I led last week with a broad observation: that most adult diaper wearers tend to default to the assumption that “diaper” means disposable. The overwhelming majority of the adult-diaper-related content on the web (practical or erotic) doesn’t even acknowledge the option of cloth diapers.

And we got some great responses in the comments, which is why I always try to leave these things open-ended — there is way more knowledge in this community than just Adrian or guest writers like myself can ever hope to provide on our own!

So taking a closer look at it, why would an adult diaper-wearer want to think about using cloth diapers? And what are the advantages to sticking with disposables?

1. The Cost Issue

Let’s be clear here: there are going to be plausible cases for and against both cloth and disposable diapers in just about any area of comparison you pick.

There will be people who swear high and low that the cost of laundry for cloth diapers is more than the cost of buying disposables, and people who swear that disposables are infinitely more expensive.

Without taking sides, here’s the quick rundown on the assumptions you can safely make about cost:

  • Cloth diapers are more expensive up front. Good adult-sized cloth diapers will run you anywhere from $20 to $75+ in U.S. dollars, depending on where you’re shopping and what you’re getting. Quality plastic pants to go over them are going to be another $20-50 or so a pop.
  • Disposables are cheaper up front but don’t last as long. A case of good disposables (Bambinos or Abenas, say) will run you $20-30ish for between one and two dozen. If you wear diapers 24/7, that case will be lucky to last a week; if you’re an infrequent wearer it could stretch as far as several months. But either way the case will be gone long before a properly-sized cloth diaper and plastic pants wear out.
  • Washing is not that big of an expense if you’re willing to put some effort into it. Hand-washing with a mild detergent and a bit of vinegar for the smell and then line-drying keeps the per-wear cost of a cloth diaper down to pennies. If you’re using a washing machine the cost increases somewhat due to the electricity and water bill, and if you’re using a coin-op machine the cost gets even higher.

Run it all down and basically you can say this much: cloth diapers are probably cheaper for people who have the time and resources to use them effectively, and who wear diapers most of the time. Disposables are cheaper if diapers are an infrequent indulgence, or if your only washing options would be costly.

2. The Environmental Issue

Again, this is one where you will find die-hard adherents on both sides of the fence. Here’s the basic case for each:

  • Cloth diapers are reusable. They don’t contribute to landfill waste until years after you purchase them, and so long as they’re made from a natural cloth they should be fully biodegradable even then. Plastic pants are usually not biodegradable, but you’re going through them at a rate of one or two every few years, rather than one or two a day (assuming full-time or close to full-time diaper usage).
  • Disposable diapers are neither biodegradable nor particularly good for the land they’re dumped on. They last close enough to forever for our human purposes, and the mass you generate by wearing them does add up over time. There’s no real way to get away from that one, unfortunately.
  • Laundry for cloth diapers uses up water and, unless you’re hand-washing, electricity, while disposables use neither.

Overall, it’s hard to make a case that cloth diapers are worse for the environment than disposable (they’re also generally easier on the environment in terms of their manufacturing), but neither is great.

3. The Comfort Issue

Here’s where we get to what really matters: how does it feel to have it on your body? This is the determining factor for most people, no matter how responsible we like to think we are about our money or our environment.

  • Disposables are smaller, easier to hide, and much easier to clean up. There’s no real competition in terms of convenience: disposables are less hassle, plain and simple.
  • Cloth on its own is more breathable, but requires plastic pants to contain any serious wetting, which can end up being less comfortable than even a plastic-backed disposable.
  • Rashes and irritation can go either way. Some people react badly to the chemicals in disposable diapers; other people get rashy when wet cloth rubs agains their skin. You tend to figure it out pretty quickly if you have a strong preference based on your skin’s reaction, and it’s tough to argue with that particular reason for a preference.
  • Cloth with plastic pants can usually go longer without changing than a disposable, so long as you’re willing to accept some bulk. Cloth thin enough to hide discreetly, on the other hand, will likely be less absorbent than a similarly-sized disposable.

Does it sound like there isn’t a clear “better” option that will fit everyone’s needs after all that?

That’s because there isn’t one! It turns out that there are reasons to wear both. Some people will always prefer disposables, and some people will always prefer cloth, while others (including myself) will use both, switching back and forth as their situation and their needs dictate.

You can even mix and match, as with people who wear a folded cloth diaper as a “soaker” inside a plastic-backed disposable rather than a pair of non-absorbent plastic pants.

At the end of the day, it’s just a matter of knowing what you need right now — absorbency, breathability, discrete sizing, etc. — and finding the diaper that provides it.