How to Choose the Best Disposable Diapers

Buying Advice
By Juliet Spurrier, MD and Natalie Kellum - Thursday September 5, 2013
Click to enlarge
Your baby will go through 2,500-3,000 diapers in the first year alone. Choosing the right one for you and your baby is a key decision.
The choices may seem endless when searching for a disposable diaper. It is also impossible to know from glancing at the package how one brand compares to another in absorbency, fit, and comfort. Our goal is to spare you this guess-work. We hope that this article as well as our Best Disposable Diaper Review will lend themselves to an overall easier decision-making process for parents and to, above all, even happier babies.

Please also refer to our companion article on diaper materials titled, What Is Inside Those Disposable Diapers?

For starters
First, take into consideration both your infant's needs as well your own priorities. Every family has their own bottom line. Is it Cost? Health? The environment? The perfect fit? Do you want it all? Second, don't buy in bulk until you are satisfied with a particular diaper's performance and fit. Third, wait to buy your baby's first diapers until just before or just after he/she is born and you know their weight. A few packages of newborn-sized diapers (up to 10 lb) may be all you need before heading onto size 1 (8-14 lb). (Small tip: European brands like Nature Babycare tend to have their own sizing systems.) Ordering diapers online is a breeze and typically they can arrive at your doorstep before you even get home from the hospital. Lastly, cost per diaper will be lowest once you are ready to buy in bulk. The prices listed for each brand in our Best Disposable Diaper Review comparison chart reflect bulk purchasing.

Click to enlarge
Diapers are constructed in three layers, an inner layer that sits against baby's skin is designed to be soft, stay relatively dry, and wick away moisture into the core. The absorbent core is designed to pull moisture in and trap it to keep wetness away from baby to avoid rashes. The outer layer is waterproof to prevent leaks.
Credit: BabyGearLab Staff
Choose a diaper that exceeds in absorbency
Absorbency is the most important trait of any diaper, whether disposable or cloth. It not only reflects how much liquid it can hold, but also how well that liquid wicks away from baby and distributes throughout a diaper's core as well as how well it continues to hold that moisture away from baby's skin. Poor absorption causes baby's skin to be exposed to persistent dampness which can lead to diaper rash. Our absorption challenge gave us some interesting insights into how each of the 20 disposable diapers we tested compared to one another both in absorption and overall functionality. In our testing, the two diapers which claimed the highest absorbency scores (10 out of 10) also claimed the highest overall scores: BAMBO Nature (our Top Pick) and Attitude.

Click to enlarge
SAP is claimed to absorb up to 300x its weight in water and retain it. In the left photo, you see a small pile of white SAP crystals from a diaper's absorbent core. It has a consistency of a very fine white sand. We then added 65 drops of water, which was completely absorbed by the SAP in a few minutes to become the gelatinous crystal pile you see from two angles in the center and right photos.
Credit: BabyGearLab Staff
Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP)
Allow us to delve into a brief of detail on how diapers are constructed. We want to make sure everyone is aware of the secret chemical ingredient that is used in almost every brand of disposable diaper, green or otherwise, in the absorbent core of the diaper: Super Absorbent Polymer.

Click to enlarge
Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP). While believed to be safe and non-toxic, this crystal-like gel material freaks out many-a-parent if it escapes from a soaked diaper's absorbent core and onto baby's skin. Manufacturers recommend just wiping it off.
Credit: BabyGearLab Staff

Click to enlarge
This photo shows the same brand diaper (Bambo), cut in half to reveal the absorbent core, when dry (top) and when wet after an overnight wetting (below). The top layer of the wet diaper feels dry to the touch, owing to the urine being effectively absorbed into the core. SAP crystals do the heavy lifting, and are sandwiched between the upper and lower layers of the diaper core material.
Credit: BabyGearLab Staff
The crystaline SAP powder (like a very fine white sand) is sprinkled into the middle of the absorbent core layers. SAP is the meat of your diaper's absorbency sandwich, and it is placed in between the upper and lower core layers to provide the primary method of absorbing urine and wet fecal material and trapping it in the core. Even green diapers like Bambo, Seventh Generation, and gDiapers rely on SAP in their diapers and consider it safe. In fact, gDiapers has an informative SAP page on their site explaining why they've concluded that SAP is safe and non-toxic. In our research, we have not found any scientific study that says otherwise.

Find a good fit to help avoid leakage
Diapers are sized by weight. However, much like children's clothes, fit between disposable diaper brands can vary. Most diapers help assure a leak-free fit by providing a double elastic sealing edge, one edge just along the absorbent core, and one along the outer shell of the diaper.

Click to enlarge
Most diapers use two elastic edges to prevent leaks, however the quality of materials is really what separates a diaper's performance on fit and leakage.
Credit: BabyGearLab Staff
However, despite this similarity, we found not all diapers are equal in fit and leakage tests. In our testing, we found that materials differed significantly from diaper to diaper and that this, too, could also affect fit and leakage. Some were softer and conformed to the body nicely while others were stiffer causing a poorer fit. Our testing revealed two top scoring diapers in the fit/leakage category (both 9 out of 10), Earth's Best TenderCare (our Editor's Choice) and BAMBO Nature (our Top Pick for Best Green diaper).

Click to enlarge
The best fitting diapers in our tests implemented an elastic stretch in the back of the diaper and/or the side wings/closure tab (as shown above). This flexibility, when combined with soft materials, can help create a great fit that is comfortable for baby.
Credit: BabyGearLab Staff

Every baby is unique
Of course, every baby has different proportions, so finding a disposable diaper with the perfect fit can involve some trial and error. Let's face it, even the best absorbing diaper may leak if the fit is not right. As such, parents may need to try a handful of brands to find the diaper that fits their baby best. Again, try to avoid buying in bulk until you find your "go-to" diaper.

Baby's comfort
Click to enlarge
The quality of securing closure tabs can make a difference for baby's comfort. Too scratchy and they may cause irritation of baby's sensitive skin.
Credit: BabyGearLab Staff
Keeping baby comfortable not only requires stellar absorbency and an adequate fit, but also fabric that feels soft on baby's skin. Securing tabs need to stay put and not be pokey or scratchy. In addition edges and seams need to feel seamless to avoid chafing yet do the job seamlessly. We took a look at these qualities for you as it's impossible without buying and comparing them all side-by-side to really know what you are getting your baby into. And certainly, baby will be the first to let you know if there are issues.

For the eco-health minded
Save the earth
Much debate surrounds which are more earth-friendly: green disposable diapers or cloth diapers. Some brands of disposable diapers are manufactured with attention to minimizing carbon footprint. However, they wind up in the landfill where even compostable diapers will fail to biodegrade if in a dark, airless environment. Alternatively, cloth diapers require lots of precious water and electricity to clean over and over. Nonetheless, if you and your family do not want to commit to cloth diapering but still want to make an effort toward being eco-conscious, much friendlier choices exist than ever before. These options may use chlorine-free processing, boast minimal packaging, and often contribute to charities in an attempt to offset their footprint.

Keeping baby healthy
Whether your child has chemical sensitivities or true allergies that require hypoallergenic diapers free of perfume or latex or you are a parent that is concerned about minimizing your baby's exposure to synthetic chemicals, health-conscious qualities in disposables are now more commonplace. They can be found in well-performing, more affordable options like Target's Up & Up (awarded our Best Value) as well as high-end brands such as BAMBO Nature (our Top Pick winner). We at BabyGearLab believe that in this arena, less is more.

Our recommendations are:
  • Chlorine-free - recommended. Chlorine treatment of diapers can leave trace quantities of a dangerous chemical called Dioxin. We don't feel it is worth the risk, and there are a lot of chlorine-free options available.
  • Fragrance-free & Dye-free - recommended. Fragrance and dyes are unnecessary in a diaper and some babies will be allergic to them. Leave them out. A good way to deal with dirty diaper smells is changing the diaper, not adding fragrance to it.
  • Super Absorbent Polymer - You will be hard-pressed to find any disposable diaper, even green diaper, without Super Absorbent polymer (SAP). If that is your desire, the only functional option may be cloth diapers. Nonetheless, we have been unable to find any evidence-based literature to suggest SAP use in disposable diapers is harmful. Even BAMBO Nature, winner of the coveted Nordic Swan Eco-label, uses SAP (in their "mix of wheat starch and acrylic polymers which do not contain phthalates").
  • Consider using Cloth Diapers - without a doubt, cloth diapers today are better than ever before, and represent a superior choice on eco-health metrics. They cost much less, reduce environmental impact, come in colorful cute patterns, and do not contain materials that leave us anxious. What's more, cloth diapers are a lot easier to work with than the one's your parents might have used. We'll publish a comprehensive review of 16 top cloth diapers in Oct 2013.

Price Per Diaper Estimates
As a new parent, it is most common to price-compare using newborn or size 1 diapers. However, we advise caution in using this approach. Here's why:
  • The cost of size 1 diapers is deceptively low when compared to a weighted average diaper cost across all sizes and typical unit volumes used.
  • Manufacturers may game their size 1 cost, offering it as a low-cost loss-leader, knowing that most parents stay with the brand they start with. They then seek profits in the more frequently used size 2, 3, and 4 diapers.

We Use Size 3 for Price Comparison
Based on our analysis of weighted average costs across six popular diaper brands, we believe Size 3 diaper cost represents the approximate weighted average cost, and can be reasonably used as a practical approximation of lifetime average cost to compare diapers. You'll see in our reviews that we calculate an estimated diaper per unit price using size 3 bulk-volume diaper prices at Amazon (or other retailer if not available at Amazon) to estimate a fair price. We did not include shipping price, since Amazon offers Prime which we feel is a bargain for frequent Amazon shoppers. However, in the case of The Honest Company diapers we did include shipping costs in calculating per unit prices since there was no alternative to avoid those costs.

Subscription Pricing Discounts
Some vendors offer additional discounts if you purchase a diaper purchase "subscription". If you have settled into a specific brand you are comfortable with, these subscription discounts can be smart and convenient. But, we urge you to avoid subscription pricing until you have determined that the diaper works for both you and baby. The prices we show as estimates list or street price do not reflect subscription prices.

Concluding tips
To aid you in your selection process, we encourage you to take a look at our companion article on diaper materials, What Is Inside Those Disposable Diapers?

In summary, when choosing a disposable diaper, we recommend that absorbency be your top priority and the rest will follow. In our testing, the diapers that scored the highest in absorbency also scored very well in fit/leakage and comfort. In addition, we feel that going green is the right thing to do as well as an easy choice as our process revealed many high-scoring diapers that are both earth and health friendly at a variety of price points sure to please all.
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.

Related Gear Reviews
Earth's Best TenderCare Chlorine Free Diapers

Earth's Best TenderCare Chlorine Free Diapers
$0.30
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Editors' Choice Award
Up & Up (Target brand)

Up & Up (Target brand)
$0.14
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Best Value Award
BAMBO Nature

BAMBO Nature
$0.44
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Top Pick Award
Attitude

Attitude
$0.45
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Pampers Swaddlers

Pampers Swaddlers
$0.27
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Nature Babycare

Nature Babycare
$0.35
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Nurtured by Nature

Nurtured by Nature
$0.27
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
The Honest Company Diapers

The Honest Company Diapers
$0.55
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Cuties

Cuties
$0.31
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Fisher-Price Happy Days

Fisher-Price Happy Days
$0.21
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
More related gear reviews...