Hemp vs Bamboo Rayon for Cloth Diapers

bamboo plants

We get a lot of questions from customers in the bynature.ca store asking why they would want to choose bamboo vs. hemp for cloth diapers. Short answer: choose hemp for environment or absorbency, and choose bamboo rayon for softness.

Overall, we prefer hemp. In our completely unscientific survey of Facebook followers,
parents choose hemp 8 to 3. But, parents who love bamboo rayon diapers really love them. That’s fine, of course! Use what you love.

What’s the difference between bamboo and hemp?

Bamboo and hemp are both woody plants that grow easily without the kind of chemical inputs (pesticides, fungicides) and the heavy watering needed by cotton. On a microscope level, each little hemp fiber even looks a bit like a bamboo stalk with smooth areas between knobby spots. So far so good.

For parents who have used both fibers in diapers, you will notice the difference in feel (bamboo is very soft while hemp is more stiff) and function (bamboo is absorbent but not nearly as absorbent as super soaker hemp).

For parents looking to lower their environmental impact, the biggest differences between bamboo and hemp are in the processing of fibers used in cloth diapers. Bamboo is broken down into pulp, chemically processed and aged, then extruded as a rayon fiber. This is a long (often years long) process that involves a lot of chemicals. Bamboo rayon is a synthetic fiber from natural inputs. Hemp is mechanically processed, aided by natural enzymes and chemicals. The hemp fibers spun into yarn are the natural fibers from the plant. Most of the story of impact is in the process, and there are certainly manufacturers working to lower the impact of processing for both fibers. What you have available to you right now is a high-impact rayon that is currently very popular and marketed as eco-friendly and a lower-impact hemp that is perhaps not as popular as it has been in the past decade and not marketed as heavily.

How rayon fibers are made from bamboo

Rayon made from bamboo. To make the bamboo rayon fibers used in diapers, the soft parts of the bamboo plant are crushed into pulp. Wood pulp and pulp made from other cellulose fibers can also be used to create rayon (or viscose, as regular rayon is called). The pulp is then dissolved, dried, sent through several phases of aging and ripening, cooking and burning before being extruded into long fibers. Think of extrusion as forcing pasta dough through a spaghetti press. Chemicals are used in many of these steps to create a material that can be extruded and hold together as a fiber. A lot of the negative publicity about bamboo focuses on these chemical processes. After extrusion, the fibers are bathed in sulfuric acid, stretched, and washed. Then, you have rayon filaments that can be knit or woven into a fabric.

Bamboo can be processed in a closed loop, so the solvents are captured rather than waste. Because of the popularity of fabrics made from bamboo, there are a lot of companies working to develop more eco-friendly processes. There are also efforts to add nano-particles of charcoal to make the fiber antibacterial.

For now, any fiber made from bamboo cellulose but be labelled “rayon” or “rayon made from bamboo” in order to comply with U.S. Federal Trade Commission guidelines. (“Have You Been Bamboozled?” FTC, January 4, 2013.)

Linen made from bamboo. There is also a form of bamboo processing that is closer to that of hemp. The woody part of the plant is crushed, and an enzyme is used in the retting process, breaking down the rough outer layers to get to the softer inner layers. Those softer, inner fibers can then be spun into yarn. Unless your diapers are labelled “linen made from bamboo,” they are made from “rayon made from bamboo” (and we don’t know of any cloth diapers made from bamboo linen).

Source of bamboo. It’s great that bamboo can grow easily in some places where other plants can’t. The environmental and social problems happen when the demand for bamboo rayon is so high that forests are cut down to plant bamboo, people are pushed off their land for bamboo, or bamboo is grown in monoculture. What CAN be done in bamboo cultivation isn’t necessarily what IS done, so we need to look at the provenance of our fibers. Most bamboo is used in fabric production is grown by one massive company in China, which grows the fibers to Oeko-Tex 100 standards, but many manufacturers of textiles made with bamboo rayon claim to process their own fibers outside of that system. It matters where and how bamboo is processed, so ask your cloth diaper manufacturer. If they don’t know about the process used, they should be able to follow the chain to their suppliers and find out.

Antibacterial? The U.S. FTC says bamboo rayon fabric does not have antibacterial qualities as often marketed, while many manufacturers continue to claim antibacterial properties and testing that proves it. The legal battles are still underway, so it’s fair to be skeptical of both claims for now.

How hemp fibers are made

The process of making usable yarn from hemp is similar to that of making linen from bamboo. The stem of the hemp plant is wound with heavy fibers. An enzyme is used in retting, and the softer (though not necessarily soft) fibers are spun into yarn. The softness of hemp depends on the point in the season or growing process when the hemp is harvested. Those who work with hemp often can tell the difference between the softer, early season hemp and the stiffer, late season hemp.

Hemp is generally mixed with other fibers. The hemp most often used for cloth diapers is 45% hemp / 55% cotton, taking on the absorbency of hemp and the softness of cotton. To use 100% hemp in a diaper would give a stiffer feel like linen, though it is possible to made a very soft hemp linen by using only the finest fibers.

Quick Comparison of Bamboo and Hemp for Cloth Diapers

Bamboo
PRO

  • soft to the touch in the product,
  • renewable fiber,
  • lower impact than petroleum-based fibers,
  • easy to grow in the field,
  • can be made in a closed system to reduce environmental impact

CON

  • often greenwashed in deceptive or uninformed marketing,
  • chemically processed to create rayon,
  • environmental injustices in meeting the recent demand,
  • more sensitive fiber than cotton or hemp to detergent chemicals and drying heat of cloth diaper laundry,
  • many manufacturers recommend line drying to avoid dryer heat,
  • can be damaged by some basic laundry detergent ingredients (like baking soda)

Hemp
PRO

  • very absorbent in the product,
  • renewable fiber,
  • lower impact than petroleum-based fibers and other plant-based fibers (cotton and bamboo),
  • easy to grow in the field

CON

  • stiffer to the touch than bamboo rayon or cotton,
  • so absorbent that it can retain stink in diapers if not rinsed properly,
  • needs more water in laundry process,
  • can be difficult to maintain in HE (high efficiency) washer

Why Choose Bamboo vs. Hemp?

In the end, whether you choose bamboo rayon or hemp for cloth diapers depends on your priorities.

  • If you are looking for a soft diaper, choose bamboo rayon. It is super soft and silky to the touch.
  • If you are looking for lower environmental impact, choose hemp. It is easy to grow in the field. Although there is usually a chemical process to soften the fibers for spinning (though hemp can be mechanically processed), this is a much less problematic process than that of breaking down bamboo.
  • If your laundry detergent includes baking soda, choose hemp (or change detergents). Baking soda will damage bamboo diapers, beginning the process of breaking down the cellulose.
  • If you are looking for an absorbent diaper, choose hemp. Hemp is a super absorbent fiber.
  • If you are trying to give your baby a stay-dry feeling without petroleum products, choose hemp. Because of its absorbency, the surface feels more dry than other fibers holding the same amount of liquid.
  • If you have an HE washing machine, choose bamboo rayon—or cotton. Hemp is so absorbent that it requires more water in washing and rinsing to keep it soft and clean. But, be careful with bamboo rayon in an HE washing machine, because it is important that it be rinsed well.
  • If your water is very hard, skip both hemp (because it can retain mineral build up) and bamboo rayon (because it is sensitive to the chemicals you need to use to wash in very hard water and can break down in the heat of the dryer if those chemicals aren’t rinsed well), and choose cotton.

We LOVE hemp in the bynature.ca store for many reasons, but we are always answering questions for customers about bamboo rayon—and why we don’t stock more of it. From an environmental standpoint, hemp has bamboo beat. In diapers, when it comes to absorbency and the natural stay-dry feeling, hemp also excels. The soft and silky feeling of bamboo is hard to resist though!

Image © Les Cunliffe | Dreamstime.com

Wild Gardens for Busy Parents: Planting

May Wild Garden is a planter with budding plants

You want to garden but you don’t have time. Don’t sweat it. Focus just enough to cultivate one small patch, and you might be surprised how committed you become to helping your garden thrive.

May Garden Preparations

If you already followed March planning steps and April preparation of the ground, you can probably get your gardening done before breakfast on a Saturday.

  • Gather materials
  • Mix soil
  • Plant
  • Water

Gather materials. Our gathering began as we investigated mystery bags in our garage and found potting soil, we turned over the year’s compost, and we talked to neighbors to borrow a very tiny amount of paint for the trim on our raised bed planter. We didn’t end up having enough compost, dirt, and other material, so gathering involved going to the gardening store. Sad though it seems to buy dirt, we didn’t have other sources nearby. Our county sells top soil, but they didn’t have any available when we went to buy it. If you are fortunate enough to live near a farm, you might find all of the manure you need for free. We had neither easily available, and our goal is not to fret about the garden this year. So, the store.
Goal: use what you have on hand or can borrow then buy as a last resort

Mix soil. The soil mix you need depends on what you are going to grow. We added a lot of manure, peat moss, compost, and top soil.
Goal: give your garden the best possible start

Plant. If you started seeds last month, it might be time to plant out. We had snow just last week, and we may have snow again until the end of May, so we only plant hardy plants outdoors in early May. Whether you plant out or keep your seedlings in the house or garage a bit longer depends on your zone and your plants. If you look closely at our main photo or skip to the close up below, you will see our hops. They were in pots that we moved indoors during the coldest nights over the past month. Since the planter is sheltered, we think they won’t get more snow. So, we planted them today.
Goal: plant out when the zone and plant align

Water. If you plant out, press down the nice, loamy soil, and water.
Goal: wet well the first day then ignore for a couple of days—if you can

Top Soil Mix

Our chosen spot has grown nothing but the same overgrown bush for 20+ years. The dirt is not impressively rich. Building our raised bed up 16″ over an area 3′ x 6′ meant that we would need a total of 24 cubic feet of soil, so we knew we would need to add to our few inches of dry dirt.

There was so much space to fill in my new raised bed that I decided to try lasagna gardening, with alternating layers of material. After digging out my dry, sad dirt and many, many rocks, then setting aside the dirt in buckets, I put down a layer of pizza boxes for my first lasagna layer. I followed this with dry grass and other dry pieces that I hadn’t cleared out from the garden last fall. Dry was followed by green grass clippings, then dried leaves, and peat moss. This brought us up to only 6″ deep, leaving me with another 16 cubic feet to go.

We didn’t have any more dirt or compost left, so we headed to the store to buy bags of top soil, peat moss, and manure. The manure should be about 40% of the total volume, according to our helpful in-store expert. By the time I added bags of stray potting soil I found in my garage, I think we had about 30% manure. Total cost for all of the bags for 16 cubic feet was $34.

My Lasagna Layers:

Top Soil Mix
Peat Moss
Leaves
Green Grass
Dry Grass and garden litter
Cardboard

Total Cost So Far

  • Wood for raised bed – recovered from siding
  • Paint to match our house – borrowed from neighbor (since we all use the same paint)
  • Compost – homemade
  • Soil – $34 for manure, top soil, peat moss

Add this to previous $18 for 3 hops plants for a total of $52 so far.

Total Time So Far

We have not been spending just 30 minutes a month. I think we would have been a lot closer if we had chosen a smaller spot and not built a planter. The planter took most of a Saturday afternoon. My husband and son did a beautiful job building and painting our raised bed to blend in with our house and small yard. Apart from the building, we are spending about 30 minutes every two weeks.

Research and planning – 15 minutes
Ripping out old bushes – 15 minutes
Mapping out the area – 15 minutes
Sorting out materials – 30 minutes
Planting hops in pots – 20 minutes
Building raised bed – 5 hours
Painting raised bed – 30 minutes
Digging bed – 15 minutes
Lasagna layers – 10 minutes
Shopping – 1 hour
Mixing top soil – 15 minutes
Planting – 10 minutes

Total so far = 9 hours

Bonus, several of our neighbors have come by to see our raised bed. The siding matches our houses, and they asked how to make a planter like this for themselves. Maybe they were being polite, but we had nice conversations about our gardens, our dogs sniffed one another, and we had an all-around good time.

Your May List: Planting

How much time you spend this month depends on how well you prepared the ground last month. If you already dug in compost to create soil that is ready for the plants you started last month, you will have plenty of time to gaze at your garden in your allotted 30 minutes. Here is one possible way to spend 30 minutes on your garden in May.

  • Gather materials (10 minutes)
  • Mix soil (10 minutes)
  • Add plant (5 minutes)
  • Water (5 minutes)

If you didn’t plan or prepare yet, you still have time. Set aside a Saturday, and you’ll be ready to cultivate your tiny patch through the season. Easy.

The Hops

Centennial Hops

In the time total, I didn’t count all of the time my husband spent fussing over his hops in their pots over the past month—poking the soil, watering, taking the plants in the house or garage at night, and so on. He has been babying his plants, and they are now 1-3″.

He bought Centennial (pictured), Cascade, and Nugget. The Nugget is the most bitter, so he carefully placed it in the center of the less bitter two in hopes that he will be able to tell them apart when it comes time to pick the hops and brew the beer.

Progress of the wild garden from March through may

Cotton Diapers – Do You Choose Organic or Not?

Organic cotton prefold cloth diapers

We were surprised when we asked customers about organic cotton diapers because their reasons for choosing organic don’t always match what we know about the benefits of organic. We recommend organic over non-organic, but our reasons might not be what you expect.

We’re stepping back slightly from our laundry series this week in celebration of the Great Cloth Diaper Change coming up this weekend. There will be events around the world Saturday, April 20th at 11:00AM local time, when babies will have their cloth diapers changed for a Guinness World Records global event. If you haven’t registered yet for an event local to you, you might still be able to squeak in.

What makes it organic?
Organic isn’t just a matter of avoiding use of pesticides and other chemical inputs then calling a product organic. “Organic” is a label that is given following certification to detailed standards. Without the certification, a product can’t be labelled “organic” even if it is grown or processed exactly as certified products are. The certification doesn’t make the product clean; the process makes the product clean. But, the certification is your assurance about the process.

In the field. In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture runs the National Organic Program (NOP). For textile fibers, this program sets standards only up to harvest. Short of organic, there are other efforts to reduce the worst toxic pesticides, like the Sustainable Cotton Project’s Cleaner Cotton.

In processing. For post-harvest processing, you will often see a GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification. A whole product can be certified organic by GOTS.

Fiber content. Globally, the Textile Exchange certifies the Organic Content Standard (used to be Organic Exchange [OE] Standard).

Looking for NOP, GOTS, or OE/OCS certifications is your assurance that products are certified to organic standards.

Is Organic Better for the Environment?
Absolutely. The most important reason to buy organic is the reduction of toxins, even known carcinogens, in the environment. It takes a lot of chemicals to grow conventional cotton. When it takes 1/3 lb of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to produce one cotton T-shirt, you can begin to see how the impact of three dozen prefolds builds. To give you some idea of scale, every year 6.9 million pounds of chemicals are sprayed on conventional cotton in California alone. Organic food and fiber both avoid most of the agricultural and industrial chemicals of conventional food and fiber. Most. Is organic the only answer? Not at all. There are issues with some organic standards, but that shouldn’t keep you from looking for the cleanest solution to your needs. When you buy cotton diapers, whether certified organic as a whole product or just made with organic cotton, you reduce the chemical burden on the environment. You reduce the pollution of air, water, and soil that will get back around to you.

Is Organic Better for the Skin?
No. This is one of the reasons our customer claim for choosing organic, but no studies show that organic cotton is better for your skin or for your health than conventional cotton. Organically grown cotton is not inherently softer than conventional cotton, though the quality of organic cotton can sometimes be better as it grows without exposure to toxins. There are no pesticide residues in conventional cotton. Certainly, organic is better for your health in the global view, as it reduces environmental pollution, but that benefit is indirect. When either conventional cotton or organic cotton has been treated with other chemicals in the processing, that is another matter. When you are told that organic feels cleaner on your skin, though, you are hearing a marketing pitch not scientific fact.

Is Organic Expensive?
Sometimes. Organic food and fibers do cost more than conventional, but that is really only expensive if you are not counting the external costs of the toxin burden of conventional cotton. As long as the production is more expensive, the organic products you buy will be more expensive. But, organic isn’t that much more expensive when compared with equivalent products made with conventional cotton. When you look at a one-time expense like organic cotton prefolds, the difference in cost isn’t so great that it would keep most families from using organic. When cost of the initial investment in diapers is an issue, simple prefold diapers are the affordable option we recommend.

Is Organic Worth It?
Yes. Despite the fact that your baby isn’t exposed to pesticides through conventional cotton diapers and the sometimes higher price tag on organic diapers, it is worth it to choose organic because you reduce the overall toxic burden in our world. You reduce toxins in the field; for the workers; downstream in the air, water, and soil; for yourself; and for your baby.

As one follower wrote, organic “feels better. . . on my conscience.” For a lot of our customers, this is the key. We recommend organic cotton diapers primarily because it lowers the chemical burden on world—the whole, interconnected world that leads right back to us and our babies. We are concerned with the big picture, and we feel better about organic.

Do you want to read more about organic cotton?

Read the story of Patagonia’s switch to organic cotton over the past 20 years. It wasn’t easy, but it was the obvious choice for them once they understood the real impacts of conventional cotton. Their quest for better choices doesn’t end with organic cotton, though. They continue to push boundaries.

If you aren’t already convinced that it’s important to choose organic fabric, especially for your baby, read this article on getting rid of chemicals in fabrics from O Ecotextiles. When it comes to direct chemical exposure, the issue isn’t about organic in the field; it’s all about the processing.

 

Cloth Diaper Washing: Wet Pail or Dry Pail?

Diaper Pail

Before you wash your cloth diapers, where will you store them? You can use a wet pail, which means leaving the diapers to soak in water, or a dry pail, which means not adding water.

Which will work better for your diapers? We will walk you through the pros and cons of your diaper pail choices.

The short answer: there isn’t a lot of difference in choosing wet or dry pail. Starting with a dry pail is simple, and many families don’t find the need to try a wet pail

Wet Pail
A wet diaper pail is a hard pail filled with water. The diapers soak in the water until you wash them. You can also add stain and odor eliminators.

Pros

  • Pre-soaking diapers means fewer stains
  • Less need for pre-rinse once diapers are in the washing machine

Cons

  • Some manufacturers recommend against using a wet pail for pocket diapers or PUL covers
  • Drowning risk for young children or pets
  • Heavier to carry to the washing machine (though it shouldn’t be too heavy to carry)
  • Top-loading machine is essential if you plan to pour the diaper pail into the washer.

Dry Pail
A dry diaper pail can be either a hard pail with a liner or a hanging pail (just the wet bag or liner). A dry pail isn’t exactly dry, since you fill it with wet diapers, but “dry” refers to not adding more water. You can also add stain and odor eliminators to a dry pail, though be careful not to let oils or treatments sit directly on diapers unless you know that is safe (as in the case of enzyme spray).

Pros

  • Lighter pail
  • Easier to transfer from pail to front-loading washing machine
  • No drowning hazard

Cons

  • More likely to get stains as mess sits on fabric for a day or more
  • Need diaper pail liner (though that’s not much of a con)
  • Tougher to control odor with a hanging dry pail

I used both. I put dirty diapers in a wet pail (which I stored in the bathtub, away from curious little hands), put wet diapers in a dry pail next to the changing table, and never put covers anywhere near the pail.

Which pail type you choose depends on the needs of your family. There isn’t an obvious choice for everyone, though a lot of families choose the dry pail for simplicity. Start simple with a dry pail, and move on to wet pail if you find that you have odor that is difficult to bear or control.

Tips

  • With both types of pails, your diapers are less likely to stain and your pail will be somewhat more fresh if you dump solids in the toilet before putting the diaper in the pail.
  • Any plastic bucket will work for a dry pail, though you may want to get one with a lid to control odors.
  • For a wet pail, either choose a locking pail or store pail out of reach of small children.
  • To avoid mildew, wash more frequently. Don’t leave diapers sitting for more than two days.
  • Be careful about anything you add to your diaper pail.