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 could be 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…? Sure it may not be 2157 exactly. But with our wasteful ways, one day it WILL happen. Give or take, I’d say that each child goes through about 7,000 diapers until potty trained. Can you imagine the size of that pile? And it’s not just the mass of used diapers that we need to worry about. It’s also the millions of tons of untreated waste just sitting around.
Another thing worth considering 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? in the meantime, your child will also be inhaling the concoction of toxic substances that disposable diapers may emit.
Well, there is one tiny problem with diapers. Actually two. No scratch that. Three.
- A number of harmful chemicals can be hiding in a single conventional diaper.
- 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.
Modern disposable diapers have come a long way, right? They’ve gotten thinner, the core has gotten more absorbent than ever, they even look cute. Disposable diapers have become a rather complex product that’s actually quite genius in its own way. But before you reach for that next box of diapers, why not get informed about this whole diaper business?
What can be found in a disposable diaper?
• Sodium polyacrylate
A diaper’s absorbent core usually consists of the combination of wood pulp fluff and super-absorbent polymers (SAP). Super-absorbent polymers are the key to disposable diaper absorbency and are used by virtually all disposable diaper manufacturers, green or not. If you’ve ever noticed little gel-like beads in your child’s used diaper, that’s what we’re talking about.
Now, the most commonly used super-absorbent polymer is a synthetic, petroleum-based sodium polyacrylate, but some of the greener diaper manufacturers have started using bio-based sustainable alternatives to the petrochemical-based polymer.
SAP is classified as non-toxic, however, it could be a risk factor in urinary tract infection in children.
Dyes can be found all over the diaper, inside and out. The problem is that some dyes can contain heavy metals, and you never really know what’s been used because diaper manufacturers generally resist disclosing what kinds of dyes, pigments, or inks they use. If your child tends to have persistent rashes in areas where the dye touches the skin, the dye could be the problem.
Perfume fragrances are sometimes added to diapers to help mask unpleasant odors. The fragrance formulas are considered a proprietary trade secret though and manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals that make up the diaper’s scent. Fragrance is basically a blend of various synthetic chemicals and is of high concern when it comes to diapers. First of all, this in an add-on that diapers can function without. Secondly, it’s an ingredient that creates a potential for rashes and respiratory (and other) issues.
Many different parts of diaper need to be bonded together during the manufacturing process. There isn’t a whole lot of information on the adhesives that diaper manufacturers use. Some companies boast that they use phthalate-free glue though, so it’s entirely possible that adhesives containing phthalates are widely used.
By now you’ve probably heard of phthalates, but if you haven’t, let me explain. Phthalates are plasticizers, making plastic softer and increasing its flexibility, resiliency, and longevity. They’re not chemically bonded to the compounds to which they’re added and leach easily. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors even in small doses, and they may be carcinogenic.
Modern disposable diapers are made with plastic resins. (That’s essentially what makes a diaper leak-proof.) That means that some diapers may leach phthalates.
What’s the deal with dioxins? Dioxins are potent carcinogens and persistent organic pollutants. Kind of a big deal, actually.
The diaper material and the fluff pulp found within the diaper’s core are generally white in color, but white isn’t how they’d naturally come out. Instead, various parts of diapers are bleached, using either chlorine or peroxide. Here’s the deal: unless your disposable diaper is labeled as “unbleached”, or “bleached with peroxide”, it may contain dioxins.
The bottom line is that during the bleaching process using chlorine, traces of dioxins are emitted. You may have noticed that some diaper manufacturers state they use non-elemental chlorine during the bleaching process, claiming their diapers dioxin-free. However, while this method does significantly reduce dioxins, it does not entirely eliminate them. Unless the finished product is thoroughly tested and proven dioxin-free, “non-detectable levels” (which is what you may hear from some manufacturers) technically only refers to how sensitive their 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 may contain 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 conventional disposable diapers experienced asthma-like symptoms that increased during repeat exposure. Chemical analysis of the emissions revealed several chemical substances with documented toxicity: toluene, xylene, styrene, ethylbenzene, dipentene, and isopropylbenzene. The effects of VOCs 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 here is something 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 and the parents themselves will have to do the work…
How to choose the safest disposable diaper?
If you can, choose diapers that are:
Here are some brands of disposable diapers, divided into 4 categories:
THE GREENEST (the most baby- and eco-friendly), THE GREEN ones (which are OK), the DRESSED AS GREEN (the wannabes), and the FAR FROM GREEN (the worst of them all).
Clicking on the product’s name will take you directly to the manufacturer’s website for more information. The pictures displayed contain Amazon affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you if you make a purchase via these links, helping with the cost of running this blog.
THE GREENEST disposable diapers
These are the disposable diapers made with plant-based ingredients exclusively!
POOF diapers are FREE OF: chlorine (no chlorine bleaching used), dye, latex, lotion, fragrance, lead, harsh chemicals, additives, surfactants, and polymers.
Poof diapers are FULLY biodegradable. They’re made with sustainable non-gmo materials 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, these diapers are also naturally antibacterial.
BROODY CHICK diapers are FREE OF: chlorine, fragrance.
Broody Chick diapers are advertised as 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. However, given the nature of this product and the environmental focus of the company, I’d almost assume that dyes are not used. It would be nice though if Broody Chick offered more transparency into what is likely a wonderful product.
GREEN disposable diapers (with varying shades of green)
BAMBO NATURE diapers are FREE OF: chlorine (these 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 made with high-quality materials. The absorbent core does contain petroleum-based SAP, but this is still a great choice of a diaper. This company seems to be serious about their environmental footprint and has been awarded the coveted Nordic Swan Eco-Label accreditation. Go Bambo!!!
ECO BY NATY
ECO BY NATY diapers are FREE OF: chlorine (they are 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 better breathability. These diapers feature a patented absorbent core which does contain petroleum-based SAP, but Naty claims they use less than other leading brands.
ATTITUDE diapers are FREE OF: chlorine, fragrance, latex, carcinogens, mutagens, and endocrine disruptors.
These diapers are made with biodegradable and renewable materials and are carbon neutral. The absorbent core is advertised to contain biopolymer, but it wasn’t 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 TENDER CARE
EARTH’S BEST diapers are FREE OF: chlorine (no chlorine bleaching), fragrance, latex, dyes, lotions.
Earth’s Best diapers are some of the greener diapers that also happen to be widely available. The inner liner and the outer cover are 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.
THE HONEST CO. diapers are FREE OF: chlorine (no chlorine bleaching used), latex, fragrance**, lotions.
**These diapers are perfume fragrance-free; the bio core contains naturally derived odor blockers from citrus and chlorophyll.
The Honest Co. diapers are made with bioplastic and safe(r) 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.
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.
Disposable diapers DRESSED AS GREEN (AKA the posers)
SEVENTH GENERATION diapers are FREE OF: chlorine (no chlorine bleaching), lotions, dyes, and fragrance.
Seventh Generation is a fairly well-known brand of diapers 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/lotion, they still leave a lot to desire when compared with some of the other companies. The good thing is that the inks they use are free of heavy metals, and the wood pulp comes from sustainably-managed sources. They do, however, use petroleum-based plastic in addition to petrochemical-derived SAP.
Also, these diapers have a brown tinge to them instead of being white which gives them the perception of a natural product. They are not naturally brown though. The brown that you see is the result of added pigments. Not a huge deal by any means, but worth knowing I guess.
UP & UP
UP & UP diapers are FREE OF: chlorine (non-elemental chlorine bleaching process used), perfumes, and dyes.
Target’s UP & UP diapers seem to be quite popular from what I’ve seen and heard, and they’re easily found too. They’re advertised to contain no chlorine, perfumes or dyes, but very little information is actually available about these diapers. They may contain dioxins and who knows what else, and I can’t say I trust Target to make safe, eco-friendly diapers for that cheap.
Also, 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 fiasco and lawsuit that followed soon after).
Disposable diapers that are FAR FROM GREEN (don’t even…)
I’m not even going to link you to these, however, I’m sure you know where to find them.
PAMPERS diapers are FREE OF: chlorine (non-elemental chlorine bleaching process used). That’s it…
Pampers diapers are popular. Pampers Swaddlers Sensitive is also the diaper endorsed by most hospitals. The thing is, P&G seems to really like to play with words. They also don’t like disclosing more information than what’s listed on their website (and there really isn’t much there that would be useful). Pampers diapers are petroleum-based all around (including the 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 and with the same concept, offering the same well-crafted responses and leaving a lot to desire.
HUGGIES diapers are FREE OF: who knows… I think they’re perfume free, but I don’t think even that was mentioned on their website the last time I checked.
Huggies is another popular brand of disposable diapers that unfortunately likes to keep secrets. Kimberly-Clark seems to pay way more attention to the Disney prints they use than telling consumers what their diapers are made out of. They make zero claims about the safety of their diapers so I naturally 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. It’s supposed to be pure and natural but contains vitamin E and aloe. It’s made with organic cotton which would be awesome if it weren’t only used on the outer cover where it’s pretty much useless.
You’ve probably noticed that I mentioned biodegradable diapers in this post, right?
What’s the deal with biodegradable disposable diapers?
Are they worth the higher price tag?
Well, if you compost the diapers yourself (which is really NOT recommended – and FYI, poop is NOT compostable) or have them composted at a municipal/industrial facility (which are really hard to find), then YES.
If you just throw used biodegradable diapers in the trash, it’s a NO. You’re just wasting your money. Modern landfills are designed to be kept air-tight which essentially prevents the process of biodegradation. Not much, if anything, biodegrades in a landfill.
The only reason to use fully biodegradable diapers that I can think of is the peace of mind you have for using a fully natural diaper. Which is great, right? It’s the safest for your baby, and it’s the better choice for the environment. Even though the diaper is likely going to end up in a landfill anyway, the manufacturing practices are much more eco-friendly and the toll on the environment isn’t as pronounced.
One more thing before I wrap it up…
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. You have too many kids to count. Life is busy…
However, if you do give cloth a chance, you can make a huge difference in the environmental impact. By using cloth diapers, you can prevent thousands of disposables from ending up in 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 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.
If you’d like to find out what’s hiding in that package of BABY WIPES you’ve been using, don’t forget to click here.