Disposable diapers have become such a common product of convenience in our busy lifestyles that the vast majority of parents don’t think twice about throwing yet another box of diapers into their shopping carts. Everybody uses disposable diapers. It’s not a big deal… What’s there to think about?
Well, here’s one thing to think about:
It’s probably just a rumor, but I’ve heard that when 2157 rolls by, the whole planet will be covered in trash.
If you’re trying to do fast math, I’ll wait…
OK. You crunched the numbers and you won’t be here anymore. But your great-great-great-grandchildren might.
Realistically, sure, it may not be 2157 exactly. But with our wasteful ways, one day it WILL happen. Give or take, I would say that a healthy estimate of how many diapers kids go through until potty trained is around 7,000 per child. Can you imagine the size of that pile? And it’s not just the sheer mass of used diapers that poses a serious issue, it’s also the millions of tons of untreated waste just sitting around.
Another thing worth of consideration is:
The diapers you use will be in direct contact with your baby’s skin for 24/7 for the next 2-3 years. Perhaps even longer.
That’s quite a chunk of constant exposure, isn’t it? During this long period of time, your child could also be inhaling the concoction of toxic substances that disposable diapers may emit.
TOXIC you say???
Well, there is one teeny tiny problem with diapers. Actually two. No scratch that. Three.
- There could be a number of harmful chemicals hiding in your conventional diapers.
- Diaper manufacturers are not required by law to disclose what their diapers contain.
- The majority of chemicals approved by the FDA have never been tested for safety.
Without a doubt, modern disposable diapers have come a long way.
This is what a present-day disposable diaper consists of:
OUTER LINING – The cloth-like barrier that prevents liquids from leaking out. It’s typically made of polyethylene plastic film, although some green diaper manufacturers use bioplastic (plant-based plastic) instead.
ABSORBENT CORE – The core tends to contain a combination of super absorbent polymers (SAP)* and wood pulp fluff. In addition, a patch of an acquisition/distribution sub-layer can be added between the core and the inner lining in order to move liquids quickly into the target zone.
INNER LINING – The part that touches baby’s skin that’s responsible for wicking liquids and moisture away. It’s usually made of polypropylene, and several add-ons such as vitamin E, Aloe Vera, lotions, etc. can be added to this layer.
Disposable diapers have become a rather complex product that’s actually quite genius in its own way. But before you watch that commercial and get charmed by the new, improved, never better, blankie-soft, beyond-ultra absorbent love at first touch, do read on. That is if you want to, of course.
What can be found in disposable diapers?
• Sodium polyacrylate*
This super absorbent polymer (SAP) is the key to disposable diaper absorbency and is used by virtually all disposable diaper manufacturers. It’s added to the absorbent core in the form of tiny grains that turn into transparent gel-like substance once wet. Synthetic, petroleum-based sodium polyacrylate is the most commonly used SAP, but some diaper manufacturers have started using bio-based sustainable alternatives to the petrochemical-based polymer.
For what it’s worth, SAP is non-toxic though it could be a risk factor in urinary tract infection in children.
Dyes can be found on the outer cover of a diaper, on the inner liner, and on the leg cuffs as well. It’s not uncommon to see rashes in the area where dye touches the skin, and repeated exposure can lead to sensitization. Some dyes contain lead and other heavy metals. You never really know what’s been used for that cute factor of your diaper since diaper manufacturers tend to resist disclosing information about the kinds of dyes, pigments, or inks they use.
Perfume fragrance is sometimes added to diapers to help mask unpleasant odors. You may as well call it a mystery scent because the fragrance formula is considered a proprietary trade secret and manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals used in a diaper’s scent. Many toxic chemicals can be hiding in just the fragrance alone, creating the potential for rashes and respiratory and other issues.
A diaper consists of many different parts that need to be bonded together. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of information on the adhesives that diaper manufacturers use. However, some companies boast that they use phthalate-free glue, so it’s entirely possible that adhesives containing phthalates are widely used.
Phthalates are plasticizers, and disposable diapers are made from plastic resins. Phthalates make plastic softer while increasing its flexibility, resiliency, and longevity. They are known endocrine disruptors even in small doses and may be carcinogenic. They’re not chemically bonded to the compounds to which they’re added and therefore leach easily.
Dioxins are a class of potent carcinogens and persistent organic pollutants. When chlorine is used to bleach the diaper material and the fluff pulp found within the absorbent core, traces of dioxins are emitted. Some disposable diaper manufacturers use non-elemental chlorine during the bleaching process instead. While this method significantly reduces dioxins, it does not entirely eliminate them. In this case, unless the finished product is thoroughly tested and proven to be dioxin-free, “non-detectable levels” only refers to how sensitive the tests are.
• Tributyltin (TBT)
Conventional disposable diapers may contain tributyltin, a persistent toxic pollutant that’s extremely harmful to aquatic life. The source of tributyltin contamination is the wood pulp that contains remnants of TBT which is used as an antifungal agent in the wood pulp mills.
• Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
In this study, six leading cotton and disposable diaper brands were tested. It was found that mice exposed to the VOCs of conventional disposable diapers experienced asthma-like symptoms that increased during repeat exposures. Chemical analysis of the emissions revealed several chemical substances with documented toxicity: toluene, xylene, styrene, ethylbenzene, dipentene, and isopropylbenzene. Health effects of VOCs can vary by the nature of the chemicals and the level and length of exposure. Long-term exposure can cause damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidney, and may be carcinogenic.
So there is one thing I don’t quite understand.
You child’s food must be labeled. Their clothes must be labeled. The baby shampoo and lotion must both be labeled. The wipes you buy must be labeled. Why not disposable diapers?!?
What makes diapers so special?
Why is there no disclosure, no labels, and very little regulation?
Why do we know so very little about a product that’s used daily for years in a row?
As long as the disposable diaper industry remains self-regulated, it will stay full of secrets. So if you’re set on using disposables and would like to lower the amount of toxins your child might be getting exposed to, you’ll have to do some weeding.
How to choose the safest disposable diaper?
You can make this as easy or as difficult as you’d like, but it makes sense to start with simple steps while you look for the following labels:
✔ CHLORINE-FREE (Look for diapers that are unbleached, or bleached using non-chlorine bleaching process.)
Here are some brands of disposable diapers, divided into 4 categories:
THE GREENEST (containing plant-based ingredients exclusively):
Poof diapers are FULLY biodegradable. They’re made with sustainable, non-gmo proprietary materials and innovative features and printed with soy-based inks. In addition to chlorine-free wood pulp, the absorbent core contains plant-based SAP. Because these diapers are made with bamboo fibers which have inherent antibacterial properties, they’re also naturally antibacterial.
Free of: chlorine, fragrance, G.E. (It’s not clarified what G.E. stands for, but I assume it means genetic engineering.)
Broody Chick diapers are advertised 100% natural and FULLY compostable, containing natural super absorbers. There isn’t enough information on the company’s website to understand which (if any) dyes/pigments/inks are used. But given the nature of this product and the environmental focus of this company, I’m assuming that dyes are not used. It would be nice if Broody Chick offered more transparency into what is likely a wonderful product.
GREEN (with varying shades of green):
Free of: chlorine (diapers are peroxide-bleached), phthalates, PVC, organotins, heavy metals, formaldehyde, lotions, dyes, and odor inhibitors.
Bambo Nature diapers are bio-based, fully breathable, absorbent, and they’re made with high-quality materials. The absorbent core does contain petroleum-based SAP but, overall, this diaper is still an excellent choice with regards to baby’s health. This company seems to be serious about their environmental footprint and has been awarded the coveted Nordic Swan Eco-Label accreditation. Go Bambo!!!
Free of: chlorine (completely unbleached), fragrance, latex, TBT, lotions.
Eco by Naty strives to use natural and renewable materials as much as possible without losing out on performance. Petroleum-based plastic has been replaced with non-GMO corn-based bioplastic which, unlike conventional plastic, provides breathability. These diapers feature a patented center channel absorbent core which does contain petroleum-based SAP, but Naty claims they use less than other leading brands. Even though these diapers are not fully biodegradable, they’re still one of the much better choices out there.
Free of: chlorine, fragrance, latex, carcinogens, mutagens, and endocrine disruptors.
Aside from being made with biodegradable and renewable materials, Attitude diapers are carbon neutral. The absorbent core is advertised to contain biopolymer, but it’s not clear right away whether that’s a replacement for or an addition to the traditional super absorbent polymer. I have contacted the manufacturer, and it turns out that Attitude diapers contain both biodegradable biopolymer and superabsorbent polymer (SAP). These diapers are about 90% biodegradable.
Earth’s Best diapers are some of the greener diapers that also happen to be widely available. The inner liner and the outer cover is made with natural and renewable materials. In addition, bio-based absorbent materials are added to the absorbent core to reduce the use of petroleum-based SAP.
Free of: chlorine (no chlorine bleaching), latex, fragrance**, lotions.
**These diapers are perfume fragrance-free, but the bio core contains naturally derived odor blockers from citrus and chlorophyll.
The Honest Co. diapers are made with bioplastic and safe adhesives, and they’re printed with ink that’s free of heavy metals. The absorbent core contains fluff pulp from sustainable sources and bio-based wheat/corn blend which reduces the need for petroleum-based SAP. The overall reduction of SAP is considered proprietary though and hasn’t been made available.
FYI: The Honest Co. seems to be getting a lot of backlash for their “free trial” offer which is essentially a monthly subscription for diapers and wipes that seems to be difficult, if not impossible, to cancel. Just something to watch out for, I guess.
DRESSED AS GREEN (AKA the poser):
Free of: chlorine (no chlorine bleaching), lotions, dyes, fragrance.
Seventh Generation is a fairly well-known brand of diapers that are advertised as green. While I resonate with the green mission of this company and they do fulfill the basic requirement of no fragrance, chlorine, dye, or lotion, they leave a bit to desire when compared with some of the other companies. The inks they use are free of heavy metals, and the wood pulp comes from sustainably-managed sources. That’s all great. They do, however, remain to utilize petroleum-based plastic in addition to petrochemical-derived SAP. These diapers have a brown tinge to them instead of being white which gives them the perception of a natural product. They’re not naturally brown though. The brown color is a result of added pigments instead of minimal processing. Not a huge deal, but worth knowing I guess.
Free of: chlorine (non-elemental chlorine bleaching), perfumes, dyes.
Target’s diapers seem to be quite popular from what I’ve personally heard. They’re advertised to contain no chlorine, perfume or dye, but very little information is available about these diapers. Complaints about strong chemical odor and rashes and burns seem to be growing which makes me wonder if the formula has changed (and reminds me of Pampers’ switch to Dry Max and the lawsuit that followed).
NOT GREEN (don’t even…):
I won’t even link you to these, however, I’m sure you know where to find them.
Free of: chlorine (non-elemental chlorine bleaching). That’s it.
Pampers diapers are very popular. Pampers Swaddlers Sensitive is also a diaper endorsed by most hospitals, so you’re automatically led to believe that this is the company that cares and your best choice. The truth is, P&G seems to really like to play with words when assuring parents that their diapers are safe. They don’t like disclosing more information than listed on their website (and there is very little there), and you’re just pretty much left to rely on their word and virtual compassion when it comes to all these mystery ingredients. Pampers diapers are petroleum-based all around (including added lotions), and with the exception of Swaddlers Sensitive, they do contain perfume fragrance. They’re rendered chlorine-free based on the bleaching method used but offer no proof of the claim.
Luvs are the cheaper version of Pampers. These diapers are made by the same manufacturer with the same concept, offering the same well-crafted responses and leaving a lot to desire. See Pampers for info.
Free of: who knows. After researching, they appear perfume-free, but don’t expect to find it on the front page of their website.
Huggies is another popular and widely available diaper brand that seems to love secrets. Unfortunately, Kimberly-Clark seems to pay more attention to Mickey and his Disney gang than telling you what their diapers are made out of. They make zero claims about the safety of their diapers so, naturally, I conclude they’re not. Even Huggies Pure & Natural, the only version of Huggies diaper advertised as green, isn’t really all that green after all: it’s perfume-free and contains less ink, but bleaching method isn’t disclosed. They’re claiming to be pure but contain vitamin E and aloe. They’re made with organic cotton which sounds great, but as soon as you read the fine print you’ll realize that organic cotton is only used on the outer cover. Not on the inside, where the diaper actually touches baby’s skin. Fail!
Please note that this post contains Amazon affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission with no additional cost to you if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Clicking on the product’s name will lead you directly to the manufacturer’s website for more information.
I’m sure you’ve heard about biodegradable diapers, right?
Biodegradable disposable diapers are the new trend!
But are they worth the higher price tag?
If you compost the diapers yourself (which is not recommended) or have them composted at a municipal/industrial facility (which are hard to find), then yes. (Please note that poop is NOT compostable.) If you just throw used biodegradable diapers in the trash, you’re wasting your money. Modern landfills are designed to be kept air-tight which essentially prevents biodegradation. Not much, if anything, biodegrades in a landfill.
And one more thing before I hit publish…
Have you thought about cloth diapers?
I hear ya’. You’re totally grossed out by the idea. Or you don’t own a washing machine. Plus you don’t have enough time. And you have too many kids to count. Life is busy…
If you do decide to switch to or start with cloth though, you can make a huge difference in the environmental impact. By using cloth diapers, you can prevent thousands of disposables from ending up in the landfills. That’s thousands of diapers worth of space for each cloth-diapered child! Modern HE washers use very little water and little electricity, detergent goes a long way since so very little of it is needed, and diapers can be line-dried if you want to be the frugal queen. Other than that, your washer does the dirtiest job.
But hey, no pressure. If you don’t feel like cloth, it’s fine. I won’t curse you, I promise!
(If you’d like to find out what’s hiding in that package of baby wipes you’ve been buying, please click here.)
***Thanks for reading and Happy Diapering!!!***