EWG Releases New Guide to Safe Disposable Diapers

Its new 'verified' seal and shopping tips will give parents confidence.

baby with disposable diapers

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Babies use approximately 2,500 diapers in their first year of life. That's a lot of time spent wearing a product next to bare skin, in close contact with sensitive body parts. What many parents don't realize, however, is that disposable diapers pose a health risk to their child. Diapers contain numerous toxic chemicals and materials that could be doing more harm than good. 

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) hopes to change this. As an organization, the EWG strives to fill a void when it comes to testing of consumer products and offers up-to-date analysis of items that deserve greater regulation. Its latest mission is to educate parents and caregivers about disposable diapers and help them navigate the often-overwhelming aisle of baby care products. It just launched EWG VERIFIED Diapers this week, which is a certification that proves a brand of diaper has met rigorous criteria for health and ingredient disclosure.

(A quick disclaimer: Treehugger is more a proponent of reusable cloth diapers than plastic-filled disposable diapers that will likely take hundreds of years to decompose; however, we are also realists and parents who understand that sometimes, for whatever reason, cloth doesn't cut it and disposable is a better option. For those situations, this information is helpful.)

What's the Concern?

In an accompanying report, EWG explains the anatomy of a diaper – how it's made and the various materials that are used. The topsheet and backsheet, the layers that are visible on the exterior and interior of a diaper, are made of plastic polymers. These often contain phthalates, a plasticizing agent that adds flexibility. 

The super-absorbent polymer (or gelling agent) inside the diaper absorbs up to 30 times its weight in urine, but can be contaminated with acrylamide or acrylic acid, which the National Toxicology Program has classified as "reasonably anticipated to cause cancer in humans."

The adhesives used to hold diapers together contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are linked to kidney, liver, and nervous system damage, and endocrine-disrupting alkylphenols associated with endometrial cancer.

The wetness indicators that some parents like to use raise concerns, too. They're made using a dye or pH indicator that changes color when it comes into contact with urine, but this requires the use of chemicals like quaternary ammonium compounds, associated with reproductive and developmental problems, and halogenated organic compounds, which persist and cause damage to the environment. 

Then there's fragrance, which can trigger allergic reactions and skin irritations in children. Around 20% of children have experienced contact dermatitis that can be triggered by fragrance. Ingredients in fragrance do not need to be disclosed because they're considered proprietary secrets. "Unscented" is even considered a fragrance that masks chemical smells, so it's best to look for diapers that say "fragrance-free."

Shocked?

If this information is surprising, you're not alone. Most parents are unaware of the risks embedded in an innocent-looking diaper. There was a major French report published in 2018 that raised alarm bells over hazardous chemicals in diapers, but oddly it didn't translate to strong public demand for diaper reform.

Treehugger spoke with the report's co-authors, Sydney Swanson and Nneka Leiba, who work respectively as an analyst and the vice-president of Healthy Living Science at EWG. Leiba said, "There hasn't been a concerted push to green diapers. Nobody's really asking for it." Swanson added, "People just assume that what's on the market is safe and that all these diapers that are available are safe for their kids, too." 

The reality is much different. As Leiba explained, "When you actually look at a diaper and think about the plastic and the fragrances and the phthalates, it really adds up – but it's not intuitive. What we're asking companies to do is reduce the number of chemicals and amount of plastic slowly."

She went on: "Babies are born pre-polluted. We know that they're already being exposed to chemicals while in utero, so let's try to reduce the additional chemicals that they're exposed to after birth." 

What Can a Parent Do?

EWG wants parents to start looking for its EWG VERIFIED Diaper seal in stores. So far there is only a single brand that meets the new standard, called healthynest, but that will expand in time. Swanson and Leiba told Treehugger that EWG reached out to a number of companies, some of which are now going through the process of getting verified. "This is will push the market and other brands in the right direction," Leiba said.

EWG has also created a list of quick tips to help parents figure out what to buy when they can't find EWG VERIFIED diapers. The list includes the following advice:

  • Read the ingredients list and avoid brands that don't disclose ingredients fully
  • Look for brands that reduce the amount of plastic in products and packaging
  • Choose unbleached pulp or pulp bleached using totally chlorine-free techniques
  • Avoid fragrances and lotions contained within diapers
  • Look for brands that are free from phthalates, parabens, bisphenols, flame retardants, and fluorinated compounds known as PFAS
  • Choose the plainest, least colorful diapers with minimal designs to avoid unnecessary chemical use
  • Consider using cloth diapers in place of disposable, as these use "significantly less raw material, energy and gross water – the total water used, including recycled water – than disposables."

Last but not least, vote with your dollars. Consumer pressure moves brands to make changes they would not otherwise.

View Article Sources
  1. Miller-Wilson, Kate. "How Many Diapers Does A Baby Use In A Year?". Baby.Lovetoknow.Com, 2020.

  2. Indian Journal of Environmental Health, Source:. "Disposable Baby Diaper--A Threat To The Health And Environment". Researchgate, 2012.

  3. Litchman, Graham et al. "Contact Dermatitis". Ncbi.Nlm.Nih.Gov, 2020.