There are literally hundreds of brands of disposable diapers on the market (and 10 just on the aisle at my local Target). In fact, research shows the global baby diaper market is expected to reach nearly $109 billion by 2028.
But parents are growing more aware of the chemicals in these products and what they could be doing to their babies. So, what kind of chemicals are in disposable diapers, and are they really cause for concern?
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Are There Toxic Chemicals in Disposable Diapers?
There are a number of potentially harmful chemicals in diapers. The most notable are dioxins, VOCs, and phthalates. But other chemicals in the fragrances, lotions, or inks may also be cause for concern.
To know a bit more about these chemicals (and why they’re used in diapers in the first place), we need to first know how a diaper is made.
Most disposable diapers are made of three main layers: a top sheet (which is what touches your babies skin), a back sheet (which is the outside of the diaper and needs to be impermeable to prevent leaks), and an absorbent core (most commonly made of SAP).
If you’re interested in learning more, this article from Kudos (one of my favorite diaper brands) does a great job of explaining the layers of a diaper.
What Kind of Chemicals are in Diapers?
As we mentioned above, there are a multitude of chemicals in diapers (some that are not harmful at all, and others that may be a bigger cause for concern).
Let’s take a closer look at some of the potentially hazardous chemicals in diapers:
Bleaching Agents & Dioxins
You expect your baby’s diapers to be white, but what you may not realize is that the material isn’t usually white at first. Instead, most manufacturers use a bleaching agent (typically chlorine) to produce the clean white diapers you’re used to.
The chlorine bleaching process creates dioxins, which are one of the most concerning environmental toxin in urban areas (according to the EPA). They’re released in a number of ways, including burning your trash and manufacturing products with chlorine.
In addition to causing harm to the environment, dioxins have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, immune system suppression, endocrine disruption, and even cancer.
Polyethylene and polypropylene are two types of plastic often used in diaper production. They are relatively safe when used in small amounts, but they can release harmful chemicals (known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs) into the air.
These VOCs have been linked to a number of health problems, including eye and respiratory irritation, headaches, nausea, and even cancer.
Phthalates are another type of plastic often found in diapers (usually in the form of DEHP, or di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate). Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break.
They have also been linked to a number of health problems, including endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, and even cancer.
Learn more about phthalates and the harmful effects of plastic.
Lotions & Fragrances
Diaper manufacturers often add lotions and fragrances to their products in order to make them feel softer and help with the dirty diaper odors. But these chemicals can be harmful, especially when used in close contact with the skin.
The problem is that companies aren’t required to disclose the ingredients they use in their lotions or fragrances because those ingredients are considered proprietary trade secrets… But an abundance of chemicals can be lurking in them.
One group of chemicals that are often prevalent in lotions and fragrances are parabens. Parabens are used as preservatives in a variety of cosmetics and personal care products, but they have been linked to hormone disruption, reproductive problems, and even cancer.
If you feel like your baby’s skin is getting too dry when they’re in diapers, try using safe diaper rash cream during some of their diaper changes or purchasing a non-toxic baby lotion for the rest of their bodies. That way you can avoid the lotions and fragrances that are in some diapers.
The inks used in disposable diapers (to create patterns or designs) may also be cause for concern. These inks can contain heavy metals (like lead) that can be harmful to your baby’s health.
I prefer to use plain white diapers in order to avoid inks and dyes altogether.
But if you’re a big fan of the cute designs that are often found on diapers, seek out non-toxic diaper brands that use water-based dyes to create those designs. These dyes are much safer for your baby (and the environment).
Latex is a material that is often used in gloves, condoms, balloons and some medical supplies. It’s also sometimes used in disposable diapers (usually in the form of latex proteins or latex particles).
If your baby has a latex allergy, they may experience a rash, hives, or difficulty breathing if they come into contact with latex.
If you’re concerned that your baby may be allergic to latex, speak to your pediatrician. They can do a skin prick test or blood test in order to determine if your child is allergic.
What About SAP?
SAP – aka Super Absorbent Polymer (which is usually sodium polyacrylate) is a water-absorbent polymer that is used in disposable diapers. It’s what helps to keep your baby’s skin dry by absorbing wetness away from their skin.
If you’ve ever put your baby in the water with a diaper on, or accidentally tossed a diaper in the washing machine (oops!), you’ve likely seen SAP. It’s those tiny little beads that fill up a diaper and become gel-like when wet.
While there hasn’t been a ton of research on the effects of SAP on human health, some studies have shown that it can cause skin irritation in babies.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a natural SAP that’s widely available on the market right now, so the only options for diaper brands are to use synthetic SAP or to forgo it altogether.
Some parents are concerned about the safety of using SAP in diapers, so if your baby is prone to diaper rash or you’re concerned about the potential effects of SAP, you may want to consider using cloth diapers instead of disposables.
TBT is an abbreviation for tributyltin. It’s a type of organotin compound used in some brands of diapers as a preservative.
Some research shows that TBT can be a skin irritant for humans, but the biggest concern for human exposure is actually through eating fish.
TBT and DBT (another organotin) are a big concern for marine life because they don’t break down in the environment.
For this reason, many countries have banned the use of organotins in products like paint, boat hulls, and pesticides. TBT is still used in some brands of disposable diapers though.
But it’s pretty easy to avoid.
If you’re concerned about TBT in diapers, look for brands that specifically state that they do not use TBT in their products.
And if they don’t state it on their packaging, reach out and ask.
FYI – All of the diapers on our list of the best non-toxic diapers are TBT-free.
You may be surprised to learn that there are a variety of toxic chemicals lurking in disposable diapers.
From bleaching agents and dioxins to plastic and fragrances, there are a number of potentially harmful substances that can be found in these products.
Hopefully this article was a help in demystifying some of the ingredients that are found in disposable diapers.
And remember, you can avoid many of these harmful chemicals by using cloth diapers instead!