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Differences Between Washable and Single-Use Diapers

Choosing a diaper? We can help. Learn the big differences between washable and single-use diapers.

Read up on the main differences between washable and single-use diapers

There are plenty of preparations involved with welcoming a new baby. One of the big choices new parents have to make is whether to choose disposable or cloth diapers. Depending on your neighborhood, grocery store options, and environmental concerns, you may be torn between your options—do you go for the modern, convenient route or the tried-and-true eco-friendly method?

When choosing between cloth and disposable diapers, there are plenty of things to consider when selecting the best diapers for your baby.

What's the difference between disposable and reusable diapers?

First, let's start by looking at the two types of diapers: disposable and reusable.

You're likely more familiar with the disposable type, made from wood pulp and synthetic materials, and printed with your favorite kid-friendly designs and movie characters. Common brands like Huggies and Pampers have built empires on swaddling little bodies, and for good reason! Many of these brands are health-conscious and designed for a wide age range, from newborns to toddlers to toilet-trainers. Diaper designs run from the traditional fold-and-stick variety to models made for older kids that can be pulled up like underpants.

Reusable diapers, on the other hand, are often made from a variety of higher-quality materials and fabrics (usually cotton or a cotton blend). Compared to disposable diapers, cloth diapers can run a bit more on the expensive side, but they can be used again and again, maximizing their dollar value.

The best diapers for your family may not be the best for your neighbors—or even the same style your parents used on you! When it comes down to it, you should base your decision on what's best for your newborn, your schedule, and your budget.

Should we be worried about health factors?

Both cloth diapers and disposable diapers are designed to be as safe and healthy for your baby as possible. In general, the two types are evenly matched when it comes to health concerns. However, babies with sensitive skin might find disposable diapers irritating, especially if they are sensitive to the chemicals in certain dyes or scents. On the other hand, cloth diapers can be more constricting than disposable diapers, making issues like diaper rash tougher to combat.

What environmental factors should my family consider?

Many families make the switch to cloth diapers out of dedication to the environment. While the manufacturing process for cloth diapers isn't perfect, many companies have devoted their resources to finding the most eco-friendly manufacturing processes for cloth diapers, which can be reused again and again. On the other hand, disposable diapers get—well, disposed of. They can sit in a landfill for up to 500 years before they break down.

It's important to mention that cloth diapers aren't a perfect choice for the environment. Cleaning a cloth diaper requires a lot of water consumption, particularly because you need to flush any solid waste before you put the diapers in a washing machine, and because cloth diapers need to be washed two to three times per week. Many families also choose to wash diapers on their own (away from mom and dad's clothes), which increases this water consumption.

How about budget-crunching?

Let's take a look at the numbers. On average, most families will spend about $800-$1,000 on cloth diapers for two years. In the same time range, families using disposable diapers will spend approximately $2,000-3,000.

The difference in physical numbers is astounding, too. On average, families that wash a load of diapers 2-3 times per week use between 24-36 cloth diapers. An added benefit is that they can be reused over the course of a year, passed down to younger siblings, or donated once your baby grows out of them. Meanwhile, you'd need about 4-12 diapers per day for your baby, depending on their age. At an average of 8 diapers per day, you'd need 2,920 per year for just one baby bottom!

To sum it up, let's take a look at the pros and cons.

Cloth Diaper Pros:

  • They're comfy! Cloth diapers are gentler for babies with sensitive skin.
  • Less of an environmental impact, as far as manufacturing and disposal go.
  • Can be reused on future siblings, turned into cute DIY projects, or donated to a family in need.
  • Over time, will cost less per kid than disposable diapers (especially if reused for other family members).

Cloth Diaper Cons:

  • They take longer to change than disposable diapers.
  • You have to practice "diaper digging" and dump solids before deep-cleaning.
  • Cleaning cloth diapers requires a lot of water use.
  • They are less absorbent and less breathable than disposable diapers, so it can be harder to avoid issues like diaper rash.
  • More up-front cost than disposable diapers.

Disposable Diaper Pros:

  • Convenient and easy to change.
  • More air flow. Babies can wear these diapers for longer (but they should still be changed whenever they're full).
  • More sizing options and designs.

Disposable Diaper Cons:

  • Damaging to the environment.
  • Dyes, scents, and moisturizers could cause irritation.
  • Flimsier than cloth diapers.
  • Over time, disposable diapers usually end up costing more than cloth diapers.

At the end of the day, make the decision that's best for your baby. And you don't have to stick with your first instinct! Try out a few different brands, streamline your changing routine, and find what's right for your family.

Resources— Earth 911, The Bump, The Natural Baby Company