The Hidden Costs of Disposable Baby Wipes: Why Reusable Might Be the Way to Go
Updated: Nov 9
Of course, you want the best for your child and you want to leave the world as green as possible for future generations. You would like to use cloth diapers, but you think it is a big step and an even bigger investment. Does this sound familiar to you? Perhaps starting with reusable wipes is a good idea. This way you also contribute to a better environment and it is a great first step towards the use of cloth diapers. I started like that and have slowly expanded with more and more cloth diapers.
Using disposable wipes has become so common that we don't even realize that using these wipes is not good for the environment at all and some wipes are bad for a baby's delicate skin. Here I compare both disposable and reusable wipes so you can decide on what is best for you.
What are baby wipes made of?
A baby wipe consists of 2 parts, the wipe, and a liquid. The wipes are often made from wood pulp, polypropylene, polyester, or a combination of these 3. The precise amount of each of these 3 materials allows the different brands to create wipes that vary in thickness, absorbency, and softness. These last 2 materials (polypropylene and polyester) are a type of plastic that ensures that the wipe does not tear during use and also ensures that the wipes are not compostable and cannot be flushed down the toilet.
Normal toilet paper falls apart when it comes into contact with water. Disposable wipes do not disintegrate in water which can cause them to clog drains. So, if you do want to use disposable wipes, at least throw them in the trash and don't flush them down the toilet.
In addition to the fact that the wipes themselves often contain plastic, the packaging of the wipes also contains plastic. Since the wipes contain a liquid, waterproof packaging is necessary. As you will read below, on average you need about 150 packs of disposable wipes in the first year with a baby.
This amount of packaging can easily be avoided if you choose reusables.
What's in Disposable Wipes
What exactly is used for disposable wipes differs per brand, of course. Fortunately, the big brands realize that we as consumers prefer to use as few chemicals as possible from our baby's skin and new disposable wipes are being developed that are increasingly better for baby's skin.
In general, the fewer ingredients there are in the wipes, the smaller the chance that a skin rash will develop. Unfortunately, this often goes hand in hand with the price of the wipes. Sadly, fewer ingredients mean that you have to pay more for it. The alternative I have for my reusable wipes are water wipes (if my little one is going to stay with grandma and grandpa, I don't want to burden them with reusables). In addition to water, these contain only a natural preservative.
It is often the preservatives that cause a skin reaction. Preservatives are necessary for products containing water to prevent mold. Only a very small amount is needed and is often at the very end of the ingredients list.
Ingredients to watch out for (and avoid) when choosing the most suitable wipe: alcohol, perfume, phenoxyethanol (preservative), and parabens. These are just some of the substances and it is also possible that you (your hands) or your baby's skin may react to a substance considered safe under cosmetic law.
These substances that should be avoided are unfortunately often present in wipes and even if they are not on the package, that does not mean that the substance is not in it. A while back, the French Consumers' Association (UFC Que Choisir) did a study on baby wipes. This found that 32 of the 34 wipes they examined contained harmful substances. The wipes contain perfume, parabens and phenoxethanol. Substances that I already mentioned above are better to avoid.
In another French study that followed, they even found that several substances (phenoxyethanol, ethylparaben, methylparaben, phthalates dibutyl phthalate and di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate) that are banned under European law in cosmetic products for children under the age of 3 (source Celeiro et al., 2015). Some of these substances were not listed on the packaging. These substances could disrupt the hormone balance and even affect the nervous system. This is of course not allowed, but this shows that we must be careful when using these wipes and keep a close eye on the skin of our precious baby.
Solution for Reusable Baby Wipes
Fortunately, with reusable wipes, you do not suffer from all these possible side effects of the chemicals used. Some make their own solution for using wipes but I've always only used them with water.
The recipe that a friend of mine uses for a container of 20-25 wipes is very simple:
1 cup of water
A spoonful of oil (coconut oil, almond oil, or another oil of your choice)
A drop of liquid soap (to mix the oil with water)
A few drops of vitamin E oil (this acts as a preservative)
If you want you can add a drop of essential oil to this for a nice smell.
How Many Reusable Wipes do I need?
If you compare disposable wipes with reusable wipes, you use a lot more disposable wipes. Where you wipe 1 time with a disposable cloth, I can wipe 3 times with a reusable cloth.
Wipe once —> fold the cloth in half —> wipe again —> fold in half again —> wipe —> cloth in the laundry bag.
This will not be so easy with a disposable wipe, in short, you need more per diaper change.
For a pee diaper, you need 1 to 2 wipes at a time but a poo diaper can make sure you use up to 10 disposable wipes at a time (and sometimes even more with explosions) but let use 8 wipes for a poo diaper (for this calculation) to make it don't make it over the top.
During the first 6 months, a baby has an average of 1-2 poop diapers a day and 6-7 wet diapers. This results in. 8x1 + 2x6 = 20 wipes per day resulting in 140 wipes per week. In the first 6 months (= 26 weeks) you use 140x26 = 3640 wipes. A pack of wipes contains between 50 and 75 wipes. For this example, there are 60 wipes in a pack. So in half a year, you need 3640/60= 60 packages.
A pack of wipes costs about €2 (although this can be cheaper if you buy in bulk) which equates to €120 in disposable wipes in the first half-year.
The costs for wipes increases after 6 months because you will be using the wipes for more than just diaper changes. Your child will start to eat and crawl, so the wipes will also be used for faces and hands. As a result, the number of wipes you use per day can reach up to 30.
The costs will, of course, be a lot higher in the next 6 months. Per week these are 30x7=210 wipes and in six months these are 210x26=5460 disposable wipes. This equates to approximately 90 packs of wipes (5460/60 wipes per pack). The costs for this are 90x2= €182,-
In the first year of your baby, you will spend on average €180+€120=€300 on wipes.
You need fewer reusable wipes and they will of course last longer because you use them more often. For a pee diaper, I use 1 cloth and for a poo diaper, I use 3 - 4. This equates to 11 - 12 reusable wipes per day. I wash all my nappies every 3-4 days so the minimum number of wipes I need is 12 x 4 = 48 reusable wipes.
The price of these wipes varies, but on average, cotton wipes cost about €10 for 10 wipes (organic bamboo wipes are of course a lot more expensive). I wanted to make sure I was never without so I ended up buying 70 wipes. This cost me €70. I also needed containers for both clean and dirty wipes. These were €5 each and I wanted a set with the changing table downstairs and upstairs. These 4 trays cost me €20. I also wanted extra laundry bags which also cost about €10. All in all, everything for reusable wipes cost me €100.
Let's not forget washing. Even if I wash all my wipes at once, they will never fill a washing machine completely, so I always washed them along with the diapers. I wash all my cloth diapers and wipes about 2 times a week. The costs for running laundry and detergent are around € 1,- per use. On an annual basis, this is €1,- x 2 (washing per week) x 52 (weeks per year) = 104,-
For washing both wipes and diapers.
In short, although reusable baby wipes are a significant investment in one go, they are certainly the right financial choice in the long run. Especially when you consider that I still use my reusable wipes to this day (my daughter is now over 4). No longer for buttocks, but for everything else for which one normally takes a wipe. Another nice side effect is that the amount of waste I create is a lot less thanks to reusable wipes. Not only because of the wipes themselves, but also because I don't have to buy so many packages.