What Is Inside Those Disposable Diapers?

Your baby is going to spend a lot of time in diapers so it makes sense to consider the materials they are made of. Are the materials really safe? Are all disposable diapers built the same? In this article we'll try to answer those questions.
Article By:
Juliet Spurrier, MD and BabyGearLab Team

Last Updated:
Sunday
August 31, 2014

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This article is part of our review: Battle for the Best Disposable Diapers

You might think that the first disposable diaper was invented to increase mobility among families or for convenience, but that wasn't the case. Disposable diapers were developed by Marion Donovan after World War II due to a cotton shortage. It wasn't long however, before mothers realized the practical every day benefits of Donovan's 1950 diaper design: a rectangular plastic covering (initially made from shower curtains) over layers of tissue paper.

Since then, disposable diapers have gone through many changes; including more than 1,000 patents filed in their name. Disposable diapers increased in popularity following the introduction of Super Absorbent Polymers (SAP) in diapers in the mid-80s (more on this below). Today, an estimated 90% of US parents use disposable diapers, much to the chagrin of environmental activists who consider the landfill impact unethical.

Disposable diapers are a great convenience in the modern world, but many parents question just how safe the materials used in disposable diapers are. Most recently, diaper manufacturers have responded to environmental and health concerns raised by many parents by changing the way they make diapers and what diapers are composed of. There is a trend toward greener and more biodegradable disposable diapers, which we view as a step in the right direction. However, we're not out of the woods yet, and depending on which brand of diaper you choose, the risks and impacts can vary. To understand the risks, however, we first need to break down the components of disposable diapers into their many parts.

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.
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.
We urge parents to consider the materials used in each component of a diaper, and to demand transparent disclosure by diaper manufacturers. A summary of the basic diaper layer components is provided below. If you'd like more in depth information you will want to check out this article on Made How.
  • Inner Layer or Top Sheet - this layer sits next to your baby's skin and is therefore the front line on any toxicity or materials risk issue. This material is key. Require your diaper provider to disclose what their inner layer is made of; we found that many of them don't.
  • Absorbent Core - the theory is that this layer absorbs fluids, but the reality is that when baby repositions, fluid may be squeezed out of the core (potentially contaminated by the core materials) and back onto baby's skin. To enhance absorbency, every one of the diapers we tested includes a matrix of fluff material and chemical crystals, known as Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP), to soak up and trap fluid (more on this below). The role of the fluff, usually made from wood pulp and may also include wheat/corn based materials, is to distribute the fluid, while the SAP is intended to absorb fluid and lock it in the core and away from baby. The bulk of the diaper, especially when wet, is composed of the core materials. We consider this the 2nd most important material to understand.
  • Waterproof Outer Shell - all disposable diapers include some kind of waterproof material for the diaper's outer shell. These materials are most often some kind of petroleum-based plastic or plastic-treated material. Some green diaper companies use a plant-based plastic (aka bioplastic) to provide the waterproof coating, which you may see referred to as PLA or polylactic acid in their ingredients.

Manufacturers are becoming increasingly aware of parents concerns about toxic materials, so many will list what potentially harmful chemicals are not included on their website and/or packaging. We've researched each individual diaper in our Battle for the Best Disposable Diapers, and attempted to list what materials were explicitly noted as not included as a component for the review. Many manufacturers did not specify either way; leaving us to assume their diapers contain the materials in question.

Arrgh! The Mystery Ingredient May Be Toxic


Vexing to us is the lack of disclosure by many manufacturers about what, exactly, is in the diaper that they expect parents to place on baby's skin 24 x 7 for the next 3-5 years. We urge you to buy from manufacturers who offer complete transparency in their diaper ingredients. It is safer to buy from manufacturers who are not afraid to disclose their ingredients. The biggest brands, Huggies and Pampers, are often considered the most guilty on this score, but they are far from the only manufacturers who limit their disclosure of materials.

Some of this lack of disclosure is supported by our government, such as in the case of Fragrance ingredients, which can be considered a proprietary trade secret and exempt from detailed disclosure. As reported in the Huffington Post and elsewhere, "…due to the 'trade secret' status of fragrances, manufacturers are still not required by the FDA to disclose their ingredients on the label or in any other way." As a result, a manufacturer may bury dozens of potentially toxic chemicals under a "Fragrance" ingredient listing. For this reason, and others (see below on Perfumes), we urge parents to only buy Fragrance-free diapers.

The fact is that there are several potentially harmful chemicals that are known to be present in some disposable diapers, including: chlorine, dyes, fragrances, phthalates, and more. We advise relying on the Skeptic's Rule of Thumb when it comes to potentially harmful ingredients:
If they don't say it's not in there, then assume it's in there.
Unless a manufacturer explicitly assures you that their diaper does not include a potentially harmful ingredient known to be commonly used in diaper manufacturing, we advise you to assume it does. To simplify the process, we've attempted to compile a list of material disclosures in our Disposable Diaper review.

Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP)


The secret sauce inside disposable diapers since the mid-80s has been Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP). Referred to by various names such as hydrogel, sodium polyacrylate, polyacrylate absorbents, or in Pamper's FAQ as Absorbent Gel Material (AGM); these tiny crystals are carefully sprinkled inside the layers of the absorbent core of a diaper, being utilized for their incredible ability to absorb and trap fluid (i.e. from urine and wet poopy). And it's not just major brand-names like Pampers and Huggies that use SAP, it is used in ALL of the 24 diapers we tested. And we mean all, green disposable diapers, as well as traditional.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Concerns about SAP are often cited and come from multiple perspectives. Some of these are listed below:
  • SAP is a relatively new material, having been invented in Japan in the early 70s and only used in diapers since the mid-80s.
  • It is unclear if sufficient testing has been done to ensure that SAP is non-toxic and safe.
  • Most SAP in use today is derived from petroleum, and therefore may contain chemical components of concern
  • In the past, SAP was linked with Toxic Shock Syndrome (however, it does appear that SAP itself was not a direct cause; more on this below).

In our own research, we have not been able to find credible, evidence-based studies which prove that SAP is either toxic or dangerous to humans. And, to the contrary, we have found a number of presumably tree-hugging green diaper companies who have concluded that the SAP they use is safe and non-toxic including but not limited to:
  • BAMBO
  • The Honest Company
  • Seventh Generation

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 disposable diaper's absorbent core and onto baby's skin. Manufacturers recommend just wiping it off.
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 disposable diaper's absorbent core and onto baby's skin. Manufacturers recommend just wiping it off.

On the whole we're left concluding, somewhat anxiously, that the body of evidence (or lack thereof to the contrary) suggests that SAP appears to be safe. Perhaps as a testament to the apparent safety of SAP, our founder and one of the primary authors of this article, Dr. Juliet Spurrier, is using BAMBO Nature diapers, which are a green diaper with SAP, for overnight diapers with her children (although Dr. Spurrier notes, emphatically, that if she knew then what she knows now about disposable diapers, she would have chosen cloth diapering for daytime use, and used a green disposable for overnight).

This short video will give you a feeling for SAP's unique water absorption capabilities:


Link to Toxic Shock Syndrome


SAP has previously been linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). However, most experts do not believe the SAP itself was the cause. They feel that the prolonged internal-use that SAP tampons enabled, provided a breeding ground for bacteria which lead to TSS. In 1978 Proctor & Gamble introduced the ill-fated Rely tampon. The use of SAP allowed the Rely tampon to absorb an entire menstrual flow, encouraging users to use the product for a prolonged period of time without replacement. By 1980, the popular Rely tampon was linked to an uptick in Toxic Shock Syndrome incidents and was recalled. The prolonged internal-use of the Rely tampon is believed to have created an increased opportunity for growth of bacterium and thus increased risk of TSS infection. The use of SAP in tampons was subsequently discontinued.

Biodegradable SAP


SAP is a plastic and to our knowledge, all of the SAP in diapers today is derived from petroleum. Several companies have stated an intention of manufacturing plant based biodegradable SAP. Similar to the processes used for creating biodegradable trash bags, a combination of cellulose from wood or wheat, and starch from corn, potato, yams or other starch-rich plants, can be used to make a plant-based SAP which has similar absorbency to its petroleum based cousin, but improved biodegradability. To our knowledge plant based SAP remains in the research and development stages and is not currently being used by any diaper manufacturer that we are aware of. Because these materials are relatively new, they have not undergone any significant testing. However, the use of natural and sustainable materials and increased biodegradability are a virtuous combination.

Chlorine-free and Why it Matters


In disposable diapers, chlorine is used as a bleach to whiten diaper material. The problem with chlorine is that it emits small traces of known toxic chemicals called dioxins during the bleaching process. The desire to keep baby from being exposed to dioxins is the primary motivation for using chlorine-free diapers.

Dioxins


Based on animal studies, dioxins are believed to have the ability to "cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer." The Environmental Protection Agency has identified dioxins as a "likely human carcinogen."

While dioxins are only left in trace quantities in chlorine-bleached diapers, we prefer "none" to "trace" when it comes to babies. That's why we advocate going with a chlorine-free diaper. Happily, going chlorine-free does not need to pinch your pocketbook; several diapers are both low-cost and chlorine-free. Target's Up & Up is chlorine free and the cheapest diaper in our testing for $0.14 per diaper. Nurture by Nature is also chlorine-free and has a middle of the road price at $0.26/ diaper. Last years Editors' Choice Earth's Best Tender Care and this years Editors' Choice, Nature Babycare are also both chlorine-free and come it at $0.34 and $0.35 respectfully.

Perfume-free Preferred


Perfume fragrances are sometimes used in disposable diapers, presumably to mask poop's distinctive stench. However, an infant's rapidly evolving organ systems are both immature and exquisitely sensitive to chemical insults. The scents found in many diapers are strong and chemical-laden, harboring unnecessary irritants with potential to cause health issues like diaper rash and respiratory symptoms. Equally concerning, manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals used in fragrances as the FDA allows them to consider their fragrances "trade secrets." Organizations such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics have commissioned independent labs to examine fragrances and have found potentially dangerous synthetic chemicals in use.

Our recommendation is simple: choose a perfume-free diaper. You don't need it, so it's not worth the risk. And, like avoiding chlorine in diapers, avoiding perfume in diapers is easy and painless. A lot of great diapers are perfume-free, including 13 out of the 24 diapers we tested.

Be Careful with Dyes


Dyes in diapers can be found in the colored patterns on the outside of the diaper, in the leg cuff and back elastic, and in the wetness indicator. These dyes can cause skin rash, as they may cause allergic reactions in some babies where the dye touches baby's skin. In a study published in Pediatrics in 2005, switching to dye-free diapers was shown to eliminate skin rashes which occurred in areas exposed to colored portions of diapers.

The photo shown below is an example of dermatitis caused by the dyes contained in the leg cuff of a diaper. Notice the green cuff of diaper; this green color is created using dyes.
This photo appears in Diaper Dye Dermatitis  a study published in Pediatrics  and shows a rash stemming from the green dye. Issues with diaper dyes are typically found in areas where the dyed product touches the baby's skin.
This photo appears in Diaper Dye Dermatitis, a study published in Pediatrics, and shows a rash stemming from the green dye. Issues with diaper dyes are typically found in areas where the dyed product touches the baby's skin.

Some manufacturers have chosen to provide dye-free diapers. Top performing dye free diapers in our test include:
Other diaper companies, like BAMBO and Honest Diapers, use dye pigments that do not contain heavy metals, which they believe are safe and hypoallergenic. TO make things even more confusing or difficult to understand or compare from one diaper to another is the terminology that each manufacturer uses. We would like to include information on dyes in the information we supply for choosing diapers, however we are finding it very difficult to do so. With words like dye, disperse dye, pigments, colorants, and inks floating around (depending on which diaper you are reviewing) it became difficult to understand. When we tried to delve deeper to sort it out, we found even more confusing information.

There seems to be no clear or consistent use of any of the words. What one manufacturer calls a pigment, might be called a colorant by another. With no agreed upon definitions or governing body to regulate the use of the words, it is hard to say what is in each diaper. What we found were some diapers that said dye-free had obvious colored portions. When we looked at their websites for more information we found the words pigments, inks, and colorants to describe the colored portions.

Our take on it: we like dye-free and recommend it. Features like wetness indicators though helpful, are unnecessary and we prefer to keep it simple. We suggest you look for diapers that have no obvious colors near baby's skin. So while a pattern on the back cover may not cause a problem, colored leg cuffs might. If your baby has a reaction to a particular diaper, that claims to be dye free, we suggest you try a different brand just in case the original diaper did use an additive, but calls it pigments.

Fear of Phthalates


If you already read our article, Are Plastics Safe for Baby Bottles, you may know that phthalates are a plastic ingredient of concern in baby bottles. But, they may also be in your baby's diaper. Phthalates are mainly plasticizers, or "substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity." They are generally used to soften plastic, for example in making a soft vinyl, and are also commonly added to lotions and shampoos. In some disposable diapers, phthalates may be used as part of the process to create a waterproof outer liner. Phthalates are not tightly chemically-bonded to the plastic, and as noted in the Pediatrics paper cited below, "are therefore continuously released into the air or through leaching into liquids."

Phthalates are on the radar of the medical community — and we think they should be on yours too — due to potential toxic effects to the developing endocrine and reproductive systems, which infants are particularly vulnerable. Phthalate sources are not limited to some diaper liners, but a broad range of "plastic products such as children's toys, lubricants, infant care products, chemical stabilizers in cosmetics, personal care products, and polyvinyl chloride tubing." The American Academy of Pediatrics journal, Pediatrics, published a paper titled, Baby Care Products: Possible Sources of Phthalate Exposure in July 2008. In it they noted, "Children are uniquely vulnerable to phthalate exposures given their hand-to-mouth behaviors, floor play, and developing nervous and reproductive systems."

Not all diapers use Phthalates. But, figuring out which ones do is a challenge, since US law does not currently require disclosure of Phthalates.

Again, we advocate using the Skeptic's Rule of Thumb when it comes to potentially toxic ingredients: "if they don't say it's not in there, then assume it's in there." Here's a few manufacturers who have gone on record stating there are no phthalates in their diapers:

Environmental Impacts


The Sierra Club has a balanced view on disposable diapers, and they encourage the use of biodegradable diapers if you use disposables.
The largest independent study to date, released in 2008 by Britain's Environment Agency, found that the overall impact of cloth versus disposable diapers is highly dependent on how you wash and dry your cloth diapers. For example, if you wash cloth diapers in a full load with water at or below 140 degrees Fahrenheit, line dry the diapers, and reuse them for a second child you would be reducing your global warming impact by 40%. However, if you use a dryer for the diapers and use water above 140 degrees, your impact could be 75% worse than using just disposable diapers. (Source: Sierra Club Green Home)

Our recommendation is to consider the level of biodegradability in your decision making.

What does Biodegradable mean?


In order for a product to be considered biodegradable it has to meet certain qualifications. Those qualifications are outlined in the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Green Guides. The Green Guides state that, "the entire item will completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal." It further goes on to define a reasonable amount of time as one year unless otherwise specified.

So for a disposable diaper to claim some level of biodegradability, it must show through scientific and independent sources that the diaper, or specific components of the diaper, will degrade into elements found in nature within 1 year after it is sent to the landfill (customary disposal location).

Do Diapers Breakdown in Landfills?


To answer this question we really need to look at how landfills work. In general, landfills are designed to isolate trash from the surrounding environment. This is done to help protect the environment from the toxic items usually found in the landfill. To accomplish this, landfills usually employ a plastic or clay liner as a containment system. The goal is to prevent trash from coming into contact with air and water. As trash is deposited into the landfill, dirt is placed in layers on top of it to ensure it stays dry and has limited contact with air. So by design, a landfill contains very little air or moisture, two components necessary for bio-degradation to occur.

When you throw away your disposable diaper, it more than likely ends up in a landfill, or as the FTC calls is, a customary disposal site. Once there, it is placed in an environment specifically designed to prevent contact with air and moisture. Without air and moisture, it can't biodegrade. Which may explain the estimate of 500+ years for a disposable diaper to decompose. Therefore, we feel it is safe to assume that no matter how green a disposable diaper is, or how much of it contains "biodegradable materials", that it will probably not be breaking down quickly in the landfill (not in your baby's lifetime), at least not in a way that meets the FTC Green Guide stipulations of 1 year.

Are Biodegradable Claims Deceptive?


A recent FTC order did confirm that some marketing of green biodegradable diapers was misleading and deceptive. While the order was specifically about gDiapers, it wouldn't surprise us if the FTC decision is eventually applied to all biodegradable claims for disposable diapers.

If the already mentioned Green Guides are followed, and a diaper must decompose into natural elements within a year of customary disposal, than we feel that all claims of biodegradability concerning disposable diapers, or their components, is deceptive marketing. It is unclear to us that any of the diapers that claim biodegradability are actually in compliance with the FTC's legal definition of breaking down in one year. However, we would assume that in practice the inclusion of more biodegradable materials would result in some portions of the diaper possibly breaking down faster than less biodegradable options; but faster might mean tens of years instead of hundreds.

So Do the Claims Matter?


We think the use of biodegradable materials or the claims of biodegradability of a disposable diaper are relevant. While the marketing of such claims may be deceptive, by leading consumers to believe the product will degrade quickly in a landfill when in practice it won't, we feel the overall end result is still a positive step in the right direction and indicates a product that is at least trying to be better for the environment. Without verifiable scientific evidence it is hard to unequivocally determine the benefits of such biodegradable materials in regards to environmental impacts. But we can't help but feel it is a step in the right direction.

Toxic Products


Did you know that human feces, or poop as we commonly call it, is toxic to the environment? Did you know it is illegal to dispose of it in the landfill? Even if it is contained in a disposable diaper? Did you know that feces disposed of in a landfill could seep into the water table and contaminate our drinking water?

Some parents cite that a deterrence of using cloth diapers is the cleaning or rinsing of poop out of the diaper prior to washing. Given that any feces is toxic, and should not be disposed of in a landfill, then the same rinsing should happen with disposable diapers. This knowledge levels the playing field somewhat between cloth and disposable diapers and their perceived convenience.

The Better but Still not Great Disposables


With the above information in mind, here are some of our favorite green diapers and how what they have to say about their biodegradability, or partial biodegradability. Remember that once they go in a landfill, their ability to degrade is severely impacted. In other words, while it may not take the postulated 500 years to degrade, it could still take a considerable amount of time.
  • Broody Chick is the only one of 24 diapers we tested that claims 100% biodegradability. Unfortunately, this very green diaper did not score very high in our performance ratings.
  • BAMBO Nature claims 80% biodegradability, and was also the highest scoring diaper in our performance ratings.
  • Attitude offers a biodegradable inner shell and padding, and was the 4th highest scoring diaper in our performance tests.
  • Nature Babycare offers a biodegradable back sheet film based on corn and biodegradable high loft for their core and came in 2nd in our scoring.

At the end of the day, a disposable diaper is still a disposable diaper no matter how green it is, or what claims it makes concerning biodegradable materials. The environmental impact is still substantial. So if the impact of your baby's diaper wearing years is a concern to you, we encourage you to consider one of the top performing cloth diapers.

Our Recommendations


Our advice is simple: play it safe with your baby.

Although it is difficult to know exactly how much the chemicals from disposable diapers can affect your baby, or to what degree their risk of exposure to them is, we'd say it's better to be safe than sorry. Based on the research compiled above, we recommend you choose a diaper with the following characteristics:
  • Chlorine-free
  • Fragrance-free
  • Phthalate-free preferred
  • Dye-free (or at least pigments without heavy metals)
  • We like biodegradability for what it implies, but it is not our top concern

No diaper we tested was perfect, but the top three performing diapers in our tests are all good options from our point of view and we'd recommend you give them a closer look:
To learn more about BabyGearLab's in-depth review of 24 Disposable Diapers, which includes a list of the disclosed material contents of each diaper, go to:
/Disposable-Diaper-Reviews

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.

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