I’m not opening this topic up to freak you out. I’m not even going to talk you out of using disposable diapers here. Promise! I just want to share the nitty gritty on toxic chemicals in disposable diapers for the two following reasons:
❶ The diapers of your choice will be in DIRECT contact with your child’s skin 24/7 for the next 2-3 years. Perhaps even longer.
❷ In the meantime, your child could ALSO be inhaling a concoction of toxic substances that disposable diapers may emit.
Well, there is this one problem with diapers.
No scratch that. THREE.
- Many 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. 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.
Before you reach for that next box though…
Let’s look into what can be found in a disposable diaper, whether some of the components contain more toxic chemicals than others, and how to avoid toxic chemicals in disposable diapers – whenever possible!
TOXIC chemicals in disposable diapers
(+ Chemicals that aren’t inherently toxic but scare a lot of people – and maybe for good reasons…)
• Superabsorbent polymers
The absorbent core of disposable diapers typically consists of the combination of fluff pulp (a type of chemical pulp made from soft wood fibers) and tiny granules of superabsorbent polymers (SAP).
If you’ve ever noticed little clear gel-like beads in your child’s used diaper, that’s what we’re talking about.
The truth is, disposable diapers wouldn’t work quite the same without the use of superabsorbent polymers.
Superabsorbent polymers are they key to disposable diaper absorbency since they can absorb several hundred times their weight in liquids without a significant increase in volume (which is about 30-60 times their own size). SAPs are used by virtually all disposable diaper manufacturers, conventional or green.
The most commonly used superabsorbent polymer is a synthetic, unsustainable, petroleum-based sodium polyacrylate.
Some of the greener diaper manufacturers have started using bio-based sustainable alternatives, and some use a blend of both.
THE GOOD NEWS IS:
SAPs (including sodium polyacrylate made from petroleum) are safe when used as intended.
Superabsorbent polymers are considered to be non-toxic, non-irritating, and non-sensitizing when contained within the diaper, dry or wet.
SAP powder, on the other hand, can be irritating to the nasal membranes and eyes. If you or your child happen to accidentally rip a dry disposable diaper open, you may want to dispose of the diaper immediately.
As superabsorbent polymers are essentially a drying agent, they not only absorb liquids from the surface of the diaper but also natural skin moisture and protective oils as well. This can cause excessive dryness and can lead to skin irritation.
Also, SAPs used in disposable diapers can be a risk factor in urinary tract infections in children.
Dyes can be found all over the diaper, inside and out. Colors and prints are what makes the diaper stand out.
Some dyes are capable of causing allergic reactions and can contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals.
The good news is that the majority of disposable diapers are now made with pigments and inks with good safety profiles.
The not so good news is that diaper manufacturers in general resist disclosing what exactly they’re using to dye their diapers with.
For what it’s worth, modern disposable diapers don’t contain some of the most problematic dyes like disperse dyes (which are known sensitizers).
Still, sensitivities to diaper dyes are fairly common.
If your child shows a sudden reaction or tends to have persistent rashes in areas where the dye touches the skin, the dye could be the problem.
In general, plain is best.
Perfume fragrance is sometimes added to diapers to help mask unpleasant odors. Pampers, for example, is a diaper brand notoriously famous for this.
Perfume fragrance is a blend of various synthetic chemicals and is among the top allergens capable of triggering asthma attacks or eczema.
Since fragrance formulas are considered a proprietary trade secret, diaper manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals that make up the diaper’s scent.
Every time you’re using a product containing synthetic fragrance, you’re creating a potential for rashes and respiratory (and other) issues.
Synthetic fragrances are a common source of toxic chemicals in disposable diapers, but they’re easily avoided by shopping selectively.
Unscented disposable diapers work just as well as the scented ones!
Many different components need to be bonded together during the manufacturing process of disposable diapers.
The modern disposable diaper consists of:
- THE OUTER LINING (Backsheet) – The cloth-like barrier that prevents liquids from leaking out. It’s typically made of a very thin polyethylene/polypropylene plastic film, though some green(er) diaper manufacturers use bioplastic (plant-based plastic) instead. Only a few brands implement 100% bamboo outer lining.
- THE ABSORBENT CORE – That’s the part that contains superabsorbers and fluff pulp. In addition, a patch of an acquisition/distribution sub-layer is often added between the core and the inner lining in order to move liquids quickly into the target zone.
- THE INNER LINING (Topsheet) – The part touching the skin that’s responsible for wicking liquids and moisture away. It’s usually made of polypropylene (which some clothes are also made out of), but some brands use bio-plastic, and – rarely – bamboo fibers. Several add-ons such as vitamin E, Aloe Vera, lotions, etc. can be added to this layer.
Then there are the closing tabs, leg cuffs, and maybe something else I’m forgetting right now.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of information on the adhesives that diaper manufacturers use.
I have seen some companies boast that they use safe adhesives, so it is entirely possible that adhesives containing toxic chemicals like phthalates and others are widely used.
Related: Pros And Cons Of Using Cloth Diapers
Lotion sounds pretty innocent???… You may wonder.
So here’s the problem: disposable diapers don’t come with detailed lists of ingredients.
If your child’s diaper contains a layer of lotion, you have no way of finding out which exact lotion formula has been used.
I recommend avoiding all disposable diapers containing lotion:
- Disposable diapers work perfectly fine without added lotion.
- For some kids, the presence of lotion in diapers opens up a can of worms of hard-to-identify sensitivities and allergic reactions.
- Disposable diapers will likely contain more “TO AVOID” chemicals if the topsheet has been coated with a layer of lotion. (The safest disposable diapers don’t add lotion.)
- Almost certainly, the lotion used will be a petroleum-based product based on unsustainable practices.
I’m guessing that you’ve probably heard of phthalates by now. If you haven’t, phthalates are known endocrine disruptors even in small doses and may be carcinogenic.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used as industrial plasticizers, making plastic softer and more durable.
In case you wonder why we’re talking about plastic here… Modern disposable diapers are made with plastic resins, which is essentially what makes them leak-proof.
Other sources of phthalates in disposable diapers can be dyes, glues, or synthetic fragrances.
There are several ways of exposure.
Phthalates are not chemically bonded to the compounds to which they’re added and leach easily and continuously. Also, interestingly, airborne phthalates can be inhaled but are also readily absorbed through the skin.
Without a doubt, phthalates are one of the most worrisome of all toxic chemicals in disposable diapers.
If you wonder which disposable diapers are free of phthalates, make sure to go over the list of the BEST NON-TOXIC disposable diapers.
Dioxins are potent carcinogens and persistent organic pollutants. Kind of a big deal, actually. For us, and the environment as well.
The fluff pulp used in the diaper’s superabsorbent core is bleached, using either chlorine or peroxide. It’s done so in order to soften the pulp and to improve its absorbency.
During the bleaching process using chlorine, traces of dioxins are emitted.
UNLESS your disposable diaper is labeled:
- 100% chlorine-free
- Totally chlorine-free (TCF); or
- Bleached with peroxide…
…it may contain dioxins.
This is true EVEN IF the diaper was bleached using NON-ELEMENTAL CHLORINE which is the practice used by many leading brands.
Some disposable diaper brands render their diapers “chlorine-free” or “dioxin-free” based on the “elemental chlorine-free” (ECF) bleaching process they use. What happens is that instead of elemental chlorine gas, other chlorine compounds like chlorine dioxide are used in bleaching.
The truth is, while the ECF method DOES significantly reduce dioxins, it DOES NOT entirely eliminate them.
Unless a diaper bleached with non-elemental chlorine is thoroughly tested and PROVEN dioxin-free, “non-detectable levels” (which is what a manufacturer would back their claim with) only refers to how sensitive the tests are.
• Tributyltin (TBT)
Disposable diapers may also contain tributyltin – a persistent organic pollutant that’s extremely harmful to aquatic life.
The source of tributyltin contamination is the fluff pulp in the diaper’s core that may contain remnants of TBT which is used as an antifungal agent in the wood pulp mills.
Tributyltin compounds are known to be slightly to moderately toxic to mammals, but the effects of TBT on humans aren’t clear and need to be studied more.
You’re much less likely to come across tributyltin if the disposable diapers you’re using are biodegradable or eco-friendly, since brands focused on producing green diapers tend to be paying more attention to health and the environment.
• 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.
Even if your disposable diapers don’t have a “smell” to them, they may still emit VOCs. Volatile organic compounds don’t always have a smell to them.
In general, diaper brands that are driven by eco-friendliness and good health are much less likely to produce disposable diapers containing VOCs.
Well, there you have it – the list of toxic chemicals in disposable diapers.
Unfortunately, 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.
Like we have nothing better to do…
Before you go…
Questions? Comments? Leave a note below. Thanks!