baby diapers on pink and teal background

Disposable Diaper Chemicals to Watch Out For

In Part One of the How Wholesome series on disposable diapers, we discussed disposable diapers and their harmful effects on our children and the environment. In this part, we will go deeper, and explain what exactly it is about disposable diaper chemicals that makes them unsafe.

What Is Inside & What Isn’t?

Dangerous Diaper Chemicals

Before we delve into what goes into making the diaper, we need to address the elephant in the room. There is a lot we don’t know about what’s inside them. Why? Because most manufacturers, despite consumer and social pressure, refuse to divulge details of their manufacturing process. Funnily enough, a lot of manufacturers prefer mentioning what chemicals their products DON’T contain, as opposed to what their products DO contain. It’s the perfect half-truth to tell and sell.

So if you think that a diaper manufacturer uses a certain chemical rumored to be a part of the diaper-making process, they most likely do. Unless they explicitly state that they don’t.

The Known Unknowns

Dangerous Disposable Diaper Chemicals

The known unknowns are the disposable diaper chemicals that we do know about, but that most manufacturers refuse to talk about. This lack of disclosure is worrisome. Imagine, you want to know more about something that your baby wears 24 hours a day, every day, for the first few years of their lives. And the company refuses to entertain your questions. Worst of all is the fact that the government allows that information to be withheld from you – all under the guise of ‘proprietary trade secret’. 

Companies are not obligated to disclose information about ‘Fragrance Ingredients’. These can be listed as a ‘proprietary trade secret’. Fragrances are used in diapers to mask the odor. However, it is also possible for companies to use other chemicals under that label. But do they? We don’t know because that’s a “trade secret”. Manufacturers are free to use as many chemicals – toxic or otherwise – however they want, all in the name of ‘fragrance ingredient’.

Disposable Diaper Chemicals – Chlorine

Dangerous Disposable Diaper Substances

In the diaper industry, chlorine is used to bleach the pulp that is used in the absorbent layer. It makes the cellulose fibers soft, fluffy and absorbent. Chlorine also gives the diapers a pristine, clean look. However, unlike the chlorine we use for laundry, this chlorine is in the gas form, and has a very different chemical composition. During the bleaching process, it produces dioxins. Identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as “likely human carcinogen”, dioxins have been found to potentially cause “reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer”. Most diapers have dioxins in traces. However, considering the fact that babies wear them 24/7, there could be consequences over time. 

Disposable Diaper Chemicals – Fragrances

Dangerous Dispo0sable Diaper Substances Fragrances

As mentioned before, fragrances are used in diapers to mask the odor. However, the possibility of using them as mules for harmful chemicals makes us apprehensive. They are the perfect disguise. Under that kind of protection, diaper manufacturers can use all kinds of harmful chemicals, without fearing action from the government or the FDA. Yes, even the FDA’s hands are tied because they cannot demand disclosure unless the government demands it. This is where the problem lies. All agencies seem to be accommodating the companies, when they should be working together to facilitate transparency and accountability.

Disposable Diaper Chemicals – Dyes

Toxic Disposable Diaper Chemicals

Disposable diapers use dyes to create colorful patterns on the outside, and in the wetness indicator. As unassuming as they are, there is reason to believe that dyes used in diapers, can cause allergic reactions and rashes. This is often observed around the leg cuff and back elastic area, where the diaper is more tightly fastened to the skin. Thankfully, there are safe, hypoallergenic dyes found in the market, that do not contain heavy metals and are not prone to cause an allergic reaction. However, one can’t help but wonder why most popular disposable diaper manufacturers refuse to use them?

Disposable Diaper Chemicals – Phthalates

Toxic Chemicals in Diapers

These pesky things have been making rounds in the medical community for a variety of reasons, and none of them are good. There is reason to believe that phthalates can affect the endocrine and reproductive systems, especially those of infants, who have vulnerable bodies. 

Phthalates are plasticizers that are added to plastics in order to soften them. In case of disposable diapers, phthalates are used in the waterproof outer layer that feels like a smooth, soft plastic. It is plastic enough to feel waterproof, soft enough to feel like a garment

Let us explain how phthalates turn dangerous. Even though they soften the plastic they are added to, they are not chemically bonded to it. So they are constantly released into the environment. They make their way in the air we breathe, and in the food and water chains. Babies love to touch everything and put their hands in their mouths. With phthalates being so freely released into the environment, they have a direct path into their bodies. 

Worth adding here is the fact that, like fragrances, the US law does not require manufacturers to disclose the presence of Phthalates in their diapers.

Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP)

Dangerous Diaper Substances

Most people are wary of this – the substance that is composed of alien-like crystals that absorb copious amounts of moisture. They expand to more than 300 times their size and turn all fluid into a gel-like substance. Can such a substance be safe? Is it toxic? Could it be dangerous for our children? What about the environment?

Well, the answers to those questions are exactly why we are talking about SAP at the end. Because there are too many questions and very little research to say anything for sure. The chemical was invented in Japan in the early 70’s and has been used in diapers since the 80’s. SAP suffered a huge PR blow when it was linked to tampons and Toxic Shock Syndrome, but that link was eventually deemed inconclusive. Basically, SAP is too new.  We can’t be sure about anything. However, preliminary research shows that it is safe and non-toxic. That is why so many companies that produce green disposable diapers, use SAP in their products as well.

So next time you see that gel-like substance on your baby’s skin, don’t freak out. But also don’t let them ingest it. Just because it is safe enough, doesn’t make it absolutely safe.

Are Cloth Diapers Better?

These are just some of the substances found in disposable diapers. And there’s more where these came from. Remember, there is nothing wrong with demanding answers from manufacturers. There are several companies that use safer, non-toxic alternatives as raw materials for their disposable diapers. They may not be as cheap as other, more popular brands, but they offer more transparency. Use your position as parent, and your power as the consumer, to do what you think is right – for your children and the environment. A lot of people believe that cloth diapers are the right option; that they are more eco-friendly, affordable and “natural”. But are cloth diapers really the better option? 

In the largest independent study to date, in 2008, Britain’s Environmental Agency compared the environmental feasibility of cloth diapers and disposable diapers. It was noted that the environmental favorability of cloth diapers over disposable diapers heavily depended on how you wash them and wat what temperature; if they are line-dried or machine dried, and if they are passed on to siblings or not. The study showed that if you washed cloth diapers in hot water (which many do, in order to kill bacteria) or machine-dry them, the environmental impact is 75% worse than disposable diapers. 

At this point, you just need to do your research and make an educated decision. Don’t choose cloth diapers just because some people say so. Also, don’t choose disposable diapers just because most people use them. Do your own research. 

The Last Word

In the meantime, here are a few quick tips for you to take away from everything we’ve said so far. 

  1. Buy diapers made by manufacturers that are more transparent
  2. If a company doesn’t putting something in their product, assume that it’s there.
  3. Buy fragrance-free diapers to reduce possibility of “hidden ingredients” 
  4. Use Chlorine-free diapers to avoid exposure to dioxins
  5. Look for Dye-free diapers or those with have less/no printing near baby’s skin. Be wary of terms like disperse dye, pigments, colorants and inks. They are all just fancy ways of saying the same thing.
  6. Make sure that the diapers are Phthalate-free

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