggies and Pampers, are often considered the most guilty on this score, but are far from the only manufacturers limiting their disclosure of materials. Some of this lack of disclosure is supported by our government, such as in the case of Fragrance ingredients, which can be considered a proprietary trade secret and exempt from detailed disclosure. As reported in the Huffington Post and elsewhere, “…due to the ‘trade secret’ status of fragrances, manufacturers are still not required by the FDA to disclose their ingredients on the label or in any other way.” As a result, a manufacturer may bury dozens of potentially toxic chemicals under a “Fragrance” ingredient listing. For this reason, and others (see below on Perfumes), we urge parents to only buy Fragrance-free diapers. The fact is that there are several potentially harmful chemicals that are known to be present in some disposable diapers, including: chlorine, dyes, fragrances, phthalates, and more. We advise relying on the Skeptic’s Rule of Thumb when it comes to potentially harmful ingredients: if they don’t say it is NOT in there, it is probably in there!
Unless a manufacturer explicitly assures you that their diaper does not include a potentially harmful ingredient known to be commonly used in diaper manufacturing, we advise you to assume they do.
Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP)
The secret sauce inside disposable diapers since the mid-80’s has been Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP). Referred to by various names such as hydrogel, sodium polyacrylate, polyacrylate absorbents, or in Pamper’s FAQ as Absorbent Gel Material (AGM), these tiny crystals are carefully sprinkled inside the layers of the absorbent core of a diaper for their incredible ability to absorb and trap fluid (i.e. from urine and wet poopy). And it’s not just major brand-names like Pampers and Huggies that use SAP, it is used in every disposable diaper I have looked at. “Green” ones included.
SAP is claimed to absorb up to 300x its weight in water and retain it. In the left photo, you see a small pile of white SAP crystals from a diaper’s absorbent core. It has a consistency of a very fine white sand. We then added 65 drops of water, which was completely absorbed by the SAP in a few minutes to become the gelatinous crystal pile you see from two angles in the center and right photos.
Concerns about SAP are often cited and come from multiple perspectives.
- First off, SAP is a relatively new material, having been invented in Japan in the early 70’s and only used in diapers since the mid-80’s.
- It is unclear if sufficient testing has been done to assure that SAP is non-toxic and safe.
- Most SAP in use today is derived from petroleum, and thus may contain chemical components of concern
- SAP was linked with Toxic Shock Syndrome (however, it appears that SAP itself was not a direct cause; more on this below).
Link to Toxic Shock Syndrome
SAP has been linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). However, most experts do not believe the SAP itself was the cause, but rather the prolonged internal-use which SAP tampons enabled, which provided a breeding ground for bacteria. In 1978 Proctor & Gamble introduced the ill-fated Rely tampon. The use of SAP allowed the Rely tampon to absorb an entire menstrual flow, allowing it to be used for a prolonged period without replacement. By 1980, the popular Rely tampon was linked to an uptick in Toxic Shock Syndrome incidence and was recalled. The prolonged internal-use the Rely tampon encouraged is believed to have created an increased opportunity for growth of bacterium and thus increasing risk of TSS infection. The use of SAP in tampons was subsequently discontinued.
SAP is a plastic and most, if not practically all, of the SAP in diapers today is derived from petroleum. However, recently several companies are manufacturing SAP produced from plant-based bio-plastics. Similar to the processes used for creating bio-degradable trash bags, a combination of cellulose from wood or wheat, and starch from corn, potato, yams or other starch-rich plants, can be used to make a plant-based SAP which has similar absorbency but improved biodegradability. These materials are relatively new, and thus have not undergone as significant testing as petroleum-based SAP. However, the use of natural and sustainable materials and increased biodegradability are a virtuous combination. While many green diaper companies utilize plant-based core materials derived from wood/wheat/corn, it us unclear to us whether any are actually using plant-based SAP instead of petroleum-based SAP.
Chlorine-free and Why It Matters
In disposable diapers, chlorine is used as a bleach to whiten diaper material. The problem with chlorine is that it emits small traces of known toxic chemicals called dioxins during the bleaching process. The desire to keep baby from being exposed to dioxins is the primary motivation for using chlorine-free diapers.
Based on animal studies, dioxins are believed to have the ability to “cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.” The Environmental Protection Agency has identified dioxins as a “likely human carcinogen.”
While dioxins are only left in trace quantities in chlorine-bleached diapers, we prefer “none” to “trace” when it comes to babies. That’s why we advocate going with a chlorine-free diaper.
Perfume fragrances are sometimes used in disposable diapers, presumably to mask poop’s distinctive stench. However, an infant’s rapidly evolving organ systems are both immature and exquisitely sensitive to chemical insults. The scents found in many diapers are strong and chemical-laden, harboring unnecessary irritants with potential to cause such health issues as diaper rash and respiratory symptoms. Equally concerning, manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals used in fragrances as the FDA allows them to consider their fragrances “trade secrets.” Organizations such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics have commissioned independent labs to examine fragrances and have found potentially dangerous synthetic chemicals in use.
Our recommendation is simple: choose a perfume-free diaper. You don’t need it, and it’s not worth the risk.
Be Careful About Dyes
Dyes are may be added to diapers to color them and/or create wetness indicators. These dyes can be a cause of skin rash, as they may cause allergic reactions in some babies. In a study published in Pediatrics in 2005, switching to dye-free diapers was shown to eliminate skin rashes which occurred in areas exposed to colored portions of diapers.
Our take on it: we like dye-free and recommend it. Features like wetness indicators though helpful are unnecessary and we’d prefer to keep it simple.
Fear of Phthalates
Phthalates are a plastic ingredient of concern in baby bottles. But, they may also be in your baby’s diaper. Phthalates are mainly plasticizers, or “substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability and longevity.” They are generally used to soften plastic, for example in making a soft vinyl, and are also commonly added to lotions and shampoos. In some disposable diapers, phthalates may be used as part of the process to create a waterproof outer liner. Phthalates are not tightly chemically-bonded to the plastic, and as noted in the Pediatrics paper cited below, “are therefore continuously released into the air or through leaching into liquids.”
Phthalates are on the radar of the medical community — and we think they should be on yours too — due to potential toxic effects to the developing endocrine and reproductive systems, to which infants are particularly vulnerable. Phthalate sources are not limited to some diaper liners, but a broad range of “plastic products such as children’s toys, lubricants, infant care products, chemical stabilizers in cosmetics, personal care products, and polyvinyl chloride tubing.” The American Acadamy of Pediatrics journal, Pediatrics, pubished a paper titled, Baby Care Products: Possible Sources of Phthalate Exposure in July 2008. In it they noted, “Children are uniquely vulnerable to phthalate exposures given their hand-to-mouth behaviors, floor play, and developing nervous and reproductive systems.”
Not all diapers use Phthalates. But, figuring out which ones do is a challenge, since US law does not currently require disclosure of Phthalates.
Again, we advocate using the Skeptic’s Rule of Thumb when it comes to potentially toxic ingredients: “if they don’t say it’s not in there, then assume it’s in there.”
Consider the level of biodegradability in your decision making.
Our advice is simple: play it safe with your baby.
Although it is difficult to know exactly how much these chemicals from disposable diapers can affect your baby or to what degree your risk of exposure to them is, we’d say it’s better to be safe than sorry. Based on the research compiled above, we recommend you choose a diaper with the following characteristics:
Dye-free (or at least pigments without heavy metals)
A high level of biodegradability