Cloth Diaper Fabrics: Make an Informed Decision.

Cloth Diaper Fabrics: Make an Informed Decision.

Choosing a cloth diaper for your baby can be overwhelming. Not only are there many styles to pick from, but there are also several different fabric options. Each fabric has a set of properties that make it beneficial in certain situations. Below, I’ve described the properties, pros, and cons of each fabric.

One of the many benefits to using cloth diapers is that it’s better for the environment (compared to disposables). But, did you know that there are certain types of cloth diapers that are more ecofriendly than others? When I was reading about this topic, I came across a lot of interesting information on how different fabrics affect the environment. In case you are interested, I’ve included some of these facts behind the words “EARTH”.

A cloth diaper is made up of 2 pieces: an absorbent component and a cover. To organize this list, I’ve split the fabrics into these two categories.

The Cloth Diaper ABSORBENT Component

Natural fabrics:

Cloth Diaper Fabrics: Cotton
  • An absorbent fabric that is very common in the cloth diaper world.
  • An affordable option.
  • Can be used alone or in blends with Bamboo or Hemp.
  • A bit bulky.
  • EARTH: Because the cotton industry is huge, many growers have turned to pesticides to improve their yield. Luckily, there are a fair amount of organic cotton options.
  • Personal Preference: I use primarily organic cotton prefolds to diaper my daughter. Cloth-eez is my favorite brand, as I have found they are the most absorbent!
Cloth Diaper Fabrics: Hemp
  • A very absorbent material, possibly the most absorbent diapering option.
  • Tends to feel stiffer (especially if line-dried) and absorbs slowly. To accommodate these properties, hemp is often blended with cotton.
  • Works great as a doubler. A doubler is an extra insert used to add absorbency. Place it under a faster-absorbing material, such as cotton or microfiber.
  • Softens with repeated washes.
  • May resist bacteria.
  • Hemp inserts are trim (not bulky).
  • Takes longer to dry.
  • EARTH: Hemp is possibly the most sustainable option. The hemp plant uses less water than cotton, and requires little to no pesticides or fertilizer to grow. Growing hemp actually improves the soil.
Cloth Diaper Fabrics: Bamboo
  • A very absorbent material.
  • It is softer and absorbs more quickly than hemp.
  • It works well when placed anywhere in the diaper – directly against baby’s skin or underneath another material.
  • Takes longer to dry.
  • EARTH: On the plus side, the bamboo plant grows quickly, requires little water, has antibacterial properties, and needs little to no pesticides or chemicals to thrive. However, the process of turning the plant into a fabric (“bamboo rayon”) is complex and requires toxic chemicals. These toxic chemicals unfortunately pose a threat to the workers handling them. They can also be detrimental to the environment, although much of the chemical waste is collected and treated. There is debate over whether bamboo fabrics do more harm or good from an environmental standpoint.

Synthetic fabrics:

Cloth Diaper Fabrics: Microfiber
  • Man-made material. Usually made with polyester.
  • Absorbs fluid very quickly, and can therefore be especially drying to your baby’s skin. Most people recommend NOT putting microfiber directly against your baby’s bottom. (Plus, have you felt this stuff? The texture gives me the willies. There’s no way I would want it against my butt all day. This brings me to the next point…)
  • Can feel scratchy to the touch.
  • Prone to compression leaks. In other words, if you squish a full diaper, it will leak.
  • Often used to make pocket diaper inserts (if stuffed in a pocket, the material can absorb fluid without touching and drying your baby’s skin).
  • Inserts can be bulky.
  • Tend to hold onto odors after a wash cycle.
  • Dries quickly after washing.
  • Over time, they can wear out and become less absorbent (microfiber has a shorter life expectancy than natural fibers).
  • EARTH: Microfiber is a petroleum-based product and is not biodegradable. Microfiber fabric sheds microplastic fibers in the wash, which means washing microfiber diaper inserts contributes to the growing concern of microplastic pollution. Did you know that microplastics are showing up in our oceans, lakes, drinking water, etc?? See links to more info on this topic at the end of this post.

The Cloth Diaper COVER

Natural fabrics:

Cloth Diaper Fabrics: Wool
  • Wool is the best cover option if you are looking for a natural material.
  • Very breathable, making it a good option for rash-prone babies.
  • Water resistant. The cover repels liquid coming from the baby back up into the absorbent diaper. Once the absorbent part of the diaper is fully saturated, the wool cover starts absorbing liquid.
  • Wool is absorbent and can hold about 30% of it’s weight before feeling wet. Wool covers are not waterproof.
  • Can be used repeatedly without washing. Wash only when soiled with poop or starting to stink. Lay flat to dry between uses.
  • Wool has antibacterial properties, due to the lanolin.
  • Repels odors fairly well.
  • Does well in all temperatures. Wool can keep a baby warm in the winter or cool in the summer.
  • Can be costly. There are some crafty moms selling upcycled wool covers online for affordable prices. Look for 100% wool options.
  • Requires special care – hand washing and intermittent lanolizing. (Most wool users I know will tell you the extra care steps are well worth it.)
  • Wool covers come in many styles and have many names – wraps, soakers, woolies, shorties, capris, longies, leggings. In other words, your cover can resemble a diaper, shorts, or a pair of pants. These covers double as clothing, and you can continue to use them after your child is potty trained!
  • Pair wool covers with fitteds, prefolds, or flats. In case you are new to the lingo, these are just different cloth diaper styles. Pairing wool covers with a fitted diaper is often recommended as an unstoppable nighttime option.

Synthetic fabrics:

Cloth Diaper Fabrics: Fleece
  • Another man-made material. Usually made from polyester.
  • Soft, moisture-wicking (water repellent) fabric that breathes well.
  • It’s affordable.
  • It can be used as a liner or a cover:
    • LINER: When used in a very thin layer (microfleece), it provides a “stay-dry” liner that sits between your baby’s bum and the absorbent diaper layer. Fleece does not threaten the same skin irritation caused by microfiber. A microfleece liner can be used as a separate piece that is laid on top of an absorbent fabric. Or, the microfleece liner can be built into the diaper (often the case in pockets or all-in-one diaper styles).
    • COVER: Polar Fleece – a thicker fleece that is sometimes considered the ‘synthetic version of wool’. Fleece is cheaper and easier to care for than wool. It is machine-washed and does not need to be lanolized. However, fleece doesn’t seem to perform as well. It is less absorbent and more prone to trapping odors. Fleece is less stretchy than wool. Fleece can cause compression leaks. It can also wick moisture through the cover and onto clothing. If using a fleece cover, make sure you are pairing it with a highly absorbent diaper layer.
  • EARTH: polyester fleece fabrics also contribute to microplastic pollution.
Cloth Diaper Fabrics: PUL
  • PUL = polyurethane laminate.
  • A waterproof cover.
  • Typically made by binding a polyester knit to a thin polyurethane film, either chemically (with harsh solvents) or by a heat process. PUL made via a heat bonding process is often referred to as TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane). Not all diapers advertise how they make their PUL. But, if you reach out to the company, they should inform you.
  • PUL is a very common material in the cloth diaper world. You can buy PUL covers to wrap over prefolds, flats, or fitteds. Most all-in-one and pocket diapers have a built-in PUL cover.
  • EARTH: made with manmade synthetic materials that sometimes require harsh solvents and that contribute to plastic pollution.

Resources and Additional Reading:

Fabrics Sources: The Natural Baby Company, Good on You, Little for Now, Zephyr Hill Blog (on PUL/TPU), Federal Trade Commission (on bamboo)

More Resources on Microfiber & Microplastic Pollution: The Thames Project, Ensia, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Image Sources: Featured Image cloth diaper photo by PublicDomainPictures at pixabay, Cotton photo by Amber Martin at Unsplash, Hemp photo by Alex Kalligas at Unsplash, Bamboo photo by Eric Muhr at Unsplash, Microfiber photo by stevepb at pixabay, Wool photo by Vicente Veras at Unsplash, Fleece photo by Tania Melnyczuk at Unsplash, PUL photo by puotek at pixabay

My experience:

What I use now:

I love prefolds. They are my go-to diapering option. I own various brands of organic cotton prefolds, but Clotheez brand is my favorite (so absorbent!).

I use one-size PUL covers over the prefolds. You don’t need many. 6 covers will get us through my daughter’s entire diapering life. The Flip brand fit best when my daughter was a newborn. It held in some pretty impressive poop bombs! I also like the Blueberry Capri one-size cover, which fits better now that my daughter is older.

For naps, running errands, or day trips, I tuck a bamboo doubler in with the prefold. This adds absorbency, and we can go longer between diaper changes.

For nighttime, I double up cotton prefolds, and it works awesome! In fact, she we are going on 19 months of never having overnight leak issues.

What I would do differently:

Of course, one of the major reasons I use cloth diapers is to reduce waste and help our earth. After all of my research, I would change a few things next time around. When I purchased my current diaper stash, I wasn’t thinking about how a fabric effects the environment. But, now that I know more about microplastic pollution, it has me thinking twice about everything – even my own clothes!

If I was to start over, I would still use organic cotton prefolds as my primary diapering option. Seriously, they are amazing, versatile, absorbent, and easy. I would, however, opt for wool covers instead of PUL. And, I would choose hemp doublers instead of bamboo. That’s it! So, consider going that route if you are starting from scratch 🙂

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