Sunday, May 16, 2010

Disposable diapers: fact vs. myth

This post is part of the Real Diaper Facts carnival hosted by Real Diaper Events, the official blog of the Real Diaper Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to cloth diaper education. Participants were asked to write about diaper lies and real diaper facts. See the list at the bottom of this post to read the rest of the carnival entries.

It would seem the giant corporations behind Pampers and Huggies brand single-use diapers are starting to take notice of the cloth diaper movement, and it's potential impact on their bottom line. In an effort to assuage parents' guilt over choosing to use disposable diapers over their superior reusable counterparts, Pampers have published a list of supposed 'myths & facts' about diapers. Check out their dumb-ass list (I can say that, right?).

Myth #1: Cloth diapers are better for my baby.

Fact: Disposable diapers like Pampers were developed to offer babies benefits that cloth diapers could not meet. That goes beyond convenience to helping keep babies' skin dryer and more comfortable by reducing leaks and locking wetness inside the diaper in a way that cloth doesn't. As a result, doctors and parents simply don't see the same level of diaper rash that used to exist before disposable diapers.

Pampers diapers were developed in 1961. I think it's fair to say that cloth diapers have evolved since then, wouldn't you? If you want a diaper that keeps your baby dry, buy a pocket diaper, or line your cloth diaper with a piece of fleece. If you want a more absorbent diaper, buy a hemp or a bamboo diaper, or add a doubler to your cloth diaper. It's not exactly rocket science. If 'stays dry' and 'absorbs lots' are all they've got to hang their hat on, it's no wonder disposable diaper companies are looking over their shoulder.

If you want to ensure your baby's skin stays rash-free, change your baby on a regular basis. Regardless of whether you're using cloth diapers or disposable diapers, babies should be changed every 2-3 hours. The 'super absorption' nature of disposable diapers is actually counter-productive to this advice, super-absorbent diapers encourage parents to leave their babies sitting in a soiled diaper for longer than they should.

Myth #2: Cloth diapers are better for the environment than disposables.

Fact: In October 2008, the United Kingdom's Environment Agency published an update to its 2005 Life Cycle Assessment study on cloth versus disposable diapers. The update confirmed the earlier study's findings that there is no clear winner in terms of environmental impacts between disposable and cloth diapers in the U.K., once all factors such as water, energy, detergent, and disposal are considered.

Leave it to the disposable diaper manufacturers to find evidence to back up their claims, even if they have to rely on flawed and/or outdated studies. Yes, this particular study fits nicely with their "oh hey, we're not so bad" assurances, however, a closer look at the facts illustrates a host of flaws with this particular study's findings. If using water, energy and detergent to wash cloth diapers are a valid reason to use disposable diapers instead, we should all be wearing paper clothing following that logic. When washing cloth diapers, there are lots of ways to reduce the environmental impact of the resulting laundry:

  • buy enough cloth diapers so that you wash a full load every time (if you buy 24-30 diapers, you'll be washing every 2-3 days for a newborn, or every 3-4 days for an older baby).
  • wash your diapers in a high-efficiency machine
  • wash your diapers in cold water
  • wash your diapers in a natural laundry degergent
  • line-dry your diapers

When you use cloth diapers, *you* control the variables!

Myth #3: Developing countries prove that cloth diapers are better than disposable diapers.

Fact: Our product provides key benefits in terms of skin health, dryness, and even sleep. In China, for example, we've learned that babies and parents are frequently awakened during the night each time the baby soaks the bed, because the baby has no diaper or a very thin piece of cloth. As a result, studies have shown that a disposable diaper can help a baby there get a better night's sleep. In another test, we have also seen less fecal contamination spread around the home using disposables versus cloth or nothing. Clearly, we have a lot to learn about how to help with basic hygiene needs in countries that have very different access to clean water to wash with, and how to best dispose of products after use. We've also learned about hygiene for older children through our Always feminine care business – where in many parts of the world girls are forced to miss school one week each month during their period because they don't have enough pads or fresh water.

We are working in those regions to better understand what they do with products after use, and how to work with local agencies and other businesses to ensure the best long-term system to manage it.

Are they for real? If they're so confident that using disposable diapers results in better sleeping habits, they should back it up with a money-back guarantee, do they? I didn't think so. Cloth diapers are more effective than disposable diapers at night because you can adapt them to suit your baby's needs.

Regarding the use of China as an example to make assumptions about night-time diapering, Pampers should consider how cultural differences in potty training may account for how babies are diapered (and therefore sleep) at night. Traditionally, Chinese parents have not relied on diapers as a means to deal with their babies' elimination needs, instead pottying their babies from birth. The practice of elimination communication is a wonderful way to faciliate early potty learning, and it's steadily gaining acceptance throughout North America. Parents in China may choose to use not to use diapers at night because they don't need to. Babies who are pottied through the night may wake more frequently as a response to their own need to void. Yes, early infant pottying (like any potty training) results in accidents, but you clean them up, and you move on.

Suggesting that using cloth diapers is somehow less hygienic than using disposable diapers is simply false. Wash your hands when you're finished changing a diaper, store your dirty diapers in a leak-proof bag or pail, and wipe down your baby's changing surface on a regular basis to guarantee good hygiene (yes, it really is that easy).

Myth #4: Disposable diapers are harmful to the environment.

Fact: All of the component materials in Pampers diapers are gentle to consumers and safe for the environment. Pampers diapers are made of materials that are also frequently used in a wide range of other consumer products. We are committed to continuing to reduce our environmental impact. For example, Pampers has decreased its diaper weight by one-third and packaging weight by two-thirds. And innovative technologies, raw materials, and product design improvements have led to significant reductions in energy, water use, emissions, and waste at our plants. We are working so that our diapers in the future will have less impact on the environment than even today's diapers.

In terms of the safety of the chemicals used in disposable diapers, that's a matter of debate. Disposable diapers contain a number of questionable substances, they haven't been used long enough to fully understand the potential risk of putting those chemical substances into contact with baby's genitalia (you know, that part of the body responsible for procreation -- a pretty important part of the body, if you ask me!).

What resources are used to keep a baby in disposable diapers for one year?

  • 300+ pounds of wood

  • 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks

  • 20 pounds of chlorine

The fact that other products also waste our natural resources hardly justifies the environmental impact of disposable diapers. Considering the recent catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, we should all be more cognizent of how we contribute to the overall health of the planet. Every single thing we do affects the environment.

Resource consumption aside, using disposable diapers places a significant burden on our landfills, approximately 4 million disposable diapers are tossed every day in Canada alone, these diapers take anywhere from 250 to 500 years to decompose. I have cloth diapered four children using mostly the same set of diapers. When we're finished using our cloth diapers, what is in decent shape will be given away to someone else who can use them, the rest of our stash will fit easily into one (one!) garbage bag. Imagine how many garbage bags would be used to contain the 32,000+ disposable diapers we would have used had we gone that route!

Myth #5: The materials that make up Pampers diapers are depleting our forests.

Fact: The pulp used in our diapers comes from well-managed forests in North America. In some cases, we source our pulp from scrap wood chips from lumber and saw mills. Our pulp suppliers are required to be certified by an independent third party as practicing sustainable forestry. Certification includes standards and criteria for replanting trees, protecting biodiversity, water, air and soil, and for obtaining broad stakeholder input into the forest management plan.

OK, maybe, but Pampers contain a lot more than pulp, don't they? If Pampers is going to pay lip service to the trees cut down to make disposable diapers (approximately 4.5 trees per baby), they should also talk about the rest of the resources used in the production of disposable diapers. It's awfully convenient how they can pick and choose the information they want consumers to have, however, it's the only way they can make a case for their product.

Pampers wants people to believe their diapers have minimal impact on the environment, but anyone with an ounce of common sense can see through these outrageous claims. Pampers provides zero accountability in terms of facts to back up these statements, I questioned a representative from Kimberly-Clark about statements provided to a local newspaper for a recent article about cloth diapers, and I was told the 'competitive nature' of the diaper industry prevents them from disclosing details about company-sponsored studies (how incredibly convenient for them!). We all want the same things for our babies, we want them to be safe and healthy. Using cloth diapers will keep your little one clean and comfortable, they are just as good (if not better) than using disposable diapers.


  1. Great arguments Susie. You are an amazing spokesperson for Cloth!!!!

  2. WOW... thanks for debunking those debunked myths. This makes me SO upset.... Especially considering the latest in the news about new `drymax` and the fact that Pampers blamed cloth diaper advocates for making a mountain out of nothing.... The frustrating thing is that I am sure lots of people believe them and don`t give cloth diapers much consideration...

    I will be contacting those companies to mention that they haven`t helped one bit in getting my 15 month old to sleep better at night.... You wouldn`t believe the amount of people who have claimed switching to sposies at night would solve the problem. Well I have tried, and no such luck!!!

  3. Susie - This was very succinct: "Suggesting that using cloth diapers is somehow less hygienic than using disposable diapers is simply false. Wash your hands when you're finished changing a diaper, store your dirty diapers in leak-proof bag or pail, and wipe down your baby's changing surface on a regular basis to guarantee good hygiene (yes, it really is that easy)." Great explanation and great response altogether!

    Check out for some thorough information explaining the faulty studies quoted by Pampers.

  4. Thanks for this Susie! I'm still waiting to start using cloth for my first baby (due any day now) and I can't wait to see my first clothesline full of prefolds--I'll post a pic!
    It's truly horrifying the lengths these big companies will go to dissuade people from doing the right thing.

  5. I thought this article made a nice addition to parents looking for the facts on diapers.

    It talks about the actual facts regarding the health risks of diapers.

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  7. There are so many myths about baby products. The bigger myths are about disposable diapers that they are eco-friendly. They are not so as they are made from Dioxin which is very harmful both for the child as well as for the nature. We should boycott it.

    Patria Jase

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