Are Jessica Alba’s Trendy Diapers Really the Poop?

Advice for parents
June 20 2013 8:09 AM

Are Jessica Alba’s Trendy Diapers Really the Poop?

Everyone’s buying Honest, but that doesn’t make them better than Huggies.

Baby with diaper.
Safe or unsafe diaper?

Photo by iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Super-absorbent diapers are a fantastic invention, saving parents hours upon hours of time, laundry loads, and stinky clean-ups. (Just ask your grandparents.) But they’re also the source of much controversy and angst. Baby Dry or Cruisers? Eco-friendly or regular? Pull-ups or unassembled? To make matters more complicated, now there’s Honest, a diaper and baby product company founded by actress Jessica Alba in 2012, which claims that it makes “safer” diapers. Cue immediate feelings of parental paranoia: Wait, safer diapers? Are other diapers dangerous? To help you answer those questions, the Honest website devotes a page to describing just how scary traditional diapers really are, with questions about diaper companies like, “What are they trying to hide?” (Answer: “From what we gleaned, a lot.”) [Update, June 21: Honest has redirected this link to the home page. The original page can be found on the Internet Archive here.]

Honest diapers carry a hefty price tag—a bundle of 276 of their size 1 diapers and 280 wipes costs $79.95, but $66.98 will buy you the same number of Huggies size 1 diapers, along with 448 Huggies wipes, on Diapers.com. And tests conducted by BabyGearLab, a pediatrician-run baby gear review and comparison site, suggest that Honest diapers don’t work nearly as well as other diapers do. Yet progressive parents everywhere are going gaga over Honest. Are regular old diapers really that risky—and Honest ones so much less so—to warrant shelling out the extra cash for a leaky product?

Probably not. Research suggests that diapers, regardless of brand, are very safe. Yes, some children will be allergic to certain diaper components, which I’ll get into below, and for them, brands like Honest and Seventh Generation could be preferable. And yes, companies don’t always openly disclose ingredients on diaper boxes. But industry scientists describe many diaper ingredients (and diaper safety testing protocols) in the scientific literature. And many vocal parents and media outlets have misconstrued the small body of research on diaper ingredients to make diapers seem far more dangerous than they probably are. There’s no question that Honest diapers, as well as those made by Seventh Generation, Earth’s Best and several other “green” companies, are better for the environment than traditional diapers because their cores aren’t bleached with chlorine (a process that pollutes and requires a lot of energy) and because they use some plant-based materials in place of petroleum-based chemicals. But if you’re buying Honest because you think those other diapers will sicken your child, you’re probably being duped. (I reached out to the Honest company several times to get their take on the matter, but they did not arrange an interview in time for my deadline, which is kind of funny given that one of the company’s eight core principles is to provide “incredible service.”)*

One of the common claims about traditional diapers is that the chlorine they use leaves traces of byproducts called dioxins behind on the diaper, which could increase your child’s risk of cancer. It’s true that dioxins are carcinogens, and it’s also true that dioxins can be found on diapers. But to put things in perspective, a 2002 study that analyzed dioxin levels in four types of diapers didn’t find the most potent known dioxin (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin) in any of the diapers tested. The researchers did, however, find other dioxins in both the cloth and the disposable diapers, at similar levels—yet overall, the levels were 30,000 to 2.2 million times lower than the amounts infants and toddlers get from food or breast milk. (The study found dioxins in tampons, too, at higher levels than in diapers, but still at far lower levels than what we get from food.) So your baby might be exposed to dioxins from diapers, but he’ll get them from cloth diapers too—and overall, they contribute only a minuscule amount to our total daily exposure.

Another diaper concern has been over the beads of super-absorbent material that have been used in diapers since the 1980s to make them wonderfully pee-absorbent. This polymer, sodium polyacrylate, absorbs 300 times its weight in tap water via osmosis—quite a marvel of modern chemistry. Some websites claim that sodium polyacrylate can cause skin irritation, but according to the chemical’s material safety data sheet, that’s only if you’re exposed to the dust of the chemical during the manufacturing process, and the irritation is a direct result of the chemical’s drying power. Some of the fear of sodium polyacrylate arose because it was removed from tampons in the 1980s after links to toxic shock syndrome, but most experts believe that it wasn’t the chemical that was the problem—it was the fact that women were wearing tampons for days at a time, creating a moist, warm breeding ground for bacteria (eww). Note that Honest diapers contain this polymer, too.

Yet another claim is that diapers increase the risk of asthma by emitting chemicals that irritate the respiratory tract. This notion is based on a 1999 study in mice (frighteningly titled: “Acute respiratory effects of diaper emissions”), but the study is hard to interpret: The diapers were warmed to 98.6 degrees for an hour before the mice were exposed to them, and then the mice and the diapers were confined to a small 10-by-12-by-20 inch box, after which the exposed mice developed breathing problems and lung irritation. I don’t know many parents who heat their diapers or lock their diapered kids in glass boxes (though some of us want to); also, it’s unclear what, exactly, the diapers emitted that might have caused the symptoms, so there’s little reason to think Honest diapers eliminate this possible risk (although Honest, which highlights the study on its website, suggests that they do). A 2011 study found no evidence of respiratory problems among workers chronically exposed to diaper chemicals in manufacturing plants, although workers exposed to paper dust did experience problems. Goodnight Moon, then, might be just as risky.

Diapers probably won’t make your baby infertile, either, despite what you may have read on ABCnews.com and in Discover magazine. This claim was based on a small German study published in 2000 that found that baby boys who wore disposable diapers had slightly higher scrotal temperatures than did boys wearing cloth diapers. Research does suggest that overheating one’s testicles as an adult can lower sperm quality, but, as the researchers pointed out in their paper, a) scrotal temperature is not the same as testicular temperature, b) no one actually knows what a healthy scrotal temperature is for babies, and c) there’s absolutely no evidence that higher scrotal temperatures in kids cause sperm problems later in life.

What about the 2010 scare claiming that Pampers Dry Max (now off the market) caused rashes, burns, sores, and boils? This issue is still, to some degree, unresolved. Some recently published case reports suggest that the diapers did cause allergic reactions, and in 2011, Pampers manufacturer Proctor & Gamble settled a related lawsuit filed by 59 parents. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission says that there’s no convincing evidence that the diapers caused serious rashes. Parenting blogger Polly Palumbo, who followed the issue for months, blames the controversy on Internet hysteria.

It’s true, though, that diapers can cause allergic reactions. For instance, some babies are allergic to the rubber-based compounds used to make the elastic borders. Babies can also be allergic to dyes used in diapers, but all diaper companies (including Honest) use dyes and pigments of some type. (Without pigments, diapers would be translucent, like plastic milk jugs.) Although Honest claims that its diapers are hypoallergenic and free of common allergens, in its FAQ section, the company admits that its diapers contain wheat, which can cause allergies.* Fragrances are another additive to avoid, because fragrance chemicals can sometimes contain phthalates, which may affect development and increase allergy risk. Honest diapers are fragrance-free, but so are many others, including Huggies and Seventh Generation.

So should you buy Honest diapers? If you’re looking for an eco-friendly brand—or at least somewhat eco-friendly, since diapers containing sodium polyacrylate aren’t fully biodegradable—Honest is a fine option. But there are plenty of “green” diaper companies out there, many of which may well make better performing diapers (BabyGearLab’s favorites include Bambo Nature and Earth’s Best). And to sell expensive diapers on a platform of fear—parents, you need to buy our products because the other ones could harm your precious baby—is, I think, unfair and cruel, particularly when the claims are not based on clear science.

If the Honest company were honest, it might say something along the lines of what an engineer for Seventh Generation told me in an interview. “All of the diaper suppliers do a great job of making sure that their diaper designs are safe for babies,” he said. “That’s not really where they differ. They differ in how responsible their ingredients are.” And, apparently, in how responsible their marketing is.

The Kids would like to thank Louis Chapdelaine and Brandi Thomas from Seventh Generation, Eric Bruner from Kimberly-Clark and Sharon Jacob from the University of California, San Diego.

Corrections, June 20, 2013: This article originally misstated that Honest promised the writer an interview. While Moyer corresponded with an Honest representative about the prospect of an interview, one was never promised. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also stated that Honest diapers contain several nut oils. They do not. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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