What’s All The Fuss About Reusable Nappies?

I’m seeing cloth nappies more and more now. To be honest, a few years ago the idea had never crossed my mind. I mean, gross - baby poo smells, wee smells, heck = babies smell too. Now, of course, I have a baby and my opinion has changed. But that’s not the only reason.

I was at the cinema watching Hunger Games or Catching Fire or something, and in the pre-movie ads, there was an advert for a free sample pack of reusable nappies. That was when I learned they were a thing.

I didn’t think too much of it, but then a year or two later when we were expecting our first Big Baboo we started thinking about it. With Mum’s maternity pack we had a few free nappies, and I thought “Hey, these are actually pretty cool.”

I guess I thought wrapping a peeing baby in an absorbent cloth would be disgusting, but these just seemed like… like disposable nappies that you wash!

So anyway, I started looking into it more, and I realised that they are pretty widely used now. There are websites, and nappy services (they clean your nappies for you!) and like a million different brands of nappy. I learned that they are potentially more environmentally friendly, easy to use, and somewhat controversial.

Controversial how?

Well, some people say they are actually WORSE for the environment than their disposable, plastic counterparts. How? Well, I’ll look at that later.

Some people, I found, also say that disposable nappies can be harmful to your child. I am going to look at that too.

I’m writing this article to put across all that I have learned in the past eighteen months or so. I had a lot of trouble choosing which nappies to buy and struggled to know what was best. We even thought about giving up entirely a couple of times, but really I’m glad that we stuck with it.

What is the status quo?

Most people I know use disposables. I said earlier that more and more people are using the cloth nappies- and they are, but it’s still a minority of parents who do so. That means that 8 million nappies are thrown away every day. That’s (3 BILLION) a year! Wow. That’s just in the UK!

3 BILLION! That’s 3,000,000,000 - a whole nine zeroes.

Disposable nappies obviously cause a LOT of waste.

But what is the alternative? I mean, baby can’t just… excrete at will. What would happen without a nappy? Well, if you think about it - disposable nappies were only invented in about the 1950s. Prior to that, people used terry cloths and waterproofed cloth wraps, but nappies aren’t the only solution.

How about putting your baby in a bag of sand?

Leaving baby swaddled for days, changing only infrequently?

Parents on the Chukchi peninsula in far northeastern Siberia used bags made of fur and filled with moss.

It probably worked, and no doubt it was the best solution available with the materials on hand - but is it the best solution for me?

Nah, probably not.

For more information, take a peek at this article.

However, now that we’re on to disposable nappies, the use of them is ever increasing. As more and more people in the developing world start to use modern “luxuries” the increased demand for plastics and the resultant waste is putting a lot of pressure on our environment.

Nappies & Health

Do disposable nappies cause health problems? Do cloth nappies cause health issues?

Disposable nappies take a lot of flak these days - people love their green credentials but some people love their sense of moral superiority even more! The fact is no matter what you do, if it involves your baby, you will get some stick from some groups of people.

Think baby carriers - the whole “baby dangler” controversy.

Think baby led weaning vs spoon feeding.

Cry it out vs a “gentler” method.

Sleep training or no sleep training.

Wow, you can’t do right for doing wrong!

So, what are some of the health issues being linked to disposable nappies? And, more importantly, is there any substance to these claims?

Carcinogens and Chemical Burns

Disposable nappies are basically plastic products. Obviously, they’re totally artificial, and this gets a lot of people’s backs up. To some extent, I agree - after all, as I mentioned above, they are an enormous source of waste. But are they really harmful to the baby? After all, they’re super convenient - it would be a shame if we had to write them off.

By Jynto [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the claims made against disposable nappies is that they contain dioxin - this is true, it’s a byproduct of the bleaching process that these nappies go through.

Why is this a problem?

Well, dioxin is linked to cancer in humans as well as endocrine (hormonal) problems. That sounds scary, but you have to look at the facts. Dioxin exposure is endemic, you are exposed all the time every day. This includes through nappies, yes, and tampons for women, but also through cotton (like cloth nappies!) and even food.

This paper seems to suggest that diet is a much more potent source of exposure to dioxins - from the abstract “The refined exposure analysis showed that exposure to dioxins from the diet is more than 30,000-2,200,000 times the exposure through diapers in nursing infants”. Well, maybe that just says “it’s worse than it first seems!” to you but to me, it says “there are much bigger things to worry about”.

This study also seems to reinforce the idea that dioxin exposure mainly comes from food rather than environment, so it really does seem to be a case of the last 1% if you're worrying about nappies.

Another widespread claim is that disposable nappies can cause severe nappy rash, likened to chemical burns. Certainly some parents have experienced severe nappy rash on their children - and certainly, some of these parents use the products that are implicated, i.e. the super absorbent nappies.

Since some of the contents of these nappies is a trade secret, we can’t say with certainty what is happening in these cases. We know that most, if not all, disposable nappies consist of a liner, an absorbent core and a waterproof skin.

The secret is in fragrances and dyes etc - if you’re really concerned but still want to use disposable nappies, I guess a smart move would be to avoid the jazzed up ones. No fragrances, just a nappy. Heck, the fragrance is usually vom-inducing anyway.

The absorbent core usually contains a “fluff” like substance made of wood pulp or corn pulp or something, mixed with a “super absorbent polymer” or SAP. SAPs are plastics, such as sodium polyacrylate (SPA). SPA is really good at absorbing moisture  - I mean, why else would they put it in there - but it can also be an irritant if you get it in your eyes or nose or lungs. Makes sense, it’s going to dry you out.

Other than that, there’s not much evidence that it is actually harmful.

Skeptoid provides a possible hypothesis for what happened to these parents. Snopes comes at the problem from another angle, but is similarly convincing.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/5227179843

Toxic shock syndrome - again this is related to the use of SAPs in nappies. Sodium polyacrylate was once used in tampons but was discontinued after it was linked to toxic shock syndrome (TSS).

There is obviously a pretty big difference between nappies and tampons, but the problem remains the same. SPA provides a massive surface area for bacteria to grow - especially when kept moist and at body temperature. If a tampon is left unchanged for too long it can cause TSS where the overgrowth of staphylococcus aureus bacteria releases toxins which cross over into the body.

This isn’t really a SPA, or rather it is a problem with how efficiently SPA does its job. It is so absorbent that you don’t need to change regularly, which allows bacteria to grow and multiply.

TSS is probably less of a problem for a nappy regardless since the toxins produced by staph don’t pass into the body so easily. That’s what skin’s for, keeping stuff out, you know?

Super Absorbent Polymer By User:Ritchey (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This, I admit, is just a small slice of the opinions and research that is out there. I personally don’t think that the chemicals in nappies are a big concern, but if you’re not convinced you can either 1) do your own research or 2) choose cloth nappies. I chose cloth nappies for other reasons, but I’m still glad I did - however, it really is your choice.

What is a disposable nappy?

Your average disposable nappy consists of an inner liner of nonwoven fabric - this means it is made of artificial fibres, rather than cotton for instance - then an absorbent pad and finally an outer layer of waterproof material. Plastic again.

The absorbent core is made of a fibrous fluffy material, often wood pulp or other vegetable based pulp, and highly absorbent polymer (or super absorbent polymer, SAP). This polymer is like a sponge, able to absorb up to fifteen times its own weight in water. So that’s why you can leave a disposable nappy on for so long  - until the nappy almost outweighs the baby!

By Coop41 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An ordinary disposable nappy, you would be right to surmise, will not biodegrade very effectively. The inner and outer layers are made of plastic fibres, and the core is made of wood pulp and SAP. SAP does not decompose very readily, but wood pulp is alright.

What about a biodegradable nappy? Well, if you’re sending your disposable nappies to landfill - as most people do - then biodegradable or not, it makes little difference. They won’t decompose effectively among the rest of the waste at landfill sites.

You could compost them at home, but… well, think about the size of that compost heap! Even a conservative four nappies a day works out to 28 a week,  112 a month or over 5800 a year. That’s a massive pile of decomposing nappies.

And compost requires a mix of substrate, so you’ll have to add vegetable matter and fibrous material too! Hmm, not a great solution. Not to mention that composting human waste is not recommended anyway.

Besides, eco-friendly nappies still contain SAP, which doesn’t decompose very readily. There are some types of biodegradable nappy which can be fully composted (if you have the facility to do so) while others require you to separate the absorbent material from the compostable liner.

Basically, the clue is in the name - disposable, throw away, in the bin. Not too green, but super convenient nonetheless.

What is a reusable cloth nappy?

By Audrey from Seattle, USA (Cloth Diaper purchases) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So a cloth nappy, a reusable nappy. What is this thing? Well, there are a few different types. They are all basically the same thing at the end of the day - that is to say, a vessel for catching your baby’s leavings. Not glamorous but essential, for sure.

A cloth nappy has a liner that catches and separates the poo for easy disposal. Then there is the absorbent layer, analogous to the SAPs in disposable nappies, and a waterproof outer - sometimes made of synthetic materials, just like disposable nappies. One of the key differences is in the absorbent core.

Rather than using wood pulp pads mixed with SPAs which are thrown away, a reusable nappy uses a pad which is often made of natural fibres, eg. cotton, bamboo or wool. These can be in the form of a terry cloth, a pre-folded cloth, a shaped nappy (e.g. Little Lamb) or rectangular inserts as found in pocket nappies. There are also some nappies which are all-in-one - the internal absorbent pad is an integral part of the waterproof outer.

Naturally, biodegradation isn’t a concern here. Not for day-to-day use - after all, the same nappies are used day-to-day, potentially for years. But if you’re concerned about the environment, are reusable nappies the answer?

Well, consider that they produce much, much less waste. A set of reusable nappies will probably last you years, until the kid is potty trained - heck, you could probably use them for the next baby too. But you need to consider their manufacture costs - for instance, cotton is very resource heavy. It takes a heck of a lot of water to grow that cotton.

The other factor is the washing. The energy that goes into washing your reusable nappies - water, electricity, detergent (!) - and then drying them too. Of course, you could line-dry them. If you live in New Mexico, perhaps. In the UK, line drying isn’t viable for about 300 days out of the year. Dry them indoors - you like black mould? No. Thought not.

So you have to tumble dry them.

It is more work, using reusable nappies. And I have to be honest, the benefit is not necessarily worth the pain - it really is a choice you have to make.

On balance, reusable nappies are better for the environment, it seems - if you keep them to use for a second child.

Can cloth nappies be as good or better than disposables in terms of the environment?

There are quite a few analyses of the environmental cost/benefit ratio of reusable nappies versus disposable nappies. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing here, but the big takeaway is that a UK government study into the lifecycle of reusables vs disposables found that one type of nappy produced lifetime carbon emissions of 550kg and one type produced 570kg.

Which is which?


Ok, I’ll put you out of your misery - disposable nappies produce LESS overall carbon over their lifecycle.

This is based on washing reusable nappies at 60C - some nappies actually recommend 40C, which is what I usually wash mine at. But you won’t get the sanitising benefit of hot water at 40C.

But it also assumes you dry ¾ of your nappies on a line - I usually have to tumble dry because it’s raining. Like, all of the time!

But using your nappies on a second child can reduce their carbon load by up to 40%. The same reduction can be effected by buying second hand or selling your nappies to another parent when you're done with them.

Advantages and disadvantages of cloth nappies

So, to summarise all of the above.. Cloth nappies have a few advantages. They do have a marginal advantage over disposables in terms of the environment, especially if you’re lucky enough to be able to air dry all of your nappies, wash them on a cooler cycle (with an efficient washing machine!) and if you use them on a second spawn too.

They are also really stylish - they look much cooler than disposable nappies. They become almost fashion accessories! I’m a guy, but I still appreciate their cool designs. You definitely don’t get that on disposable nappies.

They are also potentially better for your baby - they don’t have any proprietary blends of SPAs or adhesives or dyes or fragrances. Only an outer layer, an absorbent pad of natural fibres (usually) and a liner. Pretty simple. If you’re concerned about using artificial things like this, reusable nappies are the obvious solution.

Finally, they’re an investment. You can use them for future kids, or you can even sell them on - it’s not as gross as it sounds. We’ve bought a lot of second-hand nappies. It’s better for the environment, saves us money and cuts down on waste. It’s a win-win-win.

Disposable nappies vs reusable nappies - what have we learnt?

On the other side of the coin, they’re expensive. And therefore, disposable nappies are cheaper - or are they?

I would say that there is a lower barrier to entry using disposable nappies. You can get a pack of a few dozen for less than a tenner, they’ll last a while - but to buy a few dozen reusable nappies it will probably set you back £50, £100 maybe even £200, depending on the type.

But in a fortnight you won’t have to buy more nappies, whereas you will with disposable nappies. If you have the money to make that investment, you can save over the long term.


A pack of Pampers could cost you anywhere from about 14p to 30p a nappy. If we take the figure of 15p a piece, apply that to the number of nappies that statistically a baby will require before being totally potty trained - 5000, then we get

0.14 * 5000 = £700

Holy moly, that’s £700 on nappies!!

Maybe those reusable ones are worth the investment, right?

They’re not as convenient, they’re usually not as absorbent (although we have no problems with our little one wearing Little Lamb nappies through the night, for up to 10 hours, with no leakage), and they’re not as cheap to acquire.

But nonetheless, I think that reusable nappies are a great way to go.

Remember, you don’t have to martyr yourself to them - to make a small impact financially, and environmentally, you could just use them during the day when you’re at home. I often pack disposable nappies for travelling, or for days out. I’m happy with that.

Ultimately, it’s your choice - hopefully, now you have enough information to decide what you will do.

Let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed out!