My original introduction to this section read something like, “Sure, we all know we should use cloth diapers, but how realistic is that, especially here in New York City where many of us don’t even have washing machines? Thank God for these super biodegradable, non-toxic disposable diapers from Seventh Generation!”
This was back in 2010, and I was using cloth diapers about 25% of the time (and my husband was using them never). After doing the research for this section, I came away realizing that there really isn’t a truly “green” way to use disposables. So I started putting Felix in non-toxic disposable diapers at bedtime or for long car rides, and stopped using the Seventh Generation disposables completely (see below, under The Sneaky Stuff).
But I had many relapses before potty training was done, and when my second son, Wolf, was born in June of 2013, I didn’t even attempt cloth diapers. My excuse: a busy business and two children. Valid? Not really, but at least I’m using a non-toxic disposable diaper that I feel good about (Bambo Nature).
So I’ll go ahead and tell you why you should all be using cloth diapers, even though I only sort of did that for my own kids.
In 2019, nearly a decade after I first published this guide, I hired Dr. Michael Hopkins, PhD, to revisit the guide and update it with some new brands you’ve been asking about. Those will be outlined below in the coming days, and this guide will be fully updated by the end of August, 2019.
My Top Pick for Best Non-Toxic Disposable Diapers
Once I discovered Bambo diapers, I never used anything else. We’ve literally never had a single leak with these guys, which is pretty remarkable in the non-toxic disposable diaper realm.
What About No Diapers at All?
Forgoing diapers all together, or practicing “elimination communication,” is clearly the greenest option of all. Unfortunately, elimination communication falls into the same category as baby massage and sign language–something I hope to try with my next child!
Here is a story that one reader, Gillian, shared with me:
I learned about EC from a very hippie friend and initially I laughed at her. Then when my son was about 3 weeks old he started giving very obvious cues about when he was going to poo. I would wait for him to finish in his (disposable) diaper, then clean him up. I realized that I could have just as easily put him on the potty. I tried that a few times, but before he could hold his head up it just wasn’t working for us. As soon as he could hold his head up, though, I started putting him on the potty during most diaper changes. I figured, hey – the diaper is off anyway! I was catching some pees and some poos but there wasn’t much rhyme or reason to it. When he started eating solids he got into a good pattern of pooping every evening, so I just put him on the potty. On average I now only have to clean one dirty diaper per week, and my longest stretch without a poopy diaper has been 21 days. (I’m very confident that it would have been a lot longer but we flew back to the west coast from England so the time change and jet lag threw him off his schedule.) I am able to catch some pees, but I’m still not great at it. My son is now 8 months old. I love not cleaning dirty diapers!
Reasons to Switch to Cloth Diapers
- Conventional plastic diapers contain small amounts of dioxin—a byproduct of the bleaching process. While it’s unclear how much dioxin might actually come in contact with your baby, the manufacturing process releases lots of dioxin into the environment, so you should always opt for chlorine-free brands if you use disposables.
- Even if you use the best non-toxic disposable diapers, you’re probably familiar with the little gel clumps that sometimes stick to your baby’s skin when you wait too long to change her. Known as SAP (Super Absorbent Polymer), this gel is allegedly non-toxic, but some people worry about it because it was linked to toxic shock syndrome when it was in tampons.
- A Greenpeace study found the hormone-disrupting TBT (tributyl tin) in many diaper brands, and exposure to disposable diapers has been linked to various other health problems, including asthma.
- While most diapers don’t disclose their ingredients on the package, studies have found them to contain a variety of respiratory irritants, hormone disruptors, carcinogens, and neurotoxins.
- I know we’re are all bored with the landfill stats, but the fact remains that a disposable diaper can take as long as 500 years to decompose.
- In response to the popular misconception that cloth diapers are just as bad for the environment as disposables (a myth propagated by a study funded by Proctor & Gamble), an independent report found that disposable diapers produce more than 50 times the waste of cloth diapers and use twice as much water and triple the energy.
What About Cloth Diapers with Flushable Liners?
What Makes a Diaper Good Stuff?
In order for a disposable diaper to be “Good Stuff,” it needs to be free of artificial fragrance, dyes, and lotions, all of which have the potential to contain irritants/allergens/toxins and simply aren’t necessary in any diaper. A “Good Stuff” diaper also needs to explicitly state that it is free of phthalates, since this cannot be assumed, unfortunately. These criteria are the bare essentials if your only concern is the safety and well-being of the diaper user.
Given the significant environmental impact of disposable diapers, a “Best Stuff” diaper also needs to be either Elementally Chlorine Free (ECF) or Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) and should not be made of petroleum-derived plastics. The fact is, in 2019 there are enough bamboo and other plant-based options on the market, that any brand of diaper that uses petroleum in its production can not be called Best STuff, even if it poses no real risk to the baby wearing the diaper.
The Good Stuff: Non-Toxic
These non-toxic disposable diapers, which are manufactured in Denmark, feature an absorbent core with less SAP (wheat starch is used for much of the filling). They are made of around 75% biodegradable materials, which is far better than most disposables. Bambo Nature Diapers can now be purchased in our online store, where you’ll save if you sign up for recurring shipments.
These diapers are compostable, which of course only works if you actually put them in a compost pile, something I can’t do in New York City. The absorbent center of these diapers is made of woodpulp and a “plant-based gel,” which is just another term for SAP. Still, they use less SAP than conventional diapers, and the compostability is a definite plus. The fit of these diapers isn’t as good as other brands, and in particular, the small sizes are much larger than they claim.
UPDATE: A reader named Ali pointed out that, while difficult, it is not IMPOSSIBLE to compost if you live in New York City. Here is some information for those of you interested in learning about indoor composting (and outdoor composting, for which you’ll need access to a community garden or other outdoor space).
How the Good Stuff Stacks Up, Cost-Wise
So I’m comparing apples to apples, I looked at what you’d pay per diaper if you buy size 4’s in the largest case available online (via subscription in the case of Bambo).
Bambo Nature: 49¢ per diaper
Broody Chick: 71¢ per diaper
Some Okay Stuff
A number of you have asked why I didn’t mention Nature Babycare diapers on or Honest diapers this page. Both of these brands aren’t exactly Sneaky Stuff, but don’t qualify as Good Stuff, either. I’d say they are slightly better than Seventh Generation, but not as good Bambo Nature or Broody Chick.
The Bad Stuff
Any bleached diapers should obviously be avoided, and Pampers, Huggies, etc., all fall into that category. Any brands that aren’t labeled as natural or eco-friendly probably have chlorine in them. (And many that ARE advertised as such aren’t really much better than Pampers and the like, as you’ll under The Sneaky Stuff.) There have also been reports of chemical burns from Pampers Dry Max diapers.
The Sneaky Stuff
Seventh Generations were our go-to diapers right up until I wrote this section of my website. The filling of these diapers is SAP (although they contain less than conventional brands)—which is still a question mark in terms of safety. The “natural” brownish color of these diapers is actually a result of dye, about which Seventh Generation says: “The blend is proprietary to the supplier of the pigment. To the best of our knowledge, there are no known toxicity issues associated with the use of these pigments.” Their website also states: “Seventh Generation diapers are not biodegradable, nor can they be composted. Many of the materials used are synthetic, and do not biodegrade.”
Earth’s Best bugs me in general (for some reason, I find the whole Sesame Street affiliation a turn off), but I like that you can find these diapers almost anywhere, and they are often the best option in a pinch. However, like the Seventh Generations, they are chlorine-free but otherwise not at all natural or eco-friendly.
Non-Toxic Incontinence Diapers
Abri-Form Junior is Abena’s line of non-toxic disposable incontinence diapers, designed specifically to fit those between 5 and 15 years old that suffer from uncontrolled urination.