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Pregnancy & Infants

Disposable Diapers or Cloth Diapers: How Do I Decide?

I’m considering switching from disposable diapers to cloth diapers to be more environmentally friendly, but I’m having a hard time making the leap. How can I decide what’s best for me and my baby?

The idea of using cloth diapers is certainly attractive to parents who are concerned about their (and their kids’) eco-footprint. Nowadays, many people want to live a greener lifestyle. But when it comes to which option is more environmentally friendly — reusable or disposable diapers — the jury’s still out.

A 2005 study from England found no significant difference between the environmental impact of disposable diapers compared with reusable diapers laundered at home or through a diaper service. And other studies have had conflicting outcomes on which option is really greener.

Each choice has its pros and cons: Disposable diapers are more convenient, but their production requires petroleum (a nonrenewable resource) and miles of forest lumber. In the landfill, they account for almost 2% of household waste. Cloth diapers cost a lot less (one diaper can be reused about 75 times), but their production uses harsh chemicals and pesticides that harm the ecosystem. During cleaning, lots of water (about 50 gallons per diaper load) and energy are consumed.

So, while there’s no clear-cut answer as to which option is more environmentally friendly, a parent must make a personal choice based on factors like cost, convenience, product performance, your partner’s wishes, and your overall green philosophy (i.e., which do you feel is the lesser of two evils?).

And even after you’ve made your choice, your baby might just have something different in mind. Some kids are sensitive to the materials in disposable diapers (switching brands usually helps); others may be irritated by the detergent and bleach used to clean cloth diapers. Both types of diapers can cause diaper rash, so there’s really no clear winner there.

Most parents find that what ultimately works for them might not be what they originally had in mind. And often, they end up using a combination of the two — like cloth diapers at home and disposables when on the run or at childcare.

All in all, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Only you can decide what’s best for you and your family.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: October 2013