Diaper Facts

Real cloth diaper facts. No drama, no spin. Just reliable studies on cloth diapers and the implications for your baby. 

Why choose cloth diapers? Cloth diapers are soft against your baby’s skin. Cloth diapers are also free of the many chemicals contained in disposable diapers. Our common sense tells us that cloth diapers are the ultimate in recycling because they are used again and again, not entering a landfill until they are nothing but rags. Of course, most of us want more than just a common-sense approach. We want facts. Here are a few well-documented facts to help inform your choice.

  • Cloth diapers and the environment
  • Cloth diapers, dryness, and diaper rash
  • Cloth vs disposable diapers: cost
  • Diapers and health

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Cloth Diapers and the Environment

In 1988, over 18 billion diapers were sold and consumed in the United States that year.[4] Based on our calculations (listed below under "Cost: National Costs"), we estimate that 27.4 billion disposable diapers are consumed every year in the U.S. [13]

The instructions on a disposable diaper package advice that all fecal matter should be deposited in the toilet before discarding, yet less than one half of one percent of all waste from single-use diapers goes into the sewage system. [4]

Over 92% of all single-use diapers end up in a landfill. [4]
In 1988, nearly $300 million dollars were spent annually just to discard disposable diapers, whereas cotton diapers are reused 50 to 200 times before being turned into rags. [4]
No one knows how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose, but it is estimated to be about 250-500 years, long after your children, grandchildren and great, great, great grandchildren will be gone. [5]
Disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills, and represent about 4% of solid waste. In a house with a child in diapers, disposables make up 50% of household waste. [5]
Disposable diapers generate sixty times more solid waste and use twenty times more raw materials, like crude oil and wood pulp. [3]
The manufacture and use of disposable diapers amounts to 2.3 times more water wasted than cloth. [3]
Over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby EACH YEAR. [6]
In 1991, an attempt towards recycling disposable diapers was made in the city of Seattle, involving 800 families, 30 day care centers, a hospital and a Seattle-based recycler for a period of one year. The conclusion made by Procter & Gamble was that recycling disposable diapers was not an economically feasible task on any scale. [17]

Cloth Diapers, Dryness, and Diaper Rash

The most common reason for diaper rash is excessive moisture against the skin. [19]
Newborns should be changed every hour and older babies every 3-4 hours, no matter what kind of diaper they are wearing. [20]
At least half of all babies will exhibit rash at least once during their diapering years. [20]
Diaper rash was almost unheard of before the use of rubber or plastic pants in the 1940s. [21]
There is no significant difference between cloth and disposables when it comes to diaper rash. [22]
There are many reasons for rash, such as food allergies, yeast infections, skin sensitivity, chafing, and chemical irritation. Diaper rash can result from the introduction of new foods in older babies. Some foods raise the frequency of bowel movements which also can irritate. Changes in a breastfeeding mother's diet may alter the baby's stool, causing rash. [19]

Cloth vs Disposable Diapers: Cost

We estimate that each baby will need about 6,000 diapers [7] during the first two [8] years of life. The following estimates are based on prices in San Francisco, California.
Disposable Diapers Cost. Disposable diapers cost about $62.50 per month, $750 per year, or $1,500 over the full time a child is in diapers.
For these calculations, let's assumed that a family needs about 60 diapers a week. That number will be higher for newborns and lower for toddlers. The best-selling disposable diapers on the two top-selling websites for disposable diapers cost from $.17 to $.31 each. This averages to $.24 per diaper. Disposable diapers will cost about $1,500 for the average child for two years in disposable diapers, or about $62.50 a month. [9]
Diaper Service Cost. Reusable cloth diapers delivered to your door costs about $100 per month, $1200 per year, or $2400 over the full time a child is in diapers.
Subscribing to a diaper services costs about $20-25 each week depending on how many diapers a family decides to order. Let's assume the family spends roughly $23 a week for 60 diapers a week. This equals $1200 annually and averages to $100 a month. Some diaper services offer a pick-up option, which can save up to $500 per year. Over the course of two years, the family will spend about $2400 per baby, roughly 50% more than the cost of disposable diapers, depending on what type of covers are purchased and what type of wipes are used. If one adds in the cost of disposable wipes for either diapering system, the costs increase.
Cloth Diapers Washed at Home - Cost. Buying cloth diapers for one child can cost as little as $300. Dividing those costs by two children then adding energy and detergent costs to wash diapers at home, the total cost of cloth diapering one child is about $450 over two years, which averages $18.75 per month or $225 per year.
For cloth diapering, each family will probably need about 6 dozen diapers. [10] The cost of cloth diapering can vary considerably, from as low as $300 for a basic set-up of prefolds and covers [11], to $1000 or more for organic cotton fitted diapers and wool covers. Despite this large price range, it should be possible to buy a generous mix of prefolds and diaper covers for about $300, most of which will probably last for two children. Even adding $.013 per diaper for energy and $.013 per diaper for detergent, adds only $150 per year per child. [16] This means the cost of cloth diapering is less than 1/3 the cost of disposables [12], and you can spend even less by using found objects (old towels & T-shirts). The biggest difference in cost to cloth diaper is the need to invest up front in the cost of cloth diapers.
National Costs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were just over 20 million children under five years of age in 2010. We could probably assume that there are about 8 million children under two and therefore in diapers at any one time. Based on previous studies, we estimate that 5-10% of babies wear cloth diapers at least part time. We will average these figures to 7.5% of babies in cloth diapers and 92.5% in disposables. This means that about 7.4 million babies in the U.S. are using 23.1 billion disposable diapers every year. [13]
Based on these calculations, if we multiply the 7.4 million babies in disposable diapers by an average cost of $750 a year, we find that Americans spend about 5.6 billion dollars on disposable diapers every year. If every one of those families switched to home-laundered cloth prefold diapers, they would save almost $4 billion [14], enough to feed about 1.2 million American children for an entire year. [15] 
Tax Savings. In some specific circumstances, when cloth diapers have been prescribed for the treatment of a disease, tax savings may be available through the use of flexible spending accounts and medical expense deductions. This could represent a 10% - 35% savings on the cost of diapers depending on the family's tax rate. [23]

Diapers and Health

Disposable diapers contain traces of Dioxin, an extremely toxic by-product of the paper-bleaching process. It is a carcinogenic chemical, listed by the EPA as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals. It is banned in most countries, but not the U.S. [1]
Disposable diapers contain Tributyl-tin (TBT) - a toxic pollutant known to cause hormonal problems in humans and animals. [2]
Disposable diapers contain sodium polyacrylate, a type of super absorbent polymer (SAP), which becomes a gel-like substance when wet. A similar substance had been used in super-absorbency tampons until the early 1980s when it was revealed that the material increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome by increasing absorbency and improving the environment for the growth of toxin-producing bacteria. [3]
In May 2000, the Archives of Disease in Childhood published research showing that scrotal temperature is increased in boys wearing disposable diapers, and that prolonged use of disposable diapers will blunt or completely abolish the physiological testicular cooling mechanism important for normal spermatogenesis. [18]


1. Allsopp, Michelle. Achieving Zero Dioxin: An emergency strategy for dioxin elimination. September 1994. Greenpeace. http://archive.greenpeace.org/toxics/reports/azd/azd.html

2. Greenpeace. New Tests Confirm TBT Poison in Procter & Gamble's Pampers: Greenpeace Demands World-Wide Ban of Organotins in All Products. 15 May 2000.

3. Armstrong, Liz and Adrienne Scott Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women's Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers, What You Can Do About It. 1993. HarperCollins.
4. Lehrburger, Carl. 1988. Diapers in the Waste Stream: A review of waste management and public policy issues. 1988. Sheffield, MA: self-published.
5. Link, Ann. Disposable nappies: a case study in waste prevention. April 2003. Women's Environmental Network.
6. Lehrburger, C., J. Mullen and C.V. Jones. 1991. Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis. Philadelphia, PA: Report to The National Association of Diaper Services (NADS). 
7. Average of 8 changes per day over 2 years.  (8 x 365 x 2 = 5,840)
8. We are using 2 years old as the average age of transition from diapers to toilet use. This varies from child to child.
9. 60 x 52 x $0.24 = $748.80, or $750. $750 x 2 years = $1,500. $1,500 ÷ 24 = $62.50 per month.
10. 3 dozen each in two sizes accommodates most babies.
11. 6 dozen prefolds at an average of $2.25 each and 10 one-size covers at an average of $13.50 each. 
72 x $2.25 = $162. 10 x $13.50 = $135. $162 + $135 = $297.
12. $300 ÷ 2 children = $150 per child, plus $150 per year for energy and detergent, equals a cost of $450 per child for cloth diapers. Compare to $1,500 per child for disposables.
13. 7.4 million x 60 x 52 = 23.088 billion. 7.4 million children under 2 years old in disposable diapers x 60 diapers per week x 52 weeks = 23.088 billion disposable diapers used per year in the United States.
14. Cloth diapering is 70% cheaper. 70% of $5.6 billion is $3.92 billion.
15. $3.92 billion saved divided by $3,365 equals 1,164,933 children per year. Food costs calculated at $3,365 per child per year or $9.22 per child per day for 3 meals and 2 snacks. Costs based on U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, Child and Adult Care Food Program. Figures current for July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2015. https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/07/16/2014-16718/child-and...
16. Energy and detergent estimates are based on the Diaper Pin cloth diaper calculator. http://www.diaperpin.com/calculator/calculator.asp
17. Stone, Janis and Sternweis, Laura. Consumer Choice -- Diaper Dilemma. Iowa Sate University - University Extension. ID. 1401. 1994. http://www.rockwellcollins.com/daycare/pdf/pm1401.pdf
18. C-J Partsch, M Aukamp, W G Sippell Scrotal temperature is increased in disposable plastic lined nappies. Division of Paediatric Endocrinology, Department of Paediatrics, Christian-Albrechts- University of Kiel, Schwanenweg 20, D-24105 Kiel, Germany. Arch Dis Child 2000;83:364-368. Click here or go to http://adc.bmjjournals.com and search by the title of the study.
19. Boiko, S. 1997. Diapers and diaper rashes. February 1, 1997. Dermatology Nursing.
20. Shin, H.T. 2005. Diaper dermatitis that does not quit. Dermatologic Therapy, 18: 124-135.
21. Weiner, F. 1979. The relationship of diapers to diaper rashes in the one-month-old infant. The Journal of Pediatrics, 95: 422-424.
22. Stein, H. 1982. Incidence of diaper rash when using cloth and disposable diapers The Journal of Pediatrics, 101: 721-723.
23. Internal Revenue Service. December 9, 2008. Publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses.

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