1 April 2011

Nappy Review: Reusable Cloth Nappies

By: Lisa Reid

There are now so many factors to consider when choosing a nappy system for your baby, that one could be forgiven for being a touch overwhelmed and sticking with the 'convenient' single-use disposable nappy option.

However, while approximately 95% of Australian babies currently wear disposable nappies1,  there is a growing trend towards cloth nappy use. Unlike the cloth nappies of our parents and grandparents era, which mainly comprised terry towelling or flannelette squares and plastic pants, today's cloth nappy user is spoilt for choice. 

The main types of modern cloth nappies (MCNs) available include:

  • Flat nappies – traditional terry towelling or flannelette cotton squares commonly used before the introduction of disposable nappies;
  • Prefolds – similar to a flat nappy, but have a thicker, more absorbent central layer;
  • Fitted nappies – are usually an hour-glass shape, have elasticized legs and waist and need a separate waterproof cover (eg. Baby BeeHinds Bamboo Fitted Nappy);
  • All-In-Ones – usually an hour-glass shape, have a built in waterproof cover and have the absorbent layer attached (eg. Baby BeeHinds or Cushie Tushies Minkee All-In-Ones).
  • Pocket - a type of All-In-One which has the liner and cover sewn together (eg. Baby BeeHinds Magic All Multifit). This allows the absorbent layer to be removed when washing, which in turn reduces drying time.


Regardless of the style, reusable cloth nappies comprise the following three key components (not too dissimilar to single use disposable nappies):

  1. A waterproof outer layer typically made from polyurethane laminate (PUL), wool or microfleece;
  2. An inner liner designed to keep moisture away from skin; and
  3. An absorbent layer which is usually placed between the waterproof outer layer and the inner layer and is typically comprised of bamboo, hemp, organic cotton or microfibre.


Most MCNs are made from the following four types of materials:

  • Cotton (including organic) – the original cloth nappy material is long-lasting, easy to wash (can be soaked and bleached) and is a natural fibre;
  • Hemp (including organic) – more absorbent than cotton, hemp is easy to maintain, is also a natural fibre and is reported to have antifungal and antibacterial properties2;
  • Bamboo – more absorbent than cotton and hemp, is made into viscose or rayon from wood fibre from the bamboo plant;
  • Microfibre – synthetic, oil-based material, which is as absorbent as bamboo but dries much quicker.


Other materials used to a lesser extent include:

  • Microfleece – has the ability to wick moisture away from the skin and also dries quickly.
  • Wool – a natural fibre used primarily for nappy covers, as it can absorb 30% of it’s own weight and is highly breathable.
  • PUL – polyurethane laminate - applied to fabric to make it waterproof (2)


Cushie Tushies are a terry-square-free-zone!


When deciding whether to use single-use disposable or reusable cloth nappies, it’s a good idea to think about the following factors:

Financial Cost

Individual cloth nappies can cost between $15 to $40 each. The total financial cost of a cloth nappy system can therefore vary between $200 to $1500, depending on number of nappies and type bought. This higher upfront cost is considerably less than $4000 per child* for single-use disposables. The financial savings of cloth nappies are compounded when used for subsequent children.


Environmental Cost

For one change of a cloth terry towelling flat nappy (equivalent to one disposable nappy#), the following resources are used:

  • approximately 17L (1 nearly full nappy bucket) of water1
  • 0.06 kWh of energy1
  • approximately 4 g crude oil3


Reusable cloth nappies only contribute 1.9 g of solid waste1 to landfill when they are reused around the home. To help reduce the environmental impact of using cloth nappies, wash in a water-efficient washing machine using cold water and line dry. Direct sunlight will further sanitise your nappies2 and help bleach any remnant stains.

Health Risks

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in the past, high incidences of nappy rash were attributed to cloth nappies, which were not as absorbent as today's MCNs nor changed frequently enough. The higher absorbency of MCNs, frequent nappy changes, ‘bare bottom’ time and a decent barrier balm have all helped make nappy rash a thing of the past, along with nappy pins and plastic pilcher pants.


Time and Effort Required

The perceived increase in time and effort required is often a barrier stopping many people using cloth nappies. Cloth nappies do require washing, drying and assembling prior to fitting to baby, however you don’t need to go to the shops every week or so to buy your nappy stash. A study conducted by Darebin Council in 2007, found that using a reusable cloth nappy system, took an extra 5 minutes each day.4



Choosing a nappy system for your baby is your decision and one best made after careful consideration of what’s important to you and what will suit you and your family. 


* Assumes a baby uses about 10 nappies per day for the first 3 months and then an average of 6 nappies per day for the next 24 months, with an average cost of 50c per nappy.

# Assumes nappy system comprises 30 nappies, changed on average, 8 times a day over a 2.5 year period. Note: Figures are based on cotton terry towelling flat nappies. Can therefore be assumed that the amount of crude oil, energy and solid waste consumed during the production of modern cloth nappy materials might be slightly higher. At the time of writing this article, information regarding materials other cotton was unavailable.


1. http://www.pdf4me.net/view.php?url=http://www.crdc.com.au/uploaded/file/E-Library/Climate%20Change%20July%2009/LCA%20Cotton%20v%20Disposable%20Nappies%20OBrienetal2009.pdf

2. http://www.nappynetwork.org.au/content/reusable-nappy-info;

3. http://www.ahpma.co.uk/docs/LCA.pdf

4. http://www.dialanappy.com/docs/Darebin_Nappy_Trial_July2007.pdf 

CATEGORY: environmental, financial, health, impacts, MCN, nappy, cloth | POSTED BY: Meg Supel |