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Is Hemp or Bamboo or Cotton More Absorbent?

Which is more absorbent, hemp or bamboo? When researching cloth diapers, many parents are confused by the difference between hemp, bamboo and cotton cloth diapers. There are a lot of different opinions, and I am sure some will disagree with my assessment - but after 7 years of selling cloth diapers, and enormous amount of research, and over 3 years of using them on my daughter, I think it works out like this.

Natural Fibers vs. Synthetic Fibers

It may seem like a very clear picture that natural fibers are always better than synthetics, but there are many factors that cloud this issue. First, I am defining synthetics as fabrics like polyester, microfiber and other fabrics born in a laboratory. Natural fibers are those that came from a plant source - although they have been processed into fabric. Second, there is not a lot of research on this topic, though there are many opinions. One article in the New York Times sheds some light on whether polyester might actually be better for the environment than we once thought.

This handy-dandy little chart shows some of the differences. (As with everything on this site, the following chart is copyright One Lucky Mama. Please link, but don't copy!)

Fiber

Production

Pros

Cons

Cotton

Conventional cotton takes a lot of chemicals to grow. Organic cotton is grown without chemicals. Either type of cotton may be processed with chemicals, depending on the type of organic certification.  The main concern with conventional cotton is the environment, the fiber itself is safe to use and wear. Easy to use. Less likely to have buildup issues. Often available in inexpensive forms such as prefolds and flats. Still very absorbent. Organic cotton reduces the environmental impact. Less absorbent than the other two fibers. May take a long time to dry. Conventionally-grown cotton is one of the main uses for pesticides and fertilizers. Biodegradable if properly disposed of.

Bamboo

Grows quickly and does not need chemicals to grow. Is processed with some harsh chemicals such as lye (lye is also used for processing some foods, making soap, etc.). Responsible factories capture the excess and reuse it, keeping the factories fairly environmentally-responsible. To be used as fabric, bamboo fibers must be broken down and turned into rayon, which is a synthetic fiber made from natural cellulose. Very absorbent, great for heavy wetters or overnight. Less likely to retain odors than hemp. May or may not actually be antibacterial. While a few studies have shown that some bamboo fabrics retain their antimicrobial properties after processing, the FTC has ruled that it is illegal for any company to claim that bamboo is antibacterial without having their own studies to prove it. May wear out faster than cotton, especially if washed with borax-heavy detergents. Usually more expensive than cotton. Biodegradable if properly disposed of. Usually imported.

Hemp

Grows quickly and does not need chemicals to grow. May be either moderately processed to make a soft fabric from the strong hemp fibers, or very processed into a softer fabric.  US law does not allow hemp to be grown here - since some people mistake it for it's cousin, marijuana. Hemp does not contain any drug-compounds.  Super absorbent. Usually the best choice for uber-heavy wetters at night. Naturally somewhat antimicrobial. Very trim for it's absorbent qualities, so makes you can have multiple layers without getting too bulky. May take longer to wash and dry. Can wear out faster in borax-heavy detergents or very hard water. Crunchy when line-dried. Biodegradable if properly disposed of. Always imported fiber, but may be processed in the US.

Synthetics

Usually made from petroleum products, however there are some who argue that a good synthetic can actually be better for the environment due to their long use and easy care. Lightweight. Longlasting. More likely to last through multiple children than hemp or bamboo. Can be very absorbent. Usually dries faster than natural fibers so it saves on utilities. Most often still soft when line dried. Washes easily, but may get more buildup if there is a problem with your wash routine. More prone to repelling or buildup from rash creams or bad detergents. Made from petroleum. Not biodegradable. Microfiber may bond to odors or rash creams.

 

Hemp Cloth Diapers

Hemp is the most absorbent but it is also the most likely to get stiff and in some cases it may hang onto odors more than bamboo or cotton. IMO natural hemp lasts longer than overly processed hemp. More natural hemp is unbleached so it has a cream color and is not super soft. If the hemp is white and silky, it is probably hemp rayon and no longer a truly natural fiber.

Hemp does not require pesticides or fertilizers to grow, and it is good for the soil it grows in. It is most often mixed with organic cotton for stability and softness.

Bamboo Cloth Diapers

Bamboo is super absorbent and stays the softest after many washes. Bamboo comes in many forms - velour, jersey, fleece, flannel, etc. Bamboo velour wears out a bit faster than bamboo fleece. Fleece is more absorbent than velour, but velour is also very absorbent. In the long run, bamboo is probably not a natural fiber but it is so wonderful that I love it anyway. Certainly more natural than polyester fabrics.

Cotton Cloth Diapers

Cotton is a workhorse fabric. It is pretty absorbent, though not as much as hemp or bamboo. It rarely holds onto odors, is easy to keep clean, does not need stripping as often as synthetics, and has held up better in our hard water than any other natural fiber.

With any of these fabrics, they will wear out faster if you use a detergent that has a lot of borax in it. Bamboo and hemp can almost dissolve away with regular use of borax-detergents - especially in hard water.