Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable Diapers: What's Best?

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cloth vs disposable diapers
Joseph Borus, MD

Disposable diapers make up more than 1.5 percent of all the trash in this country. About 3.4 million tons of them end up in our landfills each year. So are cloth diapers a better choice? That’s up to you! There are environmental costs to using both kinds of diapers. Plus, there are differences in how well the diapers work. Here’s what you need to know to make an informed choice -- for your baby and for the world your baby will grow up in.

Disposable Diapers

Today’s disposable diapers are marvels of engineering.

“They’re thinner and fit better than older versions,” says Joseph Borus, MD, a general pediatrician with Green Road Pediatrics, part of UH Rainbow's pediatric network. “Plus, they keep your baby drier, thanks to superabsorbent materials. Studies show that disposables may reduce diaper rash, compared with cloth diapers.”

In the past, some ingredients used to make disposable diapers raised health concerns. At this point, however, such ingredients have largely been replaced with safer materials.

“Latex, which can trigger allergies, for example, has been replaced with spandex,” Dr. Borus says.

On the downside, those mountains of discarded diapers grow taller every day. Some companies have created more biodegradable diapers. But if the diapers end up in landfills (as most do), they may still take a long time to break down under the conditions there.

Cloth Diapers Not Environmentally Neutral

The alternative is cloth diapers. Because they’re reusable, they’re cheaper over the long haul. Another plus: If you’re worried about the chemicals used in disposables, cloth diapers offer a more natural option.

But keep in mind that they’re not environmentally neutral. Whether you wash them yourself or use a diaper service, it takes a lot of water and energy resources to keep a clean supply on hand.

“Compared with disposables, cloth diapers are more prone to leaks,” Dr. Borus says. “To help prevent blowouts, consider using a diaper cover, made to go over the cloth diaper for extra protection.”

If buying organic is important to you, organic cotton diapers are available. To make cleanups easier, you can buy flushable liners to put inside the diapers. That way, when it’s time to change a dirty diaper, you can flush away the mess, liner and all.

The truth is, there’s no perfect solution to the diaper dilemma. But armed with information, you can sniff out the best diaper for you and your baby. 

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