Baby Diaper pH: An Intro

Stiny baby diaper

If you’ve ever burned your nose hairs off with your baby’s morning diaper, would it help to know that you’re smelling ammonia? A short introduction to pH as it relates to baby diapers might help you reduce the stink.

pH is measure of whether a solution is acidic or alkaline.

When some meany colleagues of mine beat me in a diaper quiz game, they laughed and laughed when I tried to guess what neutral pH was. I figured neutral should be zero, right? No, wrong. I tell you this so you understand that I’m not a scientist. Their first question after laughing was, “And, you homeschool?” Well, yes, but I don’t teach science. I have backup for that. I have a scientist husband, who happens to have lent his expertise to me today.

The quiz answer: neutral pH is 7. Below pH7, which is the level of water, a substance is acidic, and above pH7 is alkaline.

pH of common substances

Bleach 13
Baking Soda 9
Blood (and most bodily fluids) 7.4
Water at room temperature 7
Newborn skin 7
Urine 6
Human skin 5.5 (4.5-6)
Coffee 5
Orange Juice 3
Vinegar 2
Gastric Acid 1

Baby Diaper pH

A little background in science will help you keep your baby healthy and your diapers clean.

When it comes to diapers and pH, we should understand the pH levels of most bodily fluids (most are slightly alkaline at 7.4), urine (slightly acidic at about 6), and skin (a bit more acidic at about 5.5, though there is a range of normal). A newborn baby’s skin is closer to neutral than an older baby or an adult.

For our short science lesson, we are concerned with what happens when urine sits in a diaper either next to the skin before the diaper is changed or once the wet or dirty diaper sits in a pail waiting to be washed. It also helps to understand pH before we start adding vinegar (pH2) or baking soda (pH9) to our wash.

Internal: Urea Cycle

The urea cycle takes place in your renal system (kidneys & gall bladder). This cycle keeps urea, uric acid, and ammonia in balance in our bodies. Our bodies want nitrogen to be present as urea, which is neutral. Too much uric acid results in gout, and high ammonia levels are also poisonous to our bodies. Too far either direction, and we can’t survive.

We excrete ammonia predominantly in the form of urea. Once urine has left the body, in the absence of the kidneys’ work, urea in the urine begins to convert to ammonia. Time and enzymes move that process along.

The result: stinky on the outside.

In the Diaper on the Baby

In a baby’s diaper, urea breaks down and ammonia is released. The presence of fecal enzymes speeds this process, though a breastfed baby has higher pH stools and lower enzymatic activity. The more acidic a diaper environment, the more likely the outer layer of your baby’s skin will break down and your baby can get diaper rash.

To prevent diaper rash and exposure to the chemical soup that happens to bodily fluids outside the body, change your baby’s diaper whenever it is wet or soiled—yes, even in the middle of the night.

The result: stinky diaper, such as a nighttime diaper.

In the Diaper in the Pail

If diapers sit for any length of time, particularly if wet and dirty diapers are mixed, urea continues to break down and more ammonia is released.

The result: stinky pail.

In the Cloth Diaper Wash

A lot of cloth diapering parents use baking soda or vinegar to fix diaper smell, to strip diapers, or for other purposes in their wash. Most detergents are in the range close to neutral. You can raise pH, neutralizing uric acid for example, with baking soda (pH9) or lower pH, neutralizing ammonia, with vinegar (pH2).

The result: adjust pH for fresh, clean diapers.

The exact chemistry of how vinegar and baking soda work in the wash is beyond my little introduction, but this should lay the foundation for understanding laundry pH once we go there.

Image © Todd Castor |

Modeling the Value of Reusability

I have heard a lot of parents connect their cloth diaper use to the environment AS a gift to their babies. They choose to use resources wisely and prevent massive waste buildup because they don’t want to pass the problem on to their children and grandchildren.

In testimonials at the Real Diaper Association, hundreds of parents have written about “Why I Choose Cloth.” Over and over again parents talk about the long-term meaning of their choice to use cloth diapers.

Wouldn’t You Choose Cloth Diapers Anyway?

If you have a parenting choice to make and you find that it’s both better for babies and less expensive for parents, you wouldn’t hesitate to make that choice, right? Not always, and that confuses me.

Some people (no, I’m not naming names) say that cloth diapers are just too hard. They aren’t, of course. The changing is the same and washing is easy. Why this perception of difficulty?

Even if cloth diapering were more difficult to use than the throwaway alternatives, though, given that it’s better for babies and less expensive for parents, wouldn’t you choose it anyway?

I think about other choices that my family makes now that I didn’t necessarily grow up with: reusable shopping bags and recycling. Both of these are just part of our lives. Both of these practices teach our children valuable lessons. We keep a stack of reusable bags in the house and another in the truck of our car. If we shop, we bring our own bag. That isn’t as easy as not thinking ahead, but I don’t know that teaching children not to plan ahead is the message we want to send. It probably was easier to throw all of our garbage into a bag and forget it, but I can’t say that I find the alternative difficult. We break down boxes, stack up papers, and set bottles and cans to the side. We just take our garbage out in a couple of different ways. We not only teach our children the value of recycling, but we let that lead to conversations about how to reduce the need to bring stuff into our house in the first place. Recycling and reusable bags and cloth diapers are all a little bit more difficult than putting the responsibility on someone else, but we’re teaching personal responsibility to our children. I don’t see the problem with taking 30 minutes a week to wash another load of laundry. It seems to me that it would be yet another teaching moment as we talk about values.

Modeling Values to the Sibling

If you are diapering a baby as an older child watches, every diaper change is an opportunity to model values. Explain why you choose cloth diapers. Explain what reusability and responsible resource use mean.

When my daughter used to watch me diaper her baby brother, I gave her a set of diapers for her dolls. Her dolls stayed in cloth diapers about as long as her brother did. She followed my example then articulated the reasons as she went along. Now, she understands why I remain a strong advocate for cloth diapers.

It’s tough to convince a child of the value of reusability and responsibility if we don’t model the values ourselves.

Do I Want This Green Thing?

I guess you can’t fault WebMD for their transparency. In a recent article on baby diapers, they found that neither reusable cloth diapers nor throwaway disposable diapers is a clear winner. This article is framed by five logos and banners and two funding statements. Who sponsors WebMD? Huggies. They are very open about it. And they still found it a toss up? If they had asked Real Diaper Association or Real Diaper Industry Association to sponsor their article (I asked—they didn’t), I wonder how that would have tipped the balance.

Sources unfamiliar with real diaper choices

Part of the problem comes in seeking opinions from those who favor throwaway diapers. Especially in a difficult economy, when they receive funding or samples from only one type of product, which do you think they would favor? Would you ask a pediatrician pushing free baby formula samples whether you should breastfeed or formula feed your baby? Breastfeeding advocates are working to educate those health care providers to rebel against choices that are clearly not better for babies. Cloth diaper advocates have started a similar project to expose childbirth educators to cloth diapers. If health care providers are going to be the source for so much parenting advice, they need to be educated by more than big business with an interest in high turnover and big profit.

The faulty logic of comparing apples to oranges

Just because two different products are both called diapers does not make them comparable. You can’t even really compare a reusable polyester pocket diaper with a microfiber insert to an organic cotton diaper and a wool soaker. They have a similar intended end result, but they are not the same product. This has been a problem with studies and superficial articles that attempt to make comparisons between any two kinds of diapers. What works for any family depends on their own values and needs.

It also amuses me when I see people try to put transportation on cloth diapers as an issue. The new article falls prey to the failure of follow-through logic when it claims that “commercial diaper service delivery trucks consume fuel and create air pollution.” I’m thinking the person who wrote this might be thinking back to another era. Most diaper services today are small and lean. Ask around and see if they laugh when you ask about “commercial delivery trucks.” May I just ask, how did those plastic bags of disposable diapers arrive on store shelves. Did the delivery guys carry them in giant reusable bags on public transit? Were they flown in on the wings of eagles? Uh, no. Massive pallets of disposable diapers are shipped from their offshore manufacturing facilities by sea freight and by commercial delivery trucks. You get the picture, right? Any time you buy a product in a store, you need to add transportation costs. If you use a diaper service, diapers are delivered long-distance one time to the service. The rest of the deliveries are local, which means there are fewer environmental costs to the transportation than deliveries of disposable diapers, since every bag of disposable diapers a parent buys have to be shipped very long distances. The argument that cloth diapers require more energy to transport begs a reader to be blind to the manufacture and delivery of disposable diapers the way they are to the waste of disposable diapers. The argument is tired to the point of being worn out. I would expect more education and clarity from a health care provider.

Another part of the problem is in seeing all cloth diapers as equal. Studies in the UK a few years ago fell into this trap. They took the highest impact cloth diapers and compared them with the lowest impact disposable diapers, found an overlap in environmental impact, and called it a tie. Obviously, that kind of logic is flawed as well. If you want to lower the impact of your cloth diapers, you can easily pull cloth diapers far out of reach of disposable diapers where the environmental impact doesn’t come close to overlapping.

The question about cloth diapers vs. disposable diapers isn’t about logic, though. It isn’t even a question except among those who want to push disposable diapers or those who buy into their terms. This is a question of marketing, branding, money, and profit. Where is the big money? You know the answer. The big money knows that if you make an advertisement a nice, light spring green and put a leaf on it, the part of your brain that bypasses logic will associate that product with nature. That’s nice, isn’t it? Your not-quite-conscious voice says, “I like nature, so I’m going to buy that bag of plastic diapers because it contains some organic cotton somewhere deep inside with the superabsorbent polymers and other petrochemical products.” Well, your voice might stop short of that, but it might get halfway there to say, “I’ll buy the green thing.” That’s why it’s a good idea to bring this into your all-too-conscious mind to ask, is that green thing really green or have I just been a sucker for greenwashing, what SourceWatch calls “unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue.”

If you are looking for facts about cloth diapers, check the people who know about cloth diapers. Look at Real Diaper Associations real diaper facts, all from published studies. They are a nonprofit dedicated to cloth diaper education. If you want to know about disposable diapers, ask the people who make them what they are made out of. If a product says natural, figure out what that means and how much of the product it represents. Check out their MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) for all of the ingredients, and ask if these are the materials you want to put on your baby’s sensitive bottom. Pull it all into your logical mind and ask, what is this green thing and do I really want this for my baby?

Thanks to Real Diaper Association Executive Director Heather McNamara, who tweeted about this article yesterday. From there, the news spread quickly. (If Twitter is still a foreign language to you, look for a quick Twitter intro in our post last week.)

What to Do with Poopy Diapers?

Dump that poop! Easy answer. No matter what kind of diaper you are using on your baby, dump solids in the toilet.

As with most things, understanding a few more subtleties will help with your cloth diapering success.

Poop, poo, solids, bowel movement, fecal matter. Whatever you call it, it’s still easy to deal with baby poop.

Don’t dump the breastfed poop

If your baby is exclusively breastfed, solids are water-soluble and will wash out in your washing machine just like yogurt. Don’t make that face! It works.

Cloth diaper dump helpers

Mini Shower Diaper Sprayer. If your baby has solid poop, we like a great invention called the Mini Shower Diaper Sprayer. You attach the sprayer to the toilet, then hang it on the wall or side of the toilet. When you have a dirty diaper to dump, use the sprayer to quickly spray solids off into the toilet. My only advice: get the angle right. If you spray straight into the diaper, the diaper will splash it back into your face. YES, I’m speaking from experience. Use your knowledge of simple angles, like a clean shot when playing pool, and you’ll get it right.

Washable Cloth Diaper Liners. Poop comes off of some materials more easily than others. If you are using raw silk liners to prevent diaper rash or microfleece liners to create a stay-dry effect, it’s a bonus that poop will slide right off. Shake or use the diaper sprayer.

Flushable Diaper Liners. Especially if your baby is going through a sticky, sticky poop phase, you might want to try flushable diaper liners. They are a little heavier than toilet paper but still biodegradable. Pick up the ends of the liner and dump the whole thing in the toilet. Flush. Done. Really.

Yes, you should always dump solid poop

For a poopy diaper, you need to dispose of solids in the toilet. There is a reason we call them “solids,” and your washer won’t dissolve this poop like it will newborn poop. The good news is: this takes only a few seconds. Very easy.

Even when using disposable diapers, all waste should be emptied into the toilet. Human waste needs to be treated properly not dumped in landfill. It’s true! Next time you are at the grocery store, read the fine print on any package of disposable diapers. Yes, we know that most people don’t or won’t dump the poop from disposable diapers, but they should be. The steps are the same for disposable diapers and cloth diapers. Dump, then drop in pail.

No, you don’t have to touch the poop

You do not need to dunk your diapers. Don’t buy those scary stories of dunking and swirling. It just isn’t necessary with the tools you have available. Whether you spray or scrap or just plain shake, you don’t have to touch and you don’t have to dunk and swirl and drag a soaking dirty diaper around your bathroom. Just not necessary.

Keep a diaper pail next to the toilet, and you’re all set. Using cloth diapers is easy.

Dump. Drop. Done!

When you Know Better, you Choose Better

Recently we made the switch to only carry Organic Cotton Prefolds in our natural baby store, and are no longer carrying conventionally-grown cotton prefolds. We’ve had many questions about this choice, and ultimately our customers seem pleased with the change. So far the consensus is that the value is much greater for the very slight difference in cost (only about $1.00 more per diaper!). Overall you are getting a much better product, a chemical and pesticide-free diaper, and one that is less taxing on our environment (both ecologically and for humanity). If you’re still unsure as to whether or not organic cotton is the way to go, read on!

Cotton that was grown many years ago generally involved techniques that allowed for the sustainable harvesting of the material. It did not permanently deplete resources or create unhealthy living conditions that threaten workers, wildlife and the environment, as it does today. There are many pesticides used in the growing of ‘conventional’ cotton that create a health hazard we are only beginning to understand the effects of. Some of these pesticides are considered to be the most toxic chemicals in the world!

Still not convinced? Here is our Top 10 Reasons to Choose Organic Cotton:

    1. Organic cotton reduces toxins that pollute the Earth.

    2. Organic cotton is chemical and formaldehyde FREE.

    3. Organic cotton materials are softer, stronger (and safer!).

    4. Safer dyes and inks are used during the printing process of organic cotton products.

    5. Organic cotton production supports sustainable agricultural practises.

    6. Organic cotton production protects our quality of water.

    7. Improved health of agricultural workers when producing organic cotton vs. conventional cotton.

    8. Improved heath for our children (no bleaches, toxic dyes, chemicals, pesticides against delicate skin!).

    9. No hidden costs in the production of organic cotton. Conventional cotton may seem less expensive, but their are hidden costs that show up in the way of taxes, health care (of workers), environmental clean up, cost of our children’s health etc.

    10. Choosing organic cotton helps protect future generations of children and their families.

Conventional cotton farming is one of the most environmentally destructive agricultural practises – harming the air, water, soil, and farmers’ health and safety as well as the surrounding environments. At the moment we may end up paying more for organic products, however this can change as demand for organic cotton increases. By spending on organic products, you are using your consumer power wisely and adding your voice to the environmental movement. The pay-back is tremendous: better health for our children, our families, the planet and all her creatures. We feel organic cotton is an important consideration, not only for cloth diapers, but for all our “cotton” requirements.