The idea behind cloth diapering for most parents is saving money- using a diaper over and over saves way more than using throwaway diapers. That being said, cloth diapers are great but they aren’t magic- heavy use and repeated washing and drying takes a toll and they will wear out. The question is- what is a normal life span and are there certain diaper brands or types that outlast others? (Note- the diapers shown in this post are from my personal collection, being in this post doesn’t mean they aren’t good brands, it just means they were well loved)
The Life and Death of a Cloth Diaper
A brand new cloth diaper is a beautiful thing! Then, they are often used, sometimes immediately (that “new diaper reflex” kicks in!) and to the washer it goes. Just like your favorite cotton t-shirt, cloth diapers will start showing their age after repeated washing.
The first thing that you might notice is pilling. Pilling can happen on natural fibers or the lining on the inside of a diaper (microfleece or suedecloth, though microfleece tends to pill more than suedecloth) and is harmless. If the pilling bothers you, either because it looks bad or you think it is too rough on the baby’s skin, try a sweater shaver to smooth it back out. Depending on the quality of the materials and the type the pilling may be annoying or not. For me, fleece pills up well on most brands. In the above photo the pilling touching the baby is totally fine and normal for fleece, but the underside has way more pilling, it just isn’t an issue because the baby will never feel it.
If you have velcro diapers, the next type of wear you will see is the fuzzing of the velcro tabs and potentially curling. Fuzzing will become a problem and will make the velcro less and less sticky. Strings and other lint will also gather in the velcro but the good news is that those things can be cleaned out with a diaper pin tip or snappi tines. Some diaper brands, like GroVia, have tabs to place the velcro under to prevent curling. Curling can make your velcro not as sticky too because there is less tab to stick to your strip, reducing their effectiveness.
Relaxed elastic is something that happens much later in the game, often after 1.5-2 years, and is a result of many factors. Elastic loosens over time, becoming less stretchy. The leg openings will look larger and this can affect how well your diapers work and fit. If you have used the same one size diapers for a long time you may not even notice because the elastic relaxed but your baby grew and those larger leg openings weren’t an issue. If you bought used diapers with relaxed elastic and have a younger baby it could mean the diapers won’t fit as tight as they should around the legs, leading to leaks. This is a fixable problem with basic sewing skills- replace the elastic and exend the life of your diapers another 1-2 years!
Holey diapers… or rather, diapers full of holes, is a sign of a very well loved diaper, and these often don’t happen until after a diaper has lived a full life. Sometimes holes don’t even appear until the diaper is on a second baby. Certain diapers and materials are more likely to develop holes- natural fibers will start to weaken at stitched areas, for example. The old style of the bumgenius Elemental would develop holes at each corner where the soaker was attached. Prefolds can develop holes just from repeated washing but this won’t happen for a very long time, you may never even see holes until they find a new life after diapers as rags. One Size diapers can develop small holes around the size snaps where stress pulls on the fabric.
Delamination is the worst problem of all and essentially ends the life of a diaper (look to this post from Applecheeks for an image, I didn’t have any to photograph for this post). All of the other problems listed above can be be repaired, lived with, or are just aesthetic. When a diaper delaminates, meaning the shiny plastic layer on the inside of your PUL or TPU is cracked or peeling, the diaper is going to leak. Leaky diapers=wet clothes=pointless. There is no way to fix a diaper that is truly delaminated. If you have quality cloth diapers you shouldn’t see this happen at all, or only after many years of use. Cheaper diapers (those famous $5 diapers from the co-ops or Ebay) see this happen sooner in some cases. There have been quality brands that had this happen faster but the issue was with a certain batch of PUL and wouldn’t normally happen, and often they will replace that diaper because it is under warranty.Prevention
Can you prevent the wear and tear on your diapers? Yes and No. Pilling is going to happen no matter what. Line drying your diapers will help prevent the velcro tabs from curling and can extend the life of your elastic. Over bleaching can break down elastic faster and weaken fibers, making holes develop faster than normal. Delamination shouldn’t happen at all, and if it does, only after a long and full life of many, many years. In my 5 years of cloth diapering the only items to ever delaminate were a few diapers from Ebay I bought before I knew better and one wet bag. Having a larger stash will (of course) reduce the overall wear on all of your diapers. Washing the same diapers very frequently will wear them down faster. This holds true for any article of clothing.
Bummis is by far the longest lasting brand I’ve ever come across. Simpler diapers like flats and prefolds last longer than any modern diaper because they have less stitching and holes already put in them, less complicated shapes, less to screw up! Other than those tidbits, across the board you will have to deal with the wear and tear and there is not magical answer on which will be guaranteed to last the longest since it also depends on your washing habits, the frequency, and how long you use them.
Cloth diapering is still the better choice all around, but please understand that they are susceptible to wear and tear just like your t-shirts and socks.