The goal of this review is to expose the mystery that is cloth diapering and find the very best of 15 carefully selected cloth systems. During a test period of over a year, we put the competition through intensive side-by-side comparison evaluation. The tests include daily hands-on use with real babies, absorbency in-house lab tests, research of the eco-health of each diaper, side-by-side fit comparisons, leakage, and level of comfort for baby, and last but not least, ease-of-use when changing the diapers. Many parents find modern day cloth diapering easier than expected, but using cloth can still be overwhelming selecting the right brand, and learning how to use the system. There are many aspects to consider and with this in mind, we conducted our most extensive testing process. After teaming a pediatrician and a cloth diapering preschool teacher (along with a toddler and infant), we were able to determine our favorite diapers in the competition.
The Search for the Best Cloth Diapers
Our award-winning diapers are still our favorites in cloth diapers, but Blueberry makes an AIO diaper that you might want to consider. The Blueberry Simplex All In One Diaper is a one size diaper that fits little ones from 10-35 lbs, making it worth the higher price tag of $31 each. This diaper has a waterproof outer shell and a 100% organic cotton inner lining. The semi-attached liner can slip into an inner pocket or can lay over the top while you fill the pocket with inserts for extra absorbency. We haven't had a chance to test them ourselves, but most users seem satisfied with their performance with some complaints about the challenging snaps.
Best Overall Cloth Diaper
This diaper can also be tailored to the perfect fit thanks to the many snaps on the cover. And, as shown above, their 6r Soakers pads are included in two different sizes that have multiple configurations and used in conjunction with one another for maximum absorption. The small hourglass insert is intended for use with newborns and small infants, while the bigger size soaker is appropriate for larger babies and young toddlers.
Read review: Rumparooz G2
Best Bang for the Buck
We find this to one of the most user-friendly diapers. As a hybrid system, it is simple and flexible to suit daytime, overnight, and on-the-go needs. Parents have four insert options to choose from, all compatible with the same cover. This diaper is a one size diaper, so there's no need to keep purchasing additional products as your baby sizes up. Although one size, this diaper is trim and sleek, providing a snug and comfortable fit with no extra bulk. The insert fabric is soft to the touch, and the cover feels terrific too - you can tell that it's a high-quality product. It doesn't have the plastic-like feel that many hybrid covers do and we appreciate the stretchy tabs for the extended movement they allow.
Read review: Flip Hybrid
Best Green Diaper
GroVia offers excellent package sets at a discounted price to get you started. They also have a Snap Conversion Program where you can send in your GroVia shell with hook and loop closures and have them convert the Velcro into snaps. We only tested the GroVia Hybrid in snaps.
Read review: GroVia Hybrid
Best for Specific Applications
We recommend the bumGenius Freetime for those looking for a cloth system that is most comparable to disposables. It was the highest scoring AIO cloth system in our roundup of 15 cloth diaper systems and placed an impressive 4th place. Also, the Freetime performs admirably in fit/leakage and comfort with a 9 of 10, and an 8 for ease-of-use. Absorbency is where the Freetime loses points, however, with a 5 of 10, it is the 8th most absorbent diaper in the group. Although line-drying is required, it dries very quickly with energy conservation as a nice bonus.
Read review: bumGenius Freetime
Analysis and Test Results
Reusable diapers have been around for a long time with various native peoples using wraps of animal skin padded with grass or moss. Cloth diapers became popular in the 1800s and were significantly improved following World War II when a series of innovations came to market. In 1946, a housewife named Marion Donovan invented the waterproof cover (Donovan also invented the first disposable diaper) selling the patent for 1 million dollars, quite a sum in the day. In 1950, a diaper service owner invented the prefold diaper and the first cover with snaps to replace safety pins also came into being.
In the 1960s, the disposable diaper took hold in the United States and quickly became the choice for most new parents. Subsequently, cloth use dramatically declined in the subsequent decades.
Popularity for cloth diapering is on the rise, taking hold in increasing numbers since 2000. Modern cloth systems are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Some innovative new systems were developed to make the process simpler, easier, and less messy than ever before.We consider four key elements to modern diapering systems:
- Colorful waterproof cover —
- Absorbent inserts —
- Flushable liners —
- Helpful accessories —
While the initial outpouring of money may be more for cloth diapers over disposables, in the long run, it is an economical way to go when it comes to meeting your diapering needs. Also, there are enough options and varieties on the market, that there is something for almost every budget. If cloth diapering is important to you but your budget is tight, requesting help via your registry or cash cards for future diapering purchases can get you on the track to making cloth a way of life. With our Best Buy, Flip Hybrid sporting a lifetime cost of just $300; it is easy to see the money savings in green, or rather black and white.
Why Use Cloth?
The case for using cloth is simple:
- Saves you money — we estimate the average expenditure per child for a disposable diaper like Pampers Swaddlers is approximately $1,700. A premium green diaper like Bambo Nature will cost you approximately $2,100. Compare that to the cost of a lifetime supply of the Best Value Award Winning Flip Hybrid at approximately $300, and the savings is a number that makes everyone smile. Our Editors' Choice system, the Rumparooz G2 costs a bit more at $720 lifetime cost but is still comparatively inexpensive in relation to disposables. Your total cost will include about $200 to $600 more depending on whether you use flushable liners or not, $50 in electricity for machine wash/dry, $150 for cloth laundry detergent, and about $400 for flushable liners. Going with cloth results in substantial savings per child, and it could be more since you can re-use your diapers for a second child or sell gently-used diapers online.
- Better for baby's health — You may be concerned about the possibility of hidden chemicals in disposables and want your baby to avoid them or at least reduce their exposure. You may have a baby with sensitive skin prone to rashes. Cloth diapers do not contain fragrances, lotions, or latex. They are available in a variety of natural and sustainable materials, and many parents report that switching to cloth resulted in far fewer diaper rashes.
- Better for the environment — the impact of disposables on our environment is dramatic with an estimated 6,000 diaper changes per child. Going cloth lessens your impact on the environment by limiting your contribution to the approximate 28 billion disposable diapers and the toxic solid waste that goes with them and end up in US landfills each year.
Selecting the Right Type of Cloth System
Choosing which cloth system to buy is a big decision, especially since it is likely a long-term investment. There are a lot of choices when it comes to cloth, and we wanted to get to the bottom of it, no pun intended. We cover this in more detail in our Buying Advice article.
There are three major types of cloth systems, but we recommend you focus on the pocket diapers and hybrid all-in-two types. Read on to see why.
All-in-ones (also known as AIOs) get their name thanks to the outer cover and absorbent core insert that are sewn together, and thus are all one piece. These diapers are most comparable to a disposable diaper in that there are no separate parts to manage and this adds some convenience when performing a diaper change. Daycare centers or babysitters who are either reticent or intimidated by cloth often prefer an AIO system. Alternatively, many cloth diapering parents choose the option of using green disposable diapers for these situations. The downside of all-in-one systems comes in the form of added cost and considerably more bulk to launder. Since the cover and insert are connected, you'll need one for every diaper change, and they typically take longer to dry. This design means you'll need a supply of dozens of the more expensive AIO system; we suggest a supply of 30-36 diapers for convenience. Lifetime costs of AIO systems in our tests ranged from $600 to $920.
Bottom line: pass on the all-in-one systems. If your daycare center or babysitter needs something simpler than your normal cloth system, we recommend you consider a quality green disposable diaper like Bambo Nature or Nature Babycare for these occasions.
The pocket diaper cover has an inner layer of soft material that is sewn with a pocket opening for stuffing an absorbent insert in. This design is similar to a kangaroo's pocket, but instead of stuffing a joey inside, you stuff an absorbent core of cloth material in the pocket. Pocket brand names often use the kangaroo theme, such as the Joey-bunz insert made by BabyKicks, or our Editors' Choice winner by Kanga Care, the Rumparooz G2. Pocket diapers are preferred by many because they keep the absorbent core insert locked into one place, and make it easier to stuff an extra insert in for overnight. The disadvantage is similar to AIOs in terms of higher cost and increased laundry bulk as you need to replace the pocket cover with every diaper change. As such, we'd recommend a supply of 30-36 pocket covers along with a supply of inserts. Our estimated lifetime cost of the Rumparooz G2 is $720.
Bottom line: Pocket diaper systems are one of our two favorite types of cloth systems, and we recommend narrowing your selection down to either a pocket diaper system or an all-in-two hybrid system described below (or a combination of the two).
All-in-two (AI2) systems rely on two parts, a separate waterproof cover (sometimes referred to as a "wrap" or "shell") and an absorbent insert. Unlike a pocket diaper, the insert isn't tucked in but is laid onto the cover. The advantage of this design is that it takes less time to prepare the diaper during a change. Perhaps more significantly, there is less laundry bulk and reduced overall cost with this approach. Why? You can reuse the cover if it isn't soiled. While you'll need a recommended supply of 30-36 covers in an all-in-one or pocket system, you could get away with no more than ten covers in some all-in-two systems, combined with a supply of 30-36 separate absorbent inserts. The all-in-two approach offers the lowest lifetime cost, and our Best Value Award winner, the Flip Hybrid, offers an impressive combination of nearly top scoring performance and the lowest lifetime cost of around $300.We tested two different varieties of AI2 systems: Hybrids and Prefolds.
- Prefolds —
- Hybrid —
Bottom line: In our absorbency tests, the hybrid cloth inserts we tested perform significantly better than prefold inserts.
Bottom line: the all-in-two hybrid cloth diapering systems along with pocket diapers are our favorite two cloth varieties. Hybrids have the advantage of low lifetime cost and strong performance. Our Best Value Award winner, the Flip Hybrid, is a fantastic hybrid diapering system and one we recommend without hesitation. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the Flip Hybrid's Stay Dry Insert offered the very best absorbency performance of any cloth system we tested.
For more detailed information on the full range of cloth systems, take a look at our Cloth Diaper Buying Advice article.
Criteria for Evaluation
During testing, we focused on five key performance criteria with absorbency and fit/leakage as the most important. Our ratings are based on real-world testing on babies of differing ages, from infant to toddler, and side-by-side lab tests like our absorbency test.
More than any other performance factor, absorbency is the most critical for preventing diaper rash. Ongoing moisture next to baby's skin creates the perfect environment for diaper rash city. All modern diapers, whether disposable or cloth, are designed to wick moisture away from baby's skin and lock it into an absorbent core material. Disposable diapers, even green diapers like Honest Company Diaper rely on a petrochemical called Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP) as their key ingredient to absorb and lock-away moisture. Instead, cloth systems use an absorbent insert made of one or various combinations of cloth materials like stay-dry synthetics, cotton, hemp, and bamboo. Some inserts incorporate sophisticated layering designs, with a synthetic top layer next to baby's skin for wicking performance with naturally absorbent fabrics underneath to form the inner core that gets saturated.
We put each system through tests to find out how effective they were at drawing moisture away from the inner surface and holding it in the absorbent layer. We also tested them on babies day and night over more than a year to discover which could hold liquid better.
In our absorbency tests, we found the microfiber stay-dry inserts performed better than natural material inserts due to superior ability to wick moisture away from baby's skin. In general, the cotton, hemp/cotton, bamboo/cotton inserts and inner pocket materials performed worse in absorbency and remained wet to the touch long after competing synthetics had tucked away most of the moisture into the core of the insert. For this reason, we recommend at least having a synthetic liner next to baby's skin for its wicking ability when using natural materials. Otherwise, there is a definitive functional trade-off between green and synthetic cloth diapering materials.
As such, it came as a pleasant surprise to us that the best scoring system in our absorbency test, the Flip Hybrid with their Stay-Dry insert, also turned out to be awarded Best Value due to its low lifetime cost.
Fit & Leakage
Finding a dependable diaper with a good fit that has zero to minimal leaking is like discovering the holy grail. We sought to find those cloth diapers that held in mess best. We examined each diaper's anatomy as well as how well they fit babies of different ages and sizes. Of course, day-to-day use and laundering taught us more than we'd ever imagined about how to get the right fit, how to diaper heavy wetters, how to use diaper cream when cloth diapering, as well as how to wash and care for diapers appropriately to keep them squeaky clean, prevent repelling and leakage, and keep them in good overall shape for years of wear.
The diaper with the best fit and minimal leakage in our testing was the Rumparooz G2, which we awarded Editors' Choice. The G2 has a unique design with a double-gusset. This diaper has the most rows of snaps at the rise than any other cloth cover we tested. Though a one size diaper, there are so many configurations both for fit and absorption with the G2 that it suits an infant, toddler, and young child excellently.
However, our big surprise was that the Rumparooz G2 which, even though bulky, also scored a perfect 10 of 10 in comfort. How can this be? Well, there are several reasons for this. For starters, its fabric is both luxuriously soft with nice stretchy elastic at the legs and back, so it hugs the legs without leaving uncomfortable marks. The fabrics hold up nicely to laundering, remaining very soft. Also, two rows of waist snaps and four rows of rise snaps allow for an adjustable fit as baby grows without gaping. Need we mention that these are also dang cute diapers? They are so cute and so impressive that the fluffy butt never even bothered us. Simply put, the G2 is the one we reach for time and time again.
Ease of use
In our ease-of-use testing, we compared how each of these diapers worked on a day in, day out basis, through the process of prepping them for use, putting them on, taking them off, throwing the poop into the toilet, the insert and/or cover into the pail, and then, of course, laundering them. If there are special laundering steps needed for stink management, this is noted. If the covers can only be line-dried, this is also considered. If the system wasn't one size, we factored in having to buy multiple sets as baby grows. Cloth diapering doesn't entail continually running out to the store for diapers or ordering case upon case of diapers online.
When all was said and done, however, we found that the diapers that our testers most preferred overall were also those that were easiest to use and launder with a good fit and minimal leakage. We paid close attention to this (although we still only weighted ease-of-use 20% in our overall scoring). Interestingly, however, the easiest to use diapers, each with a 9 of 10, were the top 3 award-winning cloth systems, the Rumparooz G2, the Flip Hybrid, and the GroVia Hybrid.
UK Environmental Agency which looks at the global warming impact of cloth versus disposable diapers (termed "nappies" in the UK). That study concludes that the carbon footprint of either approach is approximately the same if you machine wash and dry. But, what the UK study ignores (except in terms of a greenhouse gas analysis) is the environmental impact of the 6,000 diapers per child being put into the landfill, and from our point of view, this is the swing vote. With an estimated 28 billion disposables entering US landfills each year, which includes a significant amount of toxic human feces, we don't feel the landfill impact of disposables can be ignored. In strong contrast, the poop from cloth changes is put in the sewer system where it is supposed to go, and processed in a safe and environmentally sound manner.
The 2008 UK Environmental Agency study notes that you can reduce your cloth global warming impact to be 40% less than disposables by following these eco-tips:
- Line dry when possible
- Use energy efficient appliances
- Reuse diapers on your 2nd child
- Wash fuller loads
- Use a washing water temperature of 140F/60C or less.
In practice, this means a hot wash cycle is OK as most hot water cycles are less than or equal to 140F/60C.
Regardinghealth, our opinion is that cloth diapering is the better alternative for baby. Though parents who cloth diaper may need to change baby more often in general than those using disposables, this is not a bad thing for the baby. But why more diaper changes, you ask? Because all disposables on the market today contain a secret petrochemical ingredient called Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP). This synthetic, petroleum-based product is the secret sauce that magically soaks up urine like a wet sponge and locks it into the diaper, away from the baby. Though primarily deemed non-toxic and harmless to a baby, it is not natural, and as we note in our article, What is Inside those Disposable Diapers, we have some anxiety about this petrochemical being next to baby's skin 24x7 for the first several years of their life.
In comparison, cloth diapers do not contain SAP, yet in our tests, we found they can deliver similar levels of absorbency performance. Nor do they contain synthetic, chemically-based fragrances, dyes, or lotions. Refreshingly, cloth diaper companies are very transparent about the materials and components that make up their diapers. There is no secret petrochemical ingredient in the cloth systems we tested. In our opinion, the same can not be said for disposable diaper manufacturers today. Refreshingly in the cloth diapering world, what you see is what you get. We appreciate that cloth system manufacturers provide parents with configuration options that put them in control of how green they'd like to be; similar options are simply unavailable to disposable diaper users.
Not surprisingly, as a category, cloth scored better in eco-health than every disposable in our 2014 test except for Bambo Nature, which earned a score on par with cloth competitors and won our Top Pick Award for Best Green Disposable Diaper as well.
In scoring cloth systems on Eco-Health, we dissected the make-up of each diaper from the cover to waterproofing to the absorbent inserts. We scored diapers composed mainly of natural fibers like cotton, hemp, and bamboo over those that are synthetic-based with fabrics like polyester and microfiber. We also scored diapers that used TPU lamination over PUL lamination higher. We were interested in how these materials measured up against one another in an ability to keep baby dry; diapers with both good absorbency and good wicking scored higher.
There is a three-way tie for best performance on eco-health in our review, with GroVia Hybrid, Bummis Super Brite Wrap, and BabyKicks Premium Pocket all earning 9 of 10. But, of the three, the GroVia stands out for also performing exceptionally well on every other metric, and most significantly on absorbency where many of the greenest cloth systems failed to deliver. We awarded the GroVia Hybrid our Top Pick for Best Green Diaper.
With so many different options available for cloth diapering, finding just the right one for you and baby can seem nearly impossible. From eco-friendliness, to comfort for baby, and convenience for mom, there are many different factors to consider. We took into all this into account when testing these 15 diaper systems to help sift through the products and find the one that will work best for you. If you're still unsure of which diaper is best, or still aren't even convinced that cloth diapers are right for you, head over to Cloth Diapers vs. Disposables: How and what to choose? for more information on the two methods.
— Juliet Spurrier, MD, and Alison Buck
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for tips.