Everything you need to know about reusable diapers
Parents and caregivers may choose reusable diapers for many reasons, including concerns about waste, a desire to avoid exposing the infant to the chemicals in some disposable diapers, and beliefs that reusable diapers are better for infants' sensitive skin.
In this article, learn more about reusable diapers, including the health benefits, potential risks, and some other sustainable options.
What are reusable diapers?
Cloth diapers are common forms of reusable diaper.
Reusable diapers come in many forms. The simplest option is a cloth diaper with safety pins that keep the moveable parts of the diaper together.
The older cloth options tend to require complex folding and a considerable amount of time to assemble, so many people choose premade cloth diapers with inserts and snaps.
Some diaper services launder cloth diapers, then return a weekly or monthly supply of clean, recycled diapers.
Parents and caregivers may also choose to wash cloth diapers at home. Some people use a combination of reusable and disposable diapers for convenience, while others rely exclusively on reusable options.
There may be some health benefits associated with using reusable diapers, especially for infants with skin conditions such as eczema. For example:
- The infant can feel when the diaper is wet, which may support early potty training.
- Depending on the type of diaper, the infant may have less exposure to harmful chemicals, including pesticides and fragrances. For example, organic cotton diapers are pesticide-free.
- Cloth diapers may be more breathable, which can help reduce skin irritation.
- Infants with allergies may have skin reactions to certain fabrics or chemicals in disposable diapers. Switching to cloth diapers, or using disposable diapers less often, may reduce exposure to allergens and other irritants.
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Many parents and caregivers choose cloth diapers because of concerns about sustainability, waste, or the environment. However, research does not clearly support one option as the environmentally superior choice.
Some people even believe that the cost of manufacturing cotton diapers and repeatedly washing them is as bad or worse for the environment as filling landfills with diapers.
However, little scientific research has compared cloth diapers with disposable diapers, and most studies on the topic are very outdated.
In 1989, the American Public Health Association published a warning about the environmental perils of filling landfills with diapers. This came after the discovery that diapers accounted for 3 million tons of waste per year in the United States alone.
Research from 2008, meanwhile, highlighted the carbon footprint of disposable diaper production and reusable diaper cleaning.
The study revealed that disposable diapers had a climate change impact of about 550 kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide equivalents over the 2.5 years that infants typically need them. The impact of reusable diapers was slightly higher, at 570 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents.
However, the study authors note that the impact of reusable diapers depends on how a person washes them. For example, washing them in full loads and hanging them to dry, rather than using a clothes drier, could reduce the environmental impact by 16%.
In addition, reusing the diapers on more than one infant can significantly reduce waste and the overall environmental impact.
That said, parents and caregivers who choose reusable diapers may choose them for reasons other than environmental impact, including:
- liking the appearance of reusable diapers
- cost savings, depending on the type of diaper they choose and their method of laundering
- wanting to support local or small businesses that produce or clean reusable diapers
- not wanting to support large diaper companies
Cloth diapers do not work for everyone. The drawbacks of this choice include:
- People do not always save money with cloth diapers. Buying high-end diapers or using a laundering service can be a big investment and may even cost more than disposable options.
- Cloth diapers can be inconvenient. Washing cloth diapers can be an immense burden for new parents and caregivers who also need to juggle work, family obligations, other children, and self-care. Those who choose laundering services may still find reusable diapers inconvenient when out and about.
- The environmental benefits of cloth diapers are unclear. Parents and caregivers who choose reusable diapers solely for their environmental impact should research all options and take steps to ensure that they are laundering them in a sustainable way.
- Cloth diapers are not a typical choice. This may mean that other caregivers — such as grandparents, staff at daycare centers, or baby-sitters — may be reluctant to use them or struggle to put them on an infant.
- Using cloth diapers does not guarantee a lack of chemical exposure. Some cotton and other fabrics may contain dyes, bleaches, fragrances, or remnants of pesticides. Laundry detergent may also include fragrance or other chemicals.
Other sustainable options
Reusable diapers are not the only environmentally friendly option. People who do not want to use reusable diapers can choose from a number of other options. For example, they can:
- Choose recyclable or biodegradable diapers. Many companies now make diapers with a lower environmental impact, such as by using biodegradable materials.
- Use several different diaper varieties. Parents and caregivers who find reusable diapers inconvenient to use in public might choose to only use them at home.
- Reduce the need for diapers. Potty training early or using elimination communication (EC) can help an infant use fewer diapers. EC is a technique that parents and caregivers can use to detect the signs that an infant needs to use the bathroom. Some parents and caregivers fully or partially potty train very early on with this technique.
Reusable diapers are a good option for those who want to protect an infant's sensitive skin while being mindful of the environment.
They are not the only option for those who care about the environment or worry about the chemicals in diapers, however. Other solutions, including recyclable and biodegradable diapers, may be just as beneficial and more practical.
People who worry about how a specific type of diaper might affect an infant's skin or health should talk to a doctor. Sometimes, switching diaper creams or detergents offers more benefits than choosing a specific type of diaper.
For people who wish to try reusable diapers, they are available to purchase in some local stores, pharmacies, and online.