In discussing eco-friendly nurseries, we talk a whole load of poop. Specifically, we look at the environmental impact of disposable diapers (and sustainable disposable options if you need them), whether cloth diapering is really any better for the environment, and the problems with conventional change pads. We also touch on something that all parents will be very familiar with: wet wipes.
Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about wet wipes, and how to make zero waste wet wipes at home. We’ve also got you covered with the most eco-friendly and sustainable baby wipes.
Wet wipes and waste management
Wet wipes are something you’ll go through faster than you ever thought possible as a new parent. But just like plastic straws and single use plastic, these seemingly innocuous throwaway items are rife with environmental and health concerns.
Disposable wipes are usually made with conventional cotton or synthetic fibers, and the majority contain at least some plastic to make them a bit more robust. A handful of companies now make wet wipes with bamboo or wood pulp viscose/Rayon, but despite labelling claims, this isn’t likely to be genuinely eco-friendly (I get into why in the course).
Disposable wet wipes are also single use and can’t be flushed, meaning they end up in landfill where they typically don’t biodegrade but might degrade and leach chemicals into soil, water, and the air, resulting in persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like furans and dioxins.
The problem with dioxins and furans
Researchers have long raised concerns over by-products from chlorine bleach and local wildlife populations. Dioxins are now considered responsible for the rapid decline in the bald eagle population during the mid-20th century in the US.
The ban on DDT in the US and Canada in the 1970s has helped populations rebound, but only in some places, leading researchers to look at ongoing environmental pollution from, for example, pulp mills. The use of chlorine, and resulting dioxins and furans in waterways, continues to decimate fish and bird species near the Great Lakes, for instance.
Dioxins are also on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of priority pollutants and are classed as a 10/10 high hazard ingredient by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The most toxic, and best studied, dioxin is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or simply TCDD. This chemical has been associated with a host of health issues.
Bring on the chlorine-free wet wipes!
When ‘chlorine-free’ doesn’t mean what you think it means
The FDA has encouraged manufacturers to use an elemental chlorine-free bleaching method, but this method simply uses chlorine dioxide instead of elemental chlorine gas. The newer process is supposed to release no dioxins, but even the FDA hedges its bets by saying that “Some elemental chlorine-free bleaching processes can theoretically generate dioxins at extremely low levels, and dioxins are occasionally detected in trace amounts in mill effluents and pulp. In practice, however, this method is considered to be dioxin free.”
In short, don’t be fooled by companies making ‘elemental chlorine-free’ wipes (or diapers) and then greenwashing their products.
What you want to look for are totally chlorine-free products that stipulate no chlorine processing is used in the manufacture of the wipes.
Other problems with disposable wet wipes
Wet wipes require a lot of energy to make and distribute and all too frequently contain fragrances or other substances that aren’t at all skin-friendly, especially for your baby’s sensitive skin. Rashes and other reactions to wet wipes may occurs, but some companies gloss over this by adding aloe to their formula and claiming their wipes are hypoallergenic (which isn’t a regulated term).
Diaper rash happens in about a quarter of infants in the first year of life and is most easily avoided by changing wet or soiled diapers frequently; cleaning your baby’s skin gently with water and/or soft wash cloths; using well-fitting diapers; and using a neutral barrier cream. There are also some non-irritating disposable wipes, but while these reduce the risk of skin irritation, they aren’t typically eco-friendly.
Beware any wet wipes that list ‘fragrance’ in the ingredients. This catch-all term can be used by manufacturers to hide pretty much anything, including chemicals that can be toxic and irritating to skin. The American Academy of Dermatology found that fragrances are the leading cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis, so I would highly recommend avoiding any wet wipes with fragrance on the label.
Many disposable wet wipes are advertised as being ‘99% water’, which makes them sound pretty innocuous. The trouble is, water is heavy compared to synthetic fibers, and that other 1% can make all the difference between an eco-friendly, non-toxic wipe and something you probably don’t want in your diaper bag. It takes an unreasonable amount of digging to figure out the type of fiber used for most disposable wet wipes, which is another example of the greenwashing in this industry. In most cases, even wet wipes that have seemingly safe ingredients listed are made with polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene, meaning they’re essentially plastic and definitely not biodegradable or eco-friendly.
So, what’s the alternative to conventional disposable wet wipes? Check out my post on the best eco-friendly wet wipes to find out!