What is a Disposable Diaper Made of Anyway?

Prompted by some parents’ complaints that the Pampers Dry Max diapers allegedly give babies severe rashes and even chemical burns, some parents are questioning the ingredients of disposable diapers in general. A common reason parents reject the disposable is due to its chemical ingredients, questionable both in regard to health and in regard to environmental sustainability.

Health concerns

            All disposable diapers are made of multiple kinds of plastic, and most parents who’ve used them are familiar with the clear polymer pebbles that stick to their baby’s skin when a diaper is removed. (This happens when the diaper is on too long, but also, sometimes every diaper in the box seems defective and “leaks” its contents immediately when wet). This is sodium polyacrylate, a super-absorbent polymer, and similar to the substance removed form tampons in the 1980s due to its problematic associated with toxic shock syndrome.

Another issue is the presence of dioxin, present in diapers as a by-product of the bleaching process. This toxic carcinogen (cancer-causing) chemical is known to build up in the body over time as well as linger in the environment. The World Health Organization asserts that dioxin is most dangerous to newborns, 

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most of whom are diapered in products containing this chemical. The Environmental Protection Agency considers it the most toxic of all carcinogens, and it is banned in most countries outside the U.S. Another toxic substance found in disposables, Tributyltin (TBT), a chemical used to discourage the growth of organisms such as bacteria, is known to cause cell abnormalities, specifically the increase in fat cells, and to disrupt hormones. (For information on this chemical as an “obesogen,” so named for its contribution to obesity, click title to read “Chemical in Some Disposable Diapers Cause of Obesity and Hormone Disruption.”)

            Plastic diapers also pose an additional risk for boys, suggests research from the Netherlands. A study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, 2000, revealed that plastic diapers may be a contributing factor in the decline in male reproductive health.

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  1. Excellent article. Great warning for mothers about the toxicity. My concern and anguish is that we Indians were not using commercial diapers earlier. Only the reusable soft linen/cotton cloth home-made ones. Thanks to all the ads, even people who cannot afford it, use it.

  2. Stumbled your article.

  3. Great article but I watched the video and had a few disagreements. First of all the sponsor Baby bjorn, well those things are crotch danglers and not ergonomic for babies. Second, It won’t cost $1,000 for laundering over the lifetime of the baby. Finally, it’s absurd to say that even with tumble drying that the enviro footprint of cloth diapering is the same as sposies. Think about the manufacturing of all the chemicals, plastics and packaging, the killing of trees, the delivery of the diapers to all the stores….give me a break!

  4. I am not sure what you are basing your math on, if it was an old study, or due to calculation of diapers that you do use.

    If it was the former, I wanted to point out that the study for cost was only until the child was 2. In your video, you cited the cost of the cloth diapering being until 3. This is a major difference in price and thus would be your math.

    As well, there is a market for “used” diapers as strange as that might sound. If you pay 14 dollars new for a fuzzi buns, being in reasonable used condition without stains, hot wash, you can usually resell them for around 7-8 dollars. This is half the cost of your diaper.

    As well one size diapers tend to work out better than sized diapers when coming to price, which can also get you away for much cheaper.

    Mama’s who choose to use fitted diapers and wool as their covers are cutting down their impact even further. Since wool generally not only retains it’s market value, but these function as pants/skirts as covers, etc. Cutting down the impact of buying more clothes. The process of clothes which does hurt the environment as well. This is less laundry. So not only can you resell your covers for generally what you bought them for, but you are not spending money on clothing bottoms.. which you would have a very hard time reselling if at all.

    In no way, shape or frm

  5. Two of your have mentioned the video inset with my article. I wrote the article and sent it to the publisher, and they put someone else’s video with it at their discretion. I have no control over that, but I wanted to clarify that if there are discrepencies between my article and the video, they were not both produced by me. I would disagree with the other creator’s method of figuring cost. Mine was based on others’ research as well as my very recent experience of living it in my particular geographical area. Thanks to those of you who pointed out the video; I had not previously viewed it.
    CaC, I have previously read the point of view that cloth maintenance equaled the footprint of disposables, but, like you, have never found the manufacture and continued laundering of a single cloth diaper to be anywhere near the impact of extracting oil, manufacturing wood pulp, bleaching the fibers, creating the other chemicals, plus manufacturing the packaging and shipping of disposables. And then when you compare that a baby might go thru 48 cloth diapers versus thousands of disposables, the comparison is further stacked in cloth’s favors. Then consider the same 48 cloth diapers could be used by 3 kids, displacing the creation of further thousands of disposables, and yeah–the argument that cloth/disposables differences all come out in the wash…simply unsubstantiated!

    Sara, I love many of your points about specifics of cloth diapering. Some of them, including the mention of second-hand diapers, are mentioned in my companion article “How to Make Cloth Diapering Cheaper, Easier and/Or Greener,” a link to which is listed in the final paragraph of my above article. I did not mention wool covers because I have never used them nor know anyone who does to use as a source. I value the addition of your comments on the subject. Thanks!

  6. FYI – the toxics in laundry detergents undoes the cleanliness of your cloth diapers as far as exposing babies/toddlers to such dangerous chemicals. So unless you are washing those cloth diapers in water only, you will want to rethink cloth as an option if chemical exposure is your concern. I researched it extensively and just about any soap/detergent that foams is carcinogenic.

  7. Actually, J, cloth diapers aren’t washed in any soap/detergent that foams, generally. The buildup isn’t good for them.

    If you ask around, you’ll find that most people who use them wash them in specially-formulated detergents that are carcinogen-free and biodegradable. :)

  8. J- are you referring to mainstream detergents (aka the ones you’ll find at the average supermarket) or detergents that work well with cloth diapers? We cloth diaper and choose to use a detergent without carcinogens for our family’s well-being and to decrease the environmental impact. Using tide, etc with cloth diapers will lead to build up, decrease their performance, and will be a huge pain in addition to exposing your family to carcinogens.

  9. I was using disposables on my two month old daughter and recently switched to cloth. I have three children and wish I would have used cloth with my two boys. They are much cheaper. We use special detergent that is safe for the diapers and the baby. We can even use cloth wipes. And to save money on laundry, you could hang them to dry. I love in Chicago and still make this possible. My daughter’s bum never gets red or rashy either. Cloth is the best choice for my family, and I tell everyone how much I love them…

  10. Great article. I’m so happy we use cloth diapers on our kids!

  11. That is why I opened my cloth diaper store six months ago…to spread the word about disposables and open the minds of parents to modern cloth diapering.

    http//www.cutiepoopsandbottoms.com

    Give cloth a try!!!

  12. The absolutely ‘greenest’ way to go is elimination communication, which I practice with my 1 mo. old. It absolutely works! Diaper Free by Ingrid Bauer will help you on your way to this amazing way of life practiced in the majority of the world.
    Charlie’s Soap is the way to go for cloth diapers, I’ve been using it for all my laundry for a couple years now.

  13. Wow…..made me glad I used cloth diapers for my 3 kids for the most part when they were small.My last child wore pampers more though.Makes me glad that my kids are 23 to 30 and done with this phase.I never knew anything about diapers but does now.A very informative article that was worth reading even if I dont use them anymore.

  14. i don’t have kids an diapers anymore, but while the disposable ones are convenient, the cloth diapers are better for baby’s skin, and the environment. we should be promoting the use of cloth diapers, as they are much more user friendly now!

    http://www.kldezines.com

  15. I used soap nuts and bicarb soda to wash my cloth diapers. So no harmful chemicals here… just natural products. The sun also is used to disinfect the diapers.

    I spent less and did not use my dryer at all. Our water usage also went down as we bought a front loader washing machine.

  16. j – i agree with lo and f… and not JUST for my cloth nappies, for ALL of my clothes. you wouldn’t catch me using a regular store-bought brand of detergent even if someone paid me to. powder tide has FIBREGLASS in it as one of its fillers, many others have various HORRENDOUS ingredients that irritate my sensitive skin, and cause my excema to flare up… let alone on my babies’ bot-bots. there are detergents avail in the supermarket that are good (usually in the health-food section), your local health-food shop should have a brand or two, or there are MANY companies that operate via network marketing that have PHENOMENAL products, along with company mandates to keep carcinogens OUT of their products, thus, out of our bodies and off our skins. (melaleuca is the first to come to mind, because that’s what i use, but there are many others)

    if you’ve researched it, keep going you good thing, and find a brand that you feel comfortable with! :)

  17. Good reason to go back to cloth diapers. It does seem like nothing is safe anymore. Very well written article.

  18. I beleive they are made of a high tech cotton :D

  19. great article…all moms should read this.

  20. There used to be some great dispoasable nappies that were eco-friendly and did not harm the baby’s sensitive skin. I think they were made by Tushies.

  21. Great article!

  22. When you wash cloth diapers you do an extra rinse to rid the diapers of all suds. Cloth diapers wash best in dye free perfume free detergent and if you’ve ever shopped for diapers online there are MANY natural laundry detergents for diapers that are NOT carcinogenic

  23. When you wash cloth diapers you do an extra rinse to rid the diapers of all suds. Cloth diapers wash best in dye free perfume free detergent and if you\’ve ever shopped for diapers online there are MANY natural laundry detergents for diapers that are NOT carcinogenic

  24. As a parent this article really concerns me…Thank you for posting it.

  25. I have a 8 month son. Well, for me diapers are necessary evil.

  26. So great ,Thank you for your share,I like your article very much, and I would appreciate it if you can write more article about this. We have the same opinion about this,
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  27. nice article thanks for sharing

  28. Good Work

  29. great posting here…my mom should read this article…she just spends a lot of money for diapers.

  30. Hmm. My child is basically out of diapers/pullups now. We only use those night time underwear but if I had known it was so much better to use cloth diapers on babies I would have done it. It’s too late now but if I ever decide to expand my family (far off in the future) I will definitely buy cloth diapers. Also, on the detergent for cloth diapers can you use the same kind that you use to wash new born baby clothes? I remember when my son was little we had to buy special detergent because of how sensitive their skin is.

  31. Cloth is better. The companies know it too, but they don’t sell cloth, sooo…

  32. It is an enlightening and well written. Let’s hope you and such articles. Thanks

  33. I understand that using cloth diapers is much better, but they take a lot of patience and the right kind of person to use them. The reason I am making my comment though is due to the introduction “Pampers Dry Max diapers allegedly give babies severe rashes and even chemical burns” Pampers Cruisers have been the only diapers that have never given my daughter diaper rash and since they changed to the Dry Max I haven’t had an issue.
    I really enjoyed this article, and will look to find affordable cloth diapers and try to see if I can make them work for me.

  34. Mpaige90, I believe you’re talking about Dreft detergent. You would not use that on your cloth diapers as it has a lot of softeners that will cause the diapers to repel instead of absorb.

    This was a great article, and I love my cloth diapers. I will soon be sending them to a friend to use with her new baby, and then she’ll send them back to me when she’s done. You can’t do that with disposables!

  35. J | May 17, 2010 | Reply

    FYI – the toxics in laundry detergents undoes the cleanliness of your cloth diapers as far as exposing babies/toddlers to such dangerous chemicals. So unless you are washing those cloth diapers in water only, you will want to rethink cloth as an option if chemical exposure is your concern. I researched it extensively and just about any soap/detergent that foams is carcinogenic.

    Read more: http://gomestic.com/family/what-is-a-disposable-diaper-made-of-anyway/#ixzz1B3UlIqGS

    Actually J… I wash my cloth diapers in baking soda, not detergent, so yes I am washing my dipes in something other then plain water, and yes chemicals are my main concern, however I would never rethinkcloth as my option!!

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