Cloth diapers vs. disposables…one of the many decisions you have to make as an expecting parent.
You've probably heard arguments leaning toward both sides.
- “Cloth diapers save you tons of money” “Disposables actually don't cost more when you factor laundry in”
- “Disposables are easier to handle” “Cloth requires very little extra work”
- “Reusable diapers are gentler on baby's skin” “Disposable diapers wick away moisture better.”
We like to approach all decisions with research and data. And the research doesn't lie. By the end of this definitive guide, you'll be armed with the facts.
Cloth Diapers Vs. Disposables: Which Should You Choose?
Want to hear something shocking?
It’s estimated that 27.4 billion diapers are used by American consumers every single year. And over 92% of those diapers end up in landfills.
Even if you don’t really care about the environment, we came up with 6 other insanely compelling reasons to use cloth diapers vs disposables. Reasons that affect your baby’s health, impact your finances and make parenting a lot easier.
Here are the top 7 reasons to choose cloth diapers.
1. Disposables Are Toxic On Your Baby’s Skin
Procter and Gamble, the company behind popular disposable diaper brands like Pampers, went through a lawsuit in 2010 (and lost) because the chemicals they use in the gel that holds the liquid in their diapers caused chemical burns and extreme diaper rash on the babies that were wearing them.
This might not make much sense if you’ve never thought about how disposable diapers are manufactured, but when you think about the fact that they’re essentially plastic underwear meant to hold far more liquid than anything natural should ever hold, it becomes easier to understand that they’re laced with chemicals.
Chemicals that cause things like:
A friend who was skeptical to put coconut oil on her baby’s skin uses disposable diapers. Ironic, huh.
Among the chemicals in disposable diapers is one called sodium polyacrylate. It’s a white solid that becomes a gel-like substance after absorbing 200 – 300 times it’s weight in liquid…Er, your baby’s urine.
Sounds good, right? Dry baby, happy baby, happy parents—it’s like a Huggie’s commercial up in here…
Until you know that sodium polyacrylate has a warning label on the material safety data sheet (MSDS). You know, the MSDS that’s mandatory to keep with all chemicals found in the workplace…
Here’s what MSDS has to say about sodium polyacrylate: it’s “a potential respiratory tract irritant,” which “may cause burning, drying, itching and other discomforts, resulting in reddening of the eyes,” and of course the ever so pleasant lung irritation.
It also says to avoid contact with skin (especially sensitive baby skin?) and to flush thoroughly with water if contact does occur. Wait, it gets better!
The MSDS also says to: “contact a licensed professional waste disposal service to dispose of this material… Product or containers must not be disposed of with household garbage”.
And here you were throwing it in the trash—probably not a good idea.
That’s just one scary chemical disposables contain. A study published in 1999 found that they also contain…
- Toluene, which depresses the central nervous system and causes skin irritation (used in explosives, gasoline, glues and contact cements).
- Ethylbenzene, a possible carcinogen (used in pesticides, literal jet fuel and rust prevention spray)
- Styrene, which harms the nervous and respiratory systems (used in automotive chemicals, sealants and vinyl flooring).
- Dipentene, which is a skin and eye irritant causes rashes (used in hair color, home cleaning products, and pesticides).
Let’s just stop for a moment and acknowledge the ludicrosity that we avoid getting our hair colored when we’re pregnant because we don’t want to expose our unborn babies to the exact chemicals we strap onto their skin when they’re born.
Tl;dr: Disposables are like making your baby sit in cancer, asthma, and hormone-disrupting causing chemicals 24/7 until they’re potty trained. Not the best start to life.
2. Disposables Cost 378% More Than Cloth Diapers
There’s a common misconception that disposable diapers and cloth diapers cost the same.
The logic here is that the cost of cleaning the diapers negates the savings of using cloth.
That might be true, if you hire a diaper service to do all the washing. But even then, if cloth diapers cost the same as disposables, are better for your baby’s health, AND have less impact on the environment (we’ll get there next), why wouldn’t you go with cloth?
Ok, so what happens if you wash your cloth diapers yourself?
According to Babycenter’s baby cost calculator, disposable diapers cost about 3.5x the amount of cloth:
Let’s say you have one baby, and the baby is potty trained by the age of 2.
If you use cloth diapers, your cost will be about $228 per year or $456 over the two years your child is in diapers including energy and the cost of the diapers.
If you use disposable diapers, the cost will be about $864 per year or $1728 over the two years your child is in diapers.
You’d save almost $1300 for NOT totally sabotaging the environment and making your baby sit in chemicals. And there are lots of other sources that agree that cloth diapers will save you money.
Good on you if you manage to completely get your kid out of diapers by age 2, but that won’t be most of us, so adjust accordingly.
With how much you save on disposables, you could hire a housekeeper to clean your house once every 2 weeks (making the inconvenience net zero) and save your baby from the chemicals and the environment from the waste.
Tl;dr: You could go on a cheap all-inclusive vacation each year with the money you’d save using cloth diapers (provided you don’t go with a cloth diaper service).
3. Disposable Diapers Are Killing The Environment
Let’s revisit that number I threw at you earlier.
Disposable diapers make up the third largest consumer product in landfills today. Kinda scary, but not surprising when you hear that:
- 30 years ago, 18 billion disposable diapers were sold per year in the US alone.
- Now, over 27 billion disposables (9 billion more) are sold every year.
Since 92% of those diapers end up in a landfill, that means that Americans are putting over 25 billion diapers (filled with over 84 million pounds of baby poop), into landfills every year.
And guess what? A diaper takes 250 – 500 years to break down in a landfill, leaving all those chemicals and feces to eventually leach into the soil and contaminate the water supply.
This scary stat can be somewhat reduced if you buy biodegradable diapers and eco-friendly aby wipes.
But these scary statistics don’t even take into account the pollution pumped into the environment and resources used to manufacture and distribute those diapers (granted, cloth diapers will be subject to some of the same impacts associated with manufacturing and distribution).
All that aside, I hear some of you saying: “Well, putting poopy water down the drain can’t be good for the environment either”.
Surprise! Household wastewater gets funneled to the same treatment plants as your toilet water. So it’s the next best thing for your baby’s poop to be washed down the drain if it can’t go directly in the toilet.
Tl;dr: Putting disposable diapers on your baby is ruining the planet for your baby’s future.
4. Cloth Diapers Are Not Inconvenient
Maybe you bought into the “babies = hard” culture or heard when you were pregnant that when you have a baby, you’ll hardly even have time to shower you’ll be so busy.
So you figure that if you don’t even have time to shower, how will you have time to use cloth diapers?
But even if we’re completely ignoring the inconvenient things about using disposables, like:
- Flushing most of the poop before discarding (check the labels, it’s there)
- Dealing with all that garbage (maybe you pay for garbage disposal like we do?), or
- Running to the store because you forgot you were running out of diapers.
How long does doing an extra couple loads of laundry each week take (because that’s really all there is “extra” to using cloth diapers)?
Unless you’re hand washing your laundry, it should take no more than 5 minutes to put in the washing machine, 5 minutes to transfer to the dryer, and another 5 minutes to take out of the dryer and dump them into a drawer for later use. That’s less time than it takes to buy more disposables.
Besides, dealing with poopy garbage and diaper rash is just as inconvenient as doing an extra couple of loads of wash each week.
When we first started cloth diapering (so as soon as Poppy got out of the hospital), I thought we might cloth diaper when we were at home, but use disposables when we traveled. But after getting the hang of it at home, doing it on the road wasn’t a big deal for us. Just be prepared to visit a laundromat on your way out for dinner, and once again on your way back ;).
Tl;dr: Inconvenience—a common excuse to use disposables, which, after a little investigation and experience with cloth diapers, most people find to be untrue.
5. Cloth Diapers Aren’t Unsanitary
Let’s define sanitary… because any way you cut it, cloth diapers are way more sanitary.
Sanitary doesn’t mean less “poop handling time” for you (which isn’t the case anyway. See below)—it means what causes less disease, infection, and health issues for the world.
First, let me dispel the myth that using disposable diapers translates into less poop handling time. It doesn’t.
Whether you use disposable or cloth diapers, all the same steps (except doing the laundry) apply. Let me prove it to you:
- Remove dirty diaper
- Flush poop in the toilet (Yes, this step applies to disposables too. Don’t believe me? Just take a quick look on the next pack of pampers you buy—it’s there)
- Put diaper in bag (garbage bag OR waterproof diaper bag)
- Take garbage bag out for pick up, OR put diapers in wash*
* Step 4 for cloth diapers is a little more involved than for disposables, but not by much (we’re talking a few extra minutes a week. But see #4 above).
Steps 1 and 2 are the only steps where you’re dealing directly with a poop-filled monstrosity. The rest is just dealing with the aftermath, which in our view, lumps together any other household chore.
So NO, disposables don’t save you any poop handling time.
But wait, I know you’re not done… “But I don’t smell the diapers after I take out the garbage”.
Let’s be real, today’s technology is fantastic. And waterproof/smell-proof diaper containers are no exception. Whether you're at home or out and about, use a cloth diaper wet bag. Do your research and buy the best money can buy. And then stop using that as an excuse (because it’s just that, an excuse).
This leads me to the next most popular excuse: “I don’t want poop in my washing machine”.
Well, you might not know this but breastfed baby poop is completely water-soluble. So for the first 5 – 6 months of your baby’s life, putting poop-stained diapers in the wash is hardly an issue because everything literally washes away (minus stains of course).
And when babies start eating solids (think fiber), you’ll want to pay more attention to Step 2 above. But honestly, washing machines can easily handle all of the non-digestible food material that your baby passes.
Plus, know that you’re helping world sanitation by NOT contributing to the 84 million pounds of baby poop that makes its way into landfills (and subsequently our drinking water) by hitchhiking on dirty disposable diapers.
That’s because your washing machine’s wastewater ends up at the same treatment facility as your toilet water.
There are no two ways about it—cloth diapers are way more environmentally responsible (but see #3 for all the gory deets).
Tl;dr: Cloth diapers are more sanitary compared to disposables because human waste is properly treated whether it goes in the toilet or the washing machine. With disposables, it’s not.
6. Disposable Diapers are Like Wearing Plastic Underwear 24/7.
Babies, like dogs (what?) can’t speak for themselves.
They can’t complain when they’re uncomfortable or sticky or hot.
So you’d never know that (even a clean) disposable diaper may be uncomfortable until you think about having to wear one yourself.
Let’s say you had to wear a diaper all day, every day. What would you rather wear…
Cotton, bamboo, or some other natural fiber?
If you’ve ever had to wear a maxi pad, you’ll know how uncomfortable they are. And I bet that’s what disposables feel like on your baby's skin. No wonder diaper rash is so prevalent with babies who wear disposables. There’s absolutely no air circulation (think diaper gussets).
Tl;dr: If you’ve ever had to spend time in plastic underwear, you’ll know how uncomfortable they are. Natural fibers are much more comfortable and better on your skin.
7. Cloth-Diapered Babies Potty Train More Quickly
In the 1950s, babies were potty trained at 18 months—as soon as they were ready.
But then, as disposables began to be introduced, something funny happened…
- “In the 1950, almost a 100% of children wore cloth diapers and 95% of these children were trained by the age of 18 months.
- In the 1980s, about 50% of children wore cloth diapers, while the other 50% wore disposable diapers and only about 50% of the children were potty trained by the age of 18 months.
- Today, almost 90-95% of children wear disposable diapers and only about 10% of children are potty trained by the age of 18 months.
- Today, the average age for potty training is about 30 months with the age ranging from 18-60 months.”
The average age for potty training is 30 months old—that’s nearly three years old. And it goes all the way up to five.
Cloth diapers don’t have all the harmful chemicals in them that make them super absorbent like disposables, so they provide a positive feedback mechanism for your baby to actually want to potty train (i.e., they get wet and uncomfortable when they pee their pants).
If you make it not-so-bad to sit in their own waste, your child will naturally not mind being in a disposable diaper all day (even if they pee in it). But when your kid can actually feel the wetness against their skin, they’re more inclined to use the toilet (because no one, including babies, likes to sit in their own excrement).
Tl;dr: Cloth diapered babies potty train more quickly, resulting in more cost savings and less shit for you to have to deal with. #winning
Let’s Stop Sabotaging Our Environment & Letting Our Babies Sit in Chemicals
Disposable diapers lose in
almost every category:
- Disposable diapers contain toxic chemicals
- Disposable diapers are more expensive
- Disposable diapers are flooding landfills
- Disposables are not more convenient
- Disposables are unsanitary
- Disposables are like wearing plastic underwear 24/7
- Disposables prolong potty training.
Cloth diapers are the best way to diaper your baby, solving the cloth diapers vs. disposables debate hands down.
So let’s stop letting our babies stew in chemicals. Let’s stop ruining the world for them. And let’s start doing better.
Let’s start with cloth.
Interested in cloth diapering? Grab the best gear:
Best Wet Bag for Cloth Diapers