The Health Impact of Disposable Diapers

by Charise Rohm Nulsen

After we got through the newborn stage of seemingly constant diaper changes, I began to research cloth diapering as an option for Baby. Now that we do cloth diaper, I wish we had started when Baby was born. Not only do I now realize how unbelievably easy it is, but I am also thankful we made the switch due to the potential health impacts of disposable diapers on babies. I have to admit that I was very unaware of the health risks of disposable diapers for the first few months of Baby’s life; I really only started considering cloth diapering because of wanting to make a better choice for the environment. Here is some of the information I found that made the decision to switch from disposable to cloth very easy:

1. Dioxin: Diapers are bleached white with chlorine, and dioxin is a byproduct of chlorine bleaching. Dioxin is also carcinogenic. Several years ago, the FDA cracked down on dioxin use in tampons, but it is not yet regulated in disposable diapers. Just like tampons, diapers come into contact with the genital region, which lead to claims of dioxin leading to reproductive area cancers. Disposable diapers also thereby create dioxin pollution, which ends up in our food and ultimately ends up in our bodies.

2. VOCs or volatile organic compounds: These toxins are released by disposable diapers, and these chemicals have been proven to have toxic health effects with long term exposure or high level exposure.

3. Fragrance: Disposable diapers often include fragrance to cover up the smell of urine and fecal matter. Fragrance – as an ingredient in anything you use – contains phthalates, which are chemicals proven to be endocrine system disrupters.

4. Tributyl-tin (TBT): Disposable diapers contain this toxic pollutant known to cause hormonal problems in humans and animals.

5. SAP or sodium polyacrylate: Disposable diapers contain this super absorbent polymer, which becomes a gel-like substance when wet. You may have noticed small gel-like balls in your child’s diaper area after wearing a diaper all night long. This is SAP. A similar substance had been used in super-absorbency tampons until the early 1980s when it was revealed that the material increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome by increasing absorbency and improving the environment for the growth of toxin-producing bacteria.

6. Neurotoxins and undisclosed ingredients: Per a CBC news article:

There is an often-cited study by Andersen Laboratories in 1999, published in the Archives of Environmental Health. In the study conducted on mice, scientists found that “diaper emissions were found to include several chemicals with documented respiratory toxicity,” according to lead author Rosalind Anderson, a physiologist. She found that the mice suffered asthma-like symptoms when exposed to a variety of diaper brands.

It was noted that xylene and ethyl benzene were emitted by the diapers, chemicals that are suspected endocrine, neurological and respiratory toxins; along with styrene, a chemical linked to cancer and isopropylene, a neurotoxin.
The article goes on to explain that diaper manufactures are not obligated to disclose their ingredients, even though they share many of the same ingredients that cosmetics and personal care companies are required to disclose.

I’m sure the thought of these toxins wrapped around such a sensitive region of your perfect baby bundle is disconcerting to you. As much as I care about the environment, the presence of these toxins in constant contact with my little one was the number one reason I switched to cloth diapering. As parents we work so hard to keep our children healthy. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on others to protect our children. As aware and educated parents, we need to be the front lines for the defense of our babies’ health.

Baby wears cloth diaper and baby legs.

One more good reason to cloth diaper: You just can't beat how cute your little one looks in them!

For more information about the health impact of disposable diapers, please visit Healthy Child, Healthy World.

If you made the switch from disposable diapers to cloth, what was your number one reason for doing so? If you haven’t tried cloth, what holds you back?

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bek August 30, 2011 at 3:37 pm

We started with cloth because we were cheap but also fortunate enough to realize some of the other negative aspects of disposables as mentioned above. I would like to point out that there are some disposable diaper brands out there that are vegetable based and free of all or most of the issues you referred to in your post. For longer trips when we don’t have enough cloth to last or don’t have access to washers, we have used disposables but I made sure to do lots of research on which kind. I really like Nature Baby brand diapers which are corn based and work really well (never had a leak!). The company is out of Sweden and their diapers have won lots of awards. They can be hard to find in stores so I usually have to order online through Amazon or Costco. There is also another brand that is 100% biodegradable and chlorine/fragrence/phalate free, etc (but I haven’t tried them and not sure how they work. The majority of disposable diapers out there are gross though and I appreciate you explaining it so clearly. I will share this will all the mama friends I have been trying to convince to make the switch! Thank you :)

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2 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama August 31, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Thank you for making the very important point that there are disposable diapers out there that do not contain these chemicals! They are probably not what most disposable diaper families are using, and in my experience, they’ve been really expensive, but that is awesome that you take the trouble to get them! Go green mama! I’ll have to check out the Nature Baby brand. Thanks for sharing!

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3 Amy McCarty August 30, 2011 at 3:49 pm

This is GREAT! I am SO thankful to see that more and more of us mommies are realizing just how harmful many of the products are out there. I use http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ on a regular basis to research anything before it is used in our home. When I frist started looking and realizing just how toxins things were I was scared.. like Johnson and johnson baby wash… thought it was ok and I found out how very toxic it is! It has strong chemicals in it to make it “tear free” :S WOW! Slowly just surely we started changing everything we used. I had a cleanign day where I got rid of and donated all my products and yes diapers included. I also tossed all tampons and pads and switched to cloth pads, the divacup and sea sponges. :) OH and cloth wipes.! Disposible wipes can be just as or MORE toxic than the diapers. We are glad we switched and I would never think of going back : ) GO EDUCATED MOMMAS! :D

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4 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama August 31, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Thanks for sharing! Yay for green mamas!

Love that web site too :-)

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5 Christine August 31, 2011 at 5:24 am

I, too, decided on cloth diapers because of the environmental impact. This has been a wake-up call : we still occasionally use disposables on outings etc. But definitely no more! I mean i always knew they were full of chemicals but to read about the possible side effects is bone chilling.
One question that you may be able to help with: We live in a hot climate, and I have been using fuzzybuns and noticed that on partcularly warm days baby is prone to a heat rash… Summer is arriving, can you recommend any ‘cooler’ cloth diapers?
TIA :)
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6 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama August 31, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Thanks for your comment, Christine!

I’m going to post your question to my FB wall and ask the Natural Parents Network team for their suggestions re: your question about cooler cloth diapers. Stay tuned!

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7 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama September 1, 2011 at 11:26 am

Hi Christine,

Here are the responses to your question about cooler cloth diapers that I got from my readers and from the NPN team (if you didn’t already see it on there ;-):
- As crazy as it sounds, fitted diapers or prefolds with wool covers will breathe much better.
- We use Fuzzibuns and I just make it a point to have some air out time once a day, particularly after baths, works well for us. Good luck!
- Prefolds with fleece covers. That was my go to summer diaper with my twins.
- Make sure your diapers are getting rinsed properly. A build up of soap can cause rashes too. Try an extra wash with no soap and check for suds. If there are any suds then your diapers aren’t getting rinsed properly. Not a direct answer, but can cause rashes!
- Prefolds or fitteds and wool. PUL doesn’t breathe at all.
- I would just do prefolds or fitteds without a cover for day and wool cover for night. Either the soakers or the wrap style.
- ^ what she said. Or naked time.
- Yep, cotton.

I hope this helps!

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8 Christine September 1, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Thanks so much Charise! Im definitely going to persevere and hope for the best :)
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9 Ella@NotesFromHome August 31, 2011 at 7:15 am

I consider myself quite green but I had no idea at the number of products in disposable diapers. We’re passed the diaper stage now but I have bookmarked your post in case I need it again, thank you so much for posting it!
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10 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama August 31, 2011 at 8:51 pm

You’re welcome! Yes, it’s scary to find out this kind of information, and even more frightening to think about why it’s not common knowledge.

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11 Bibi August 31, 2011 at 12:20 pm

I had no idea how much potentially harmful stuff is in disposable diapers. If I knew this when my kids were in them I would use my cloth diapers a lot more….
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12 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama August 31, 2011 at 8:45 pm

I had no idea either for the first few months of Baby’s life. It’s scary how information like this is kept quiet!

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13 Alison Golden - The Secret Life of a Warrior Woman August 31, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Dioxin is nasty, nasty, nasty. As a parent of twins, cloth diapering wasn’t even considered. I don’t regret it because we all have to make a balance from our choices but admire anyone who goes this route and want to say thank you!
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14 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama September 1, 2011 at 7:13 am

Thanks! Yes, we all have to make choices to have some sense of balance, and I’m sure those choices are even more important for maintaining your sanity with twins :-) Moms of twins amaze me – automatic warrior moms ;-)

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15 Ann @ CreativeBoomer September 1, 2011 at 7:25 pm

I didn’t realize there was so much in a disposable diaper.
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16 Kristl Story September 2, 2011 at 10:55 am

It’s sad that this information hasn’t been widely publicized!
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17 Heather September 3, 2011 at 3:27 pm

I was told about one cloth diaper system that has the outer part, a fleece-type material, made of recycled plastic bottles. Have you heard of that? It doesn’t sound healthy to me. I am hoping to use cloth diapers. Are there ones to avoid that you know of? Which systems do people really like?

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18 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama September 7, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Heather, I’ve actually never heard of the diapers made of recycled plastic bottles! I just found this info about it: http://clothdiapernews.com/?p=421
I would love to hear about people’s personal experiences with them.

We mostly use BumGenius 3.0 All in Ones. They are about as easy as could be! It’s just like putting on and taking off a disposable diaper. We got them for $9.99 each when they were on clearance at http://www.cottonbabies.com. I definitely recommend them if you are looking for the easiest experience possible :-)

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19 Bob Lipply@clearwater homes September 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm

As parents our babies health is always the first priority so if cloth is safer certainly this awareness should become more widespread. Cloth are also more gentle on the skin and makes the skin breath more freely. Keeping the green concept in mind we should try to help ourselves by protecting our environment.

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