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Disposable diapers cannot cause chemical burns.

November 4, 2019 / Duncan Fisher
Tabloid and internet memes don’t mean they can.

There’s a myth going around – still – that commercially available disposable diapers are chemically burning our babies. None of it’s true.

Here’s why:

A chemical burn is tissue damage caused by proteins unravelling. It’s when cells dissolve, if you like. No ingredient in commercial diapers can do that. (We’ll list them all below.) They can’t do it even mixed with urine or feces. They’re inert. They don’t react with anything. A chemical burn from disposable diapers just can’t happen. Any chemicals that could burn, whatever the tabloids may say, simply aren’t there.

What can happen, and does, is diaper rash. This is an inflammatory reaction, and it looks very much like a burn. It looks so similar on the surface that it’s hard to blame anxious new parents for worrying when they see it. At the cellular level, though, it’s completely different. It’s not a burn. It’s also not dangerous, and it’s easy to treat. Funnily enough, it’s not even caused by the diaper. It’s caused by prolonged contact with urine and feces.

Diaper ingredients these days

Disposable diapers contain a topsheet, sometimes treated with lotion or barrier ointment to soothe your baby’s skin, and a middle section of super-absorbent polymers, well tested for any skin irritation, and a backsheet of microporous polyethylene, which lets water vapor out but keeps fluid in. These layers are made of polymers found frequently in cosmetics and food packaging. Biologically speaking, they are known to be neutral.

There are no dispersible dyes in diapers. All the color designs are in pigments. These are large molecules that don’t absorb water, and don’t cause any irritation. They’re common in textiles, and in toys, too.

Lotions in diapers typically contain aloe, stearyl alcohol, and petrolatum. These are well tested, and long known to help keep skin from irritating.

There are perfumes in some diapers. These too have all been demonstrated to be non-sensitizing, and they only exist in very small amounts, anyway, in the absorbent materials away from your baby’s skin. They certainly don't burn.

And that’s it. That’s all there is in the modern diaper.

Years ago, elemental chlorine was used in part of the manufacturing process. It no longer is. The chlorine itself was not a problem. (There is chlorine in our drinking water, remember.) The problem was the formation of unwanted by-products, like dioxin. That’s all gone now.

There used to be latex in the stretchy leg cuffs and waistbands. To avoid the possibility of developing latex allergy, modern diapers now tend to use spandex instead.

Myth-makers sometimes insist that particular chemicals cause problems not because they’re in diapers, but because they were used in diaper production. (Think for a moment about this logic.) Here are some of them, all falsely accused – none of these are actually in use by manufacturers at all: polyvinyl chloride, bisphenol A, organotins, heavy metals, and phthalates. Saying it again, these are not used in diaper manufacture, by anybody.

What a chemical burn is

A chemical burn is protein denaturation, by protoplasmic poisoning, or oxidation, reduction, or corrosion. Children get chemical burns from strong acids like drain cleaners, or strong alkali solutions like bleach. They're caused by big changes in pH. Diaper ingredients can’t do this. These burns look like redness, peeling, swelling, or blistering. They often itch or hurt.

What diaper rash is

Diaper rash is irritated skin. Urine and fecal matter together activate enzymes that break urea down into ammonia, which changes the local pH, and it’s this that generates an inflammatory response in the skin barrier. Sometimes there’s a secondary infection, once the skin is compromised, to yeast or staphylococcus bacteria that live on the skin. Friction, caused by baby moving around, exacerbates the irritation, too. Diaper rash looks like reddening, sometimes with papules. It stings occasionally, so babies fuss, and alarm their parents.

A word about ‘allergy’

Inert materials never, or almost never, cause hypersensitivity reactions. If your baby does develop one of these (it’s called a contact dermatitis), it probably won’t have much to do with the diaper. Nor will it look like diaper rash (or chemical burn). It looks like well-defined, sometimes symmetrical, reddened areas, sometimes with patchy plaques, and sometimes with little fluid-filled bumps, or ‘vesicles’. It itches. Sometimes it will develop into urticarial welts, or ‘hives’. All of this is treatable. None of this has to do with any sort of chemical burn.

What you can do for your baby’s bottom

If it’s diaper rash, change your baby often. Use thick barrier ointment. Cream that contains zinc oxide and petrolatum is especially good for minimizing exposure to urine and fecal matter.

If it’s diaper rash that won’t go away, or gets worse, you might tell your doctor. If you see a rash that’s painful, or makes it difficult to urinate or stool, or of you see crusting, erosions, or pustules, absolutely do tell your doctor. You may be looking at signs of infection or an underlying medical condition.

But be assured, whatever is happening, that it is not the diaper causing a chemical burn.

Questions about your skin? Ask our dermatologists online for $35.