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. 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 cost 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.)
If you wanted to spend as little money on cloth diapers as possible, I estimate that you can get everything you need for about $200. These are the simplest diapers – traditional prefolds and covers. The disadvantage is they aren’t the easiest and have the largest learning curve of modern cloth diapers. What if you try them 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. You can generally find them for $17.95 each. (All my prices for accessories are from Amazon.com.)
bumGenius One-Size Cloth Diaper – 18 @ $17.95 ea = $323.10
Diaper Pail (inexpensive trash can with lid) – $12.00
Diaper Pail Liner – 2 @ $16.50 ea = $33.00
Wet Bag – $9.50
Diaper Sprayer – $44.95
So you’re looking at a little over $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.
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!
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. I wasn’t convicted to the same degree after my research, but in general I am a fan of reducing the amount of chemicals that are on my daughter’s body all the time. Please see the end for helpful links 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 announced 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 contacted 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”.
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 when my daughter was 8 weeks old was that the frequent blowouts stopped. I can’t say I never had a cloth diaper leak, but 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 – Many 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.
We’ve come a long way from the diaper pins and rubber pants our grandmothers used. However, it can get very overwhelming when you’re first researching what to buy! Be sure to read more about finding the right cloth diaper for your family.
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…
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.
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 Chick
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 Pure & Natural (contain chlorine and SAP, organic cotton outside, “liner includes renewable materials”)
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 many 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 for further 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)
EPA report about the dangers of TBT
Article about the problems associated with SAP (2004)
Blog post about eco-friendly disposable diapers (2009)
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