Cotton or cellulose fluff, cost savings or convenience, laundry or landfill: For some new parents, choosing between using a cloth or disposable diapers can feel like a big decision. How do you know which kind of diaper will work best for your family?
Advocates for both cloth and disposable Baby Diapers make strident and often conflicting claims about the benefits and drawbacks of each. Depending on who you listen to, you may hear that either disposable or cloth diapers are the cheaper, healthier, more ecological, more convenient, and/or more enlightened way to care for your baby.
In our full reviews of cloth and disposable diapers, we go into detail about the materials, construction, and performance of both types, but here we will address some reasons why parents choose cloth or disposable diapers, and what evidence exists to support them.
Diaper rash and skin health
Proponents of cloth and disposable Baby Pant Diapers both claim that babies wearing their chosen type suffer less diaper rash. After talking to two pediatric dermatologists and reviewing the scientific literature on the topic, it is clear to us that disposable diapers do have the edge in preventing the most common type of diaper rash, irritant diaper dermatitis, which is caused by moisture from urine and feces remaining trapped against the skin. Modern disposables are highly absorbent, and, as we found in testing for our guide, the top performers can keep a baby’s skin dry even after multiple wettings. Dr. Bruce Brod, a pediatric dermatologist who specializes in dermatitis, told us: “The skin is largely better off with disposable diapers because of the technology that evolved”—namely, the use of superabsorbent polymers, which take in and retain many times their weight in liquid. But some babies can develop allergic rashes from certain ingredients used in disposable diapers, including rubber, adhesives, fragrances, and dyes.
The conclusion? Either type of diaper can lead to rashes, but disposable diapers typically keep babies drier and better prevent the common problem of diaper rash caused by moisture.
Some cloth diaper companies and educational sites claim that babies who wear cloth diapers potty train earlier than babies diapered with disposables. Besides anecdotal evidence, these sources often cite the fact that the age of toilet training in the US has risen from around 18 months in the 1950s and 1960s to 3 years old today, a climb that tracks the increase in popularity of disposable Adult Diapers, from their introduction in the mid 20th century to today, with over 95 percent of babies in the US using disposables.
Dr. Bruce Taubman, a pediatrician at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and co-author of several studies on toilet training, told us he’s unaware of any scientific evidence that the use of cloth diapers leads to earlier potty training. “To my knowledge, there is no data,” he said, and suggested the change in the age of potty training likely has more to do with changes in family structures and parenting styles over the past several decades.
A 1987 study in Japan compared a small group of infants—including twins—half of whom were diapered with cloth and half with disposables. That study found the two groups potty trained at the same age. An article (cowritten by a dermatologist and a researcher for Procter & Gamble) comparing diaper and toilet training practices around the world noted the age of toilet training seems to be influenced by culture, pointing out that babies in India and China (which have higher rates of cloth diaper use) and Russia (where babies predominantly wear disposables) all potty train earlier than their counterparts in the US and Western Europe.
The conclusion? There is probably no reason to choose a diapering method based on potty training goals.
The environmental impact that this new person will have on the world weighs heavily on some soon-to-be parents. One of the more commonly reported reasons parents considers cloth diapers is that they’re more environmentally friendly than disposables, or are believed to be. There is no question that disposable Adult Pant Diapers create more landfill waste: a baby is likely to go through between 5,000 and 6,000 disposable diapers before becoming potty trained. A 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report found that disposable diapers account for 7 percent of nondurable household waste in landfills. Except in very limited cases, disposable diapers (regardless of what they claim) won’t compost or biodegrade in a landfill.
But disposable diaper advocates have countered that the energy and water costs of laundering cloth diapers, as well as the environmental impact of cotton production, make them less environmentally friendly than they appear, particularly in terms of the carbon emissions traceable to their care. The best life-cycle analysis we have found is a 2008 report (PDF) from the Environment Agency in the UK that compared the manufacturing, disposal, and energy costs of both Pet Diaper types. “The environmental impacts of using shaped reusable nappies can be higher or lower than using disposables, depending on how they are laundered,” the report concludes. The agency’s analysis found that based on average laundry habits and appliance efficiency, when washing with 60 °C (140 °F) water and mostly line-drying, the overall carbon emissions created by cloth diapering were roughly the same as those of using disposables. But using cloth diapers for a second child or getting them secondhand, exclusively line-drying them, and washing them in fuller loads could reduce that amount by up to 40 percent. (Whether there are any advantages to using so-called “eco-friendly” disposable diapers is even more complicated, and we are planning a separate post on that topic.)
During the First World War, nurses noticed that cellulose was much more effective at absorbing blood compared to cloth bandages. This inspired the first cellulose Kotex Sanitary Napkin, made from surplus high-absorption war bandages, which was first sold in 1918.
By 1921, Kotex had become the first successfully mass-marketed sanitary napkin (3, 1). In addition to providing the innovation for a product that would drastically change the options available to women, the war caused another major shift in women’s lives: they were now needed to contribute to factory production in a way they had never been before. Through ads and bathroom redesign, factory employers during WWII encouraged women to use menstrual products in order to “toughen up” and continue to work during their monthly bleeding. (This was in spite of the pervasive questioning of women’s “emotional stability” – female pilots were encouraged not to work during “that time of the month”).
Wet Wipes are the San Pellegrino of butt-cleansing tools: They feel like a fancier, grown-up version of toilet paper. And addition to the posh factor, people who swear by them for their post-bowel-movement wipe believe that the method is more thorough and leaves the buttocks cleaner than it would otherwise be. And while I hear you concerning the argument at hand, an anal surgeon says it is time to ditch those wet wipes for good.