Are Chinese-Made Diapers Safe?

By: Fran Uselman-Harris

In the cloth diapering world there is always a lot of chatter about cheap Chinese diapers, especially if you visit blogs or larger cloth diaper chat Facebook groups and pages. Everyone seems to have an opinion on these types of diapers, how they are made, their quality as well as their safety and even their legality. The issue here, as it tends to be with a lot of different subjects, is there are an awful lot of people’s opinions on the matter and not a whole lot of facts. There also is a lot of straight up misinformation about these types of diapers floating around the internet and Facebook. My main prerogative here is to look at all the different angles, get all the facts on these diapers, and present all this information to you and let you make the informed decision on your own. I’m not here to sway you either way, I just want you to be presented with the most accurate and complete information I can and have all this information out there for the public to see and use. So let’s break this down and get all the facts on “China cheapies.”

Consumers and Globalization

First off, I would like to touch a little bit on globalization and everyday purchases. We live in an extremely globalized society, especially here in America. In 2014 the United States imported goods and services were $2.74 Trillion. That is a lot of money and a lot of product flowing into this country every single day. Many of the everyday items you use and wear were imported into the United States from other countries, especially China. Because this has been our way of life for so long, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger picture and how and why the items we use every single day came to be and came to be in your possession. In 2014 China was the Country we imported from the most—China accounted for 20.2% of our overall imports here in the United States. Below are the top 10 imported items from China to the Unites States according to the International Trade Center (www.intracen.org):

  1. Electronic equipment: $129.8 billion
  2. Machines, engines, pumps: $108.1 billion
  3. Furniture, lighting, signs: $28 billion
  4. Toys, games: $23.7 billion
  5. Footwear: $17.8 billion
  6. Knit or crochet clothing: $16.7 billion
  7. Clothing (not knit or crochet): $14.9 billion
  8. Plastics: $14.9 billion
  9. Vehicles: $12.2 billion
  10. Medical, technical equipment: $10.6 billion

Is there anything you use every single day that could fall on to that list? What about your smart phone or computer? The shoes on your feet?

The reason I wanted to touch on globalization a little bit is because I feel like we all need to have perspective when it comes to purchases and how we consume goods. One of the main arguments against China cheapies is that they are not made in America and by buying them a person is not supporting America and American businesses. This is true to a certain extent—BUT how many of the other purchases that you make every day, week, month, year… are also only supporting American businesses? And if you are going to buy an American brand cloth diaper are all the materials used in those diapers completely sourced from the Unites States? Where did all the components come from? 9 times out of 10 when purchasing a US brand diaper you are supporting a US company and giving people here jobs and income, but you are also providing jobs and income to people all around the world who helped to make that diaper possible in some little way. Yes, it is extremely important to support American business, manufacturing, and jobs, but it is also important to remember that even if the diapers are assembled here in the United States that most of the materials they are made from are not sourced here. One also needs to remember that buying ANY diaper, or ANY good for that matter; you are providing someone, somewhere, with a job and a livelihood.

My intention with this little snippet is not to poo-poo the whole American Made movement or anything like that. I just want everyone to have some perspective and I want everyone to realize that it is pretty difficult to buy and live 100% American made and manufactured. It is also more expensive and in certain instances it’s not even possible to do. Some families chose to cloth diaper because of cost restraints and insisting that you should only buy US brand diapers because our economy is most important is not only unreasonable but it is also inconsiderate to families who cannot afford $20+ for a single cloth diaper. For a family who wants to CD full time on a very tight budget it is much more reasonable to get a decent sized stash from a company like Alva, with all the accessories, extra inserts, etc… and be able to wash every few days then to only get a handful of US brand diapers and not even have enough diapers to do cloth full time. I have also seen arguments for purchasing the more expensive US brand diapers in the used market instead, but with the way the used market is that option really isn’t any more reasonable for many people.

In the end, I think it’s more important to be supportive of all cloth diapering families, regardless of how big or small their stashes are or what brands they chose or can use. We are all in it because we love cloth diapers and we want to spread the word about them and make the use of them more mainstream and the best way to do that is to support everyone who chooses to do it, regardless of how they chose to do it. If you are more interested in buying only American made/brand cloth diapers then that’s awesome! But please don’t shame/make other parents feel bad because they cant afford to/chose not to use those brands of diapers. The shaming and elitism in the cloth diaper community benefits absolutely no one and we want to foster a sense of community for all cloth diapering families, not just some of them.

A Word on Quality:

In most cases, quality of a product is based more on personal opinion than anything else. Personally, I have many Alvas, Sunbabies, JC Trade/Ananbaby, Happy Flutes, and other brands of China cheapies, and have had absolutely no issues with them as long as there is enough absorbency. Do these types of diapers work for everyone? No, just like the more expensive brands don’t work for everyone—i.e. Charlie Bananas fit my son horribly and I can never get a good fit with them. What is most important is finding a brand and type of diaper that works best for you and your family and that you can afford—if that means you have a stash of all cheap Chinese diapers, or a stash of all $50 Ragababies, or maybe somewhere in between–then so be it! Cloth diapering should be fun and affordable. Do what you can do Mamas and Daddies and don’t worry about what your stash looks like!

In most cases people have reported that these diapers last just as long as their more expensive diapers and perform about the same. How long diapers last in general is going to depend more on how large your diaper stash or rotation is, your wash routine, how often, if ever you bleach, use of the sanitary cycle on your washer as well as other factors than where the diapers were manufactured. Additionally, most if not all the components for many of the larger, big name American brands are manufactured overseas in places like China and Egypt, so when purchasing those products you are still purchasing products that have at least some ties to other countries and manufacturing.

About Safety:

One of the big things that I see come up on Fluff Love a lot in regards to these types of diapers is concerns about their safety and more specifically worries about lead and lead poisoning. I personally worked for the State of Wisconsin Division of Public Health in the Childhood Lead and Asbestos program for three years prior to having my son, so I would like to address the lead issue directly as well as talk about other aspects of safety when it comes to cloth diapers.

First, a little background on lead exposure and sources:

Lead poisoning in children in the US is a very serious issue and according to the EPA it affects over a million children each year (http://www2.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead). Lead poisoning is so serious because it can affect your child’s development, lower IQ, and cause behavioral issues—there is a direct correlation between lead exposure as a child and time spent in prison (http://www2.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead). Babies and small children are the most susceptible to poisoning because they are so small, they are still growing, and they put many things in their mouth, crawl around on the ground, etc where lead dust, paint chips and other sources can be. Children who are living at or below the poverty line as also more susceptible to lead poisoning because they tend to live in older housing where lead paint is more likely to be found. There are also a disproportionate number of children in certain ethnic and racial groups who are lead poisoned because of housing situations (http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/). This is why it is so important that your child have a blood lead level test around age 9m to a year old at their well-baby check-up. If your Doctor is not doing it as routine, ask for it. Even if you don’t live in a home built before 1978 your children should still be tested because there are many sources of lead outside the home. If you’re concerned, have the levels checked.

Lead (Pb) is a metal that is soft and malleable and is naturally occurring. It is also poisonous to both humans and animals if ingested. Lead is and has been used for centuries in a wide array of consumer products all around the world because it is abundant and cheap and it is still used today in a vast array of consumer products; even in products you might not expect to find it. The most common sources of lead are (http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/ACCLPP/Lead_Levels_in_Children_Fact_Sheet.pdf) (http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/):

  • Paints for homes, children’s toys, and furniture—Use has been banned since 1978 in the US
  • Batteries
  • Solder
  • Bullets, fishing weights
  • Pottery (Fiesta wear) and ceramic glaze
  • Some cosmetics and hair dyes
  • Plumbing-Soldered with lead, old plumbing
    • Drinking water can be contaminated with lead from old pipes, etc
  • Some canned goods from outside the United States
  • Some traditional/folk remedies
  • Candy imported from Mexico—both the candy itself and the ink and wrappers it comes in
  • Toys and toy jewelry- Especially those that are older and imported from other countries.
    • It is also important to note here that there is sometimes lead in plastic children’s toys as well, but this doesn’t pose a risk unless children are chewing or sucking on the toys.
  • Soil
  • Home Renovations
  • Some Artificial Turf
  • Imitation pearls

As you can see, there is a wide variety of lead sources that a child could be exposed to, that’s why it is so important to be aware of lead poisoning and exposure and to be sure to have the lead levels tested. Since lead can be used in some plastic products, CPSC requires cloth diaper snaps be tested for lead for the diapers to be compliant and sold in the United States.

Here are the general lead Limits for children’s apparel per CPSC for reference which also applies for diapers:

  • Total lead content on accessible parts of children’s clothing not to exceed 100ppm as of Aug 14,2011.
  • Exemptions are allowed for lead testing in certain fabrics (cotton, polyester, acrylic), only.
  • Exemptions do not apply for other parts of the clothing like decorations or fasteners (snaps and zippers) that are made of plastic, metal, vinyl, crystal, and coated leather that might contain lead
  • Lead paint and other surface coatings like screen printing, coated zippers, all labels cannot exceed 90 ppm (cpsc.gov)

Many like to argue that cheap Chinese diapers are not safe because they contain lead and other harmful chemicals, are flammable, etc…but this is certainly not the case. There is no greater risk for lead exposer from an Alva diaper than there is from a Bumgenius diaper. They are all made the same way, from the same types of materials, and many of these different brands of diapers are using the same manufactures for their PUL and snaps. Additionally, and small amount of digging can yield the testing certificates for these Chinese diaper companies—all of which fit the standards for CPSCIA compliance, and some of which go above and beyond what is required by CPSC and are completely 100% legitimate if you contact the testing company directly to verify, as I did with the certificates that I was given by Alva. Additionally, PUL that is not accessible to skin, as PUL in a normal pocket diaper would be, is NOT required to be lead tested per CPSC (http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=38ec153c002df72ecfcd5b4322fcea87&node=se16.2.1500_191&rgn=div8). Polyester, which is what the outside part of most cloth diapers are made of, does not have to be tested for flammability according to CPSC (http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=e971c062f56d817551dbabf88705e5ec&node=se16.2.1610_11&rgn=div8).

I will also mention that it is extremely difficult for there to be lead exposure via skin contact only—generally lead poisoning occurs when lead dust or other lead particles enter the body by consumption or inhalation. This would be it would be pretty much impossible for someone to be lead poisoned just by wearing an article of clothing even if that clothing contained lead. Since there is nothing in the manufacturing process of any of the components of a diaper that would include lead in the first place (no not even clothing dyes contain lead) it is impossible for a child to become lead poisoned from wearing a diaper.

Essentially, according to CSPIA, the only parts of a cloth diaper that needs to be tested for lead are the snaps. PUL in pockets does not need to be lead tested because it does not touch the skin and PUL in covers is also exempt from testing because of the weight of the fabric and because it is polyester.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the Chinese brands have done lead testing on both the snaps and the PUL, all you need to do is ask them for copies of the certificates. Additionally, in conversations with a CPSC agent we learned that each print does not have to be tested for lead if the same process is being used to make each print.

For the sake of full disclosure and my personal goal of making this article as thorough as possible, I decided to have the PUL and the snaps of 35 diapers tested to see what the levels were in those two parts. I tested 24 different brands of diapers, including American, Chinese, and European brands. Some of which are CPSIA certified and some that were not. You can see the full results of my testing here. In the end my testing revealed that none of the diapers tested contained lead, not even a trace amount on either the snaps or the PUL. Thus, there are not concerns in regards to lead in Chinese diapers.

Additionally, we do tend to get some questions in regards to Chinese diapers and phthalate testing. Some diaper brands have done phthalate testing; Sunbaby being one of them, but per CPSIA regulations phthalate testing is NOT required for diapers. I would assume unless a manufacturer specifically states that they have done phthalate testing that they haven’t, and that includes American brands as well.

Legality

Another issue with Chinese diapers that is often brought up in discussions about them is their legality. Many opponents like to argue that is just plain illegal to bring these diapers into the United States. This is certainly not the case if you are buying them for your own personal use with no intent to retail them. In my own research, as well as what was confirmed with a CPSC agent, the “rules” for CDs that I listed above in the previous section only applies for diapers that are being retailed and sold in the United States. If you are buying online directly from the manufacture, like Alva, and having them shipped to your home for your own use then they do not need to be certified by CPSIA. However, if you were purchasing Alvas in bulk from the company and then turning around and selling them on ebay or another website then what you are doing is technically illegal and you would need to go through the steps to get all of the certifications, and ensure that they are completely compliant. There are also no issues in regards to an individual selling of used diapers as well.

One big issue with some Chinese diaper brands is the issue of copyright infringement. This is a subject that has varying degrees of severity for some people. Some people don’t care, others care a lot, and so this is something that has to be assessed on a personal basis for a lot of people. A lot of the Chinese brands are guilty to using either prints from other American Diaper companies like Bumgenius and Grovia, as well as licensed characters from movies, cartoons, etc—Jctrade/ananbaby is notorious for that. Alva is also guilty of using prints that were taken from smaller WAHM custom fabric groups due to a design contest they held in the summer of 2014; people submitted prints/designs that were not theirs and Alva did not know/understand that these prints were taken from other places. Once Alva found this out they sold off all their stock in these prints and no longer carry them.

I feel like it is also important to mention here that Alva and many of the other Chinese diaper companies generally do not always print their own fabric/PUL They are all using many of the same suppliers as well as suppliers that provide fabric to other American diaper companies and other American companies like Skiphop (Sunbaby used some of these same fabrics). This generally means that man of these prints and fabrics are not mutually exclusive to one diaper company and means anyone can buy and use many of these prints. This is why you can still get some of the prints that many people are up in arms about through ebay or alixpress via custom orders—all you need is someone willing to buy the fabrics and make the diapers for you/to sell on ebay.

Copyright laws here in the United States don’t apply to other countries like China, and there isn’t much anyone can do besides contact the company and issue a cease and desist letter, this is why I am saying its really a personal decision as to whether this issue bothers you enough to not patronize these companies. Additionally, I would also like to mention that if you do chose to purchase some of these character prints off of ebay, through a co-op, or through one of the companies who do run these types of prints (like JCtrade or Ananbaby) there is a small risk that your package could be open and seized by customs, though if you pay via Paypal you should be protected to at least get your money back if this does happen.

Summary

I have gone over a lot of information here so lets summarize everything we have went over:

  • We live in a global society and a lot of the things we use and purchase every single day are not manufactured in the United States. Many of the components of many of the American brand diapers are also manufactured overseas and then shipped here and assembled. Whether or not to purchase American brand/American made diapers is a personal choice and others should NOT be made to feel poorly about what brands they can use and/or afford.
  • There really aren’t any concerns about the general quality of Chinese diapers. Many people find they work just as well as any other brand and hold up just as well. The life of your diapers is going to depend more on how you wash them, how often, and other things you do to them than anything else.
  • There are NO concerns about lead exposure from Chinese diapers. Many of these diaper companies have had the diapers (PUL and snaps) independently tested for lead and have these certificates available either on their websites or per request.
    • Only lead testing required is for snaps. No testing required for PUL.
    • Flammability testing is NOT required for diapers per CSPIA
    • Phthalate testing is NOT required for diapers per CSPIA
    • See my independent lead testing results here.
  • Chinese diapers are not required to be CSPIA certified because you are buying them directly from the manufacture and using them for personal use
    • The issue of testing comes about when you purchase them and then turn around and resell/retail them (not used).
      • If you wish to do this you legally need to get the diapers tested per CSPIA requirements.
    • Chinese diapers are 110% safe to use. There are NO safety concerns about these diapers at all.
    • The issue with copyrights and using licensed characters is really a personal decision that each person needs to make on their own

Ultimately, just like the decision to cloth diaper in general, a lot of the ways to cloth diaper is an individual one and families need to make these decisions based on what works for them and what the can afford. No one should be made to feel bad about what kinds or brands of diapers they use for whatever reason(s) they have for choosing that path. Cloth should be easy, affordable, and fun for all families. Have fun and cloth diaper on!