Disposable and cloth nappies buying guide

What's best - cloth or disposable? We'll tell you about the environment effects and other issues.
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  • Updated:22 Jul 2003

01 .Types of nappies

Baby feeding

It isn’t until some time in their second or third year that babies get to the toilet training stage — and until they do, they need to wear nappies. This makes choosing and using nappies a major part of their life, and yours.

There are two main varieties: reusable cloth nappies and disposable nappies.

Please note: this information was current as of July 2003 but is still a useful guide to today's market. 

Cloth nappies

The most commonly available cloth nappy is a simple terry towelling square or rectangle, quick to dry when hung out unfolded and very absorbent when folded into several layers. White towelling nappies are what most of us think of when we think of cloth nappies, but you can also get flannelette, brushed cotton or cotton muslin nappies, even bright colours. Whatever you choose, you’ll need at least two or three dozen if you’re only using cloth nappies.

You can also buy fitted cloth nappies, which are shaped much like a disposable, with elastic at the legs and waist and, usually, Velcro tabs for fastening. They generally feature some form of absorbent padding, may be adjustable in size and available in several choices of exterior fabric and colour. There’s a range of brands on the market — sold through some pharmacies, baby shops, department stores and by mail order — offering variations on the theme.

At their best they are easy to get on and off, provide good containment and are a neater, less bulky fit than the standard square nappy. They’re more expensive than the basic squares, and take longer to dry, but for people who don’t want or can’t afford to use disposables yet like the convenience they offer, the advantages of fitted nappies could be worth paying for.

Accessories likely to be found useful in conjunction with ordinary cloth nappies include:

  • Nappy liners: Made of disposable paper or fabric, these are used inside cloth nappies to catch poo and are then discarded or cleaned after use. One-way nappy liners help keep your baby’s skin dry by drawing moisture away from the body. They can be helpful in preventing nappy rash and can be used with disposables as well as cloth nappies.
  • Plastic pants and pilchers: These are needed with the standard cloth nappy, to keep clothes and bedding dry. As well as those available through supermarkets, department stores and specialty baby care shops, several brands are sold through mail order outlets. According to some experts, it’s worth considering that the more efficiently these outer pants do their job of keeping bedding and clothes dry, the more efficiently they’ll be keeping baby’s bottom wet — so to minimise the risk of nappy rash, you should look for a brand that works a little less than perfectly, permitting some air to circulate and moisture to evaporate.
  • Fasteners: Using a nappy doesn’t necessarily mean safety pins in the thumb any more. Some converts swear by nappy clamps or fasteners: plastic, claw-like fastening devices which sell for around $3.50 for two.

The other point to remember when using cloth nappies is that careful laundering is essential. For instance, without thorough rinsing, residue from the washing powder can remain embedded in the nappy, irritating baby’s skin and ultimately causing nappy rash.

Disposable nappies

Disposable nappies have taken over from cloth: according to 2001 industry data, 89 percent of all nappies changed in Australia are disposables, up from 40 percent in 1993.

The perfect disposable nappy should:

  • absorb moisture quickly to prevent leaks and ‘lock it in’ to keep your baby’s bottom relatively dry
  • be easy and quick to fasten
  • stay closed during use
  • fit various shapes and sizes
  • contain absorbent material that doesn’t shift or disintegrate during use.

Some brands have a wetness indicator — a picture that disappears when the nappy is wet — which may come in handy if you’re unfamiliar with changing nappies and are unsure when a change is due.

Disposable nappies vary in price and quality. You can expect to pay around 26 to 50 cents per nappy, depending on the brand and packet size you choose. Bulk packs are usually most economical.

Check out our most recent trial of disposable nappies: Disposable nappies on trial.


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Concentrations of urine, which release ammonia and cause nappy rash, can be a problem with disposable and cloth nappies, if they’re not changed often enough. And just as plastic pants worn over cloth nappies can make nappy rash worse by preventing the nappy from ‘breathing’, this can be a problem with some disposables too. But with cloth nappies, nappy rash may also be triggered by traces of ammonia or detergent left behind if the nappy isn’t properly washed and rinsed.

Any harmful germs should be eliminated if your washing machine’s cycle uses water at a temperature of 65 °C or hotter and the nappies are hung in the sun to dry (ultraviolet light from the sun has some sterilising effect and bleaches the nappy as well). But if you use a dryer and your washing machine’s cycle doesn’t use water hot enough to kill the common bacteria in faeces and urine, the chances of your child developing nappy rash are greater. To help ensure this doesn’t happen, you can use a nappy treatment.

The Australian standard for nappy sanitisers (AS 2351) requires that when used under conditions of normal use and according to manufacturers’ instructions, products should control the number of micro-organisms at a hygienic level. As well, it sets out detailed product labelling requirements including details about the recommended concentration, the number of nappies that can be treated in any one mix of solution, the minimum effective soaking time and how long the solution will remain effective, together with instructions to rinse off poo before soaking nappies.

03.Superabsorbent materials

The average disposable nappy weighs around 40g. The bulk of it (about 60%) is wood pulp. Some of the other materials it contains are polypropylene, polyethylene or bonded carded web for the top and back sheets, and other materials for fasteners, elastic and adhesives.

Many brands also contain polyacrylate, a superabsorbent material in powder form, which can absorb many times its weight in liquid. In contact with moisture, it solidifies into a gel and traps the liquid inside. Nappies without superabsorbent material generally contain more wood pulp to increase their absorbency.

You may have heard claims that the chemicals sodium polyacrylate and dioxin in disposable nappies pose a significant health risk to babies and toddlers. We’ve seen these claims too — on the websites of those promoting the use of cloth nappies — but couldn’t find them substantiated in the scientific literature.

As far as we could establish, there have been no long-term studies of the effects of superabsorbent materials on infants. However, two studies in the early 1990s found that polyacrylate polymers (superabsorbent material) had no toxic effect on the genetic material of laboratory animals, and didn’t cause birth defects in them.

There’s some disagreement about the benefits of nappies containing superabsorbent materials. Some studies found that the type of nappy made no difference to nappy rash, but many others have confirmed that disposables with superabsorbent materials have led to drier skin and hence, fewer incidences and reduced severity of nappy rash.

As far as dioxins are concerned, they’re a family of organochlorines that includes one of the most toxic chemicals yet made. In the past, dioxin traces were found in chlorine-bleached white paper and pulp products, including disposable nappies. However, nowadays nappies are usually oxygen-bleached (using hydrogen peroxide), which forms no dioxin.

04.Environmental impact

For years there’s been an ongoing debate over which type of nappy has the least impact on the environment. While it might seem clearcut that reusable cloth nappies would be a more environmentally friendly option than disposables, in fact there are environmental costs associated with using both.

Many conflicting studies have been published, but unfortunately not many independent ones. Most research has been funded or sponsored by a company or organisation with a barrow to push, be it disposable nappy companies or environmental groups.

It takes more raw materials to make disposables than cloth nappies. They also have an obvious impact on waste disposal and landfill — in 1999 it was estimated that using an average of six nappies a day over two and a half years produces about 734kg of solid waste. Multiply that by the number of disposable-wearing babies born in Australia each year and that’s a lot of disposable nappies taking up space in landfill.

For just one baby you’re talking about roughly 8000 nappies. And while it’s possible the weight of the disposables themselves may have decreased, the number of people using them has increased.

Parts of a disposable nappy are potentially biodegradable, but whether they do biodegrade and how long it takes will depend on the type of landfill, and whether bacteria needed for decomposition have access to air, water and light.

Cloth nappies also have an environmental cost. Growing cotton requires the use of pesticides and water, although new strains of genetically modified cotton claim to reduce the use of chemicals.

However, the most significant environmental impact of cloth nappies occurs during their use, rather than production or disposal. Washing and cleaning them requires water and energy that you don’t use with disposable. You can minimise this by using cold water to wash and by drying on the line.

Unfortunately the expensive option of nappy services is probably the best from an environmental perspective, due to economies of scale. As a cheaper alternative and environmental compromise, you might consider using cloth nappies at home and disposables when you’re out.

05.Cloth vs disposable

  • Disposables are more convenient than cloth nappies, especially when away from home, but they produce a lot of waste. They don’t require accessories such as pilchers or fasteners, but have to be bought regularly and are much more expensive than cloth nappies washed at home. They are more absorbent and tend to keep your baby drier.
  • As far as nappy rash is concerned, some medical evidence suggests that high-quality disposable nappies with absorbent polymers may reduce the incidence of more severe nappy rash. Other studies suggest that it’s more important how clean the nappy is rather than what it’s made from. To prevent nappy rash as much as possible, all types of nappy should be changed regularly.
  • Cloth nappies washed at home create little solid waste but use more water – which could be an issue in drought affected areas -- and energy. They’re much cheaper than disposables, but require some time to maintain. Apart from a few dozen cloth nappies, you’ll also need accessories such as pilchers or fluffy overpants, a fastener or pins, and perhaps disposable or reusable nappy liners.
  • One of the most important advantages of cloth nappies is that their most significant environmental impact occurs during the use (rather than the production) stage of their lives — so you can minimise that impact by changing the way you wash them. For example, if you use a nappy treatment and wash them, use cold or warm water rather than hot and dry them on the line when possible.
  • Cloth nappies are available as terry towelling, flannelette or muslin squares or fitted, panty-shaped nappies.
  • Cloth nappies from a nappy wash service are great for people who prefer cloth over disposable nappies but still want convenience. It’ll save you time, wear and tear on your washing machine and dryer, and electricity and water costs. While it’ll end up much more expensive than home laundering, using a nappy wash service is generally less environmentally damaging due to economies of scale.
Nappy services provide the advantages of cloth nappies but with a substantial additional benefit: you don’t have to wash them yourself. What’s more, front door delivery and collection means that transporting the nappies isn’t your worry either.

Subscription to a nappy service buys you a fresh supply of towelling or flannelette nappies delivered each week (or twice a week with some). A nappy bin with liner bag is supplied (sometimes at extra cost); you drop the soiled nappies into this, put the liner bag outside the door on the appointed day and it gets collected when the clean nappies are delivered.

At around $19–32 per week for 60 nappies (depending on the city you live in and the duration of your nappy plan), the cost of a nappy service can be comparable to that of a week’s worth of disposables. The nature of the commitment is different, however: whereas you can take or leave disposables as you feel like it, some nappy services require you to sign on for a minimum period of four weeks or more, and others strongly encourage this by offering discounts for long-term prepaid contracts. In some cases, a refundable security deposit will also be required.

Apart from their cost (when compared to doing the washing yourself), the main problem with nappy services is availability: at this stage they’re widely offered only in metropolitan and surrounding areas. Potential subscribers to a nappy service may wish to phone around to several companies, both to compare prices and to check on the washing process used — one that avoids the use of harsh detergents is preferable.

This information comes from our hugely popular book The CHOICE Guide to Baby Products.