Total Chlorine Free (TCF) vs Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) Diapers: Here’s What You Need to Know

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Today, we’re talking about disposable diapers. Specifically, I want to address the question, “Are total chlorine-free (TCF) diapers that much safer and less toxic than elemental chlorine-free diapers (ECF)?”

If you ask Google, you’ll see every single holistic health blog and low tox living website emphatically saying YES. They are better. They are safer. They are cleaner. You should prioritize them and spend the extra money to ensure your diaper is total chlorine-free. Why? Because of a chemical byproduct called dioxins.

I actually have a different take on this issue, and while this may very well go down as the most unpopular opinion I’ve ever had, I think this topic needs a little dose of perspective. There is a lot of fear around this topic when I hear moms trying to do their very best to choose the right diapers for their babies. I want to dispel that fear and stick to the facts.

So, for all the moms out there wondering and worrying about this topic, this one’s for you.

Pulp in Diapers

When moms look at my Toxin-Free Shopping Guide, they ask, “Why would you recommend diapers that are elemental chlorine-free? I thought they were bad.” The answer I give them is that there are so many parts of a diaper to be concerned about.. but whether a diaper is TCF or EFC? You might be surprised to find that it isn’t one of the things that matters a whole lot when deciding which diapers are the cleanest.

Let’s look at why…

Why is there this pulp in baby diapers to begin with? A small amount of wood pulp is used in baby diapers to make it absorbable. Everyone thinks that diaper pulp is bleached to make it white, but it actually goes through a bleaching process to soften it and make it more absorbable. (PS.. cotton cloth diapers, even organic ones, go through this process as well.)

Back before the 1990s, the bleaching was done using elemental chlorine gas and that bleaching process would leave behind a trace amount of pollutants called dioxins. Pulp isn’t just used to make diapers, it is also used to make paper. The pulp bleaching industry worldwide became a huge source of environmental pollution, including dioxins.

Back in the 1990s, the United States, Canada, and Europe decided to do something about this. They started regulating the wood pulp manufacturing process, and the goal was to eliminate any dioxin pollution. There are three ways that the pulp is made today. One is elemental chlorine-free, which means it’s bleached with chlorine dioxide instead of elemental chlorine. There is elemental chlorine-free enhanced, which means it goes through a separate heating step after the ECF process. The last one is total chlorine-free, which means it’s bleached using hydrogen peroxide, oxygen or ozone.

To be very clear.. chlorine dioxide itself doesn’t create dioxins. Is there a chance that at some manufacturing plants out there that there are contamination and process issues that could potentially create a trace amount of dioxins? Yes. That potential exists and has been documented. But, that same risk also comes from the chemicals used at TCF pulp manufacturing plants.

The question is if that is a health concern for your baby when it comes to diapers. But, Total Chlorine Free diapers aren’t free of chemicals and toxins, either.


Dioxins are what we call persistent organic pollutants. It means they take a long time to break down once they’re in the environment and your body. They’re highly toxic. They can cause:

  • Cancer

  • Reproductive and developmental problems

  • Damage to your immune system

  • Hormone disruptors

Other than bleach, dioxins are created mostly come from industrial activities. Specifically, things like:

  • The creation of herbicides and pesticides

  • Burning fuels like wood, coal, and oil

  • Volcano eruptions

All those sources get into our soil and water. Animals eat it and it accumulates in the fat of animals and fish. Dioxins are everywhere at very low levels in our environment and 90% of human exposure to dioxins is through the intake of animal fats, meat, dairy products, fish, shellfish, and drinking water.

If you want to decrease not just your exposure but your baby’s exposure to dioxin, buy good quality meats not coming from factory farms. And invest in a good quality drinking water filter for your tap water.

Diapers + Dioxins

Diapers bleached with elemental chlorine (which we don’t do anymore) produce trace levels of dioxins and it’s a good thing that they are long gone. Those that are elemental chlorine-free are pretty darn close to zero unless they come from a factory where there happens to be some chlorine contamination in the process.

There could be tiny trace amounts, so what is the health risk? There was a peer-reviewed study published that looked at what that possible low-level contamination could be and compared it to the amount of exposure in our food supply. The study concluded that any exposure to any possible amounts that could be found on a diaper was somewhere between 30,000 – 2.2 million times lower than the average dietary exposure. In other words, we are exposed to tens of thousands to not millions of times more dioxins from our food supply and water supply than the diapers that you could put on your baby. In fact, babies are exposed to, an average, 400 times more dioxins in breast milk that from diaper exposure.

I’m not saying that zero is not better. If you are somebody who has the budget and can afford a Total Chlorine Free Diaper, then that is awesome. But for those who can’t, the amount of dioxins that could “maybe” be found in a diaper is virtually zero. I don’t believe elemental chlorine-free diapers aren’t safe. I don’t think that’s fair to make moms feel that way because it’s not true. The science doesn’t support it.

The Environmental Impact

Even if the risk of dioxins in diapers was nearly zero, what if there was a huge environmental cost? We know that the waste products from total chlorine-free pulp could potentially be cleaner than the ones that come from elemental chlorine-free pulp, but only if it were a 1 to 1 comparison, which it’s not. It takes a significantly greater amount of raw pulp product, water, energy and chemicals to produce the same amount of a finished product when you’re using a total chlorine-free processes.

In fact, when the EPA began regulating the pulp bleaching industry with formal regulations in 1998, it clearly stated that it opted to require a 100% replacement to to the EFC process because the TCF process was impossible to justify. Their models showed that requiring all plants to switch to TFC would result in a reduction of only 1 gram of dioxin exposure compared to EFC, but would cost the pulp industry over a billion dollars to do so. It’s the consumer that would pay in much higher costs.

While the environmental community thought that moving to a total chlorine-free process would reduce the risk of dioxins in any of the water, clean up the area, and result in less waste, reports have found that to not be true in real world scenarios.

This report concluded that the theoretical benefits of total chlorine-free versus elemental chlorine-free bleaching have not been realized in the real world. There isn’t an appreciable difference between the two. The report states that “The overall conclusion from the review of recent studies of environmental impact of bleached kraft mill effluents confirms that neither ECF nor TCF bleaching gives clear environmental advantages.”

Because the the TCF process is so expensive and requires so much more product to produce, there are not very many suppliers and the supply chain has been unable to keep up with demand. Companies like Honest have stopped using TCF pulp for this reason and has moved to ECF.

I love the environment as much as anyone. I never want to sit here and tell you to do something harmful to the environment. But on this particular issue, I don’t think the science supports what is being claimed. In my opinion, both TCF and ECF are safe options for your baby and are equal when it comes to environmental impact.

Now.. there are other things used in the manufacturing process of diapers that I am concerned about and those are:

  • Plastic

  • Petroleum

  • Artificial Fragrances

  • Phthalates

  • Dyes

  • Lotions

When I am reviewing the safety of a diaper, I care the most about the material that is touching your baby’s skin, which is the top sheet. You can find my top diaper picks on my toxin-free shopping guide. While you’re going to find a lot of fantastic, clean, and mostly nontoxic options, just know that you are never going to find the “perfect” diaper. I do specifically look for them to be OEKO-TEX certified. It doesn’t mean there’s no chemicals in them, but it means there’s a lot less.

If you are concerned about chemicals and toxins around your baby, here are three simple things you can do to make a significant difference.

  1. Filter your water with a high-quality and NSF-certified water filter. Explore my favorites here. If you’re drinking clean water and breastfeeding your baby, or using clean filtered water and giving your baby a clean, organic, and safe formula, that will dramatically reduce the amount of toxins that they’re exposed to.

  2. Throw away any artificial fragrance. I have a safe fragrance section on my shopping guide. Artificial fragrances are full of hormone disruptors that are bad for adults and significantly impact your child.

  3. Clean up your cleaning supplies. The toxins found in the things you’re cleaning your house with are polluting the indoor air quality of your home. Your baby is breathing it all day long.

I know people will read this and think I’ve lost my mind, but I believe in being realistic and having perspective. If you are out there using a diaper that is elemental chlorine-free, and you love it, and it’s what you can afford, I want you to give yourself space to worry about other things, like cuddling that cute baby of yours.

Related Episodes

Episode 8: Toxin Free(ish) : How to Prioritize What Matters Most

Episode 28: Detox Your Life on a Budget: The Power of Toxin-Free Living

Episode 46: The Link Between Fragrance & Infertility: Cracking the Fragrance Code, Part 3

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