Cloth Or Disposable Diapers: Which Ones Are Better?

By Stacy Whitman

When it comes to diapers, some parents are passionate and opinionated about which is best-cloth or disposable-for them, their babies and the planet. Cost and convenience are two big considerations, as are concerns about the environment and effects on infants’ health and skin. It’s a debate that has been raging for years. But when all the facts are in, both types have pros and cons-so what is ideal for your family may be simply a matter of personal preference. To help you decide, we took a look at the various issues and got the inside scoop.

Consideration #1: Your baby’s health
Search the Internet and you’ll find stories claiming that disposable diapers are loaded with chemicals and toxins that have been linked to everything from asthma to cancer. But despite the scary rumors, there’s no proof that ingredients in disposables are harmful to babies. It’s true that most include a super-absorbent gel called sodium polycrylate (SAP), a substance that was removed from tampons after it was linked to toxic shock syndrome (TSS). However, the SAP in disposable diapers is used inside diapers where it doesn’t come in direct contact with babies’ skin (unlike the offending tampons, which were used internally for extended periods of time), and it has been subjected to rigorous testing and deemed completely safe, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthy Children Web site. Also frequently cited is a 1999 study in which several brands of disposables were found to emit gases that caused asthma-like symptoms in mice-but the same effect has never been shown to occur in infants, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. And while some disposable diapers do contain dioxins, by-products of the bleaching process that have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems, a 2002 study found that they are present only in “minute quantities” that aren’t considered worrisome-and some cloth diapers contain just as many.

Another common potential health concern stems from a German study in 2000 that showed considerably higher scrotal temperatures in baby boys wearing disposables versus cloth, which researchers hypothesized could lead to lower sperm counts and fertility problems later in life. However, another study conducted two years later tested cloth diapers with protective covers (which help to prevent leaks) and found scrotal temps on par with disposables, which they also found to be not as high as the German study did. According to Mana Mann, MD, MPH, a pediatric environmental health fellow at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, both studies have limitations and no definitive link has been established between use of a specific diaper type and sperm count.

The bottom line: Disposables seem to be getting a bum rap in terms of safety. But if you’re uncertain about these issues and you’d like the convenience and leak-resistant qualities of disposables, there are options: Try a hypoallergenic disposable such as Huggies Pure and Natural, Seventh Generation Chlorine Free or TenderCare Plus, or a plastic-free “hybrid” like gDiapers or GroVia.

Consideration #2: Environmental impact
It’s natural to assume that cloth diapers are more eco-friendly because they are reused instead of being tossed in the trash. But when you consider the complete “lifecycle” of a diaper-factoring in all the energy and water consumed to wash them as well as atmospheric, waterborne and solid wastes created during their production and use-disposables appear to have no greater impact on our environment than cloth.

While numerous studies have examined the environmental issue, only a few can be considered objective (with no ties to the diaper industry). One literature review conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York back in 1991 found that while disposables use up more raw materials and produce more solid waste, cloth diapers require more energy and water and create more air and water pollution. “From an environmental perspective, you just can’t say one is better than the other,” explains study coauthor and NRDC senior scientist Allen Hershkowitz, PhD.

Another study done in 2008 by the U.K. Environment Agency in Bristol, England, found the global warming impact of cloth diapers slightly higher than that of disposables in their baseline scenario. The researchers noted that the impact of cloth could be as much as 43 percent higher than that scenario if parents tumble-dried all their diapers. Or it could be up to 40 percent lower if they used any three of their suggested eco-minded laundering strategies-which included using energy-efficient appliances, washing fuller loads, keeping water at 140 degrees or lower, line drying and reusing the diapers on other children.

What about new “biodegradable” diapers-“hybrids” consisting of a cloth shell and a disposable inner liner made of all-natural materials? They’ve only been around for a few years, so no fair and balanced study has compared them to regular cloth and disposable diapers. However, there are concerns that they don’t decompose properly in landfills and therefore wouldn’t be helpful if thrown in the trash. However, if composted at home, they might do a world of good.

The bottom line: It’s a toss-up as to which type of diaper is better for the environment. But no matter what you choose, there are steps you can take to reduce the impact on the earth. Cloth diaperers can make a difference by laundering more mindfully and opting for diapers made of unbleached organic cotton (like Bummi’s Organic Cotton Prefolds) and hemp (like FuzziBunz Hemp One Size Pocket Diaper) to reduce use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Parents who use disposables can help by dumping poop into the potty instead of the garbage (to reduce the risk of contaminating groundwater) and choosing chlorine-free diapers (which would help decrease the number of dioxins being released) or biodegradable diapers (which won’t pile up in landfills as long as they’re composted).