the cloth diaper argument

the cloth diaper argument

Diapers hanging out to dry

Why choose cloth diapers?

In today’s society where disposable diapers can be obtained easily, a lot of people wonder why on earth someone would CHOOSE to cloth diaper. I actually started this post last September, and have spent a lot of time researching everything. This post isn’t meant to be guilt-inducing (this is certainly a personal choice!) but rather just informational to a mom who is genuinely curious about her options.

I think this is the main reason for most people. Cloth diapering is more money upfront, but the cost savings in the long run are significant. I asked some non-cloth-diapering friends what their diaper budget is, and it seems that you can expect to spend between $500 and $1000 a year on disposable diapers. (The price will vary depending on your brand preferences and how well you’re able to take advantage of sales and coupons.)

I’ve talked about being able to cloth diaper on the cheap for $200. But what if you try prefolds, and aren’t a fan? What if you prefer the ease of a pocket diaper? Is it still cheaper? Well, here is a breakdown of that. One of the most popular brands and styles is bumGenius one-size pocket diapers. These have the ease of being similar-to-disposable (no separate covers) and should last from 7 to 35lbs – so for most babies, from birth to potty training. We’ll say you buy 18 – that’s a good, comfortable number, but you could get by with fewer. Diaper Junction has them for $17/each (if you buy 12 or more at once; if you buy them individually then it’s $18/each). (All my prices for accessories are from Diaper Junction as well.)
bumGenius OS pocket diaper – 18 @ $16.95 ea = $305.10
pail (trash can at Walmart) – $12.00
pail liner – 2 @ $16.50 ea = $33.00
wet bag – $8.99
diaper sprayer – $44.95
TOTAL: $404.04

So you’re looking at around $400 for your child from birth to potty training. That is significantly less than the $1500-$3000 price point for three years of disposable diapers – and cloth diapers can be used by multiple children. When you no longer need or want them, then you can sell them – secondhand diapers in good condition have a great resale value (70%).You don’t need to buy your diapers new, though – you could get the same diapers by buying them secondhand, making the money savings even greater. Another way of saving money is by using cloth wipes – my favorite wipes were made for me by a friend with leftover cotton fabric (cheap! easy!). Energy costs for washing diapers vary greatly depending on the washer/dryer you have and the cost of utilities where you live, but one reference I read estimates the cost a little over a penny per diaper change.

Ecological Benefits
Going green is a hot topic these days, and the ecologically-savvy mom is always looking for ways to reduce and reuse. According to Real Diaper Association, disposable diapers generate sixty times more solid waste and use twenty times more raw materials (crude oil and wood pulp). The manufacture and use of disposable diapers amounts to 2.3 times more water wasted than cloth. They also sit in landfills for hundreds of years (250-500 years is the estimate). They are filled with chemicals and human waste that can potentially contaminate groundwater. Each baby can go through 6,000 diapers before he’s potty trained – that’s a LOT of single-use diapers being thrown away! Waste from cloth diapers are also washed away through the sewer system where it is properly treated. Cloth diapers are reused many times, and after that they can be repurposed as rags, before they end up in a landfill. Once there, they will break down faster than disposables, especially ones that are made from purely organic materials. Compared that to 6,000 disposables, you can see why cloth is much more earth-friendly! Also, for the cloth-diapering mom who is concerned about energy costs, cloth does really well in the sun being line-dried. Being able to opt for that instead of using the dryer is even better!

Better for Baby
The health benefits of cloth diapers were the most frustrating part of my research. A lot of the studies are 10 or more years old, because of a lack of funding for studies and tests. Some moms research this and decide to never allow their children to be in disposable diapers. For me, I decided that I don’t mind the occasional sposie, but in general I am a fan of reducing the amount of chemicals that are on her body all the time. Please see the end for helpful links for so you can do your own research.

Dioxins – Dioxins are the by-product of bleaching the wood-pulp. They are highly toxic and cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and also cause cancer. The absorbent pad of a disposable diaper are made with super-absorbent polymers mixed with wood-pulp. The wood-pulp is bleached with a process that uses chlorine, and dioxins are released when this happens. This is not only a concern to the child wearing the diapers, but also to the general public when the diapers are put in landfills. A lot of diapers claim to be chlorine-free, including Pampers, which usually means they are what is called elemental chlorine-free (ECF). That is a process that uses chlorine dioxide (a compound) instead of chlorine gas. From my understanding, this is better but the presence of dioxins is still a concern. To avoid them completely, look for diapers that are totally chlorine-free (TCF). There are only a few brands of disposable diapers that claim this, but since cloth diapers don’t have wood pulp then you can be assured that they are TCF and dioxin-free.

Tributyltin (TBT) – In 2000, Greenpeace Germany anounced that test results of three brands of disposable diapers showed there were traces of tributyltin (TBT) – a chemical compound of tin, carbon and hydrogen. TBT is consider a toxic chemical that has negative effects on humans and the environment, and can be absorbed through the skin. Studies have suggested it may have hormonal implications as well, specifically with male sterility. While all this is concerning, I also couldn’t find anything more recent than the 2000 report. When I emailed Pampers about this concern, they said they had reevaluated their materials and process, and were pleased that follow-up reports by Greenpeace later that year showed that there was no presence of TBT. However, I’ve been unable to find that follow-up report – only the original one. (Link below.)

Sodium polyacrylate (SAP) – SAP is short for super-absorbent polymer, and is a substance that has amazing absorbing properties that turn to gel when it gets wet. It is what allows disposables to be so absorbent yet so thin/not bulky. This was discontinued from use in tampons back in the 1980s for its link to toxic shock syndrome. SAP’s absorbency also means it’s a skin irritant, as the natural oils and moisture are absorbed from the skin. A lot of people report increased rashes and/or chemical burns from SAP. In 1987, reports about the new Pampers Ultra caused severe skin irritations, oozing blood from perineum and scrotal tissues, fever, vomiting, and staph infections in babies. Employees in Pampers factories suffered from tiredness, female organ problems, slow-healing wounds and weight loss. Disposable diaper manufacturers claim that the SAP in their diapers has undergone extensive testing and is safe for use. I found it very difficult to get clear information about SAP (no links to actual studies or research, just articles *about* the results), either on the pros or the cons, so it’s hard to know which side is “right”.

Other Benefits
Diaper rash – Cloth diapers have been linked to fewer instances of diaper rash. This is probably partly due to the fact that cloth diapers have to be changed more frequently, since they are less absorbent than disposable diapers. Some babies with sensitive skin can have allergic reactions to the chemicals in disposables. Also, the plastic in disposables are less “breathable” and can lead to higher temperatures.

Fewer leaks and blowouts – The first thing I noticed when I switched to cloth diapers at 8 weeks was that the frequent blowouts stopped. I can’t say I never had a cloth diaper leak, but in my experience it was a lot less than the disposables I had (using a variety of brands). I think this is a common experience. A lot of people say they don’t want to use cloth because it seems messy, but I personally found cleaning up the blowouts a lot more messy!

Potty train earlier – I have no experience in this yet, but a lot of people claim that cloth diapers can lead to babies potty training earlier. The idea is that with cloth diapers, babies learn from an early age that being wet or soiled is equal to discomfort, and so that can translate to better communication about their potty needs/desires. Because disposable diapers are so absorbent, often babies don’t feel wet, so potty training is a bigger jump for them to make.

Who WOULDN’T Want to Cloth Diaper?
Cloth diapering isn’t for everyone. If you’ve considered it and it doesn’t interest you, then by all means stock up on those disposables! Here are some other situations where cloth diapering might not be for you…
You don’t have your own washer. Besides the inconvenience of lugging diapers to the laundromat every week, you may have to deal with chemicals (bleach, additives, etc.) lurking around public washers, which could shorten the life span of your diapers. If you still think it’s worth it, consider getting prefolds – they are much more forgiving than diapers with elastic and can sit dirty for a longer period of time.
You work full-time. If both you and your husband work full-time, then you might consider only part-time cloth diapering, or just using disposables. You may find the laundry from full-time cloth diapering to be overwhelming, with everything else on your plate.
You find life overwhelming. I think as mommies, it’s hard to admit sometimes that we can’t do everything. We want what is best for our kids, but we also have our own limitations as to how much we can handle, and those limitations are different for each person. I realized this when I gave up making my own baby food and just went with storebought jarred, and I decided not to feel guilty about it. Each mom has things she feels is important, and sometimes just focusing on those things is enough. And I feel that as you get more comfortable in motherhood, you are more easily able to add things to your routine.
– If you’re interested in cloth but don’t want to wash them yourself, then you might consider a diaper service if there are any in your area. I have heard that diaper services are usually the same as the cost of disposables – you’d have to look up the prices for your area to figure it out. If you’re more concerned about the ecological and health benefits of cloth than price, then this might be the ideal way to go.

Choosing the Best Disposables
You’ve read all the information and you agree with the concerns, but for whatever reason can’t or don’t want to do cloth. Are there any alternatives? There are a few good brands of disposables out there if you are concerned about the environmental and health concerns. (These, however, are not going to be your cheapest options.) I got the ingredients information from the manufacturers’ websites. The diapers that are labeled “chlorine-free” are either ECF or TCF – you’d have to do some more digging to figure out.
Chlorine-free, SAP free: Tushies, Broody Chicks
Chlorine-free but contain small amount of SAP: Nature Babycare, GroVia BioDiapers
Others: Seventh Generation (chlorine-free, contains SAP, dyed brown to look more eco-friendly); gDiapers (elemental chlorine-free, contains SAP, 100% biodegradable); Huggies Natural (contain chlorine and SAP, organic cotton outside, “liner includes renewable materials”)

For More Reading
The information in this post was gleaned from many Google searches and a variety of websites. I tried to make sure the information was from a reliable source and/or backed up by other sources, but there aren’t a ton of studies out there comparing cloth and disposables, and you can always find conflicting information sponsored by companies like Procter & Gamble (Pampers) and Kimberly-Clark (Huggies). It’s important for each individual to do the research and come to a conclusion he/she is comfortable with. Below are a few websites that I’m linking to for more reading on the topics touched upon in this post.
Cloth Diaper cost calculator
Cost of utilities with cloth diapers
Cloth Diaper facts by Real Diaper Association
Great informational article on how disposable diapers are made
Factsheet on dioxins by the World Health Organization (2010)
More about TCF and ECF
Press release by Greenpeace about TBT in Pampers disposable diapers (2000)
More information about TBT in diapers (2000)
UN report about the dangers of TBT (2006)
Article about the problems associated with SAP (2004)
Blog post about eco-friendly disposable diapers (2009)

11 thoughts on “the cloth diaper argument

  1. Great information, Ashley! I had blowouts with pampers, huggies, but nothing with Target diapers. How funny is that? No rash either. Growing up in India, I was cloth diapered, but now my friends who have babies are using disposables as well. Most people there now do a combination. I am sure I would have clth diapered if we were living in India. But then, I would have servants to do my laundry as well. haha.

    Being overwhelmed is the main reason I never considered it. Plus I wanted to do as little with the poop as possible. :) Neil had a lot of puking in the first nine months, plus with all the issues I had, I never had any interest adding more things into life. Now that I am more comfortable with the dirty diaper aspect of motherhood, I *might* consider CD’ing my next child. At least I know where to come for all the information :)

    I did feed him all homemade food though! Once I got into it, I could not think of going back to store bought and Neil didn’t care for it either. Maybe, if it doesn’t scare you, you should try it next time :) I have a half done post about homemade baby food in the drafts which I should post soon.

  2. Well, you have surely done a lot of research! A new mom would love to stumble upon this post. :-) And, you might want to mention to Hans about the possible ‘earlier potty-training’ part. ;-) He seems to have not gotten that memo.

  3. Very good. I spent a few days trying to find accurate info about diapers too (after the Haiti discussion). Not much out there. It’s hard to believe anyone who has an interest because EVERYONE does. You have the diaper companies and the earth huggers. Who to believe?

    I do appreciate the unintended humor in this article: Disposables have all these horrible chemicals linked to cancer, but don’t feel guilty if you use them. LOL! I’ll try not to… ;-)

  4. Well imagine how late Hans would have potty-trained if he’d been in disposables! ;-) Just kidding. There are of course always exceptions… and since I didn’t have firsthand experience I could only repeat what I’ve heard. :-)

  5. Oh, I was just kidding anyway. ;-) I know it’s no hard-fast rule at all. It just made me chuckle when I read that. ;-) I’m sure Susan would think the same thing if/when she reads your post. :-)

  6. Susanne: Well actually, I thought that I had made that clear, but I guess I didn’t. Pro-cloth sites talk about those three chemicals, but after the research I wasn’t convinced. Is using chlorine dioxide enough to get rid of all dioxins? Pampers thinks so. Is SAP really bad for your health? Some say yes, some say no. There is nothing to strongly support either side. Is TBT present in today’s disposables? Pampers says no. I’m not going to put down moms who think all of these are still concerns, but I’m not convinced either way. I am not convinced that they’re all fine, either. For me, cost & environment are enough to keep me using cloth, and I feel like not being around the chemicals is a side benefit. That’s how I can say don’t feel guilty if you’ve looked at the evidence and decided that you’re okay with it. I mean, it’s not like every kid is dropping dead of cancer after 2 years in diapers!

  7. Annie: Yeah I found when she was a newborn that the brand of diapers made a difference! I actually had a lot of problems with the Target diapers, and found Pampers to be the most reliable. Now that she’s older, I find I can use pretty much any brand and not have problems.

    And I hope you do cloth diaper your next! :-) That would be so cool. I’m here if you ever have any questions. :-)

  8. Great post, Ashley! I had blogged about my cloth diapering preferences, but didn’t expound on the many reasons *why* I do so! Perhaps I’ll link this post in my original blog… :)

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