Cloth Diapers Vs Disposable Diapers: Which is Best for My Baby?

Cloth Diapers Vs Disposable Diapers: Back when I was little, new parents had just one choice to make about diapers. They could use plain white cotton diapers, secured with safety pins and covered in plastic pants to protect against leaks, or they could use expensive disposable diapers. Cloth diapers were undeniably cheaper, but they were also a lot more work, and for working moms with kids in daycare, disposable was often the only option.

How times have changed. Today, not only are more dads changing diapers, but all parents have a breathtaking array of options when it comes to what kind to use. The plain cotton diapers I wore as a baby are still around, but there are also all kinds of fancy “diaper systems” that make cloth diapering more convenient – and also more expensive. Additionally, busy parents have the option of renting their cloth nappies through a diaper service that takes away all the dirty diapers each week and delivers a fresh supply of clean ones.

Disposable diapers have changed too. New super-absorbent polymers have greatly reduced their bulk, and they’re now available in a wide variety of colors and patterns. For eco-conscious parents, there are “green” disposable diapers that are chlorine-free, biodegradable, or made with renewable resources. There are even diaper systems that blur the line between cloth and disposable, combining a cloth outer garment with a disposable insert.

The huge number of available choices can be overwhelming – particularly for new parents, who are already juggling a thousand different jobs and getting far too little sleep. I can’t tell you which kind of diaper is best, but I can do the next best thing: Provide you with a clear, straightforward rundown of the pros and cons of each type, so you can make an informed choice about what works best for you.

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What are Disposable Diapers?

Disposable diapers were invented in 1948. They have extremely absorbent materials in their inner lining, making them far more efficient than cloth diapers while still providing similar comfort levels. Because of this, they soon took over the market from cloth diapers and are now the most common form of diapers used. Disposable diapers are one-time use only as they cannot be cleaned and must be discarded.

Types of Disposable Diapers

All disposable diapers have the same basic construction. There’s a waterproof outer layer, a soft inner lining that wicks away moisture, and in between, an absorbent core of super-absorbent polymer (SAP) that pulls in and traps moisture. Disposable diapers have adhesive tabs for fastening, coupled with elastic at the leg and waist to hold them snugly in place.

However, some disposable diapers have additional features to make them both more eco-friendly and healthier for babies. Parents may choose “green” disposables because their babies have allergies or chemical sensitivities, because they want to reduce their children’s exposure to synthetic chemicals, or because they want to tread lightly on the Earth.

Here are some of the most common claims made about disposable diapers, and what they mean:


Biodegradable or Compostable

Even if a diaper is made of materials that could break down when exposed to air, water, and sunlight, most disposable diapers end up in dark, airless landfills, where they will remain essentially unchanged for centuries.



Most disposable diapers are bleached with chlorine. This process leaves behind traces of chemicals called dioxins, which can cause cancer and damage to the immune and reproductive systems. Studies show that diapers contain only tiny amounts of dioxins, and they don’t contain the most potent and dangerous forms of these chemicals. However, if you think any exposure to dioxins is too much, choosing chlorine-free diapers eliminates the risk.


Dye and Fragrance-Free

Some babies are allergic to the fragrances and dyes used in disposable diapers. These chemicals also serve no useful purpose, since adding fragrance doesn’t do much to improve the smell of a dirty diaper. If you know your baby is allergic to these chemicals – or if you don’t want to wait until a reaction develops to find out – look for diapers that are free of dyes and fragrances. It’s possible to find low-priced brands that are fragrance-free.



In theory, a hypoallergenic product is one that’s less likely to cause an allergic reaction. Although most diapers don’t claim to be hypoallergenic, those that do aren’t required to submit any evidence for the claim to the FDA. The best way to avoid allergic reactions from disposable diapers is to choose diapers without dye or fragrance.

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Disposable Diaper Costs

Disposable diapers vary widely in price. The editors estimate that a typical baby uses a total of 6,000 diapers in the first three years of life. Thus, they calculate the total cost of disposable diaper use to be $1,440 for the value-priced Cuties diapers and $2,880. The editors note that these price estimates are a bit on the high side. Buying in bulk from a subscription program like the one at can cut prices on most brands by about 20%. However, they still cost quite a bit more than cloth diapers laundered at home – particularly if you can reuse the cloth diapers for a second child.

Disposable Diaper Accessories

Having a baby in diapers requires more equipment than just the diapers themselves. For starters, you need a sturdy diaper pail to hold the dirty diapers and block out unpleasant smells. However, these fancy bags make the system expensive – although it costs only $20 to buy, adding in three years’ worth of bags raises the overall cost to around $300.

At the other end of the price spectrum, a diaper pail can be as simple as a regular garbage can with a tight-fitting lid. If you buy a basic kitchen garbage can and line it with ordinary trash bags, your lifetime cost can be as low as $75.

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Of course, convenience is the reason most parents choose disposables. But disposable diapers do involve some work – they can approximately double the amount of trash a family has to haul to the curb each week. But for most parents, that takes a lot less effort than laundering a load of cloth diapers every other day.

Some parents who would prefer to use cloth diapers end up choosing disposables because their babies are in daycare. Many daycare centers don’t allow cloth diapers, and in a few places, there are state or local regulations that require them to use disposables.

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Environmental Concerns

Disposable diapers are widely perceived as an environmental disaster because of the materials used to produce them and the landfill space they take up. In fact, “use cloth diapers” was one of the tips in the classic environmental.

However, all these facts come from books and studies that are more than a decade old. More recent studies have cast doubt on whether disposable diapers are worse overall than cloth ones.

One major problem with disposable diapers is that many parents simply wrap up the baby’s poop inside before tossing them in the trash. This is the main reason the site’s editors consider cloth diapers to be a more eco-friendly choice than disposables. For parents who use disposable diapers, they say, the responsible thing to do is dump out any solid waste into the toilet before putting the diaper in the trash – which, of course, takes a lot away from the convenience that’s the main perk of using disposable diapers in the first place.

  • Offer convenience
  • Allow for quick changes
  • Come as hypoallergenic
  • Expensive
  • Cause skin rashes
  • Cause toilet training to be more difficult

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Home-Laundered Cloth

Although disposable diapers remain the most popular type, cloth diapers are having a renaissance, thanks to new designs and accessories that take a lot of the work out of cloth diapering. More than 60,000 users search Google each month for “cloth diapers,” while only 3,600 searches for “disposable diapers.”

In the past, the biggest advantage of cloth diapers was their lower cost, and the biggest drawback was the work involved. This is still true to a large extent, but modern diaper systems have changed the equation somewhat. Cloth diapers still have clear advantages and disadvantages compared to disposables, but the differences are less extreme than they used to be.


Types of Cloth Diapers

Shopping for cloth diapers can be bewildering. There are so many different terms – pocket, all-in-one, all-in-two, hybrid – and to make matters more confusing, some of these names can be used interchangeably.

To clarify matters, here’s a rundown of the major types of cloth diapers, along with their main advantages and disadvantages.



These are the basic cloth diapers I grew up with: a flat rectangle of cloth, usually thicker in the middle. They’re called prefolds to distinguish them from the still older flat diaper, which is seldom seen nowadays. However, despite the name, prefold diapers still require some folding before you can fasten them on the baby. Prefold diapers are versatile and easy to clean and dry, but they’re also bulkier than other types of cloth diapers.



A fitted diaper is built much like a disposable, with multiple layers of absorbent material, leg and back elastic, and snaps or hook-and-loop tape to hold them in place. However, unlike disposables, they don’t have a waterproof outer layer, so they require a separate cover. Most fitted diapers come in multiple sizes, but a few brands have snaps that allow them to adjust to your baby’s growth. Fitted diapers are more expensive than prefold diapers, but they’re also more absorbent and easier to fasten, and the leg elastic does a good job keeping messes contained.



An all-in-one diaper is like a fitted diaper, but with a waterproof outer layer built-in, eliminating the need for a separate cover. This makes them quick and easy to change, and daycare centers often prefer them for this reason. However, because all their parts are sewn together in a single piece, they take up more room in the washer, which means more loads of laundry – and their bulk means that each load takes a long time to dry. All-in-one diapers are also the most expensive type to use, costing anywhere from $600 to $900 from birth until the baby is potty trained.



A pocket diaper has two parts: an outer shell with elastic legs and snap or tab fasteners, and a removable insert. The shell itself has two layers: a waterproof outer layer and a soft lining with a pocket opening much like a kangaroo’s pouch. The insert, also made of soft cloth, tucks into this pocket, where it funnels moisture away from the baby’s skin. Another advantage is that you can stuff in a second insert for extra absorbency at night. Pocket diapers are easy to fasten, and they don’t require a separate cover. However, they’re also bulky, and because both the pocket and the insert get soiled when the diaper is used, they must both be washed after every use. Also, removing the insert can be a messy process. In terms of price, they’re less expensive than all-in-ones but more expensive than hybrid or all-in-two diapers.



Like a pocket diaper, an all-in-two has both a shell and a liner, but the liner simply sits on top of the shell instead of tucking in. This makes it much easier to remove the liners after use and also to get a fresh diaper ready to go on the baby. However, the biggest advantage of all-in-two systems is that most of the time, only the liner gets soiled, so the shell can be reused, which makes for far less laundry. Also, because you don’t need to change the shell every time, you don’t need to buy as many of them, which makes the all-in-two much cheaper to use than all-in-one or pocket diapers. All-in-twos are sold both in multiple sizes, which you replace as your baby grows and as one-size models that adjust to fit.



Hybrid diapers are a particular type of all-in-two that can be used with disposable inserts, making them a “hybrid” between a cloth diaper and a disposable. For many parents, hybrid diapers are the best of both worlds. They can use cloth liners at home for their greater absorbency and then switch to disposable liners for their greater convenience when they’re on the road, or when the baby is at daycare.

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Cloth Diaper Costs

The cost of cloth diapering depends on the type of diapers you choose. As noted above, prefold diapers are the cheapest type, costing around $2.50 per diaper, with a lifetime cost of about $255. Modern diaper systems have a much higher initial cost – between $15 and $24 per diaper. However, when you compare lifetime costs, the difference isn’t nearly as dramatic.

Cloth Diaper Accessories

Just like disposable diapers, cloth diapers require a diaper pail and wipes. Also, some extra accessories can make the process of changing and washing cloth diapers a lot easier.

Cost Considerations

Using a diaper service is far more expensive than laundering your diapers. Most diaper services charge around $20 for a week’s supply of basic prefold diapers – about 80 of them, for a newborn – plus a diaper pail with a liner and deodorizer. Some services also include diaper covers and cloth wipes, which can be laundered along with the diapers. However, in most cases, you must supply your own covers to go with the service’s diapers.

Compared to disposable diapers, using a diaper service is a toss-up. Disposable diapers cost anywhere from $0.14 apiece for an ultra-basic brand to $0.48 apiece for a high-quality green brand, while diapers from service cost about $0.25 each. So depending on which brand of diaper you would otherwise be using, a diaper service can be a great value or a poor one.

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The biggest advantage of using a diaper service is having someone else take care of all the laundry. All you need to do after a diaper change is dump out the solids and toss the dirty diaper in the pail. This makes cloth diapering practical for parents who don’t have a washer and dryer at home.

However, one downside of diaper services is that most of them offer only the basic prefold diapers. This makes changing your baby a bit more of a hassle, since you have to fold the diaper, put it on and secure it, and then add a separate cover.

Another drawback of Cloth Diapers Vs Disposable Diapers is that most daycare centers don’t allow prefold diapers. Many daycare services don’t allow cloth diapers at all, and others accept only the easier-to-use diaper systems. So unless your daycare facility has its own diaper service, using one probably isn’t an option.


Environmental and Health Concerns

It’s tricky to say how the environmental impact of using a diaper service compares to washing at home because there are so many factors involved. The actual washing process is likely to be more efficient since many diaper services have special washers and dryers that use far less water and energy than home machines. Some services also claim to use environmentally friendly detergents free of phosphates, dyes, and perfumes.

On the other hand, some diaper services stress the fact that their diapers are “sanitized” because they’re washed in 160°F water. Experts say there’s no need to wash diapers at this temperature, and the UK Environmental Agency says doing so increases the carbon footprint of cloth diaper use. Also, using a service means shipping diapers to and from your home in a truck, which uses fuel and creates pollution.

Overall, the environmental impact of using a diaper service depends on the specific service you use. Being farther away from your home makes it less green because of the transportation involved; washing diapers efficiently, by contrast, make it greener. If you can’t find information about the laundering process on a diaper service’s website, you can call and ask.

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  • Cheaper
  • environmentally friendly
  • More absorbent
  • Chemical Free
  • Efficiently Designed
  • User-friendly
  • Messy
  • Have to wash poppy diapers
  • Have more laundry

Check out our quick comparison between pampers swaddlers and pampers cruisers.

Final Words About Cloth Diapers Vs Disposable Diapers

There’s no single answer to the question, “Which kind of diaper is best?” Ultimately, it depends on what’s most important to you. If price is your top priority, home-laundered cloth diapers are the way to go. You can save the most with basic prefold diapers, but hybrid diapers are easier to use and not that much pricier.

If convenience is the main concern, then you should either go with disposables or use a modern cloth diaper system with a flushable liner. A diaper service is also a reasonable option, but only if there’s one available in your area.

If your main goal is to pick a diaper that’s environmentally friendly and safe for your baby, cloth diapers are best overall. Disposable diapers can be a reasonable choice if you pick a green brand, but you should expect to pay more for them.

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Last update was on: January 23, 2021 3:08 pm

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