As you probably know, disposable diapers sit in a landfill, undecayed, for generations. They’re convenient for parents and caregivers but deadly for Mother Earth.

Maybe you didn’t know about another big problem. There’s evidence that most popular brands of disposable diapers are bad for your baby too.

The good news is that there are brands of disposable diapers that are better for babies. The bad news is that most parents don’t use them.

baby diapers with dioxins


Your average disposable diaper has three layers: a waterproof outer one (typically made of plastic), an absorbent core, and an inner layer that touches your baby’s skin.

Some disposable diapers contain fragrances and dyes, and those are the easiest chemicals to skip. And you may want to know that the dyes used to decorate the outside of the diaper with those adorable cartoon characters are a frequent cause of diaper rash.

The most harmful chemicals found in diapers, hands down, are dioxins. These are potent cancer causers, and they make their way into diapers from chlorine bleach. The amount of dioxins found in diapers is miniscule. But why risk even that when chlorine-free diapers are easy to find?

Another danger lurking in some diapers are phthalates. These endocrine-disrupting chemicals make plastics more flexible and pliant, but they’re also linked to reproductive harm. Again, you can buy phthalate-free diapers.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If a diaper package or website does not say anything about it, assume that brand or style contains harmful chemicals.

To avoid these dangers, you can go with cloth diapers, or a hybrid like gDiapers, which combines a reusable diaper cover with disposable inserts that can be flushed down the toilet or composted. Or you can opt for brands like Bambo, Honest Diapers, Seventh Generation, and even Target’s up&up to get a disposable diaper that’s safer for your baby.

The bigger question is: Why are we talking about this in the first place? Infants are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals than adults and they should be protected. Why are companies allowed to sell products designed for infants that could possibly harm them?

The research on this isn’t new. There’s a 1999 study that found that emissions from diapers could lead to asthma. The study finding dioxins in diapers was published in 2002. The one about dyes and diaper rash came out in 2005. The industry had more than a decade to make changes. But for the most part, it didn’t.

Aside from the obvious regulatory question (why are any baby products with toxic chemicals in them even legal?), there’s a big question about corporate common sense. Why haven’t Kimberly-Clark, which makes Huggies, and Procter & Gamble, the parent company of Pampers, stopped endangering infants with these commonplace products?

Market forces just aren’t working.

Most of us buy mainstream, low-cost food and other products that may contain nasty chemicals. Many processed foods contain chemical additives you wouldn’t eat if you knew about them. And mainstream diapers contain small, but unnecessary, amounts of dioxins.

For those who take the time to inform themselves and can afford it, the market offers niche products — safer diapers, organic food, body care products, and so on.

After years of reporting on environmental toxins, I’ve slowly converted everything product in my home to safer options. Sometimes it’s easy, like storing food in glass mason jars. Sometimes it’s expensive, like when I bought an organic cotton duvet cover.

And if I had an infant who required diapers, I’d go with organic cotton cloth. I can’t say I relish the thought of washing them, but based on what I’ve learned, it would be worth the “yuck” factor and inconvenience.

Doing the right thing for our health and for the Earth should not require detective work.

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Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

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