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Super absorbers in disposable diapers

sodium polyacrylate crystals: dry

Photo credit: Seligmans Dog

You’re changing your babies diaper and notice that his skin is littered with gelatanious beads. If you use disposable diapers, this scenario is familiar. What are those mysterious gel-like beads? This is sodium polyacrylate, also known as a “super absorber.” Sodium polyacrylate can absorb 400-800 times it weight of water. It is ubiquitous in disposable diapers and allows them to be used for prolonged periods of time. I have been leery of this substance, especially when I find it stuck to my babies skin.

What is sodium polyacrylate? It is a polymer of sodium salts cross- linked with polyacrylic acid. The resulting compound, sodium polyacrylate, is tightly coiled and has a large molecular weight. When it absorbs water, it uncoils and turns into a gelatanious substance. Interestingly, sodium polyacrylate is also commonly used in agriculture.

Research presented at the 15th Biennial Conference of Chemical Education (BCCE-15), states that sodium polyacrylate is considered to be non-toxic. However, inhalation of the dry powder via airborne particles and contact with the eyes can cause adverse reactions.

Research on animal models has shown that respired polyacrylate particles resulted in the appearance of foreign bodies and inflammation in the lungs of hamsters. Parenteral administration of high molecular weight sodium polyacrylate in rats resulted in precipitous hypotension(low blood pressure), hemorrhage, and cardiac arrythmias.

Other studies have looked at the effect of disposable diapers with super absorbers on diaper rash. In one study, cloth diapers, conventional disposable diapers (without super absorbers), and disposable diapers with super absorbers were compared. The disposable diapers with super absorbers( sodium polyacrylate) showed decreased skin wetness, skin pH closer to normal, and decreased degrees of diaper dermatitis when compared to cloth diapers and conventional disposable diapers. Diapers with super absorbers are credited with locking in urine and keeping urine waste separate from feces. This leads to less wetness on the skin surface and better pH control.

According to a pediatric round table discussion, a large number of studies have shown that the gel beads which appear on the skin are safe for skin contact and cause no harm. In greater than 50 independent studies, the super absorbers have not shown to be mutagenic or genotoxic. The super absorbers do not induce DNA damage or affect germ lines. In animal studies, ingested gel beads pass unchanged through the gastrointestinal tract. Studies looking at air quality during diaper changing(one thousand diapers were changed in 8 hours) found that no particles were released.

Sodium polyacrylate was also used in tampons. Because of the super absorbant nature of the sodium polyacrylate, women felt less wetness and discomfort and thus, changed their tampons less frequently. This provided an opportune environment for the growth of bacteria, in particular Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes, which can cause toxic shock syndrome.

What are your options if you want to avoid super absorbers? One choice is cloth diapers. Alternatively, Tushies, is a disposable diaper that does not contain sodium polyacrylate or any other super absorber. Tushies, however, do need to be changed more frequently to avoid diaper rash.


1. BCCE-15

2. PubMed: Journal of Applied Toxicology

3. PubMed; Journal of Applied Toxicology

4. PubMed: Journal of American Academy of Dermatology

5. Contemporary Pediatrics at gDiapers :400 studies link

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