Just as there are a number of different cloth diaper systems available, there are even more combinations of materials used in modern cloth diapers to meet any need. Here we’ll work our way from the outside of the diaper to to the inside, discussing the types of materials and what they can do for you.
I’m going to put on my Captain Obvious cape here for a second and say that parents prefer their baby’s diapers to be waterproof. Cloth diapers actually give you quite a few choices for how you achieve this waterproofing feat.
- Polyurethane laminate (PUL) is the most common material used in cloth diapers. PUL is made by laminating a lightweight polyester interlock knit fabric to a polyurethane film of 1 or 2 mm thickness. Polyurethane is a durable and flexible form of plastic. Thermoplastic urethane (TPU) is a specific type of polyurethane formed with a heat-bonding process. Don’t obsess over the differences between PUL and TPU – you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart if you tried. PUL is found in pocket diapers, AIOs, AI2s, and covers, as well as in pail liners and wetbags.
- Merino wool is highly favored as a pull-on style cover for overnight use. Forget your preconceived notions of hot, itchy sweaters – merino wool is naturally antimicrobial, regulates temperature, and feels like cashmere. When washed gently with lanolin, wool becomes highly water repellant, while still maintaining its softness. (Note: Sometimes wool covers are referred to as wool soakers, which is highly confusing when you’re trying to learn cloth diaper lingo. Just roll with it.)
- Fleece can also be used as a cover, particularly for overnight use. Although it isn’t quite as stretchy or breathable as merino wool, fleece is 100% polyester, meaning it’s much less expensive, can be machine washed, dries quickly, and doesn’t require lanolization.
If you’re using prefolds or flats, you can use a separate fastener like a Snappi or Boingo to secure the diaper around your baby. However, most modern cloth diapers have built-in closures for convenience.
- Hook & loop closures (specific brands include Aplix, Velcro, and TouchTape) make cloth diapers just as easy and quick to put on as disposables, allowing for the most precise fit around baby’s waist. However, even with special laundry tabs meant to keep the hook & loop sides together during washing, rogue unfastened tabs in the washing machine are fairly common and will cause early wear and tear on an entire load of cloth diapers.
- Snaps are by far the more popular closure option for cloth diapering parents (75% to 80% prefer snaps). Although it may take a few extra seconds to fasten snaps in the right place when changing baby, they simply hold up better over time. In addition, snaps are much more difficult for older babies to unfasten, cutting down on those spontaneous toddler streaking events.
One major reason that cloth diapers have become popular again is the use of “stay-dry” fabrics, which keep moisture off baby’s skin without the use of chemicals. Although many babies don’t seem to mind a wet diaper, stay-dry materials are useful in preventing diaper rash and keeping baby’s skin smelling fresh. These fabrics are all 100% polyester:
- Microfleece was the first stay-dry material used in cloth diapers. It’s a bit stretchy and feels wonderfully soft. Over time, it may show wear by pilling a bit.
- Suedecloth is incredibly smooth and does not pill.
- Athletic wicking jersey is durable and extremely lightweight with a “meshy” feel, which makes it work especially well for fast wetters.
The important thing to remember about stay-dry materials is that they don’t absorb wetness – that’s why they keep baby feeling dry! If you pour water on any of these fabrics, the water will just sit for a little while before soaking through. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. Stay-dry fabrics work when the diaper is secured snugly. The pressure of baby’s weight against the diaper and the flow of urine force the wetness to pass through the stay-dry layer where it is absorbed by another material underneath.
With disposable diapers, you have no choice or ability to customize absorbency. The absorbency of disposable diapers comes from two components: chemical pulp (a wood product) and polyacrylic acid (also known as superabsorbent polymers or SAP for short). By using cloth diapers, you can select from a wide array of fabrics based on their feel, level of absorbency, and environmental sustainability.
- Cotton was the only choice of diaper material for many years, and is still used today. Many parents prefer organic cotton, as conventional cotton tends to involve heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides.
- Hemp is one of the most environmentally friendly natural fiber today and is quickly becoming a popular choice for cloth diapers. Alone, hemp is such a rough-feeling material that it’s typically blended with cotton for diapering purposes. Industrial hemp production is permitted in Canada but restricted in the United States.
- Bamboo has a silky, luxurious feel. It is highly promoted as a sustainable fabric because grows like a weed (which it is!) without requiring the use of pesticides or other chemical agents. (You may also hear that bamboo has anti-bacterial properties, but that seems to be a questionable claim.)
- Microfiber refers to ultrafine synthetic fibers (about 1/100th of a strand of human hair). The microfiber typically used in modern cloth diapers is “split”, meaning if you could see the cross-section at a microscopic level, it would resemble an asterisk.