The Search for the Best Cloth Diapers
We set out to demystify cloth diapering and to find the very best of 15 popular cloth systems. Over a year-long testing period, we put the top competing diapers through intensive evaluation including daily hands on testing, lab tests of absorbency, research about eco-health, side-by-side comparison fit, leakage, and comfort for baby, and of course, ease-of-use for parents and caregivers. While many parents find modern cloth systems easier to use than expected, diapering with cloth can be intimidating in both selection of the right brand, and learning how to use the diaper system. There is a lot to consider and to that end we performed our most extensive test ever, teaming up a pediatrician and a cloth diapering preschool teacher (along with a toddler and infant respectively), to try each competing brand to find the very best.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
The G2 has more snaps than any other cloth cover we tested, helping parents create that perfect fit. And, as seen above, their 6r Soakers are included in two different sizes; a smaller, hourglass-shaped one for use with newborns and small infants and a bigger one size soaker for larger babies. They can also be snapped together for use as a doubler to increase absorbency if needed; this works wonders at nighttime.
In fact, we found this to be the one of the most user-friendly diapers we tested. As a hybrid system, it is simple and flexible to suit daytime, overnight, and on-the-go needs. Parents have 4 insert options to choose from, all compatible with the same cover.
It's a one size diaper so there's no need to keep purchasing additional diapers as your baby sizes up. Although one size, this diaper is trim and sleek, providing a snug and comfortable fit on baby with no extra bulk. The insert fabric is soft to the touch and the cover feels wonderful too - you can tell that it's a high-quality product. It doesn't have the plastic-like feel that many hybrid covers do and we appreciate the stretchy tabs for the extended movement they allow.
GroVia offers great package sets at a discounted price to get you started. They also have a Snap Conversion Program where you can send in your GroVia shell with hook and loop closures and have them convert into snaps. On this note, we only tested the GroVia Hybrid in snaps.
Best for Specific Applications
bumGenius Freetime is our favorite All-In-One diaper, and for those who want to use cloth in a daycare center, this may be just the ticket. Changing an all-in-one diaper is not much different than changing a disposable diaper, and if you provide your daycare center with a supply of AIO diapers and a wet bag for dirty diapers, it may meet their criteria for use. If not, consider using a green disposable such as our Top Pick, Bambo Nature.
We recommend the bumGenius Freetime to anyone looking for a cloth system that is most comparable to disposables. It was the highest scoring All-in-one cloth system we tested in our round up of 15 cloth diapers systems, and placed an impressive 4th overall. In addition, the Freetime performed admirably in fit/leakage and comfort with a 9 of 10 and in ease-of-use with an 8 of 10. Absorbency is where the Freetime lost points, however, with a score of 5 of 10, the 8th most absorbent diaper of the bunch we tested. Although line-drying is required, it dries very quickly with energy conservation being a nice bonus.
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Analysis and Test Results
Reusable diapers have been around in one form or another for a very long time with various native peoples using wraps of animal skin padded with grass or moss. Cloth diapers became popular in the 1800's, and were significantly improved following world war II when a series of innovations came to market. In 1946, a housewife named Marion Donovan invented the waterproof cover (Donovan also invented the first disposable diaper). She sold the patent for $1 million dollars, quite a sum in the day. In 1950, the prefold diaper was invented by a diaper service owner, and in that same year the first cover with snaps to replace safety pins was invented.
In the 1960's, the disposable diaper took hold in the United States and quickly became the ubiquitous choice for most new parents. Subsequently, cloth use declined dramatically in the following decades.
Recently though, taking hold in increasing numbers since 2000, modern cloth systems have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. A number of innovative new systems for cloth were developed to make the process simpler, easier, and less messy than ever before.
We consider there to be four key elements to modern diapering systems:
Why Use Cloth?
The case for using cloth is simple:
Selecting the Right Type of Cloth System
Choosing which cloth system to buy is a big decision, especially since it is meant to be a long-term investment. There are a lot of choices out there when it comes to cloth, and we wanted to get to the bottom of it, no pun intended. We cover this topic in more detail in our Buying Advice article.
There are three major types of cloth systems, but as we explain below, we recommend you focus on the pocket diapers and hybrid all-in-two types:
Bottom line: pass on the all-in-one systems. If your daycare center or babysitter needs something simpler than your normal cloth system, we recommend you consider a quality green disposable diaper like Bambo Nature or Earth's Best Tender Care for these occasions.
Bottom line: Pocket diaper systems are one of our two favorite types of cloth systems, and we frankly recommend you narrow down your selection to either a pocket diaper system or one of the well-performing all-in-two Hybrid systems described below (or a combination of the two).
We tested two different varieties of AI2 systems: Hybrids and Prefolds.
Bottom line: the all-in-two hybrid cloth diapering systems along with pocket diapers are our two favorite cloth approaches. Hybrids have the advantage of offering low lifetime cost and strong performance. Our Best Value Award winner, the Flip Hybrid, is a fantastic hybrid diapering system and one we recommend without hesitation. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the Flip Hybrid's Stay Dry Insert offered the very best absorbency performance of any cloth system we tested.
For more detailed information on the full range of cloth systems available today, take a look at our Cloth Diaper Buying Advice article.
Criteria for Evaluation
More than any other performance factor, absorbency is the one most critical to preventing diaper rash. Ongoing moisture next to baby's skin creates the perfect environment for diaper rash city. All modern diapers, whether disposable or cloth, are designed to wick moisture away from baby's skin and lock it into an absorbent core material. Disposable diapers, even green diapers like Honest Company Diaper rely on a petrochemical called Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP) as their key ingredient to absorb and lock-away moisture. Instead, cloth systems use an absorbent insert made of one or various combinations of cloth materials, such as stay-dry synthetics, cotton, hemp, and bamboo. Some inserts incorporate quite sophisticated layering designs, incorporating a synthetic top layer next to baby's skin offering nice wicking performance with naturally absorbent fabrics underneath to form the inner core which gets saturated.
We put each diaper system through tests to find out how effective they were at drawing moisture away from the inner surface and holding it in the absorbent layer within. We also tested them on babies day and night over more than a year to discover which ones could hold better than others.
In our absorbency tests, we found the microfiber stay-dry inserts performed better than natural material inserts due to superior ability to wick moisture away from baby's skin. In general, the cotton, hemp/cotton, bamboo/cotton inserts and inner pocket materials performed worse in absorbency and remained wet to the touch long after competing synthetics had tucked away most of the moisture into the core of the insert. For this reason, we recommend at least having a synthetic liner next to baby's skin for its wicking ability when using natural materials. Otherwise, there is a definitive functional trade-off between green and synthetic cloth diapering materials.
As such, it came as a pleasant surprise to us that the best scoring system in our absorbency test, the Flip Hybrid with their Stay-Dry insert, also turned out to be awarded Best Value due to its low lifetime cost.
Fit & Leakage
The diaper with the best fit and minimal leakage in our testing was the Rumparooz G2, which we awarded Editors' Choice. The G2 is uniquely designed with a double-gusset. In terms of fit, it is the diaper with the most rows of snaps at the rise than any other cloth cover we tested. Though a one size diaper, there are so many configurations both in terms of fit and absorption with the G2 that it truly suits an infant, toddler, and young child excellently.
However, our big surprise was that the Rumparooz G2 which, even though bulky, also scored a perfect 10 of 10 in comfort. How can this be? Well, there are several reasons for this. For starters, its fabric is both luxuriously soft with nice stretchy elastic at the legs and back, so it hugs the legs without leaving uncomfortable marks. The fabrics hold up nicely to laundering, remaining very soft. In addition, two rows of waist snaps and 4 rows of rise snaps allow for a great, adjustable fit as baby grows without gaping. Need we mention that these are also dang cute diapers? They are so cute and so awesome, in fact, that the fluffy butt never even bothered us. Simply put, the G2 was the one we reached for time and time again.
Ease of use
In our ease-of-use testing, we compared how each of these diapers worked on a day in, day out basis, through the process of prepping them for use, putting them on, taking them off, throwing the poop into the toilet, the insert and/or cover into the pail, and then, of course, laundering them. If there were special laundering steps that needed to be adhered to for stink management, this was noted. If the covers could only be line-dried, this was taken into account. If the system wasn't one size, we factored in having to buy multiple sets as baby grows. Needless to say, cloth diapering doesn't entail constantly running out to the store for a sudden disposable diaper glut or ordering case upon case of diapers online.
When all was said and done, however, we found that the diapers that our testers most preferred overall were also those that were easiest to use and launder with a good fit and minimal leakage. We paid close attention to this (although we still only weighted ease-of-use 20% in our overall scoring). Interestingly, however, the easiest to use diapers, each with a 9 of 10 score, were the top 3 award-winning cloth systems, the Rumparooz G2, the Flip Hybrid, and the GroVia Hybrid.
UK Environmental Agency which looks at the global warming impact of cloth verus disposable diapers (termed "nappies" in the UK). That study concludes that the carbon footprint of either approach is approximately the same if you machine wash and dry. But, what the UK study ignores (except in terms of a green house gas analysis) is the environmental impact of the 6,000 diapers per child being put into the landfill, and from our point of view, this is the swing vote. With an estimated 28 billion disposables entering US landfills each year, which includes a significant amount of toxic human feces, we don't feel the landfill impact of disposables can be ignored. In strong contrast, the poop from cloth changes is put in the sewer system where it is supposed to go, and processed in a safe and environmentally sound manner.
The 2008 UK Environmental Agency study notes that you can reduce your cloth global warming impact to be 40% less than disposables by following these eco-tips:
In practice, this means a hot wash cycle is OK as most hot water cycles are less than or equal to 140F/60C.
Note that the sanitize cycle is hotter than 140F/60C. Sanitize is actually too hot for proper washing of cloth diapers and should not be used. For further washing tips, see our article Cloth Diapering Laundry Basics and Helpful Hints.
In terms of health, our opinion is that cloth diapering is the better alternative for baby. Though parents who cloth diaper may need to change baby more often in general than those using disposables, this is not a bad thing for baby. But why more diaper changes, you ask? Because all disposables on the market today contain a secret petrochemical ingredient called Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP). This synthetic, petroleum-based product is the secret sauce that magically soaks up urine like a wet sponge and literally locks it into the diaper, away from baby. Though largely deemed non-toxic and harmless to baby, it is not natural by any means and as we note in our article, What is Inside those Disposable Diapers, we are left with some anxiety about this petrochemical being next to baby's skin 24x7 for the first several years of their life.
In comparison, cloth diapers do not contain SAP, yet in our tests we found they can deliver similar levels of absorbency performance. Nor do they contain synthetic, chemically-based fragrances, dyes, or lotions. Refreshingly, cloth diaper companies are very transparent about the materials and components that make up their diapers. There is no secret petrochemical ingredient in the cloth systems we tested. In our opinion, the same can not be said for disposable diaper manufacturers today. Refreshingly in the cloth diapering world, what you see is what you get. We appreciate that cloth system manufacturers provide parents with configuration options that put them in control of how green they'd like to be; similar options are simply unavailable to disposable diaper users.
Not surprisingly, as a category, cloth scored better in eco-health than every disposable in our 2014 test with the exception of Bambo Nature, which earned a score on par with cloth competitors and won our Top Pick Award for Best Green Disposable Diaper as well.
In scoring cloth systems on Eco-Health, we dissected the make-up of each diaper from the cover to its waterproofing to the absorbent inserts. Basically, we scored those diapers that were composed largely of natural fibers like cotton, hemp, and bamboo over those that were synthetic-based with fabrics like polyester and microfiber. We also scored diapers that used TPU lamination over PUL lamination higher. We were also interested in how these materials measured up against one another in ability to keep baby dry; diapers with both good absorbency and good wicking, scored higher.
There was a three-way tie for best performance on eco-health in our review, with GroVia Hybrid, Bummis Super Brite Wrap, and BabyKicks Premium Pocket all earning 9 of 10 scores. But, of the three, the GroVia stands out for also performing extremely well on every other metric, and most significantly on absorbency where many of the most green cloth systems failed to deliver. We awarded the GroVia Hybrid our Top Pick for Best Green Diaper.
With so many different options available for cloth diapering, finding just the right one for you and baby can seem nearly impossible. From eco-friendliness, to comfort for baby, and convenience for mom, there are many different factors to consider. We took into all this into account when testing these 15 diaper systems to help sift through the products and find the one that will work best for you. If you're still unsure of which diaper is best, or still aren't even convinced that cloth diapers are right for you, head over to Cloth Diapers vs. Disposables: How and what to choose? for more information on the two methods.
— Juliet Spurrier MD, and Alison Buck
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