It’s hard to imagine life without disposable diapers. After becoming widely available in the late 1960s and early 1970s, disposables are now the norm in much of the world – and for good reason. Though they raise complicated environmental issues, there’s no denying that throwaway nappies are a major convenience for many parents.
Disposables are so ever-present, in fact, that few wonder what they’re made of. But it’s a reasonable question for a product that spends so many hours in direct contact with your child’s most sensitive areas. What’s really in disposable diapers, and is there any chance that these materials could harm your baby?
What’s in a disposable diaper?
While disposable diapers seem simple, they have more materials and parts than you might think. Diaper companies aren’t required to list the ingredients of their products, but modern disposables – Pampers, Huggies, and everything else – all follow the same basic model:
The outer lining is made of polyethylene film, essentially the same stuff that’s in plastic wrap. The inner lining that touches your baby’s skin is usually made of polypropylene, a common material that’s also found in thermal underwear, among other things. Both materials are considered completely safe for young skin. Some brands enhance the inner lining with aloe and vitamin E, skin-friendly compounds that are often found in diaper rash creams.
The absorbent center contains wood pulp and super-absorbent polymers, usually sodium polyacrylate. Introduced in the early 1980s, sodium polyacrylate allowed diapers to become both thinner and more effective at keeping babies dry. This compound can soak up to 30 times its weight in urine. Although sodium polyacrylate is supposed to stay in the core of the diaper, it sometimes leaks through the lining, leaving small transparent crystals on a baby’s skin.
The cartoon characters or other images on the outside of many diapers are made with dyes such as Disperse Blue 106, Disperse Blue 124, Disperse Yellow 3, and Disperse Orange 3.
Scented diapers contain a small amount of perfume between the absorbent core and the outer layers. The perfumes typically contain citral, a citrusy-smelling compound often found in lemon and orange oils.
Are the chemicals in disposable diapers safe?
Sodium polyacrylate: According to various material safety data sheets (documents created by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration that list potential hazards of chemicals in great detail), the sodium polyacrylate in diapers is mild stuff. Inhaling small particles might irritate the airways, but it’s considered nontoxic.
Sodium polyacrylate itself is not irritating to the skin. And because it’s a polymer, it sticks together in long chains that are way too large to be absorbed through the skin. However, sodium polyacrylate is sometimes mixed up with small amounts of acrylic acid, a leftover from the manufacturing process.
In theory, acrylic acid in large doses could be harmful to a baby’s skin. But according to a 2009 report in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, there isn’t nearly enough acrylic acid in disposable diapers to raise concern. (The study was funded by Procter & Gamble, a major manufacturer of diapers.)
People who warn against the dangers of disposable diapers often say that sodium polyacrylate can cause allergic skin reactions. Fortunately, such reactions seem to be very rare. A 2008 report in the journal Clinics in Dermatology cited only one recent case of a possible allergic reaction to sodium polyacrylate, and that was in an adult using an incontinence pad. The authors note that very few babies have allergic reactions to anything in their diapers.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, hundreds of women using super-absorbent tampons containing sodium polyacrylate developed toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal disease caused by bacterial infections. When sodium polyacrylate first started showing up in diapers, some people worried that babies could get toxic shock syndrome, too. But that fear turned out to be unfounded. A diaper worn on the outside of the body is far different from a tampon, and no case of a diaper causing toxic shock syndrome has ever been reported.
Dyes: The dyes used in diapers are generally safe. But in rare cases, Disperse Blue 106, Disperse Blue 124, Disperse Yellow 3, and Disperse Orange 3 have been known to trigger allergic reactions in babies.
Perfumes: Some babies are sensitive to citral and other perfumes in diapers, although actual allergic reactions seem to be uncommon. According to a 2009 report in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, the amount of citral in a typical scented diaper should be about a million times too low to cause any trouble.
Dioxins: The wood pulp in diapers gives them a little extra cushioning and absorbing power, but it can also introduce other potentially worrisome chemicals, namely dioxins. This family of chemicals, created when wood pulp is bleached with chlorine, is known to cause cancer in humans.
Except for chlorine-free diapers, such as those made by Seventh Generation and Earth’s Best, disposable diapers carry tiny amounts of dioxins. Some worry that the dioxins found in disposable diapers that have been thrown away will contaminate groundwater near landfills. Parents, of course, have a more immediate concern.
There doesn’t seem to be enough dioxin in a diaper to threaten a baby’s health, however. In fact, it’s not even a close call: A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2002 estimated that kids get thousands if not millions of times more dioxins in their diet than they get from their diapers. (Dioxins are everywhere in the environment, and they end up in everything that we eat, especially animal fats.)
The study also found that the most dangerous types of dioxins – the forms most likely to cause cancer and other disease – don’t show up in diapers at all.
What do pediatricians say?
In general, pediatricians and experts say that disposable diapers do what they’re supposed to: protect babies’ skin without much mess, hassle, or reason for worry.
“We see a lot less diaper rash than we used to,” says Ilona Frieden, director of pediatric dermatology at UC San Francisco’s Children’s Hospital. Because modern disposables absorb large amounts of moisture – a key ingredient in most diaper rashes – diaper rash outbreaks tend to be less common and less severe, she says.
Although Frieden sees rashy bottoms every day in her practice, she “very rarely” sees a case where the diaper itself seemed to be causing the trouble. Diaper rashes, she says, are most commonly caused by yeast infections and irritation of the area from diarrhea or unusually liquid stool.
What’s the issue with Pampers Dry Max diapers?
The safety of disposable diapers became a hot topic in early 2010 when word started spreading that babies had developed severe rashes or even “chemical burns” after wearing Pampers Dry Max Swaddlers and Cruisers from Procter & Gamble.
Dry Max diapers – designed to be thinner but as absorbent as the old Pampers – first hit store shelves in August 2008, although the company didn’t change the packaging or advertise the new brand until March 2010. Soon after the new packaging came out in 2010, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) started hearing complaints about severe diaper rashes from parents and caregivers.
The CPSC eventually received nearly 4,700 incident reports about Pampers Dry Max diapers between April and August 2010. More than 11,000 people joined a Facebook group calling for Pampers to bring back the old Cruisers and Swaddlers.
The CPSC and Health Canada (the Canadian safety agency) investigated the diapers and found no specific cause linking Pampers Dry Max diapers to diaper rash.
As part of its investigation, CPSC staff reviewed clinical and toxicological data from published, peer-reviewed medical literature, as well as studies done by Procter & Gamble. They considered characteristics of the diaper, including materials used, the construction of the diaper, and heat and moisture retention.
In a September 2010 press release, the CPSC concluded: “While the investigation thus far does not find a link between the diapers and the health complaints received, CPSC recognizes the serious concerns expressed by parents. CPSC staff cannot rule out that there may exist a health concern for some babies, especially those babies that may be sensitive and develop rashes or other skin problems as a result of contact with the materials in this or other products.”
Throughout the investigation, Procter & Gamble maintained that its diapers are safe. Dry Max diapers don’t contain any new materials or dyes that could cause rashes or any other reaction, and they were tested extensively before their release, said Liza Sanchez, the company’s director of research and development.
What parents can do
If you have concerns about any disposable diapers, report the problem by calling the Consumer Product Safety Commission at (800) 638-2772 or visiting the CPSC website.
If a particular diaper seems to be causing problems for your child, try switching brands, says Frieden, the pediatric dermatologist. You can also try switching to cloth diapers, which are less absorbent but are free of dyes and many of the chemicals found in disposable diapers.
To treat a mild diaper rash, Frieden recommends the standard approach: Change your child often, making sure the skin is dry before using a skin protecting cream or ointment and putting on a fresh diaper. (Get more information on diaper rashes and how to treat them.) For a more serious rash, make sure to check in with your child’s doctor.