How We Tested Cloth Diapers

By:
Juliet Spurrier, MD, and Alison Buck

Last Updated:
Thursday


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Manufacturer says this covered opening is meant to protect baby from wetness  which sounds great in theory. However  you don't want to have to dig through these flaps and layers to remove the insert from a very soiled diaper.
Manufacturer says this covered opening is meant to protect baby from wetness, which sounds great in theory. However, you don't want to have to dig through these flaps and layers to remove the insert from a very soiled diaper.
We reviewed 15 of the most popular and highest rated cloth diapers, comparing their performance side-by-side to determine the absolute best.

Hands-on Testing


Over a 12+ month testing period we tested each and every competing product extensively in normal day-to-day use. Throughout the testing process, we made detailed observations of performance, carefully noting subtle and not-so-subtle differences that made one diaper a little bit better or worse compared to competitors. Our test was extensive, so that we could have a solid feeling for performance, wear and tear, and ease-of-use, based on practical experience, over a long period of time.

Lab Tests


In addition to hands-on testing, we also performed several lab-style tests to get at specific performance characteristics. These included close inspection of manufacturing and material quality, closure systems, etc, always comparing products side-by-side so that we could rate them fairly relative to each other.

We also used the same lab test for absorbency we used in our extensive test of disposable diapers. This allowed us to see not just how absorbency compared across competing products, but also measure the relative performance of cloth versus disposable diapers.

Scoring Factors


We rated each diaper across five weighted rating metrics. Each product was given a 1-10 score on each metric, with the rating factors relative to each other. A 10 score indicates exceptional performance, and a 1 means very poor performance.

Each rating metric was given a % weighting, depending on how strongly we felt the importance of that metric influenced our testing and scoring.

Absorbency 25%
Fit/Leakage 25%
Comfort 20%
Ease-of-Use 20%
Eco-Health 10%

Absorbency


To score absorbency we performed a lab test on the diapers to see how well they absorbed liquid and pulled it away from the surface layer of the diaper. This is not so much about how much liquid the diaper could hold, but more about how quickly and effectively the diaper draws in moisture away from the skin. Each diaper was tested in an identical way, using the same amount of liquid to mimic an example of heavy overnight saturation, same wait time to allow for absorption into the inner layers of the diaper, and same amount of weight to mimic compression that would occur as baby sits on the diaper.

Fit/Leakage


For this rating metric, we critically examined the diapers for fit and hands-on tested the diapers to see how well they were at preventing leakage. We scored this metric by looking at the design of the diaper and how well it fit on baby. If there was a nice snug seal created around the diaper legs and waist, it seemed as though the chances for leakage were smaller. During our hands-on testing, the diapers that didn't leak at all or only a small amount after a long period of time received a higher score than the diapers who seemed to leak all the time.

Comfort


We based our scores for this metric on how comfortable the diaper was on baby. This is where we compared the thickness and overall quality of the diapers. If the diaper was stiff, bulky, tight or awkward, it scored lower than a slim, trim and movable diaper. We also looked at the fabrics and materials that made up the diaper inserts and their covers. We found some insert and cover fabrics to be much softer and appealing to the touch than others. You want your baby to be comfortable wearing these diapers since they will spending a lot of hours in them. We also looked at how well the fabrics held up to washing and drying. Some diapers began unraveling or pilling, or didn't have high-quality craftsmanship to begin with, all factors that could affect the comfort level. You want these diapers to last for a long time, so all of this was taken into account to score this metric.

Ease-of-Use


Some cloth systems we tested were much easier to use than others. The scoring of this metric was based on how user-friendly we found the closures, sizing, laundering and preparing the diaper for wear. We looked at the snaps to make sure they were sturdy and durable but not impossible to get undone. We took into account how many steps were involved in washing, drying and then putting the diaper back together again. We looked at how tricky it was to stuff the pocket or to fold the insert so it was ready for the next use. If the cover was reusable, we looked at how realistic it would be to change out the inserts without a big mess. We wanted to know which diapers stained or retained odors easily. If the diaper was one-size, we wanted to make sure that it wouldn't be rocket science to get it to fit on baby properly as he or she grows.

Eco-Health


In our opinion, choosing cloth is an eco-conscious parenting decision from the get-go, both for baby and for the environment. With cloth, "what you see is what you get." They are absent of Super Absorbent Polymer, fragrances, and lotions that most if not all disposable diapers contain (and, at the time of publishing, ALL disposable diapers contain SAP). In addition, cloth diapering puts neither massive quantities of poop nor dirty diaper refuse into the landfill. Period. Yes, cloth does need to be laundered. The true cost of this has yet to be determined, but the last piece of credible evidence to suggest cloth diaper still wins out is:

These are some of the reasons that we feel strongly that cloth systems be scored on an elevated range of 7 to 9. Cloth truly embodies the mantra of "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle." Breaking this down further, we gave a higher eco-health score to those manufacturers that use natural materials like organic cotton, bamboo, and hemp instead of synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon. As well, we scored brands that utilize heat treatment in their lamination process, TPU, rather than chemical treatment used in PUL.

Our Top Pick for Eco-Health, GroVia Hybrid with GroVia Stay Dry Soaker Pad, which received a score of 9 of 10 in Eco-Health, uses both TPU laminate as well as Hemp and Cotton inside the insert, yet the polyester fleece used on the upper portion of the insert functions well to keep baby's skin dry. For comparison, our Editors' Choice, Rumparooz G2 received an Eco-Health score of 8 of 10, and Best Value Award winner, Flip Hybrid earned a 7 of 10 score.

Estimated Lifetime Cost Comparison


In addition to scoring performance, we estimated lifetime cost for each competing system, attempting to do so in an "apples-to-apples" way, whether AIO, AI2, Hybrid, Pocket or Prefold or One-Size versus multi-Sized types. In figuring out the approximate number of covers and inserts needed per system, we made a judgement call assuming that both laundry would be done at a minimum of every 3 days (ideally 2-3 times/week) over a 3-4 year diapering period.

As a general rule of thumb, we recommend having 30 complete diaper sets at any one period. However, this is more complicated than meets the eye. In a diaper system such as the Flip diaper, 30 complete systems only requires 10 covers, 30 inserts. And since this is a one-size diaper, that is all that is needed for most babies. However, an AIO diaper system such as the BumGenius Freetime requires "x" . A diaper system such as the Thirsties Duo Wrap which comes in two sizes requires the purchase of "y."

For price estimates, we use street price of the logical bulk set purchase for each cloth system. Our assumption being that you first try a few of a given diaper system to make sure it's going to work for you, and then buy your full set in bundle or bulk form. Most frequently our street prices came from Amazon.com or Diapers.com which are generally discounted compared to other sources.

To calculate the cost, we first estimated the cost of a complete diaper system for each diaper tested, and then estimated the number of those complete diapers we felt would be appropriate over the 3-4 year diapering period. In systems with varied insert options, we based lifetime cost upon one type of insert only, the ones we chose to test in our line-up. Additionally, for two prefolds, the Gerber Birdseye 3-Ply Prefold and the OsoCozy Unbleached Prefolds, we based estimated lifetime cost for these in tandem with the Thirsties Duo Wrap. For example, with the OsoCozy Prefolds,

Costs We Left Out
We did not include the cost of energy required for machine washing and drying, with the UK Environmental Agency estimated at approximately 400 kWh, a cost of about $50 in most US locations. Cloth-specific detergent will cost you about another $200-400 per child assuming you use a quality product like Rock'n Green which costs about $17 for a package good for 45-90 loads (if you have a High Efficiency washer or soft water, you will get 90 loads, and thus cut your cost in half to $200).

We also left out the cost of optional flushable liners (despite the fact that we recommend them for added convenience). That will cost an average of about $0.05 to $0.08 per liner depending on what brand you choose, or $300 - $500 if you used them on every diaper change (liners can generally be eliminated when you are using diapers for overnight wetting for potty trained toddlers, so this might cut your costs by 30% depending on how long you use overnight diapers).

On the other hand, we left out the cost savings from using reusable wipes instead of disposable wipes. Many parents use reusuable wipes, which are economic at $10 for a 12-pack. In contrast, disposable diaper parents will often use up to 1-4 wipes per diaper change, at a cost of $0.02-0.04 per wipe, adding up to cost of approximately $360 per child. The next savings for cloth in wipes is about $320.

If we add in the net total of costs and savings we left out, add approximately $430 per child to our lifetime diaper system costs get a more accurate lifetime cost compared to our estimates for lifetime disposable costs (i.e. about $1,700 for pampers not including wipes).

In the end, based on our calculations, any parent will be surprised to find that cloth can be much more economical than diapering with disposables with just a bit more work. In addition, if cloth systems are line-dried, the impact to the environment compared to disposables is greatly reduced without the massive landfill impact that they incur on a daily basis across our nation.

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