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Diapers: Bad for the Environment and Baby Too?

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In the tenth installment of her "Dangerous or Safe?" series, pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson sets the record straight on diapers -- both disposable and reusable.

biohazardous glowing diaper

The people who oppose disposable diapers worry about their environmental impact:

• They account for an estimated 2% of the garbage generated in the U.S.
• Over time they accumulate in landfills.
• In order to make these diapers, toxins like dioxin are released into our environment.

Disposable diaper foes also suggest that they might harm a baby's health, suggesting that the super-absorbent polymers (called sodium polyacrylate) responsible for absorbing the water in urine and stool could pose a direct risk to the child.

• Sodium polyacrylate is used in the form of crystals.
• These crystals absorb 200-300 times their weight in water, turning into a gel in the process.
• Sodium polyacrylate was used in tampons until 1985, but reports linking it to toxic shock syndrome resulted in its removal.
• But tampons are inserted into the body and the sodium polyacrylate in diapers is not only not inside the body, it is three layers removed.
• The crystals that parents often find on their children's skin when taking off a wet diaper are not sodium polyacrylate but rather urate crystals, a normal byproduct of urine which has had the water removed -- the dehydrated urate forms pinkish-orange crystals.

Cloth diapers are a good alternative to disposable diapers, but:

• They aren't necessarily environmentally pristine as some of them have bleached cottons, so the environmental byproduct dioxin is still generated.
• They have their own health concerns, because when a baby wets or soils a cloth diaper, the urine or stool sits right next to the skin, increasing the chance of diaper rash (compared to disposable diapers) if the diaper isn't changed quickly.

What is the bottom line?

• From a health standpoint, there is very little difference between disposable and cloth diapers: Both are safe.
• The real issue here is one of environmental impact.
• Some diaper manufacturers have produced "hybrid" diapers that have a reusable exterior shell and a disposable core. The idea here is to reduce the burden on our landfills while maintaining the convenience of disposability.
• When choosing a diaper, chlorine-free products are probably better for the environment. But there are other manufacturing considerations way beyond the scope of this book.

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11 comments so far | Post a comment now
Elisa October 10, 2008, 1:57 PM

I think the best option is using gDiapers, which are an in-between. I always felt guilty about using disposables, but I justcoulnd’t keep up with the laundry - or the mess (I am kind of skittish). gDiapers are the perfect combination for me, and on top of it they are really cute!!

Victoria October 11, 2008, 8:36 PM

I agree. We’ve been using gDiapers on our daughter for a couple of weeks now (she’s 8 weeks, so they were too big for her up until recently) and they are great. Yes, a bit messier than disposables, but that’s a small price to pay for being flushable and compostable.

There is another disposable diaper from Sweden that is truly biodegradable, but they aren’t available here in Canada. You can only get them at select Target stores in the US, and a couple of other countries. They’re called Nature Babycare Diapers (

Gia Behrens February 2, 2009, 6:17 PM

We use cloth diapers not because of the environmental impact but because disposables were so bad for our kids. They have really, really sensitive skin and the chemicals used to “gel” the discharge were causing rashes that we just could not control. When we switched to cloth, the rashes stopped completely! We’re now going onto our 5th child. Whenever we use disposables, we have the same rash problem no matter the brand that we try. We’re at the point that we’re not going to even try disposables with the 5th. Why subject that poor little bottom to seeping, oozing rashes and prescription drug creams, when we only have to take the loss of space in the diaper bag to a slightly more bulky diaper?

Ju March 30, 2009, 11:30 PM

I think I will try this with the next baby, plus the outer part is so cute!

Wendy May 24, 2009, 12:49 PM

Two comments:
From what I can tell, the gel bits on a baby’s bum are identical to the gel inside the diaper, and not at all similar to the urate crystals we spoke to our pediatrician about when my son was a newborn. If that gel is, in fact, sodium polyacrylate, then it is in direct contact with his genitals.

Also, many cloth diapers (pockets and all-in-ones) include a liner (fleece, microsuede) that moves most of the wetness away from the skin. Nothing in a cloth or disposable diaper is going to move a bowel movement away from baby’s skin before the diaper is changed.

Jessica Tomaz July 29, 2009, 12:53 PM

The only diapering option that offers a sustainale Earth to our precious children is potty training from birth. It is the best option for our babies and the best option for the world they will inherit.

When I was traveling around the world, I noticed quite a few Eastern and African cultures that didn’t use diapers on their babies. They held the babies over the bush and the little ones did their business.

I decided to try it and started potty training my daughter from birth. By the time she was a couple months old she was going potty in the toilet all day long. It’s so easy and it has saved us so much money! She never has diaper rash, never been constipated and I never have to clean up poopy diapers!

I have a company called PeeSpeak that teaches parents how to bring this very easy practice into their everyday busy lives. You can see a video on our website:

There is a $5 off coupon code for the book & DVD: poofree123

Thanks for the great article!


martha November 19, 2009, 3:51 AM

freaks :)

cloth diaper July 3, 2010, 8:43 PM

When my son was born eight years ago, I thought I would use cloth diapers. Really, I did. I planned to be a green, crunchy granola mother, using breastfeeding, attachment parenting and cloth diapers. This was all before it was super hip to be green. When I was pregnant, I spoke another mom and she said I was crazy to try cloth diapers. Breastfeeding was good, because the “plumbing” was all there, but cloth diapers was another you can also use ">”> one size diapers

legallyblondfjbk March 15, 2011, 10:47 AM


Alex June 1, 2011, 9:54 PM

I as a student would like to know more scientific facts about why disposables nappies are unsafe and that Cloth nappies are better.

Thanks you.

Alex June 1, 2011, 9:55 PM

I would like to know more scientific facts about why disposables nappies are unsafe and that Cloth nappies are better.

Thanks you.

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