Natural vs Synthetic: Choosing the Right Type of Cloth Diaper for Your Baby

The decision to use cloth diapers is an exciting one, but it can quickly become an overwhelming one as you begin shopping around for cloth diapers only to find that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of styles and materials out there.

Before exploring different styles of cloth diapers, you must first determine which type of fabric you want to cloth diaper your baby with.  When it comes to fabric, there are two basic categories of cloth diapers:  synthetic and natural.  We categorize these based on the actual material that touches your baby’s skin, not by the outer material.

At Little Spruce Organics, we strongly believe that this inner fabric is the most important element of the cloth diaper.  The outside layer is important because that material will determine how leak-proof your diaper ultimately is, but the inner layer is crucial because that is the layer that is next to the most sensitive area of your baby’s body, sometimes for hours at a time.  The quality of fabric of this inner layer also determines the level of absorbency and comfort for your baby.

Shouldn’t the material that is in closest contact with your baby’s sensitive bum be the most important factor in deciding what type of diaper to use?   We think so.  And that is why we decided to carry only cloth diapers made from 100% organic, natural fibers.  Let us explain why.

Synthetic Cloth Diapers

All synthetic cloth diapers are made from polyester.  Polyester is made from the same material that is used to make plastic (PET).  Polyester is petroleum-based. Petroleum is a non-renewable material.

There are many types of polyester diapers with too many fancy names to count, so the synthetic cloth diaper category can be a bit confusing.  The bottom line is this:  if it’s not made from 100% cotton, 100% hemp, or 100% wool, then it is made from a synthetic, man-made fiber.  Some examples of synthetic diaper materials are suedecloth, microfiber, microterry, and polyester fleece. Many pocket diapers, All-in-One diapers, and even some fitted diapers contain synthetic materials in the inside layer that lies next to the baby’s skin.

Polyester is exceedingly popular in the textile industry because it is versatile, durable, and stays “dry” for long periods of time.  It is used quite often to make cloth diapers with the objective of attaining a “stay-dry” feeling diaper for your baby.  “Stay-dry” doesn’t really mean that your baby is actually dry, of course.  Just like disposable diapers, this concept simply means that your baby doesn’t feel the wetness as quickly as she would with a cotton diaper.  When considering synthetic cloth diapers, it is important to keep in mind that one of the many benefits of cloth diapering is that both you and your baby become innately more aware of your baby’s elimination habits.   We feel that the “stay-dry” concept defeats the purpose of this aspect of cloth diapering.

Yes, this means changing a few more diapers.  But it is well worth it… especially considering that synthetic fibers are notorious for causing more diaper rash and retaining foul smells much more than natural fibers, and they are much harder to get clean.  More frequent diaper changes and 100% natural fibers next to your baby’s skin means less diaper rash, cleaner diapers, and a happier baby.

Natural Cloth Diapers

Cloth diapers made from natural fibers refer to any cloth diaper in which the layer that is in closest contact with the baby’s skin is made from 100% natural fiber.  Natural fibers commonly used for cloth diapers include cotton, hemp (or a cotton/hemp blend), and bamboo.  The natural fiber used for cloth diaper covers is wool.

  • Cotton is the most common natural fiber that is made into cloth diapers, and this is our favorite!  Cotton is very absorbent, easy to care for, and comfortable for babies.  Organic cotton is ideal, since conventional cotton is produced with many pesticides and chemical additives during its processing.
  • Hemp fiber comes from the plant species cannibus sativa.  Hemp is not typically certified organic, but its production is considered organic by definition.  Hemp grows quickly and does not require the use of fertilizer or pesticides.  When used in cloth diapers, hemp is quite absorbent, thick, and durable.  These qualities make it a fantastic diapering material.
  • Bamboo is a sustainable crop; its quick growth allows it to be replaced quickly with a new crop.  Like hemp, it does not typically require fertilizers or pesticides to grow.  Bamboo is nice for diapering because it is soft and very absorbent.  The environmentally friendliness of processing of bamboo can be questionable, so organic bamboo that is processed mechanically instead of chemically is ideal, though much harder to find.
  • Wool is by far the most sustainable material available for cloth diapering materials.  Wool is used to make cloth diaper covers that work very well at containing leaks and allowing air to circulate.  Organic wool is ideal as it contains no pesticide residue and the sheep are raised organically. 

Why we choose natural cloth diapers over synthetic:

  • Natural fibers are better for your baby’s skin than synthetics.  No question about this one.  For more information on the dangers of plastics, you can read our blog article here.   Some babies are sensitive to polyester fabrics, so you may find that polyester causes diaper rash on your baby, regardless of how clean it is.
  • Natural fibers are highly absorbent, and they let your baby know when she’s wet.  Natural cloth diapers don’t include any “stay-dry” materials, so when your baby is wet, she’ll stay wet.  Why do we list this as an advantage?  It’s simple:  it is healthier for your baby to know when she’s wet.  This helps your baby to become more aware of her elimination, making it easier to potty-train later, and it helps your baby to let you know when she needs to be changed.  
  • Natural cloth diapers are easier to keep clean and care for.  Keeping your cloth diapers clean is one of the most crucial aspects of successful cloth diapering, and unfortunately, not all types of cloth diapers clean up easily.  Polyester is notorious for retaining smells and stains.  Natural fibers do not typically acquire the “stink” problem that is typical of synthetic cloth diapers, making the entire cloth diapering experience a more pleasant one.
  • Natural cloth diapers are made from renewable resources, making them better for the environment.  Note:  when we refer to “natural fibers,” we refer to organic cotton, organic wool, hemp, and mechanically processed organic bamboo.  Cotton and wool must be organic to be considered friendly to the environment, while bamboo and hemp are generally considered “organic” without the organic certification.
  • Natural cloth diapers are soft, don’t irritate babies’ skin, and are highly absorbent.  Nothing beats a good old fashioned, 100% cotton diaper.  Hemp is one of the most absorbent materials available.  For a diaper cover, wool is unquestionably the best material available- it breathes, it’s comfortable for the baby, it’s naturally antibacterial, it is bulletproof once properly washed and lanolized, and you don’t have to wash it that often!   Why use anything else?
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18 responses to “Natural vs Synthetic: Choosing the Right Type of Cloth Diaper for Your Baby

  1. Pingback: The Mother of All Online Cloth Diapering Guides | The Middle of Everything

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  4. I love this too. I’d like to attach a link from my own blog, which is like-minded, when I learn how to do that! My blog is at http://www.parentingawake.com

  5. I agree with using natural cloth diapers over synthetic. Can you give a list of AIOs, Pocket, and Fitted diapers that satisfy “being made 100% from natural fibers”. I am new to cloth diapering (actually, just in research phase) and am having trouble finding brands that are.

    • Hi Ingrid, thanks for your comment! Most AIO’s and Pocket diapers are not made from 100% natural fibers because their outer shell is usually made from PUL. Look for AIO’s and Pocket diapers that have an interior made from 100% cotton (or other natural fibers), since that is the layer that will be in closest contact with your baby’s skin. Many of these types of modern diapers do have an interior made from synthetic materials that is meant to have a “stay-dry” effect, so be wary of those if it’s important to you to have natural fibers touching your baby’s skin. Since Fitted diapers do not have a waterproof cover attached, it is much more common to find fitted diapers made from natural fibers. Just look for any fitted diaper made from 100% organic cotton, a cotton/hemp blend, or a blend of cotton and bamboo. I hope this helps! Please let us know if you have any other questions.

  6. Thank you so much Bethany! I found a couple of AIOs that are 100% organic cotton and a couple that are blends with hemp or bamboo. It was harder to find a newborn size, 100% cotton, but I did manage to find one. I also want to try fitted and prefolds, but I know my husband wants AIOs, so I am glad I did.
    After reading about odor issues with hemp and manufacturing issues with bamboo, I want to try to do mostly, if possible exclusively cotton i.e. no blends. However I and understand cotton might not be as absorbent. Do you think it is feasible to do with only cotton? even at night?
    I also like silk and wool. But I am not sure if silk or wool liners would actually do the job of a stay-dry at night. Do you have any experience using these?
    And finally, do you have any nighttime solutions you would recommend? Which brands do you like the most? Is it different for newborns vs older babies?

    • Ingrid, you can absolutely get by using only 100% cotton diapers. Cotton is very absorbent and always reliable- no need for any other materials if you’re looking for only cotton. Cotton for night time is great too- just make sure you’re using extra layers of cotton or a really thick fitted diaper at night.
      Wool liners will help your baby to feel more dry, but even with a wool liner, your baby may still feel wet in the morning, depending on how heavy of a wetter he or she is. Silk liners are used for their healing properties rather than for absorbency, so you probably won’t use those at night, at least not for making the diaper more absorbent (you may use one if your baby has a diaper rash)
      For night time, I love using an absorbent fitted diaper with a thick wool soaker. Another combination we’ve used frequently is a cotton tie nappy stuffed with a trifolded prefold with a thick wool soaker. We love both Disana and Engel wool soakers- both are great for nights.

  7. Finally, I should just ask, I know its a big question, what you think a cloth diaper registry for baby should include (given I have never tried any of the diapers). if possible I would like it to be only 100 % cotton, wool and silk (no hemp or bamboo except if you would advice otherwise) and to include options for newborn and then for a bigger baby. thinking about washing twice a week.
    I think we will have aios, but from the fitted diapers what would you recommend?
    Sorry for so many questions. But I just feel like you are the right person to ask. Hope you have time to answer.

    • Ingrid, you may find this post useful on getting started with organic cloth diapers: https://littlespruce.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/organic-cloth-diapering-getting-started/

      I believe it’s important, if possible, not to invest in just one type of diaper when you’re just getting started, since you’ll only know which diapers are the best fit for your baby once you’re using the diapers. If you’re already planning to have some AIO’s, you could keep it simple and purchase fitted diapers to complete your collection. There are many other options in addition to fitted diapers, but it sounds like you’re most interested in fitteds, so that’s what I’m focusing on here. You’ll probably need 2 or 3 dozen diapers for a 2-day washing schedule. There are many good quality cotton fitted diapers available. Some of the ones we love using the most on our boys are the Engel organic cotton fitted diapers, Tiny Tush organic cotton fitted diaper, the OsoCozy organic cotton fitted and the Kissaluvs organic cotton/hemp fitted.

      In addition to the diapers, you’ll also want to consider accessories such as doubles, cloth wipes, fasteners (pins or snappis), flushable liners, detergent, a wet bag, as well as diaper covers. I hope this helps! Please let me know if you think of anything else.

      • Bethany, thank you so much for all the advice and explanations, for the great article and for taking the time to answer my questions. This is really helpful. I think I will do as you say and try fitteds. I might try the tie nappy or flats when I feel more comfortable with cloth diapers or at least have some experience with them. As you might have guessed I am still expecting but I will try to make sure to tell you how it goes with baby. If I have additional questions I will also contact you. For now I think I have decided to go with the AIOs and the fitteds you recommended. THANK YOU!!

  8. Pingback: Cloth Diapers – Final Thoughts (For Now) | My Cheap Version of Therapy

  9. Hi Bethany, it’s Ingrid again. Still waiting for baby to come 🙂 I had a question for you about washing cotton diapers (prefolds, fitteds and if you have any experience with all in ones with pul exterior). Can you use all free and clear for example, or is a special laundry detergent needed. I saw you sell on your website eco sprout and eco nuts, are these necessary? When? Is there a difference between each of them and regular laundry detergent like All free and clear? Would you rate one better than others? And how do you specifically do your washes? Is there a difference between cold and warm water? Is it possible to wash fitteds, prefolds and aios together in the same wash? And, how about for preping?

  10. Almost forgot, can you wash plastic covers with the diapers?

    • Hi Ingrid,
      These are all great questions, and there is too much information for me to cover everything in this brief reply. Instead, I am working on putting together a blog post on washing cloth diapers made from natural fibers, and the post will include details on selecting a laundry detergent and appropriate washing routine. I will say that the two detergents we currently carry in our store are by no means the only detergents that can be used to wash cloth diapers- they are just two that we have chosen to offer at this point. Our selection is always changing and expanding.

      When selecting a detergent, these are the ingredients you’ll want to avoid:
      Perfumes
      Enzymes
      Softeners
      Fabric Enhancers
      Optical Brighteners

      To the best of my knowledge, All free and clear does contain optical brighteners, so that is something to consider when deciding whether or not to use it for your cloth diapers.

      With time, you will find the right laundry routine for your family, and there are many factors involved, such as what type of washing machine you have, the water in your area, etc. We do a cold rinse (no detergent) followed by a hot wash with detergent, followed by another rinse if necessary to remove any detergent residues. Cold water is good for the initial rinse, but for the wash, you’ll want the water to be as hot as possible. We line dry our diapers in the sun whenever possible. It is very important to wash your diapers every 2 days. The longer the diapers sit between washes, the harder it is to get them clean.

      Finally, you can wash all types of diapers and covers together, (except for wool covers, which should be hand washed) and you can tumble dry most diapers on medium heat. To extend the life of the diaper, it is not recommended to tumble dry any diapers containing PUL.

  11. Thank you so much Bethany. I will be looking forward to your post. It’s good to know it is possible to wash covers (not wool) with diapers and what to look for in a laudry detergent.
    I am excited to tell you a friend bought me a disana cover from your store so I will also be trying wool when baby comes 😉
    Thank you again for all your explanations and advice!

  12. Great post! We have just found out that our son needs natural fibers for his cloth diapers. He has very sensitive skin. He is doing so much better in cotton and hemp diapers. Even the bamboo diapers we have cause irritation. I didn’t realize that there were different processes for making bamboo.

  13. Hi. Many of you chose cloth diapers because you care for the environment. Could I suggest that you also research the cruelty involved in the wool industry, if it matters to you.

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