Diapers are often one of the most popular gifts for new parents at baby showers and parents can find themselves with too many of a certain size that they aren’t able to use. While donating them is a solid option, I always wondered whether or not diapers expire in case they could be used with a second child.
Baby diapers do not expire by any reasonable definition of the word and if they are cared for properly they should stay safe and effective for many years. Over time, however, some parts of the diaper can degrade in performance, become discolored, or otherwise lose effectiveness, especially under extreme conditions.
Although no diapers survived the carnage of my twin girls, we are thinking that we’ll end up having some extra diapers around as my single son grows up and out of the various sizes. Using the following tips, we’ll be able to keep these diapers fresh for a long time!
Diapers can ‘expire’ if enough parts of them fail or lose effectiveness
Under ideal conditions, it’s unlikely that any part of a diaper will degrade to the point that you won’t be able to use them.
Ideally, you will store any unopened diapers in a cool, dry place that is out of direct sunlight. If you have packages of diapers that have already been opened and you don’t expect to use them for a long time you should try to reseal them in another container suitable for long-term storage. If you have access to a vacuum sealer and bags, that would be perfect!
Although baby diapers are a personal care item, they are made of materials that don’t break down easily over time. The standard disposable diaper is made from cotton, plastic, elastic, glue, and some kind of absorbent material such as a polyacrylate.
While cotton will break down relatively quickly in a composting bin or landfill environment, the rest of the materials are synthetic or chemical-based and will only become less effective over time, not dangerous. Something like plastic, especially, is unlikely to break down at all will sit in a landfill for as long as 1,000 years before decomposing naturally.
The biggest potential causes for concern when it comes to diapers expiring are the elastics and glue holding the diaper together as well as the absorbent material responsible for keeping all of the baby’s fluids in check until the diaper can be changed.
If a diaper is stored outside of ideal conditions, problems can start to pop up quickly. Let’s take a look at three of the most common issues.
Baby diapers will become less absorbent in moist environments
Diapers literally prove their worth by how quickly they can absorb fluids and the total amount of volume they can hold before they start leaking. All it takes is a few extra ounces of liquid and a wet diaper turns into laundry day with a soaked onesie, pants, and shirt. Not to mention the car seat, crib, or other furniture that your baby happens to be sitting on when they started to leak.
Most diapers these days use a Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP) for the middle layer of their diapers because of their insane ability to absorb and lock in moisture. Some of these polymers can hold up to 300 times their weight in water while ballooning up to a gelatin-like substance. Because all of the liquid stays inside the SAP, the inner and outer layers of the diaper stay mostly dry. This dryness on the inside of the diaper keeps a baby’s skin drier and less prone to diaper rash and other irritation that often results from prolonged exposure to urine.
All of this absorbency means that diapers will literally pull water into them from the air around them over time.
You can imagine that leaving an open package of diapers lying around would cause the material inside to slowly (very slowly, admittedly) fill up with moisture and then have less material to work with when it comes time to soak up some pee. Obviously, this effect will be worse in certain humid outdoor environments, but it could also be a problem in the bathroom where a shower is constantly producing steam in the room.
Diapers can come apart in extreme temperatures
While extreme temperatures probably won’t do much to the cotton or SAP materials in a diaper, it can wreak havoc on the plastic, elastic, and glue components. In the worst case, elastics and glues will simply melt.
You are likely to find some kind of glue or adhesive on the sticky fasteners of most traditional diaper brands. Once unfolded, they will stick onto the outer material of the diaper and make a pretty strong bond quickly. If the glue melts, it will mean less adhesive where it needs to be. If the glue simply dries out, then it won’t stick immediately to the outside material. In most cases, a dab of water will probably help moisten things back up to the point where they can be used again, but it’s not very convenient.
Many pull-up style diapers will use elastic bands in lieu of sticky fasteners to make them look more like an older kids’ underwear style. If the elastic band melts, it can cause the pull-ups to stay loose and fall off of the baby when she moves around and plays. If the diaper doesn’t stay on, it’s useless.
Some diapers might also use glue or adhesive to keep the layers of their diapers together. In this case, the entire diaper could come apart once the glue breaks down in the heat.
You also have to worry about huge swings in temperature which can be damaging to everything, but especially plastics. As the plastic expands and contracts when the temperature moves back and forth from hot to cold, it can become brittle over time and start to crack. This will be most evident in the outer layers of the diaper that use plastics to make it waterproof.
Discoloration can occur over time
If you have ever left something like patio furniture or paper outside in the sun for long periods you’ve probably noticed that colors will start to fade and whites become yellowed due to the powerful UV rays of the sun. This, in addition to oxidation, is why many materials change color over time and show their age.
Diapers include plastics, cotton, wood pulp, and other materials that can all be affected by these natural processes and cause them to yellow over time. If the extra sunlight is coupled with high temperatures or moisture from outside, then there might be other issues with the glue, elastic, or other components as well.
While a yellow diaper will likely work just fine, it will point out that it hasn’t been stored in the best conditions so there could be other issues going on underneath the surface.
So, do diapers expire?
As you can see, there are a lot of reasons why diapers could lose effectiveness over time and be unsuitable for use on your baby, but they won’t really ever expire in the strictest sense of the word. If cared for properly, you can prevent the majority of these issues from happening in the first place and I don’t think there is any reason why a package of diapers couldn’t last years and years, especially if it is unopened.
If you are worried about using an old diaper, just be sure to inspect it carefully for signs of wear that could cause problems. In most cases, even if it’s not 100% fresh it will still do a good job and you probably won’t notice any drop in performance.
When it comes to the life of a diaper, sadly it only has to last long enough to be used by a baby and even old diapers will be able to fulfill this role!
What about baby wipes? I tackled this question in a recent blog post about whether or not baby wipes expire. As it turns out, it might not matter!