What’s Inside A Disposable Diaper?

Picture Copyright KellyWels.com

I found that many moms decided to use cloth diapers because they believed it to be in the best interest of their baby’s health. After doing much research on this topic, there is no clear evidence as to what is best for baby- (even though I certainly have made my own conclusion). Although a little common sense tells us otherwise. Let’s talk about what we do know.

The Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia published Guide to Less Toxic Products, which includes an entire section on baby care products. The guide suggests that it’s very important for parents to limit their baby’s exposure to chemicals given the baby’s vulnerable and developing central nervous systems, which is less capable of eliminating toxins on its own.

I am no health expert, but I know that disposable diapers are made using a variety of chemicals and bleaches, potentially exposing babies to harmful chemicals around the clock.

Let’s talk about the “stuff” inside a disposable diaper—not the stuff that eventually ends up in the diaper, but the stuff a disposable is made of.

First there’s the plastic exterior that encases the inner absorbent layer and a liner. A study found that disposables release volatile chemicals including toluene (wow, that’s the smelly stuff found in paints and gasoline). All are harmful with long-term exposure. I would say wearing a diaper might qualify as a long-term exposure situation.

And I might add, it takes the energy found in a cup of oil to manufacture one disposable diaper. The cost of disposables may even fluctuate as gasoline prices are pegged to oil production.

Then there’s dioxin. Dioxin is one chemical prominently found in disposable diapers that has gotten the most negative press these days. Dioxin is a by-product of the paper bleaching process commonly used in making disposable diapers. The diapers are bleached to make them look clean and white.  Dioxin is considered by the Environmental Protection Agency as “likely human carcinogens [causing cancer] and are anticipated to increase the risk of cancer at background level exposures.”
How about sodium polyacrylate? This is that crystal-like gel that helps disposable diapers absorb massive amounts of urine—some say up to eight hundred times their weight in water. Sodium polyacrylate was invented by scientists at Dow Chemical Company, and it has been at the center of a controversial fire storm when it was removed from tampons in 1985 because of the chemical’s link to toxic shock syndrome (TSS). However, in outer wear such as diapers and feminine pads where sodium polyacrylate is found, there has been no link to TSS that scientists are aware of (tampons are inserted in the body and that is believed to be the harm). When moistened, sodium polyacrylate turns to gel, looks like large grains of sea salt, and often is seen on your baby’s bottom between diaper changes.

Should we parents be concerned about the diaper breaking and exposing the baby directly to the substance, which could happen when the material is wet? Further, the gel is flat against the baby’s skin, so it could cause irritation. The chemical is up against your baby’s skin, and it could be absorbed through the skin, much like the action of birth control patches, healing creams, and nicotine patches. Although highly unlikely, if baby somehow eats the chemical, it can cause stomach irritation as well. But it’s sure a good reason to keep soiled disposable diapers away from your dog!

Another health concern related to prolonged exposure to the chemicals found in disposables is the possible links to allergies. Dyes, fragrances, plastics, toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, dipentene, and sodium polyacrylate have all at one time been linked to allergies (and sometimes asthma).

In a 1999 study published in the Archives of Environmental Health, researchers found that mice exposed to the chemicals released by disposable diapers were “more likely to experience irritated airways than mice exposed to emissions from cloth diapers.” In effect, the authors suggest that disposable diapers may cause “asthma-like” reactions. I’m just wondering how cute those little mice looked in the diapers in the laboratory!

Research has also indicated that lowering a baby’s exposure to chemicals can benefit a baby’s skin. In fact, some studies say that cloth diapering may lower a baby’s incidence of diaper rash. In the interest of fairness, the American Academy of Pediatrics takes no position on whether parents should use cloth or disposables. And the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says it has received no significant reports of health problems or safety concerns stemming from disposable diaper usage.

Should we parents be surprised that there isn’t more information easily available about the “safety” and dangers of disposable diapers? In the absence of information (due to the fact that big corporations are not funding studies about the ingredients found in disposables), parents will have to judge for themselves. What do you think?

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Dioxin,” http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/CFM/nceaQFind.cfm?keyword=Dioxin 

About.com, “How Diapers Work and Why They Leak,” Anne Marie’s Chemistry Blog, February 6, 2007, http://chemistry.about.com/b/2007/02/06/how-diapers-work-why-they-leak.htm

The Green Guide for Everyday Living, “Diapers Buying Guide,” www.thegreenguide.com/buying-guide/diapers

Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, “Guide to Less Toxic Products,” www.lesstoxicguide.ca/index.asp?fetch=babycare#diape


About Kelly Wels

Kelly Wels is a leading cloth diaper expert and advocate who has a passion for helping parents make informed decisions when it comes to how they diaper their babies. Most importantly, Kelly is a mom to three children, Olivia, Hanz and Riley. Kelly spends her free time working on several cloth diapering advocacy projects, including her book “Changing Diapers: The Hip Mom’s Guide to Modern Cloth Diapering“, loves gardening, and consults with other entrepreneurs on their social media marketing efforts.
Tags: cloth diapers, cloth vs.disposables, sodium polyacrylate

6 Responses to What’s Inside A Disposable Diaper?

  1. Maddy says:

    Somehow I doubt they went to the trouble of making mouse-sized diapers. They most likely just laid the diaper(s) underneath the mice instead of their normal wood shavings or whatever. Good, concise summary of the cons associated with disposables!

  2. Maggie says:

    I wish more people knew exactly what was in a disposable diaper and how they were made. We need more education.

  3. christine says:

    thank you for the information!

  4. Tempe says:

    I use cloth to limit chemical exposure and reduce waste. It is one of many things we do to achieve those goals!

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  6. Jesika says:

    This is great info!!! Really helped me!!!

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