Cloth Diapers vs. Disposables: How and what to choose?

Choosing the best diaper for you and your baby can feel daunting. In this guide  our goal is to simplify the process for you  and provide you with background information that helps you make an informed decision.
Article By:
Juliet Spurrier, MD and Alison Buck

Last Updated:
Sunday

After putting 15 of the most highly regarded modern cloth systems through an intensive year-long testing period, and testing 24 of the best disposable diapers, we learned a lot about the key differences between cloth and disposables in basic, pragmatic terms of absorbency performance, ease-of-use and cost.

In this guide, we hope to share those findings, and help new parents decide in an objective, fact-based, manner between cloth and disposables. And, for those who want to try cloth diapering, we've gone one step further to identify the easiest and most effective ways to use cloth diapers, noting specific brands and products that make using cloth simple.

This article is intended to compliment our detailed Cloth Diaper Review, our Disposable Diaper Review, and our article Cloth Diapering Laundry Basics & Helpful Hints.

Cloth vs. Disposables


In this next section, we'll attempt to detail out the economic, environmental, health, and aesthetic trade offs between cloth and disposable.

Cost Comparison


Let's start off by comparing cloth solutions to some of the most popular green-diaper alternatives which you might be considering. Our Best Value award winner in green diapers is the Earth's Best Tender Care which has an estimated lifetime cost of $2,160.

Compare that to the cloth Best Value winner Flip Hybrid estimated lifetime cost of $300.

At face value, that is a huge savings for cloth of $1,860.

But, a more fiscally prudent analysis is a little bit less dramatic since there are probably some optional expenses related to cloth diapering you will embrace (at least we recommend you do).

Below is a breakdown of the optional items you may or may not use with cloth or disposable that either add to your costs or save you more by going cloth.
  • Machine wash and dryadd about $50 in average US energy costs based on the 400 kWh estimate from a study done in the UK titled Environmental Agency analysis estimate. Their 400kWh energy estimate is the approximate amount for one child's lifetime wash/dry energy cost. See our related article on Cloth Diapering Laundry Basics for helpful how to tips.
  • Washable cloth wipessave about $315 by using cloth wipes. If you are already signed up to laundering cloth, using reusable cloth wipes makes sense because they can easily be integrated into your washing routine. A full lifetime supply of quality cloth wipes will cost you about $45 (we recommend a supply of 48 wipes). In comparison, disposable wipes will cost about $0.02-0.04 each, and you'll use 1-4 per change netting about $360 over each child's diapering years.
  • Flushable linersadd $420 if you use flushable liners. We recommend using flushable liners with cloth to make your life simpler. We think it is worth it. The benefit of using a flushable liner is that most of the poo is trapped on the liner which you just drop in the toilet. Flushing the poo is way better for the environment and a huge simplification for your laundry chores. So, what's the cost? About $0.07 per diaper change, or $420 over the expected 6,000 diaper changes. Our favorite is the OsoCozy Flushable Liners which cost about $8 for a roll of 100. While a significant cost, we totally think it is worth it! We're talking about an average of $9-10/month over 3+ years of diaper changes to make poo management way simpler.
  • Diaper pailsave about $125 by going cloth. We recommend the convenience of a diaper pail for cloth or disposable. With disposable, however, the costs are often higher with pails that utilize proprietary disposable liners. We estimated the lifetime cost of the Editors' Choice Diaper Genie Essentials at $225, which is mostly the cost of the disposable liners. In comparison, you will throw your cloth pail liner bag in the wash with the diapers. The total cost of a quality pail with two washable cloth pail liners will be about $100 or less.
  • Cloth Laundry Soapadd about $300 for cloth-specific laundry detergent. Your mileage will vary here depending on your type of washing machine and your tap water hardness. The general range for a quality detergent like Rockin Green is $200-400 over the lifetime of your baby's diapering years. The cost is about $17 per package which will wash 45-90 loads. If you have a High Efficiency washer and/or soft water, you will use less detergent, and thus may cut your cost in half to about $100 to $200.
  • Cloth Accessoriesadd about $50. Because we place a high value on convenience, we feel that the most popular cloth accessories are generally worth the investment for the sake of making your life easier. Why? Because no matter how compelling the economic and environmental incentives to diaper in cloth are, many people back off due to fears of ease-of-use. The cost of extra convenience is usually low, and we think the benefits of making cloth a little bit simpler makes economic sense in most cases. For example, while a cloth diaper sprayer such as our favorite the Bumkins Cloth Diaper Sprayer can certainly be considered an optional convenience at about $45, the ability to spray off any remaining poo right there at the toilet may very well be worth it in terms of your sanity. Similarly, a Spray Pal shield is also optional at about $25, but we consider it a perfect companion to a sprayer (it helps prevent creating a "splattery mess" when doing high pressure spraying). While cloth-specific diaper creams typically don't cost more than traditional thick white pasty diaper creams with zinc oxide, they are very important to maintain the integrity of the cloth absorbency and avoid repelling issues (thus assuring your investment in a quality cloth system is preserved). And, while a drying line or rack is yet another added cost, by using it your energy costs and carbon footprint will be cut by reduction of machine drying cycles. Additionally, your cloth diapers will maintain their integrity and absorbency performance longer if you line dry.

Bottom line on Cost Savings?


The bottom line cost savings is going to depend on what options you choose, and which diaper you would use (both cloth and disposable, since the lifetime costs of both flavors vary considerably).

But, add up everything we recommend on our list for both cloth and disposable, and you'll need to add $275 to our estimated lifetime cost of specific cloth brands to get to a fair comparison number to disposable lifetime costs. For example, to get the fully loaded cost for Flip Hybrid you'd add the $300 lifetime estimate for the Flip diapers themselves to the $275 net added cost for all the stuff we recommend, yielding a fully loaded comparison cost relative to disposables of $575.

Here's a summary of the fully-loaded comparison costs from lowest cost to highest:
  • Using Flip Hybrid, our best value award winner in cloth, will save you $865, or 61% less than using Cuties, our best value winner in disposables
  • Using Rumparooz G2, our editors' choice winner in cloth, will save you $1,970, or 70% less than using Bambo Nature, our editors' choice in disposables.

Either way, the savings is dramatic.

Which is Healthier for your Baby


In our article, What Is Inside Those Disposable Diapers?, we detail how all the disposable diapers we tested, even the green diapers, include the petro-chemical SAP as their key ingredient for absorbency, and many include other chemicals and materials of concern. If the idea of placing your baby's skin next to a petro-chemical (SAP) 24 hours a day concerns you, then cloth is the way to go.

Unlike disposable diapers, it is easy to find cloth solutions that are both eco-healthy in the materials used, and effective in terms of performance.

We feel obligated to note here that we found the Stay-Dry cloth inserts to perform dramatically better in absorbency than the natural cotton or hemp alternatives. The Stay-Dry liners are polyester, the same material used in fleece jackets, which is a petroleum-based material. We are comfortable with polyester fleece, and we prefer it as an insert since the performance is so much better. But, those trying to avoid any petroleum based products will want to choose one of the many natural material inserts such as the GroVia Hybrid which won our Top Pick Award for Best Green Cloth Diaper.

Is Cloth Better for the Environment?


The environmental case for cloth comes down to two things: the poo and the garbage.

Let's talk about the disposal of disposable diapers, and start with the nasty topic of poo. Your baby will make a lot of it. If you use disposable diapers like most people do, you will wrap up that poo in the diaper cover, seal it up with the velcro-like closure, and drop it in the diaper pail. This makes you, inadvertently in violation of the law. It is illegal in most regions of the US to put human feces in the landfill because it is a bio-hazard that could pollute groundwater systems if the landfill leached into surrounding water table (for this reason, US landfills are required to install an impermeable membrane to prevent the landfill contents from getting outside the area). A typical child will go through 6,000 diapers, and that translates into a mountain of diapers going into the trash. The EPA estimates that 20 billion disposables end up in US landfills each year. Making matters worse, even so-called "biodegradable" green disposables won't actually break down in landfills due to the lack of oxygen and water. We consider claims of "biodegradable" or "compostable" made by green diaper companies to be misleading marketing-spin, since the diapers don't break down in the landfill as claimed. To that end, the FTC recently filed charges against the company that makes gDiapers for misleading claims that their products were biodegradable and compostable. Bottom line: if you are using disposables, you need to face the reality that you will contribute approximately 6,000 diapers into the landfill, which are going to be there for longer than your lifetime, and many of those diapers carry a bio-hazard load of human feces. When you think about where it all goes, many people reconsider whether disposing diapers is environmentally responsible.

Cloth use, in comparison, has a completely different environmental profile. First off, your baby's poo will end up in the toilet where it belongs, and that poo will head toward a municipal water treatment system that is designed to properly handle it. (As a side note, BabyGearLab Editors were recently provided an impressive tour by a sanitation expert of a local municipal water treatment plant where sewer water is cleansed and returned to the river pure, and the fecal material ends up in valuable fertilizer. We were impressed, and it was actually not all that stinky either).

Greenhouse Gas Analysis
The other way environmentalists can, and should, look at the environmental impact of diaper use is based on a greenhouse gas analysis. In terms of carbon-footprint, the answer is that disposables and cloth are pretty much the same. The best greenhouse gas analysis we know of was done by the UK Environmental Agency in 2008. They did a comprehensive study that took into account the greenhouse gas emissions from disposables in landfills, as well as the full carbon footprint of both cloth and disposable. The conclusion was that cloth did not have a significantly lower carbon-footprint than disposables assuming you used a machine washer and dryer. But, if you line dry and re-use cloth on a second child then the carbon-footprint for cloth is 40% less than disposables.

We accept the carbon-footprint conclusion of the UK Environmental agency as sound, but we think the swing vote is really the poo and the garbage, both of which were ignored in the UK analysis except in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Frankly, we don't think it is appropriate to consider the impact of 20 billion diapers going into landfills in the US each year to be only the gas emissions as that mountain of diaper garbage decomposes over the next 100-500 years. We think a lot of parents will feel better about not putting their child's 6,000 diapers and poop in their local landfill.

Diapers as a Fashion Statement


The range of color and pattern options available in cloth brands transforms diapers from a functional necessity to a fashion opportunity. And when compared to disposables, except for
Thirsites One Size Pocket - diaper or fashion statement? You decide.
Thirsites One Size Pocket - diaper or fashion statement? You decide.
the The Honest Company Diapers, no manufacturer even seems to try to offer disposables in cute designs.

Modern cloth systems come in such a wide range of fashionista-friendly colors and styles that you can consider them clothing. This is unlike disposables, where it is most common to cover the diaper with shorts or pants. Cloth systems look like, and for all practical purposes are, short pants for your baby. And, they just look so darn cute!

Need we say more?

Bottom Line on Cloth vs. Disposables


The case for cloth versus disposables on the metrics of cost, health, environmental impact, and aesthetics is refreshingly simple and compelling:
  • Cloth saves you a lot of money $$$
  • Cloth is healthier for your baby
  • Diapering with cloth is better for the environment
  • Cloth gives you options for overwhelming cuteness that disposables can't match

So, Why Not Go With Cloth?


If the cost, health, and environmental arguments for cloth are so compelling, why doesn't everyone use cloth?

The answer is that many people fear that cloth is just going to be too hard. And those fears have some basis in truth: even the best modern cloth systems are a bit more work than diapering with disposables, largely due to the need deal with laundry every 2-3 days instead of just dumping your baby's dirty diapers into the landfill.

About 9 of 10 families in the US today rely on disposable diapers. And, many of them have considered using cloth, but backed off before they even tried it due to anxiety that it might be too hard, combined with confusion about how to get started. It seems daunting.

We are going to do our best to replace that fear with a clear step-by-step explanation of how to use cloth, how modern cloth systems evolved, and how a modern approach can make cloth pretty simple and easy. But, one of the best ways to address the fear is taking cloth for a test drive.

How to Test Drive Cloth Diapers


The easiest way to test drive cloth is to use disposables.

We know that sounds crazy, but really, we're not kidding.

Start off with disposables because they are easy and you can use them to test drive cloth without making a long-term commitment to putting 6,000 disposables per child into the landfill.

You might also consider waiting to start with cloth until your baby is in size 1 disposables. Your baby will probably outgrow newborn size disposables in about one month, and many of our favorite the one-size-fits-all cloth systems may not fit well until your baby is in size 1.

We recommend trying one or two of the best cloth diapering systems for your test drive. This approach is relatively inexpensive, but it will still give you a realistic hands-on sense of how it works to use cloth.

Having reviewed 15 top cloth systems for more than 1 year, we can go one step further and recommend a few specific products to consider for a test drive.

Rumparooz G2


A great starting place is to get one Rumparooz G2 pocket diaper and try it. It won our editors' choice award, and is one of the easiest to use cloth systems. It is so soft and well made that it is simply our favorite. It also comes in a variety of stylish colors and patterns to choose from. It is a one size fits all diaper, so you don't need to worry about sizing, and comes with everything you need. When you first get it, you will need to first wash it, carefully following the laundering instructions on the Kanga-Care website.

Two Rumparooz G2 diapers laid side by side with their inserts.
Two Rumparooz G2 diapers laid side by side with their inserts.

OsoCozy Flushable Diaper Liners
The other thing we recommend you get for a test drive is some flushable liners. We recommend the OsoCozy Flushable Liners which are available for about $8 from Amazon.

You'll find using the Rumparooz to be a lot like a disposable. The difference is that you'll stuff an absorbent insert into the pocket of the diaper, and place a flushable liner on the top (between baby and the diaper). Outside of that, your diaper changes will be pretty much the same as with a disposable.

Rumparooz created a video to help you fit the diaper properly:


Dealing with a Poopy Diaper
Assuming you are using flushable liners, then you'll find putting the poop in the toilet to be very simple: just drop the liner into the toilet and flush. In most cases, the poop will be retained by the liner and you don't need to do anything else. But, if there is some poop on the diaper or insert, then just wipe it off with some toilet paper. (Later, if you decide to dive deep into cloth, then you might spray off any excess poop with something like the Bumkins Cloth Diaper Sprayer and the Spray Pal. But, our feeling is that you don't need any cloth accessories other than flushable liners for your test drive).

If you are breastfeeding exclusively, up until your baby starts eating solids, the process is even simpler — you can just put the poopy diaper from an infant that is exclusively breastfeeding directly into the wash (the breastfeeding poop will just disintegrate and wash away). The Rumparooz site has some good tips on handling the poop which we've quoted below.


For your test drive, don't worry about getting a dry pail or wet bag to store dirty diapers. Wait on those kind of things until you decide whether you are going with cloth or not. For now, just put the dirty diaper in a bucket, your laundry sink, or straight into your washer.

Wash the dirty diaper following the Rumparooz laundry tips to make sure you keep the diaper in top working condition.

Flip Hybrid


The other cloth system that you might want to test drive is the Flip Hybrid which was the 2nd highest scoring diaper in our tests, and winner of our Best Value Award. Like the Rumparooz, we loved the Flip and found it very easy to use. Like the Rumparooz, the Flip is one-size-fits-all, so you don't need to worry about sizing.

You can get a single Flip cover and one stay dry liner with snap closures for your test drive. (Don't get the velcro or velcro-like closures, as they wear out and get filled with lint over time.)

We recommend you use flushable liners like the OsoCozy Flushable Liners to simplify things.

Laundry care instructions are different with the Flip than with Rumparooz.

Wash the Flip cover and stay dry liner once before your first use using Hot (not Sanitize - too hot) and the bumGenius detergent. You can find the Flip laundry instructions on the Cotton Babies website.

Cotton Babies (the makers of the Flip) has written how-to instructions on their website, but this YouTube video below gives a visual overview:


Buy More Once You Find an Approach You Like


After you test drive one or more cloth systems, pick the one you like and buy a full supply. We recommend a supply of 36 diapers for optimal convenience (don't get less than a minimum of 24 or you'll risk finding yourself short just when you need it).

Helpful Accessories
If you decide to go with cloth, and get a full supply, then now is the time to start thinking about what accessories you might want to get to make things simpler. For example, most parents get at least a wet bag or a dry pail to store dirty diapers. We cover accessories further below in this article. But first, we'd like to give you a more complete backgrounder on cloth systems and the various types you'll find out there.

How Diapering with Cloth Works


In this next section, we'll try to give you an overview of cloth diapering systems with our recommendations of the easiest ways to go. Of course, you don't need to settle for just one system or brand (we spent a year rotating between 15 different brands, but of course that was our job and not something we'd recommend as a hobby). The primary motivation to try different brands is in terms of fit, which is key to preventing leakage. Our favorite cloth systems are one-size fits all, which in theory eliminates fit from the equation. But, babies come in lots of differing sizes, and what works great for one baby may not work as well for yours (or, similarly, what works for you at 3 months may not work as well at 24 months). For the pursuit of fit more than any other reason, it may make sense to try a handful of options before you commit to one cloth system. That said, we found the top rated one-size systems such as the Flip and Rumparooz did deliver on the promise of a one-size system, and in our tests on different size and age babies, they did work well within their stated age/weight compatibility range.

Why So Many Types of Cloth Systems?


The full assortment of cloth diapering systems we tested in our review. From left to right  top to bottom: Flip Hybrid  GroVia Hybrid  gDiaper  Thirsties Duo Wrap  Rumparooz G2  bumGenius 4.0  BabyKicks Premium Pocket  FuzziBunz Elite  Kushies Taffeta Diaper Wrap  Bummis Super Brite Wrap  bumGenius Freetime All-in-One  Thirsties Duo All-in-One. Prefolds and stay dry inserts on right.
The full assortment of cloth diapering systems we tested in our review. From left to right, top to bottom: Flip Hybrid, GroVia Hybrid, gDiaper, Thirsties Duo Wrap, Rumparooz G2, bumGenius 4.0, BabyKicks Premium Pocket, FuzziBunz Elite, Kushies Taffeta Diaper Wrap, Bummis Super Brite Wrap, bumGenius Freetime All-in-One, Thirsties Duo All-in-One. Prefolds and stay dry inserts on right.
Modern cloth diapers are available in a variety of systems that attempt to make the process simpler. But, the truth is that the mind-boggling range of options can make choosing which type to use confusing. Ironically, the innovation that has produced so many approaches to cloth diapering creates a barrier for many people to try cloth at all? How do you get started?

We think we can help here, having used and tested just about every type of diaper created.

We'll start by giving you the lay of the land so when your cloth-manic friend comes at you with terms like "All-in-One" or "Pocket diaper" you can know what the heck they are talking about.

This is the basic breakdown of the types of cloth systems:
  • All-in-Twos/AI2 (Cover & Insert): Hybrid, Pre-fold, Flat, Fitted
  • All-in-Ones/AIO
  • Pockets

All-in-Two (AI2): Cover & Insert


The so-called "All-in-Two" (AI2) diapers are really the classic kind of cloth diaper system, the kind that was the standard in the US in the 1950s. These are composed of two separate pieces: a waterproof cover and an absorbent cloth insert. Often, the waterproof cover and and the diaper insert are sold separately. As a rule of thumb, each cover can be paired with any insert of your choice to create a diaper combination that works best for you. There are endless possibilities here for those who want to experiment.

Prefolds — rolling it old school
If All-in-Two diapers are classic, then prefolds (shorthand for "pre-folded cloth inserts") are ultra-classic. Your parents may have used prefolds on you, or more likely your grandparents or great grandparents used them. This is the old school cloth diaper system. The term "prefold" refers to a rectangular piece of fabric, folded to be several layers thick and sewn at the edges. Most prefolds have three sections, the center one being thicker with additional fabric layers than the outer sections. It must be folded, usually into thirds, and arranged into a cover before being placed on baby. Folding it correctly ensures that the center section is the thickest and thus most absorbent area. This enhanced approach was invented in 1950, and became all the rage for the next decade. When you see an old picture of a 1950's mom fastening a cloth diaper with safety pins, you're looking at a prefold.

Prefold shown here is folded in thirds to fit inside the cover.
Prefold shown here is folded in thirds to fit inside the cover.

The modern use of prefolds is only slightly different than that classic 1950s approach. Today, no one is using the safety pins anymore. Instead, the modern covers do the job of holding the diaper in the right place. A nice snug fitting cover will typically hold a prefold nicely in place. However, if movement is an issue and baby requires something more than just a cover to hold the prefold together, sharp "safety" pins are no longer necessary. They have been replaced by modern options. Practical to use and much safer than safety pins, either Snappi Diaper Fasteners or Boingo Cloth Diaper Fasteners. A Snappi (below, left) is a pinless, T-shaped, stretchable diaper fastener with grips at each end, and a Boingo (below, right) is similar except it is a simpler two anchor "I-shape" configuration instead of a T-shape.



Why use a prefold? Cost is the primary motivator. Prefolds are the most economical choice. However in our cost analysis, we discovered that the Flip Hybrid, when purchased in bulk with their Stay Dry Inserts, is a very competitively priced option (and much easier and better performing overall). The lowest cost prefold systems such as the Gerber Prefold Birdseye 3-ply come out at $255 lifetime cost in our estimation, but the Flip Hybrid at $300 lifetime cost estimate is only $45 more yet offers dramatically better performance, especially in the critical areas of absorbency, comfort, and ease-of-use.



We tested 5 Prefolds in our year-long review and test of cloth systems:
At the end of our year-long comparison test, we frankly didn't feel that the prefold approach is compelling. Its just more work than competing, and more modern, approaches. In addition, none of the prefold systems did very well in terms of absorbency. Last, but not least, the cost savings of $45 spread over 3+ years of diapering is not enough to justify going with a sub-optimal approach.

Hybrids
The next type of All-in-Two diaper system are the so-called hybrid systems. They are straightforward, easy to use, and bridge the gap between cloth and disposables as different types of inserts may be interchanged with the cover. But, from our point of view the main advantage of Hybrid systems is simply that they incorporate a better design approach of integrated covers and custom-fitted inserts that outperform the old-school cover & pre-fold approach. The best of the hybrids such as the Flip Hybrid and GroVia Hybrid offered sophisticated insert designs with custom sewn shapes to fit their covers and thoughtful multi-layer combinations of natural and synthetic insert materials that delivered better absorbency performance in our tests. The best hybrid inserts from our point of view use different materials for next to baby's skin, designed to wick away moisture and help prevent rashes, and multiple layers of more absorbent material designed to lock-up moisture in the core of the diaper.

Most hybrid brands offer the following types of insert options:
  • Organic cloth insert
  • Synthetic stay dry insert
  • Disposable insert

Unlike a pre-fold, the hybrid inserts are custom shaped and sewn to fit their cover like a glove. To use it in a diaper change, you lay the insert directly into the cover and it's ready to go. If the cover isn't soiled, it can easily be reused by removing the wet insert and replacing it with a dry one. This reduces laundering, and is wonderful for families who find themselves on-the-go or traveling often.

While you can mix-and-match inserts from other brands with a hybrid cover, the fit may not be as ideal as the manufacturer's proprietary inserts.

Flip Hybrid with Flip Stay Dry Inserts
Flip Hybrid with Flip Stay Dry Inserts
Flip's cloth inserts fold down to size accommodating baby's growth.
Flip's cloth inserts fold down to size accommodating baby's growth.

We tested 4 Hybrids:
Hybrid diaper inserts typically come in two different shapes, straight, rectangular ones and contoured, hourglass ones.

The three rectangular inserts we tested are:
  • Flip Hybrid Stay Dry
  • Thirsties Stay Dry
  • gDiaper Cloth

Examples of rectangular inserts side by side: The Thirsties Stay Dry Duo Insert  gDiaper gCloth Insert  and Flip Diaper with Stay Dry Insert.
Examples of rectangular inserts side by side: The Thirsties Stay Dry Duo Insert, gDiaper gCloth Insert, and Flip Diaper with Stay Dry Insert.

The two contoured inserts we tested are:
  • GroVia Organic Cotton
  • GroVia Stay Dry

GroVia Organic Cotton Soaker Pad (Insert) snaps into the GroVia Hybrid Shell
GroVia Organic Cotton Soaker Pad (Insert) snaps into the GroVia Hybrid Shell

Flats
Though around before prefolds and something your great-great-grandmother may have used to diaper, flats are still popular. Similar in concept to a prefold, a flat is only one layer thick, much larger in size, and requires lots of folding and manipulating to get onto baby just right. There is a definite learning curve to flat diapering, but it has a very dedicated following because it is an effective and very affordable way to diaper. But from our point of view, if prefolds are old school, flats are a nostalgic throwback, and well on their way to becoming archaic. Modern cloth systems just offer so much better performance, and are so much easier to use, that the very small cost advantage of using flats is simply not worth it. We did not review flats in our testing round-up and do not consider them to be top contenders.

Unbleached Square Birdseye Flat Diaper: Large (Green stitching) is under Small (Yellow stitching) and then folded to create a diaper of this size (white). A cover is then placed over the flat for waterproofness.
Unbleached Square Birdseye Flat Diaper: Large (Green stitching) is under Small (Yellow stitching) and then folded to create a diaper of this size (white). A cover is then placed over the flat for waterproofness.

Fitteds
A fitted diaper is an insert that has snap or velco-like closure sewn into it. Rather than just placing the insert in a cover, and relying on the cover (or something like a Snappi) to hold it in place, a fitted insert can be secured to create a very snug and secure fit on baby. Typically, you will combine a fitted insert with a waterproof cover, just like you would with a prefold. The motivation to use a fitted diaper is to keep the absorbent insert more tightly in place. If you notice that other inserts are becoming bunched or are slipping out of place within the cover, then you might want to consider a fitted insert as a solution. But, from our point of view, the fitted diapers have been made obsolete by the better modern cloth systems. In fact, no fitted diapers made the cut for inclusion in our cloth review for detailed side-by-side comparison, and we frankly do not consider them to be top contenders.

Example of a fitted diaper about to be enclosed in a waterproof cover.
Example of a fitted diaper about to be enclosed in a waterproof cover.

All-In-One (AIO) Diapers


We like AIOs for their ease-of-use, but not enough to recommend them.

Just as it sounds, this is a one-piece diaper in which the cover and insert are sewn together. These a great choice for those who desire a diaper that is as easy to use as a disposable; perfect for daycare, grandparents, or those expressing some hesitation about cloth. There's no sorting, stuffing, folding or matching involved. Just put the diaper on and you're ready to go!

The downside? AIOs create more laundry because you need to wash the combined cover and insert after each diaper change (with AI2s, you just launder the inserts every time, since the cover can often be re-used with a clean insert). Also, some brands of AIO require longer drying times.

bumGenius Freetime AIO  One-Size diaper has semi-attached inserts allowing for easier drying and customized absorbency.
bumGenius Freetime AIO, One-Size diaper has semi-attached inserts allowing for easier drying and customized absorbency.

Our take on it: we prefer Hybrids over AIOs. However, you may be a huge fan if one-pieced simplicity strikes a chord with you.

We tested two AIO systems:

Pocket Diapers


Pocket diapers have two parts: a cover and an insert. There is a pocket opening in the cover, either in the front or back, into which an insert is stuffed. The pocket basically acts like a liner between the baby's skin and the absorbent insert, and it can hold one or more inserts to serve as the absorbent core. Our favorite pocket diapers, like the Rumparooz G2, have a very soft pocket liner, and thus are very comfortable for baby.
Features of Rumparooz G2
Features of Rumparooz G2


Pockets are nice because there is a barrier between baby and the absorbent insert, so theoretically the pocket material can act like a wicking layer and moisture isn't sitting against the baby's skin for long. Also, the absorbency of the insert can be customized to suit baby's needs by choosing different inserts for different times of day. For example, adding two inserts into the pocket is a good strategy for nighttime when extra wetting may occur.

The key drawback to a pocket system is that the diaper requires stuffing of the insert in the pocket each diaper change, an extra step in the preparation of the diaper before wear. Some pocket diapers are easier to stuff than others. Keep in mind that the insert also has to be removed from the pocket prior to laundering, which is sometimes not the most pleasant step in the process. As with an AIO, there is more laundry with Pocket diapers than with AI2s because the pocket/cover combination will go into your laundry bag after every diaper change where a hybrid might simply require washing the insert (and the same cover can be re-used without washing). Lastly, you need more cover/pocket diapers on-hand (since they will need to be washed more often), and that increases your lifetime costs (i.e. you have to buy more covers/pocket systems). To quantify that cost, the Editors' Choice award winning Rumparooz G2 pocket diaper has an estimated lifetime cost of $720 versus the Best Value award winning Flip Hybrid at $300.

Rumparooz's wide pocket opening  even stretches with elastic. Makes for very easy insert stuffing.
Rumparooz's wide pocket opening, even stretches with elastic. Makes for very easy insert stuffing.

Our opinion on pockets: we think they are the best way to go, and gave the Rumparooz G2 with our editors' choice award.

Pockets also function exceptionally well if baby is either a heavy wetter needing additional absorbency or is sensitive to feeling moisture against the skin.

That said, the Hybrids are a very close second, and significantly less expensive, because it's easier to prepare the diapers for wear and you can switch out the inserts during changes and reuse the cover. The Flip Hybrid was the 2nd highest scoring diaper in our tests, and won our Best Value award.

We tested Four Pockets:
The following is a very helpful video from Fluff Love University describing the different types of cloth diapers in addition to useful accessories to further ensure successful cloth diapering. We highly recommend checking out their website which is loaded with helpful advice.


What Type of Closure: Snap or Velcro?


For most of the modern cloth systems, you will need to decide between snaps or velcro-like (also referred to as hook-and-loop or aplix) closures. There are pros and cons to each, but our recommendation is simple and clear: go with snaps! They are more durable and you will be very happy when your baby rises to a toddler.

Snaps last longer
Velcro-like closures tend to wear out faster and if they are not fastened prior to laundering or come undone in the laundry, they stick to everything and create havoc in the laundry room! In addition, velcro-like closures tend to get filled up with lint, and as a result they lose their binding strength over time. While it seems like a velcro-like closure will be simpler, in the long-run we found that a snap closure is much, much, better in terms of ease of use.

If you do go with a velcro-like closure, several companies offer either replacement kits for the tabs (which involves ripping off old ones and sewing on new ones) or snap conversion programs where they will change your velcro closures to snap ones.

Hook and loop closures wear out over time.
Hook and loop closures wear out over time.


Snaps are toddler-proof
Snaps are harder for babies and toddlers to undo themselves. This doesn't matter when your baby is an infant, but as your baby gets older, they may become fascinated with undoing their diaper (potentially resulting in a pee-pee or poopy mess).

Velcro-like closures are easier
Nonetheless, velcro-like closures are more akin to putting on a disposable. Let's face it, matching up snaps on wriggly babies takes practice. Also, for those not accustomed to snaps, getting the correct fit with this type of closure can be more simplistic. So, a velcro-like closure is something to consider if grandparents or other caregivers such as a daycare provider will be using the diapers as well. But, we frankly think that a small supply of quality green disposables, like the Bambo Nature are a better option for these situations, and that you'll be better off with snap closures for your cloth diapering.

Further Deciding Factors


The following are topics to consider when making your selection. As a whole, they will help you sort out what matters to you most and create clarity in your purchasing decision.

How Many Will I Need to Get Started?


In general, you will need a stash of about 30 diapers to last for the duration from infancy to potty training (and having 36 diapers is a bit more convenient, especially in the first year). This can be accomplished economically with one-size (OS) systems which are very popular. With brands like Thirsties that tend to come in two sizes, reflected in our review of Thirsties Duo Wrap with Duo Hemp Prefold, you will need about that many for each size.

Interestingly, Thirsties recently launched a new One-Size Pocket Diaper, we'd imagine due to consumer demand for flexible sizing.

If you are committed to cloth from birth, you may need a smaller newborn set to get you through until baby fits into OS or Size 1. KangaCare sells great Rumparooz newborn diapers that are sweetly named Lil'Joey All-in-One (AIO) for Preemies and Newborns, these have a snap down front for use until the umbilical cord separates. If you are looking for a cheaper route for the early days, many families find that using a green disposable diaper or prefolds with covers work very well for the newborn size phase (typically just the first month).

Nighttime Diapering and Heavy Wetters


Cloth has some advantages over disposables for overnight and/or heavy wetters, since you can use an extra absorbent, double-thickness, insert for these situations. Pocket diapers like the Rumparooz G2 let you stuff several inserts into the pocket for overnight.

As with laundering routine, it may take some investigative work to find the right solution for diapering at night or even during the daytime if you have a heavy wetter on your hands. We found one blog to be particularly helpful when it came to these issues posted on The Cloth Diaper Whisperer titled Heavy Wetter 101.

One alternative solution for nighttime is to use a green disposable diaper. We'd recommend you consider our Editors' Choice winner, the Bambo Nature as an option for nighttime. We found it offered better absorbency than any of the cloth systems we tested, yet is one of the most green disposables.

Eco-Health Considerations


For some parents, eco-health is their number one priority. Frankly, all of the cloth systems we tested offer significant eco-health advantages over disposable diapers, even the most green disposable diapers typically include synthetic chemicals many people are concerned about (see our article, What Is Inside Those Disposable Diapers?, for more info).

For others, deciding to go with cloth is the easy part. The bigger eco-dilemma comes when trying to decide whether to buy diapers that strive to use only natural fibers like cotton, hemp, and/or bamboo, or to choose diapers that are made with fibers like polyester, a synthetic fabric utilized in microfleece and microfiber. There are pros and cons to both.

What's Better: Synthetic or Natural Fabrics?
Both natural and synthetic fabrics hold large amounts of liquid. The advantage of polyester-derived synthetics is their strength in wicking moisture away from the surface layer and into the absorbent layers below, keeping baby's skin drier. In our absorbency testing, we found this to be true (see How We Test).

However, many parents prefer natural fabrics touching their baby's skin. If this is the case, there are many organic cotton, hemp, bamboo and wool options out there. The GroVia Hybrid system offers an Organic Soaker Pad while providing more modern diaper technology than a basic organic cotton prefold. The manufacturer of the [[Flip Hybrid], which received our Best Value Award, also offers an Organic Insert option. In our testing, we found that the natural fabrics absorb a lot, but it takes longer for them to absorb than the synthetics. In addition, they do not have wicking ability. We quickly realized that for baby's comfort, particularly at nighttime, a re-useable fleece liner was very handy in keeping baby's skin dry.

Unfortunately, we discovered that the hemp inserts became rough over time., particularly if they were line-dried. If this is an issue for you, a helpful hint is that you can place line-dried hemp into the drier with some wool drier balls to soften them.

Most cloth covers use some type of waterproof barrier to keep moisture inside. (The exception to this are wool covers, which we did not test in our review.) This waterproofing is accomplished by either PUL or TPU, both laminates. There are only a few companies that utilize TPU in their waterproofing, which uses heat-bonding rather than chemical-bonding for lamination. In theory, this is a healthier option both for baby and the environment (TPU is biodegradable). The brands we tested in our review that incorporate TPU in the waterproofing are Rumparooz G2 and GroVia Hybrid.

What You Will Need


Beyond the actual diapers whether they are covers or pockets with inserts or AIOs, there is a list of cloth accoutrement that make life a lot easier. Some of these things are must haves and others are nice to haves. At BabyGearLab, we have taken the deep dive into each accoutrement category and feel confident in our ability to offer up quick insight(s) in addition to letting you know what our favorites are to date.

Dirty Laundry Storage: Dry Pail and a Wet Bag


Back in the day, your grandmother might have used a "wet pail" which was a pail filled with a soaking solution like water and bleach, to sterilize the diapers. With modern cloth diapers, those days are gone.
Now, most diaper manufacturers discourage the use of wet pails, and may very likely void your warranty if used.

Today, cloth diapering parents store dirty diapers in a hard dry pail with a reusable wet bag acting as a liner. This can be anything from a traditional trash can to a pail made specifically for cloth diapers. The other option is a large soft wet bag that hangs from either a doorknob or a hook. Make sure to wipe off any loose poop from the diaper with some toilet paper, or use a sprayer to clean it off, before putting it into the pail or wet bag.

When it is time to do diaper laundry, you throw the wet bag in with the diapers to keep it clean. It's nice to have a second wet bag so you have one ready to hold diapers while the other is being washed. To note, it is handy to have some source of air flow through the diaper pail or bag as this will help reduce bacteria and ammonia build up and mold. Additionally, laundering cloth diapers every 2 days instead of every 3 days will help these issues as well.

Our favorites to date are Simple Human Cans like this Simple Human 38 Liter Wide Step Rectangular Can with Kanga Care Pail Liner and for daycare or outings a smaller Kanga Care Wet Bag. So far, we have found that smaller hard cloth diaper pails like the Ubbi Diaper Pail and the Diaper Dekor Plus will only fit 10-12 diapers at most in the early days. Which means you will be doing cloth diapering laundry daily. If you have an older child with less diapers generated/day, this may be a fine solution. The liner that we prefer for these smaller pails is the Dekor Cloth Diaper Liner.

Cloth-Safe Laundry Detergent


Our favorite to date:

Cloth-Safe Diapering Cream


Never use traditional diaper rash creams or ointments with cloth diapers. Most diaper creams and ointments are impossible to get off the diapers. They cause staining and decrease the absorbency. Using cloth lessens the chance of your baby getting a diaper rash to begin with, but if it does happen there are a few things that you can do. Find a diaper cream that is made specifically for use with cloth. We like Earth Mama Angel Baby's Angel Baby Bottom Balm. You can also try a home remedy like olive oil, coconut oil or cornstarch, all of which won't ruin your diapers. If you really need to use a traditional diaper cream, use a liner as a barrier to protect the surface of the diaper.

Cloth Wipes


We love cloth wipes!!
Not only do they work much better than disposable wipes, there's no waste. Our favorites are the GroVia Cloth Wipes. And they're not a lot of extra work. We simply wet them, fold them in half, and put them into a wipes warmer near the changing table so they're ready when needed. Then, just throw them in the pail with the diapers that are going to be washed anyway.

Flushable Diaper Liners


Optional, BUT We highly recommend using flushable diaper liners!!

A diaper liner is a super thin sheet of fabric (much like a dryer sheet) that liquid can pass through. It's placed between baby and the diaper. Most liners are flushable and biodegradable. There's no need to worry about this until your baby starts eating solid foods. Exclusively breastfed baby's poop is actually water soluble, so there is no need to use liners at this stage - you can just throw the whole thing in the wash and it easily dissolves away. Once your baby moves on to solid foods, or if your baby is formula fed, their poop is going to change consistency and using a liner is one way to make your life in the cloth diapering world a lot easier. No spraying, dunking, swishing, scraping or shaking necessary - you simply lift the liner with the solids off the diaper and flush it down the toilet. If it's just wet you throw it in the garbage. You don't have to deal with transferring a soaking wet, drippy diaper to the pail. The thought is enough to shy many away from cloth diapers all together, so that's why we strongly urge you to use liners. Everything stays dry in the pail, which is what many diaper brands recommend anyway. It's not a perfect system all the time and sometimes the poop does find its way off the liner, especially as your baby gets older and more mobile, but it really helps! We recommend Eco Sprout Eco-Bottom Liners.

Sprayer


Many cloth diapering parents feel that when combined with a flushable liner, a sprayer reduces the yuck factor greatly. Typically hooked up to the plumbing of your toilet, it functions to clean off unmentionables prior to storing in a pail for laundry day. This is a necessity for those who cringe at the thought of using toilet paper or a spatula type device to remove stool. Let's face it, smearing it all over the place just doesn't sound like an awesome way to spend the day. The jury is still out as to which is the best diaper sprayer on the market today. Suffice it to say, we have about 10 of them lined up here ready for testing. Stay tuned!

Spray Shield


Though not a necessity, the Spray Pal is an optional nice to have item which functions to keep nasties from spraying everywhere when rinsing your diapers with a sprayer prior to throwing them into the laundry pail.

Drying Rack or Line


This is important for those covers that need to be line dried. If you have stains, putting a rack or line outside so that covers and inserts can sit in the sun will help remove both stains and stink.

Certainly, all of this stuff won't amount to much if you are feeling overwhelmed by the laundering process. We've got you covered! Yes, there is a learning curve here too, but it is by no means impossible! The key is to start with the basics and then learn as you go. Please refer to our article titled Cloth Diapering Laundry Basics & Helpful Hints to get you on your way. It also discusses basic strategies for battling stains and stinky smells as well as how to strip your diapers if needed.

Establishing Your Cloth Diapering Infrastructure


For each cloth diapering system, there are strong advocates. So, with loads of contrasting information available on the web, it can be tough for a novice to decide where to begin.

While cloth diapering services are still available, many moms prefer to wash their baby's fluffy stash themselves. Doing it yourself opens up a huge array of options, cuteness, and quality.

Cloth Diaper Systems: Finding the Best Fit


Though there is more of a learning curve to cloth diapering compared to using disposables, it is a more economical approach to diapering as well as healthier for baby. In addition, if you wash large loads at under 140F, line-dry diapers, and/or re-use them for a second child, the environment benefits as well.

Dr. Juliet Spurrier is founder and Mom-in-Chief at BabyGearLab
Juliet Spurrier, MD
About the Author
Dr. Juliet Baciocco Spurrier is a board certified pediatrician, mother of two, and founder of BabyGearLab. Juliet earned her Bachelor of Arts degrees in Anthropology and Italian Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and her Medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington DC. She completed her pediatric residency at the Doernbecher Children's Hospital at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR, and subsequently practiced pediatrics in both the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley. Juliet serves as Mom-in-Chief at BabyGearLab, where she oversees all baby product review activity, assuring that each review delivers on our commitment to quality.

 
Unbiased.