All you ever wanted to know about diapers and what's in 'em.

Babies are precious, gurgling, adorable little munchkins whose smiles can light up a room. From food to toys and especially diapers — it's no wonder we want what's best for them all the time.

Who could resist this face? Honestly. Image by iStock.


Up until the middle of the last century, parents exclusively used cotton diapers to help keep their babies dry and clean. But one mother, Marion Donovan, wasn't happy with the mountains of dirty laundry her babies created — not to mention the mess leaky diapers made on her bedsheets.

Her solution — a plastic shower curtain cut to size and filled with a cotton insert — is widely considered the world's first waterproof diaper cover and the inspiration for fully disposable diapers.

Nearly 70 years later, disposable diapers make up about 66% of diaper sales worldwide, with an estimated 18 billion disposable diapers bought and used in the United States every year.

Diapers have come a long way from plastic shower curtains. The companies who make them have a vested interest in ensuring the babies wearing their products are safe, healthy, and leak-free.

That said, if you've listened to the news in the last few years, you've probably heard some scary things about disposable diapers and how toxic or terrible they are — that they cause horrible skin rashes or might contain chemicals that cause cancer. They're the kind of stories that stick in our heads — especially for concerned caregivers. Which is totally fair since babies wear diapers almost all the time during their first few years of life.

Who wouldn't want to know whether that's safe?

Keeping this sleepy bun safe should be a national priority. Image by iStock.

The fear and distrust of the diaper industry might stem from the fact that it's considered "self-regulating." Companies that make and sell diapers aren't required by law to share their full ingredient lists. Consumers have to trust that they're telling them everything they need to know. For some caregivers, simply knowing there's a chance they're not getting the full story is frustrating — especially if they're looking after a baby with very sensitive skin and want to keep track of what's in everything that touches them.

So what's in a disposable diaper anyway?

Image by iStock.

There are three main parts to a disposable diaper: the top sheet, the absorbent layer, and the backing sheet.

The top sheet is the part of the diaper with direct contact to a baby's body. It's most often made from polypropylene, a common ingredient in thermal underwear that's considered safe for young skin. The backing sheet has a similar story: It is most likely made from polyethylene, a breathable but leakproof barrier that's proven to be safe for human use.

This little dude has more important things to think about than a leaky diaper — like working on his sweet kickflip.

The absorbent layer gets its power from a mixture of fluffy cellulose pulp and sodium polyacrylate granules. These granules can hold 800 times their dry weight in moisture, helping keep baby's skin dry even when a diaper is very full.

The good thing is that most disposable diapers are perfectly safe.

Sodium polyacrylate made headlines in the 1980s when hundreds of women using super-absorbent tampons infused with sodium polyacrylate contracted toxic shock syndrome, a rare bacterial infection.

Fortunately, the FDA says there's no risk in using the chemical in diapers, as sodium polyacrylate is harmless outside the body. Similarly, researchers have found that fears about exposure to dioxin in chlorine-bleached products like diapers and tampons are equally unfounded.

There have been tests upon tests upon tests of ingredients in disposable diapers and they've all, consistently, said the same thing.

As of May 2016, the Food and Drug Administration has never needed to issue a recall for any diaper. This little tush is safe and sound. Image by iStock.

Let's be real, though. There are other, extremely important factors influencing what kind of diapers caregivers use.

For people concerned with their environmental footprint, disposable diapers might not be the best choice. Some disposable diapers will take hundreds of years to break down in landfills — and two to three years of changing diapers six or more times a day can really add up. There are compostable or biodegradable diapers available, but those are often more expensive, and for caregivers on a tight budget, they may be out of reach.

President Barack Obama talked about the high cost of diapers for low-income families on Mother's Day 2016. It's such a common phenomenon, there's even a name for it: "the diaper gap." As the president said in his post on Medium:

"I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be a parent that has to choose between diapers and other basic expenses. Access to clean diapers isn’t just important for a child’s health and safety. Research has shown that mothers who are unable to afford diapers for their babies are more likely to suffer from maternal depression and mental health issues. No mother or father should have to worry about keeping their baby clean and healthy because they can’t afford diapers. America’s parents — and children — deserve better."

There are environmental, financial, and practical issues to consider when choosing disposable or reusable diapers.

They're all important, and it's not always an easy decision. But the more you know, the easier it is to understand the trade-offs.

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