My original introduction to this section read something like, “Sure, we all know we should use cloth diapers, but how realistic is that, especially here in New York City where many of us don’t even have washing machines? Thank God for these biodegradable diapers from Seventh Generation!”
This was back in 2010, and I was using cloth diapers about 25% of the time (and my husband was using them never). After doing the research for this guide, I came away realizing that there really isn’t a truly “green” way to use disposables. So I started putting Felix in non-toxic disposable diapers only at bedtime or for long car rides, and stopped using the Seventh Generation disposables completely.
But I had many relapses before potty training was done, and when my second son, Wolf, was born in 2013, I didn’t even attempt cloth diapers. My excuse: a busy business and two children. Valid? Not really, but at least I used diapers I felt better about (see “The Best Stuff,” below).
2019 Updated Biodegradable Diaper Guide
In 2019, nearly a decade after I first published this guide, I hired Dr. Michael Hopkins, PhD, to revisit the guide and update it with some new brands you’ve been asking about. (Dr. Hopkins also helped with this amazing prenatal vitamin guide.)
Michael’s Research Process
Michael began by studying the existing version of this guide, and then looking at other natural parenting websites and the biodegradable diaper brands they recommend, plus the potential sources of toxins in most disposable diapers.
As a scientist, Dr. Hopkins is well-equipped to read peer-reviewed studies and come away with a deep understanding of the nuances of the potential risks from various diaper materials, from chlorine to SAP to adhesives (more on all this later.)
After deciding on the appropriate criteria for what would make brands Best, Good, Bad, or Okay Stuff, Michael made a many-columned spreadsheet and populated it with the list of diaper brands you guys asked us to review.
For each brand, Michael calculated affordability, studied reviews on diaper performance, and double-checked to make sure that all ingredients and materials lists were accurate from the first version of this guide (in the case of Honest Diapers, for instance, the ingredients changed in 2018).
Michael’s final (and the most time-consuming!) step was contacting diaper manufacturers to find out about phthalates, fragrance, chlorine, latex, and the exact materials in the top-sheet and back-sheet of each diaper.
I asked him to find out if the diapers use bamboo or plastic (and in what ratios), if they use traditional SAP or plant-based fluff, what their adhesives are made of, and what percentage of so-called compostable or biodegradable diapers actually biodegrade.
Once he gathered all of this information, we were able to plunk all 37 reviewed brands into a Best, Good, Okay, Bad or Sneaky Stuff category, which you can review at the bottom of this post.
Your Most Pressing Question: Do even the worst disposables really pose a risk to the baby wearing them? Or is this mostly an environmental issue?
This is the question I am asked more than any other about diapers, so let’s start here. Environmental impact aside, is there a risk to disposables?
The short answer is, yes: diapers can pose a risk to the baby wearing them. Here are our two biggest health concerns with disposable diapers:
- The phthalates that may be used not only in the plastic components of diapers, but also in the glues, synthetic fragrance, and dyes. In a recent study out of South Korea, four leading diaper brands (as well as several brands of sanitary pads) were shown to all contain varying amounts (and in some cases, very high levels) of phthalates. If you’re a regular reader, you already know how bad phthalates are, and since they directly disrupt hormones, they are definitely not something you want anywhere near your children’s privates! In addition, phthalates proved to be the hardest ingredient to suss out during our investigation. A surprising number of “non-toxic” or “sustainable” diaper brands don’t actually make any claim about phthalates, and you’ll see in our reviews below that we note whether each brand is “phthalate-free.”
- Allergens and irritants. TBT, parabens, latex, and more are often found in diapers. These will most likely be present in fragrance, lotions, and dyes. While this is the least sensational potential risk (certainly phthalates are a much more exciting enemy), good old-fashioned diaper rash is probably the greatest actual concern for most babies wearing disposable diapers. The best way to avoid diaper rash (or a more serious reaction) is to avoid any disposables with dyes, fragrance, and lotions, and to look for diapers that explicitly state they are free of latex, parabens, and TBT.
My Top Pick for Best Non-Toxic Disposable Diapers
Do We Need to Worry About Bleaching/Dioxins in Diapers?
This is another question I get a lot, and it’s certainly relevant from an environmental perspective. The organochlorines present in the effluent produced by paper mills during the bleaching process are a well-documented environmental pollutant. However, in terms of a danger to the baby, you should know that the level of dioxins present in disposable diapers is:
- Comparable to that found in cotton (cloth) diapers.
- Thirty thousand to 2.2 million times lower than the average dietary dioxin exposure resulting from “low level contamination of the food supply.” (From this peer reviewed study using commercially available diapers purchased in and around San Francisco.)
In other words, we are exposed to at least tens of thousands of times more dioxins from the Unites States food supply than the trace levels found in chlorine-bleached diapers. Does that mean you should buy bleached diapers? No, definitely not–the production of those suckers is really bad for the planet. But if the hospital puts your newborn in one, don’t worry; it’s not going to harm her.
Total Chlorine Free (TCF) versus Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF)
If you’ve been educating yourself on non-toxic/biodegradable disposable diapers, you’ve probably heard that ECF diapers are basically Sneaky Stuff and that you MUST buy only TCF diapers.
(Quick primer: ECF means bleached with chlorine dioxide instead of elemental chlorine. TCF means bleached using any chemicals other than chlorine, chlorine dioxide, or hypochlorite.)
We are probably the only “green bloggers” saying this, but the distinction between TCF and ECF is totally not important. Here’s why: as we just said, the use of chlorine in pulp and paper mills is really an environmental issue, not a health and safety issue. Yes, ECF bleached diapers might sometimes still contain trace amounts of dioxins, but we are talking about levels that are several orders of magnitude lower than the levels of dioxins we are all exposed to by simply eating food.
And here’s why it doesn’t even matter from an environmental standpoint: Although the waste products of TCF pulp is technically “cleaner” than ECF pulp, TCF produces a lower yield (it takes more wood pulp and energy to produce the same amount of finished product), effectively cancelling out the benefits over ECF.
Moreover, the environmental impact of ECF versus TCF bleaching depends on the practices and procedures of the individual paper mill and how the waste products are handled. Recent reports have concluded that the theoretical benefits of TCF versus ECF bleaching have not been realized in the real world and that there is no appreciable difference between ECF and TCF. Scratch that one of your worry list!
Abri-Form Junior is Abena’s line of non-toxic disposable incontinence diapers, designed specifically to fit those between 5 and 15 years old that suffer from uncontrolled urination.
What Makes a Diaper Good Stuff?
I hope all of this helps you guys understand a little more about what makes a diaper potentially unsafe for a baby and decidedly not friendly to the environment. Still, there are dozens of “green” or “biodegradable” diapers on the market; how can we know which ones to buy?
In order for a disposable diaper to be “Good Stuff,” it must:
- Be free of artificial fragrance, dyes, and lotions, all of which have the potential to contain irritants/allergens/toxins and simply aren’t necessary in any diaper.
- Explicitly state that it is free of phthalates, since this cannot be assumed, unfortunately.
These two criteria are the bare essentials if your only concern is the safety and well-being of the diaper user. (But I know you all are better than that!)
Given the significant environmental impact of disposable diapers, a “Best Stuff” diaper also must:
- Be either Elementally Chlorine Free (ECF) or Totally Chlorine Free (TCF). For the reasons explained above.
- Be free of petroleum-derived plastics. There are now enough bamboo and other plant-based diapers on the market to eliminate any brand that uses petroleum in its production from the Best Stuff category, even if it poses no real risk to the baby wearing the diaper. This is a happy change from when we last updated this guide four years ago!
Biodegradable Diapers: Do They Exist?
By virtue of using plant-based rather than petroleum-based ingredients, the diapers that we’ve labeled as Best Stuff are inherently compostable or biodegradeable to varying degrees. Some of these brands supplement with a “bio-based SAP” or with cornstarch in the absorbent core to limit the amount of traditional SAP used. The other core component, “fluff,” is wood pulp (cellulose) that undergoes a more traditional bleaching process.
Many people criticize diaper brands that market themselves as “biodegradable” or “compostable” because:
- Traditional landfills are inherently non-conducive to biodegradation due to an absence of oxygen, soil, and microorganisms.
- Compostable is only relevant when you have a way to compost where you live (keeping in mind that human feces should not be composted!), and anyone who is planning to compost their diapers will need to make sure they understand how to do this properly.
Michael and I agree that, despite these concerns, there are still valid reasons to choose a “compostable” or “biodegradeable” diaper, including a reduction in use of petroleum on the production end, as well as sending a message to the industry about the demand for more environmentally sustainable consumer products.
Reasons to Switch to Cloth Diapers
Before I tell you which are the very best disposable diapers, here’s why you shouldn’t use any of them, even the ones I can sell you from our online store:
- Conventional plastic diapers contain small amounts of dioxin—a byproduct of the bleaching process. As discussed above, this doesn’t pose a risk to your baby, but it’s really bad for the environment.
- Even if you use non-toxic disposable diapers, you’re probably familiar with the little gel clumps that sometimes stick to your baby’s skin when you wait too long to change her. Known as SAP (Super Absorbent Polymer), some people worry about it because it was linked to toxic shock syndrome when it was in tampons. While I don’t think it causes a health risk to babies, it is not biodegradable, and thus not an earth-friendly choice.
- A Greenpeace study found the hormone-disrupting TBT (tributyl tin) in many diaper brands.
- I know we’re are all bored with the landfill stats, but the fact remains that a disposable diaper can take as long as 500 years to decompose.
- In response to the popular misconception that cloth diapers are just as bad for the environment as disposables (a myth propagated by a study funded by Proctor & Gamble), an independent report found that disposable diapers produce more than 50 times the waste of cloth diapers and use twice as much water and triple the energy.
What About Cloth Diapers with Flushable Liners?
The Best Stuff
These also feature a bamboo top-sheet and back-sheet, and a fluff and plant-based SAP core.
Price per diaper: $0.53
Andy Pandy diapers are 85.6% biodegradable, with a bamboo top- and back-sheet, and a fluff/sap core. A lot of you are fans of this diaper, so I’m sure you’ll be happy to know this is the Best Stuff.
Price per diaper: $0.40
This one looks pretty much identical to ECO Boom, with a bamboo top-sheet and back-sheet, a core of fluff and sap, and no PVC, TBT, alcohol, and preservatives.
Price per diaper: $0.39
Like the other brands on this list, Dyper diapers use a bamboo top- and back-sheet. But Dyper is unique not only because it’s purchased via subscription, but also because it uses Sumitomo SAP for part of its core, along with fluff. Our research suggests that Sumitomo SAP (from Japan) is the very best traditional SAP on the market, so you can use less of it for the same results. We also like Dyper because the company purchases carbon offsets and uses biodegradable bags and nontoxic cardboard inks for packing and shipping. They claim you can compost these diapers at home. Overall, Dyper is probably the most affordable of all the Best Stuff.
Price per diaper: $0.32 to $0.46
This compostable diaper has a bamboo top-sheet and back-sheet. The core is a combination of fluff and SAP. ECO Boom gets extra points for its non-toxic adhesives. These diapers are free of PVC, TBT, alcohol, and preservatives.
Price per diaper: $0.39
Like others in this category, Little Toes feature a bamboo top-sheet and back-sheet, a fluff and SAP core, and are free of alcohol, PVC, TBT, dyes of any kind, and preservatives.
Price per diaper: $0.44
This newer brand offers a 64% biodegradable diaper that gets excellent customer reviews. It features a bamboo top sheet and back sheet, and its core is comprised of a combination of fluff and SAP. These diapers are free of phthalates and was quick to answer our questions.
Price per diaper: $0.48
With a bamboo top-sheet and cotton/corn-based back-sheet, these diapers claim to be completely biodegradable The print is used a non-toxic soy ink, and the fluff is unique in that it’s made of fluff and a corn-based SAP.
Price per diaper: $0.42
The Good Stuff
The following brands all still count as “Good Stuff” because they are Chlorine free (ECF or TCF), dye, fragrance, lotion, paraben and latex free and explicitly phthalate free. However, the top-sheet and back-sheet of these diapers are made mostly of petroleum-based plastics, so based on our new standards, we cannot call them Best Stuff.
I was surprised when Michael told me Attitude made the Good Stuff list! The top-sheet and back-sheet are made from a “cellulose polymer,” and the core is made of cellulose fluff, SAP, and “Bio-SAP.” Attitude claims that this is a 90% biodegradable diaper—the 10% is the plastic fasteners and the SAP portion of the core. On the downside, reviews suggest that these diapers are leaky and don’t hold closed as well as others on this list. We also never heard back from them about the exact materials in their polymer, which is why we’ve listed them as Good rather than Best Stuff.
Price per diaper: $0.44
Bambo is highly regarded among green diaper reviews and is often noted for its certifications, such as “Nordic Ecolabel” and “Forest Stewardship Council.” The cellulose fluff is sustainably sourced, and combined with SAP for the core. Bambo diapers are made of around 75% biodegradable materials, but aren’t Best Stuff because they employ a polypropylene top-sheet and a polypropylene/polyethylene back-sheet. Bambo is what I used when I wasn’t using cloth diapers. These are the most affordable of the Good Stuff brands.
Price per diaper: $0.29
This brand has been discontinued.
These diapers are compostable, which of course only works if you actually put them in a compost pile, something I can’t do in New York City. The absorbent center of these diapers is made of woodpulp and a “plant-based gel,” which is just another term for SAP. Still, they use less SAP than conventional diapers, and the compostability is a definite plus. The fit of these diapers isn’t as good as other brands, and in particular, the small sizes are much larger than they claim.
These are 87% biodegradable, feature a bamboo top- and back-sheet, cellulose fluff, and a SAP core. Please note that Cutie Pie diapers contain aloe vera. These diapers have a wetness indicator and size labels, making life easier for those of you lucky enough to have more than one child in diapers;). Cutie Pea bamboo diapers get very good customer reviews. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get an answer about dye or prints, but it seems unlikely that these diapers contain any dyes.
Price per diaper: $0.43
Bio-based plastic top-sheet and back-sheet. The core is made of fluff, SAP, and cornstarch. They claim it’s 50 biodegradable, and printed with non-toxic pigments. Several reviews mention a rough feel to these diapers, and I’ve never personally tried them.
Price per diaper: $0.50
This brand took some heat at launch-time for having a ton of 5-star reviews before they even went on sale, meaning that the reviews came from people who received free diapers without mentioning that they’d received free diapers. Reviews aside, Hello Bello diapers don’t qualify as Best Stuff because of a petroleum-based top-sheet and back-sheet. They feature a fluff with SAP and Bio-SAP core.
Price per diaper: $0.29
Honest diapers are often cited as being “plant-based,” but this is no longer true. It appears that Honest has changed its ingredient list sometime since 2018 to include more petroleum-based plastics. These diapers have a polypropylene and polyethylene top-sheet, a plant-based plastic and polyethylene back-sheet, cellulose fluff, and a SAP and bio-SAP core. People love Honest Diaper’s cute prints, which they claim are printed “dye free.”
Price per diaper: $0.37
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