Disposable Diapers: What Are They Made From, And Are They Safe?

Disposable diapers: they make pretty regular appearances in our lives as parents. And by ‘regular’, I mean around about 4,500 times in the first 3 years of your little one’s life. Yep, that really is (on average) how many times you’ll change your little one during their diapering journey. And they say parenting isn’t a full-time job… 

Suffice to say, your average disposable-diaper-using parent is pretty used to the workings of those little bum huggers. Masters among us can easily change a diaper in the dark, one-handed, or while holding a baby. There’s got to be a Guinness World Record in there somewhere.

But while we’re pretty used to using these handy poop holders, how many of us have stopped to consider what they’re made from? Kinda weird that our little babies spend most of their first years in disposable diapers, but we’re not encouraged to think about what we’re actually putting on their delicate, sensitive skin. You’d like to think that all disposable diapers were made from chemical-free materials, with nothing unnecessary that could damage their skin added. You can see where I’m going with this…

Unfortunately, chemicals and other unnecessary nasties are commonplace in disposable diapers, which can be easily absorbed into the skin. No thanks. While some companies are offering some epic organic, hypoallergenic, natural, plant-based, and biodegradable options, not all diapers are created equal. Pick up a pack of a well-known diaper brand from the grocery store and chances are you’re carrying a bag of chemicals and dyes that have the potential to harm your baby’s health and do pretty terrible things to the environment. 

So what’s really in disposable diapers, and which ones are safe for your baby? 

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Are disposable diapers safe?

With so many disposable diapers on the market, the answer to this question really varies, depending on which brand you’re looking at. They range from chemical-laden, chlorine-bleached, and plastic-based to organic, hypoallergenic, biodegradable, and cruelty-free. The disposable diapers which use predominantly plant-based ingredients and avoid any unnecessary additions, like phthalates, chlorine, dyes, inks, lotions, and fragrances are the safest when it comes to your baby’s health, while minimizing their impact on the planet, too.

So which bits of disposable diapers can be harmful? And which diapers, then, should you avoid?

What are disposable diapers made of?

Most disposable diapers have the same elements: an inner layer/top sheet, an absorbent layer/core, and an outer layer. These layers are designed to keep your little one dry and protected from whatever little gift they decide to leave in their diaper for you. Aren’t they sweet! The absorbent layer specifically is designed to catch all that pee and poop, and the nonwoven fabric sheets that sandwich it helps to stop leaks and make the diaper comfortable for your baby. 

In terms of materials used to make a diaper, it varies from brand to brand, and variety to variety. Many disposable diapers have an inner layer and top sheet made from oil-based plastics, or polypropylene fibers. Plant-based, biodegradable diapers like Andy Pandy and Little Toes might have an inner layer and top sheet made with bamboo fiber. Other plant-based materials that could be used are cotton, wood-pulp and non-GMO starch. 

The absorbent core in most disposables is made of fluff pulp and SAP. You might have seen the term ‘SAP’ before, but what is it?

Are super-absorbents harmful? 

The other major element of disposable diapers is super absorbent polymers (SAP), also called Sodium polycrylate, little crystals made from petroleum-derived chemicals that absorb waste and keep your little one dry. Created in Japan in the 70s, SAP is actually a pretty new phenomenon and only started to make an appearance in disposable diapers from the 1980s. As far as I know, all disposable diapers currently use petroleum-derived SAP, even eco-friendly brands.  But scientists are currently working on creating a biodegradable form of SAP – great news for the planet and for our babies!

One of my favorite environmentally-friendly diaper companies, Andy Pandy, explains that their diapers have a ‘minimal amount of SAP, which is totally safe and non-toxic’. They state that a leading design chemistry company has determined SAP to be green, the safest assessment for a chemical. Nest Baby diapers, another great option when it comes to skin-friendly and world-friendly choices, explains how their sodium polyacrylate (or SAP) is made from synthetic materials and isn’t toxic in the environment. 

So while petroleum-based SAP looks pretty safe for our little ones, let’s hope scientists create a biodegradable alternative as soon as possible! The more biodegradable ingredients we use in diapers, the more we can protect the world we live in. 

Chemicals and toxins in disposable diapers

  • Chlorine
  • Dioxin
  • Dyes
  • Fragrances
  • Phthalates

Is chlorine in diapers bad for babies?

Think ‘chlorine’ and you probably think swimming pools. It’s the most commonly used chemical in pools to keep them free of dangerous bacteria and can also be found in… you guessed it – diapers. It’s thought to be safe when it comes to the health of your baby’s skin (although not by some), but there’s no denying that it’s pretty terrible for the environment. Chlorine bleaching is what many brands use to make their diapers more absorbent, although this can be easily done without chlorine. The most eco-friendly diaper brands shun it completely. For Example, Abby & Finn company uses oxygen, ozone, peroxide and for bleaching their diapers.

Total Chlorine Free (TCF) versus Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF)

Eco-friendly diapers will usually label their diapers either ‘totally chlorine-free’ or ‘elemental chlorine free’. Totally chlorine-free is preferable, of course, considering there’s really no need for chlorine bleaching! Elemental chlorine-free diapers still involve bleaching, but this process reduces toxicity. 

Do we need to worry about dioxin in diapers?

Dioxins are a by-product of chlorine bleaching. These toxins, despite their scary name, aren’t thought to be harmful to babies. In fact, you’ll often find the same number of dioxins in cloth diapers and you’re likely to encounter thousands of times more dioxins in your food than in bleached diapers1. Choosing chlorine-free diapers is still preferable – their devastating impact on the environment is reason enough – but you don’t really need to worry about the safety of chlorine when it comes to your little one’s skin. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other chemicals we do need to be concerned about!

Dyes in diapers. Are they dangerous for babies?

Some diapers have super cute prints. But, let’s be honest, they’re more for you than your baby; little ones could care less about the design on their bum, especially when they can’t see it! Some dyes and inks can cause skin rashes, which is why some brands have opted to omit them completely. Others still use dyes and inks, including Bambo Nature and the Honest Company diapers, but they only use those that don’t contain heavy metals. 

Should I avoid fragrances in diapers?

Fragrances cover a pretty big – and a pretty vague – base. Diaper brands aren’t actually required by the FDA to make a list of ingredients used available to parents. The best companies will make this super clear, but many brands will hide a bunch of chemical nasties under the term ‘fragrance’. 

It’s therefore pretty important to choose fragrance-free diapers when you can, especially if your little one has sensitive skin. It’s these unknown chemicals that can cause skin rashes, and worse.

Read Next: Why You Should Avoid Fragranced Diapers And The Best Unscented Diapers On The Market

Why should I worry about phthalates in diapers?

If you’ve never heard of phthalates before, it’s pretty important to get clued upon them. You might have seen some companies declare their diapers phthalate-free, so why? What’s so bad about phthalates?

Studies have shown that phthalates can increase the risk of eczema and asthma in little ones2 and have been linked to abnormal genital development in baby boys. A study in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that exposure to phthalates is widespread in young children, and might be more vulnerable to the ‘developmental and reproductive toxicity’ of the chemicals.  Yet they’re still commonly used in flooring, baby toys, and baby diapers3. Makes sense. Again, they’re not regulated by the FDA, which means companies can use them as they please, and they don’t even have to declare it. The general rule of thumb is that, unless a company states that they’re phthalate-free, it’s possible (and probable) that they are used. 

Considering the potentially harmful effects on our little ones, it’s super important to look for diapers that are obviously phthalate-free. Loads of amazing diaper brands are completely phthalate-free, like Andy Pandy, Ecoriginals and Dyper diapers. Other brands should probably follow suit… Huggies and Pampers, I’m looking at you!

Related Post: Dyper Diapers Review: Eco-Friendly, Skin-Friendly And Bank Account-Friendly

Read Next: Andy Pandy Diapers Review: The Best All-Around Diapers For Baby And For The Planet?

Dangers of disposable diapers

Environmental effect of disposable diapers 

Considering that a little one can use anything 4,000 to 6,000 disposable diapers by the time they’re toilet-trained and that diapers make up about 20% of total landfill waste, it’s pretty obvious that diapers have a negative effect on the environment. It’s really a case of minimizing this impact as much as possible with the choices we make; yes, we can choose reusables, but we can’t just shun diapers altogether. A diaperless world doesn’t bear thinking about!

But reusable diapers aren’t necessarily much better in terms of the impact they have on the environment, strangely. A study in the UK showed that the amount of carbon dioxide equivalents produced from using average disposable diapers compared with reusables was similar, mainly due to the way reusable diapers are washed: usually at a high temperature. 

But focusing on disposables, how do they fare when it comes to our carbon footprint? The vast majority of disposable diapers will end up in landfills, with plastic diapers taking anything up to 1000 years to break down. Considering we can’t make the planet any bigger, and we’re already running out of room and resources, this isn’t great news. But there are some things we can do to lessen this impact.

One thing to consider is a diaper’s use of chlorine. We know that there isn’t necessarily a risk to babies when diapers use chlorine bleaching, but it is pretty toxic for the environment, so it’s better avoided. The fact that it could eliminate coronavirus from pools shows just how strong it is!

If you wanna go full Greta Thunberg on your diaper choices, biodegradable diapers are a must – they don’t make the same trip straight to landfill as their plastic counterparts do. They can be composted (the pee ones, at least) because they’re made predominantly from plant-based materials. This is amazing news for the planet, and for your baby; biodegradable diapers tend to steer clear from those horrible unnecessary additions like fragrances, lotions, and phthalates. 

Do biodegradable diapers exist?

Biodegradable diapers are the ultimate in eco-friendly offerings. Plant-based, natural diapers are fantastic, but if they can’t be composted, they’re gonna end up in the same place as the crappy plastic ones: landfill. So what’s better about biodegradable diapers?

Essentially, these eco-conscious diapers can be partially or fully biodegradable, which means they can be broken down over a period of time and used in planting. The composting process is a far superior option to the take-the-diapers-away-in-a-garbage-truck option of course, and there’s actually a huge variety of biodegradable diapers on the market right now, with more and more brands popping up all the time. Biodegradable diapers offer the convenience of disposable diapers, with the eco-friendly credentials of cloth and reusable diapers. 

Related Post: Top Picks for the Best Biodegradable Diapers on the Market

The average diaper you might find at the store isn’t going to be biodegradable as the majority are made predominantly with plastics and other toxic materials. They’ll break down eventually, but we’ll probably be looking at a robot-dominated, hoverboard-using society by that time; it can take up to 1000 years for plastics to decompose… and that’s if the world as we know it is still around by then. With the amount of waste and pollution we’re producing right now, it’s kind of unlikely!

Choosing biodegradable diapers might seem like a small shift, but it’s these little eco-friendly changes that make all the difference to the world around us. Companies like Andy Pandy, Dyper, and Eco Pea produce some amazing biodegradable options, which are not only great for the planet but will keep your little one dry and comfortable too!

Disposable Diaper Composting Services Available

It might seem like a tough ask, but it’s actually super easy to compost biodegradable diapers. With some biodegradable options, you can choose to use a composting service, or compost them in your own backyard! Always check the brand’s guidelines to check that this is possible, of course. 

An open-air pile or compost tumbler will break down your diapers in about a year, in stark contrast to the 1000 years it takes to break down the plastic ones. All you need to do is add a range of fruit and vegetable scraps and dried leaves and turn the compost every couple of weeks. 

If composting at home isn’t an option, some areas of the US accept biodegradable diapers in compost bins. Check your local waste program to see if your area is one of them! Plus, there are some composting services available across the country, like this one by Kind By Nature Living, the service provided by Tiny Tots in the Bay area, and this one by Dyper diapers. They’ll collect your dirty diapers for you and process them in an industrial facility. Simple!

Are cloth or disposable diapers better for the environment?

When it comes to convenience and the choice between disposable diapers and cloth diapers, I think most parents and carers would agree that disposable diapers come out on top. There are no scraping contents into the toilet or washing involved. You simply change and bin! But looking at the environmental impact of both kinds of diapers, most of us would assume cloth or reusable diapers are superior. Strangely, this isn’t necessarily the case…

This British study comparing the environmental impact of both diaper types showed that, depending on how reusable diapers are washed, disposable diapers might even fare better. Although it’s a little outdated, the study showed that the average disposable diaper in the UK in 2006 would create the equivalent of 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents. This would be over a period of 2 and a half years, the amount of time a little one tends to wear diapers. 

In contrast, washing and drying reusable or cloth diapers over the same period of time would produce about 570kg of carbon dioxide. Pretty crazy, right… Although this number can be reduced by washing reusable diapers at 60 degrees rather than 90, choosing energy-saving appliances and drying the diapers outside. While most US households have dryers, they’re not that common in the UK, with many households choosing to dry their laundry outside or on airers. It’s certainly less convenient, but loads better for the planet!

So the differences between the two when it comes to the environment are pretty negligible. But the issue with this study is that it doesn’t take into account the impact of biodegradable diapers. There’s no doubt that biodegradable diapers will have a better impact on the environment than the average disposable diapers, which means they could be pretty comparable with using cloth diapers and washing them in the most energy-efficient way. 

Ultimately, reusable and biodegradable diapers are both great options when it comes to looking after the environment. It’s really a case of choosing the type that works for you! 

What are the healthiest diapers?

The best diapers for you, your baby, and the world around us are free from any unnecessary additions, like chlorine, dyes, fragrances, lotions, and phthalates. They’re also made primarily from natural, plant-based materials, but which are the best? It’s great to have eco-friendly diapers on the market, but if they’re not keeping the pee and poop at bay, what’s the point? Luckily nature provides us with an array of absorbent, natural materials, perfect for dealing with waste and minimizing our impact on the world as a result. Move over, plastic! You’re so 1970s…

Top Healthies Diapers

1. Dyper Diapers
Dyper diapers stay away from unnecessary added chemicals like chlorine, alcohol, latex, fragrances, lotions and phthalates, which is great news for your baby’s skin. They’re made with sustainably-sourced – and super soft – bamboo.


a pack of Eco Pea training pants

2. Eco Pea Diapers 
Like Dyper and Andy Pandy, Eco Pea diapers are made with soft, sustainable bamboo. They’re comprised of 85% biodegradable materials, hypoallergenic and completely free of latex, lotions, fragrances, chlorine and phthalates.


a pack of Ecoriginals Diapers

3. Ecoriginals Diapers
Ecoriginals take biodegradable diapers to the next level, with 90% biodegradable materials. Made with sustainably sourced wood pulp, Ecoriginals diapers are free of harsh chemicals and toxins, and boast 40% greater absorbency than regular disposables!


a pack of Andy Pandy diapers

4. Andy Pandy Diapers
Made by an American family business, these bamboo diapers are made from an impressive 86.5% biodegradable materials. As you’d expect, Andy Pandy diapers are completely free of phthalates, chlorine, preservatives, alcohol and latex.


a pack of Kudos diapers

6. Kudos Diapers
Kudos diapers aren’t biodegradable, but they’re made with plant-based materials and are clinically-proven hypoallergenic. They’re free of harsh chemicals like phthalates and fragrances, and are delivered in sustainably-sourced and recyclable packaging.


Frequently asked questions about disposable diapers:

1. Do disposable diapers have chemicals in them? 

You’d be forgiven for not believing it, but disposable diapers do contain chemicals and lots of them. Well, a lot of brands do, at least. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that diaper brands would have to make their ingredients, including potentially harmful chemicals, clear on their packaging. After all, we want to make informed choices as parents and carers, right?

They don’t. 

It’s crazy, but they’re not legally obliged to display this information on the packaging or on their websites. There’s no doubt that we’d be making very different choices if they were… In fact, if a company doesn’t state clearly that a particular ingredient is avoided, the safest thing to do is to assume that it is. 

Unnecessary additions to diapers include everything from skin irritants like fragrances, dyes, and lotions to environment-damaging chlorine to my arch-nemesis phthalates, which are potentially harmful to your baby. The term ‘fragrances’ can cover up a whole world of nasties and dyes sometimes include lead. Some lotions may cause diaper rashes and chlorine releases awful toxins into the atmosphere. But phthalates, when it comes to shocking diaper additions, knock all other chemicals out of the park, and not in a good way. Like a chemical, toxic, danger-filled park. You get the idea…

Phthalates are super common additions to all sorts of household items like flooring baby toys and, pretty commonly, diapers. Studies have shown that they increase the risk of asthma in little ones2 and might even contribute to abnormal genital development in boys. Yet phthalates aren’t regulated by the FDA. Makes sense…

The safest way to avoid these completely unnecessary diaper additions is to choose brands that state clearly that they avoid them. It’s pretty rare for big diaper brands to make their ingredients super clear, never mind avoid the use of chemicals. Huggies, Pampers, and Luvs are some of the most popular choices. Yes, they might be effective at keeping your little one dry, but their lack of information regarding materials leads me to believe they’re pretty jam-packed with horrible stuff. Read more about the truth behind these big brands here.

Related Post: Luvs Vs Pampers: Which Diaper’s Best?

Other diaper brands have spotted the gap in the eco-friendly, skin-safe market and presented us with loads of amazing options. With brands like Dyper, Andy Pandy, and Parasol, you won’t have to worry about safety; they’re actually taking it seriously, and stay away from anything potentially harmful to your little one, and to the environment. 

2. Are disposable diapers bad for babies?

Disposable diapers made primarily from oil-based plastics and containing phthalates, like Huggies and Pampers, aren’t the best choices for our little ones. Considering our babies spend 24/7 in diapers for the first 2-3 years of their life, it’s pretty important that we choose the most natural diapers that we can. 

If nothing else, I’d recommend choosing phthalate-free diapers, considering their links to asthma and abnormal genital development. Again, why are they allowed to be used? It’s not like huge diaper brands like Pampers are lacking the budget to find an alternative. There’s no excuse!

3. Are reusable/cloth diapers better for babies?

Most reusable and cloth diapers will contain some plastics, but shouldn’t use added lotions, fragrances, and phthalates. They’re certainly a better alternative to plastic-based disposable diapers like Huggies and Pampers, but organic, plant-based diapers like those offered by Andy Pandy are comparable to reusable diapers. 

And, surprisingly, the environmental impact of reusable diapers compared with disposable isn’t that different. It all depends on how reusable diapers are washed, and the eco-credentials of the disposable diapers you choose.

When it comes to the crunch, reusable and cloth diapers are pretty similar to eco-friendly disposables when it comes to baby’s health and their impact on the world. Simply choose the type that works for you and your family.

4. What are the best non-toxic diapers?

It might not be easy to find the best skin-friendly and eco-friendly diapers in your local grocery store, but there’s a whole world of amazing options online when it comes to non-toxic diapers. Choices include hypoallergenic, organic, plant-based, cruelty-free, and biodegradable options; Andy Pandy, Dyper diapers, and Little Toes are some of my favorites. All are hypoallergenic, so great for sensitive skin, made from predominantly plant-based materials, can be composted and steer clear of harmful chemicals. Check out my top organic choices here!

The bottom line

Diapers are a big part of every parent and carer’s life, whether they’re reusable, cloth, or disposable. Unless you’re one of those amazing parents who manage to potty train their little ones by 2 months (tell me your secrets!), they’re kind of a necessary evil. But you can take away the ‘evil’ by understanding exactly what goes into disposables, and choosing the brands that shun harmful chemicals and toxins. In fact, the more we choose organic, non-toxic options, the more big brands will realize that there’s a demand, and start to change their ways. I hope, at least.

There are two things to consider when choosing disposable diapers and it all comes down to what they’re made from; are the materials used safe for your baby’s skin, and are they safe for the environment? If you’re looking to choose eco-friendlier diapers, go for plant-based options like Dyper and Nest, make sure they’re chlorine-free, and, for the ultimate in eco-friendly-ness, choose biodegradable.

When it comes to skin-safety, the more ingredients avoided by the brand, the better, especially when we’re talking anything that could irritate the skin, like fragrances, lotions, and dyes, as well as the dreaded phthalates. Their links to hormone changes, abnormal genital development, and asthma2 mean they should be avoided. And put straight in the garbage, if it was up to me. 

Ultimately, some diapers should come with a warning. But, for now, we’re just gonna have to rely on the brands that tell us exactly what’s in their products, and those who produce some seriously amazing eco and skin-friendly diapers for our little ones. And, fortunately, there are plenty to choose from.

I’m hoping for a fully chemical-free and biodegradable disposable diaper market in the future. Let’s make it happen!

References

  1. Michael J DeVito and Arnold Schecter. Exposure assessment to dioxins from the use of tampons and diapers. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240689
  2. Hannon, P.R./ & flaws, J.A. (2015). The effects of phthalates on the ovary. Frontiers in endocrinology, 6
  3. Jaakkola, J. J., & Khinght, T. L. (2008). The role of exposure to phthlates from polyvinyl chloride products in the development of asthma and allergies: a systematic review and metaanalysis. Environ Health Perspect, 116(7), 845-53.

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