Different Kinds of Cloth Diaper

There are so many different varieties of cloth diapers today, its easy for newbies to get confused.  Basically, all cloth diaper systems consist of 2 parts: an absorbent layer and a waterproof layer.  The difference lies in whether the absorbent and waterproof layers are separate or sewn together.

I. Separate Absorbent and Waterproof Layers

The absorbent layer or the diaper itself:

  1. Flats and Prefolds Flats and Prefolds — are the most similar to old-fashioned cloth diapers.  They are square or rectangular pieces of cloth, and require folding to be used as diapers.  When used with a diaper cover, pinning or dipping is optional.  Flats, as the name suggests, are flat pieces of cloth, usually made of gauze or bird’s eye cotton.  Prefolds are several layers sewn together, forming 3 sections: a thicker center and 2 thinner sides.  Prefolds are usually described as 4x6x4 or 4x8x4.  This means that the outer sides are 4 layers thick while the center is 6 or 8 layers thick.  This makes them more absorbent than flats. Prefolds are also sometimes advertised as DSQ or Diaper Service Quality.  This means that they are a better quality than normal prefolds found In department stores, which are usually combined with polyester and are not very absorbent.  DSQ prefolds are usually made of cotton twill, although hemp and bamboo are also used.  They come either bleached (with hydrogen peroxide) or unbleached, and require prepping (washing In hot water 5 or 6 times) before they become fully absorbent.  Flats and prefolds are the most difficult to use (If you call folding difficult), but they are the most economical.  They are also the most versatile, and can also be used as burp cloths, small towels, changing mats, or extra doublers for pocket diapers.  They are also the easiest to wash and dry.
  2. Contoured diapers — Contoured diapers are layers of absorbent cloth sewn together and shaped just like disposable diapers.  They are easier to use than flats and pre-folds since no folding is required.  Contoured diapers don’t come with built-In fasteners, so pinning or dipping may be required.  The advantage of contour diapers is that the fit is highly customizable, since there are no fasteners to limit the sizing.  This makes it possible for your baby to need only 2 sizes or even just 1 size until potty-training.  Also, there are no snaps to break off, and no Velcro to snag other fabric In the laundry.
  3. Fitted  diapers — Fitted diapers are similar to contoured diapers, except that they already come with snaps or Velcro to fasten the diaper at the waist or at the sides, making them easier to use than prefolds or contoured diapers.  They also have elastic waist and legs to help contain messes.

Flats and pre-folds, contoured diapers and fitted diapers are not waterproof, and thus replace  a waterproof layer, the diaper cover.  Diaper covers prevent leaks and help keep your baby’s clothes, the mattress, and your lap dry.  They are also shaped like the disposable diapers and have snaps or Velcro to fasten at the waist.

There are different kinds of diaper covers, depending on the material used:

  1. PVC or Vinyl – PVC covers are also known as plastic pants.  These are the covers commonly found in department stores.  These are NOT recommended, as PVC is toxic and releases harmful chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects.  Aside from that, PVC is not breathable, and will harden, yellow and crack over time.
  2. Polyurethane Laminate or PUL – PUL it is the most common material used in modern cloth diaper covers.  It is a cotton or polyester fabric that has been laminated with polyurethane to make it waterproof.  PUL is lightweight, soft, and relatively breathable.  It can be machine washed and dried.  The advantage of using PUL covers is that they do not need to be washed with every diaper change.  Unless soiled, they can be wiped clean and reused  again a few times.   You can rotate between covers for the entire day to allow each cover to air out between uses.
  3. Nylon – Nylon is soft, breathable and very lightweight.  Nylon is thinner than PUL, making it a good choice for parents who want a trimmer diaper.  It is also good for babies prone to diaper rash, since it is  very breathable.  However,it is not  good option for heavy-wetters.
  4. Wool – Wool is all-natural, soft and breathable, and keeps skin warm when it’s cool and cool when it’s warm.  It can hold as much as 30% of its own weight in liquid, making it ideal for overnight use.  It is also naturally anti-bacterial, and has self-cleaning properties that neutralize urine.  Unless soiled, there is no need to wash wool often.  Just let it air-dry between uses.  Once every 2 weeks or so, wool needs to be lanolized to restore it’s self-cleaning properties.   Commercial wool can be itchy, but natural, untreated wool is comfortable, and this is what is used in most wool covers.  The downside to wool is that they’re expensive and cannot be machined washed/dried.
  5. Fleece – Fleece is the synthetic counterpart of wool, made of 100% polyester.  It is soft, lightweight and breathable.  It can be machine-washed and dried, making it easy to care for.  Fleece is not waterproof, but it is water-repellant, and that is why it works as cover.  When using fleece, however we do make sure to use a good, absorbent diaper underneath, or change diapers often.  Some fleece covers use the same fabric as those used in high-quality outerwear.  These can be bulky, and difficult to wear under clothing.  They are, however, suitable for night-time use.

II. Separate Absorbent and Waterproof Layers

  1. All-in-One or AIO — An AIO diaper, as the name suggests, has everything you need in one piece.  The absorbent layer, or soaker, is sewn into the waterproof shell.  Snaps or hook & loop closures are used to fasten at the waist or at the sides.  It is the cloth diapering system that is the most similar to disposable diapers.  You don’t need to do anything to it other than to put it on your baby.  For those who want something quick, convenient and simple to use, or for grandparents and other care-givers, an AIO would be a great option.  The disadvantage of AIOs is that they generally take longer to dry.  They are also more expensive.
  2. All-in-Two or AI2– Al2s are similar to AI0s, except that the soakers are not sewn-in.  Rather, they feature lay-in or snap-in soakers.  This allows you to replace a wet soaker and reuse the waterproof shell if the shell is not wet or soiled.
  3. Pocket Diapers — Pocket diapers actually do not have the absorbent and waterproof layers sewn together.  But when put together, it becomes similar to an AIO.  Pocket diapers consist of 2 parts: the cover, and the absorbent insert or stuffing.  The cover is made up of 2 layers sewn together on both sides and on the front, leaving the back open like a pocket, allowing you to stuff the inserts inside.  The outer layer of the cover is usually made of PUL.  Fleece can also be used.  The Inner lining is usually made of microfleece or suedecloth.  Microfleece and suedecloth do not absorb liquid.  Rather, they pull moisture away from the surface.  The moisture is then absorbed by the insert.  This allows the baby to stay dry even when the diaper is wet.  For the inserts, microfiber, which is highly absorbent, is typically used.  Microfiber should only be used as an Insert.  It should not touch your baby’s skin.  If put next to the skin, they will absorb even the skin’s natural moisture, resulting in dryness and rashes.  Cotton, bamboo and hemp are also used as inserts.  You can also use any absorbent fabric that you have around the house, like prefolds or even old towels.  The advantages of pocket diapers are: you can control the absorbency by adding more inserts, they dry faster than AI0s, and they are easy to use.  However, the microfleece lining is prone to detergent build-up, and may need to be stripped periodically.


Why Cloth?

Here are a few reasons why it is better to choose cloth over disposable diapers:


  • Cloth diapers are healthier.  Have you ever changed your baby’s diaper and discovered little crystals on his bottom?  That stuff is called Sodium Polyacrylate.  Sodium Polyacrylate is what makes disposable diapers so absorbent.  It absorbs up to 800 times its own weight in water, and turns liquid into gel — which would make it really cool, except that Sodium Polyacrylate is the same chemical that has been banned in tampons in the 80’s due to its connection with Toxic Shock Syndrome.  Disposable diapers are also chlorine-bleached (to make them white and appear “dean”), and contain traces of toxic chemicals like dioxin (which has been known to cause cancer, birth defects, liver problems and skin diseases2, and has also been linked to fertility diseases like endometriosis), and TBT or tributyltin (which causes immune system damage and disrupts hormones.  There has also been a recent study linking the use of disposable diapers to decreased fertility in males.  Disposable diapers increase the scrotal temperature of boys, which could affect the normal production of sperm cells.  Another study has found a link between asthma and disposable diapers.  Researchers found that laboratory mice exposed to various brands of disposable diapers suffered increased eye, nose and throat irritation, including bronchoconstriction similar to that of an asthma attack, due to chemical emissions released from the diapers.  Cloth diapers were not found to cause the same symptoms.
  • Cloth diapers are more comfortable.  If you have ever had the misfortune of needing to wear adult disposable diapers, then think about what it would be like to have to wear them 24 hours a day, for 2 years or more!  For most (if not all) women, wearing disposable sanitary pads (which, by the way, also present the same health and environmental problems as disposable diapers) create the same discomfort.  Imagine having to wear them every day for 2 years.  Disposable diaper ads would have you thinking that their diapers are made of cotton, when in fact, they are made of wood pulp and plastic, which does not let the skin breathe.  This prevents the ammonia, which forms when the baby urinates, from evaporating, potentially causing irritations.  Cloth diapers are not only softer, they also let the skin breathe, which helps prevent rashes.
  • Cloth diapers are cleaner.  Contrary to popular assumption, disposable diapers are not sanitised.  Just because it looks white, doesn’t mean it’s clean!  Conversely, cloth diapers are washed clean and they can be sanitised.  Additionally, parents who use disposable diapers tend to leave them on longer on their babies than is healthy.  Parents are led to believe by diaper manufacturers that as long as the diaper feels dry, it is clean and it is okay not to change it.  This is not true.  Whether you use cloth or disposables, diapers should be changed every 2-4 hours.  Leaving a diaper on for prolonged periods encourage bacterial growth and contribute to skin irritations and rashes.


  • Cloth diapers are more economical.
    The initial investment for cloth diapers may be expensive, but it becomes cheaper in the long run compared to disposables.  Here is a full illustration of a comparison between the Cost of Cloth vs Disposables.  To help minimize initial costs, you can start with just the minimum number of diapers required and then build your stash as needed.  Some diapers now also have a one-size-fits-most feature that allows you to adjust the diapers’ rise as your baby grows.  This translates into more savings, since you don’t need to keep buying new sizes as your baby grows.  Another advantage of cloth diapers is that they can also be reused on your next baby, and when they outlive their usefulness as diapers, they can be reused again as household rags.  Even after factoring in the water, detergent, and energy used in laundering cloth diapers, it still comes out as the more economical choice.   (If this were not true, we would all be using disposable clothes.)
  • Cloth diapers are convenient.  Modern cloth diapers of today are just as easy to put on as disposables.  There is no need to fumble with pins, as snaps and Velcro have replaced them.  There is also no need for rubber or plastic pants like those you see in department stores, which are hot and do not breathe.  Modern cloth diaper covers are breathable and waterproof.  As for the laundry required, we already do laundry regularly anyway, a few more loads really isn’t that hard.  Some people may have issues about poop in diapers.  But really, it’s as simple as flushing the poop down the toilet (which you’re also supposed to do with disposable diapers anyway — but most parents either don’t know or don’t bother), and then storing the diapers in a dry pail until wash day.  They’re easier to wash than you think!  It’s also more convenient to always have cloth diapers on hand than to constantly run out of disposables and have to go to the store just to buy them.
  • Cloth diapers are fun!
    Fun just doesn’t apply when it comes to disposables.  Really, who gets excited about using Pampers?  Cloth diapers, on the other hand, come in a zillion prints and colors, and in a variety of styles.  Shopping for cloth diapers is like shopping for clothes.  You pick out the cutest ones and cannot wait to put them on your baby!  As your child gets older, he or she can also join in the fun and assert independence by choosing which print or color to wear.
  • Potty-training is easier.
    Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see 4 or even 5-year olds still in diapers.  This is because wearing disposable diapers makes toilet-training more difficult.  When a disposable diapered-child urinates, the diaper still feels dry, and the child is unable to make the connection that peeing will result in getting wet and feeling uncomfortable.  This also translates into more expenses, since parents have to buy disposable diapers for a longer period of time.  Cloth-diapered children, on the other hand, learn quickly that it is better to pee in the toilet than in their pants.


  • In North America alone, an estimated 29 billion disposable diapers are consumed each year, 92% of which end up in landfills.
  • No one knows for sure how long it will take disposable diapers to decompose.  But based on their material composition, it is estimated that it would take 500 years.
  • Since most parents do not dispose of stool properly (i.e. flushing stool down the toilet), the disposable diapers that end up In the landfills often contain raw, untreated human fecal matter, which can be a breeding ground for a wide variety of viruses that cause Illnesses.  There is a possibility of the untreated sewage seeping out and contaminating ground water, and thus spreading diseases.  Using cloth diapers ensures that fecal matter ends up where it belongs and is property treated.
  • The production of disposable diapers generates 60 times more solid waste, consumes 20 times more raw materials, uses 2.3 times more waters, and generate more toxic pollutants than the production of cloth
  • Even after factoring in the water and energy used In laundering cloth diapers, it is dear that cloth is gentler to the environment.


  • Most of the modern cloth diaper sellers are work-at-home moms (WAHMs) – these businesses are mom-owned and -operated, many producing diapers right out of their homes.  They are in indirect competition with big multinational corporations, whose disposable diaper industry exceeds billions of dollars.  The objective of these WAHMs is not to mass-produce.  Rather, their intent is to create wonderful products that are safe and healthy for children and for the environment.


[1] Armstrong, Liz and Adrienne Scott “Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women’s Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers, What You Can Do About It.”1993. HarperCollins.

[2] EPA, “Integrated Risk Assessment for Dioxins and Furans from Chlorine Bleaching in Pulp and Paper Mills.”

[3] Greenpeace. “New Tests Confirm TBT Poison In Procter & Gamble’s Pampers: Greenpeace Demands World-Wide Ban of Onganotins in All Products.” 15 May 2000.

[4] Partsch, Aukamp, and Sippell. “Scrotal temperature Is Increased in disposable plastic lined nappies.” Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, Department of Pediatrics, Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel. May 2000.

[5] Anderson, Rosalind, and Julius Anderson. “Acute Respiratory Effects of Diaper Emissions,” Archives of Environmental Health, 54, October 1999.

[6] Lehrburger, Carl. 1988. “Diapers in the Waste Stream: A review of waste management and public policy issues”. 1988. Sheffield, MA: self-published.

[7] Link, Ann. “Disposable nappies: a case study in waste prevention.” April 2003. Women’s Environmental Network.

[8] Armstrong, Liz and Adrienne Scott “Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women’s Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers, What You Can Do About It.”1993. HarperCollins.

[9] Lehrburger, C., J. Mullen and C.V. Jones. 1991. “Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis.” Philadelphia, PA: Re to The National Association of Dlaper Services NADS