Known colloquially as the world’s dirtiest crop, conventional cotton has been in the spotlight over the last two decades for its devastating environmental impact, as well as its associated health and social harms for cotton growers, processors, and their communities.
Consumers, worth noting, are paying attention.
The demand for organic cotton has grown massively in the past 5 years. And while organic cotton still represents a drop in the bucket of market share compared to conventional cotton, the demand for organic cotton material is strong enough that even big box retailers now offer organic cotton as a choice.
And that includes choices around baby stuff.
Is Organic Cotton Baby Stuff Better?
Take a look at much of the “baby” internet, and you’ll see many bloggers arguing that organic baby clothes (and bedding) are a must to keep your baby safe from the dangerous toxic chemicals associated with conventional cotton production.
But is it true?
As I write this, I’m wearing a cotton shirt, and am snuggling under a cotton blanket covering my legs and my lap. And if I’m being totally honest: neither my shirt nor my blanket are organic cotton.
Despite knowing that I should buy organic cotton most (or all of) the time for the environment and workers’ health, I’ll admit I still have a fair amount of conventional cotton in my life.
When it comes to my kid, however?
Well…she sleeps on an organic cotton filled mattress (okay – my husband and I sleep on an organic mattress, too), with organic crib sheets, and when she was a baby, I was definitely swayed to buy organic swaddle blankets, etc. more often.
While I get that organic cotton is better for the environment, better for workers, and in some cases better for entire countries, I must admit, I’m still a bit unclear whether it’s better for the end user.
Do I actually need to worry about pesticide residues and other harmful chemicals in baby clothing and bedding?
Or are conventional cotton clothing and bedding just fine for the end user?
Below, I’ve dug into the question: is organic cotton better for babies?
As with many things in the eco friendly and non toxic baby world, the answer is interesting, illuminating, and subject to some interpretation.
Hopefully I give you the info you need to make a decision for yourself.
Key Takeaways: Is Organic Cotton Better for Babies?
- Organic cotton is better for the environment and the health and safety of workers who produce cotton. This is in comparison to conventional or non organic cotton.
- Textile analysis has found pesticide residue from conventional cotton crops on cotton batting, meaning parents should purchase organic versions of products with cotton batting (pillows, mattresses, quilts) if and when possible for their kids and themselves.
- Research has found conventional cotton fabric does not retain pesticide residues the same way cotton batting does. Considering pesticide residue in cotton fabric only, the difference between conventional cotton vs organic baby clothing and crib sheets seems to be negligible.
- However, conventional cotton is often dyed using chemicals and pigments known to harm human health, and conventional cotton textiles dyed in this way have been found to contain traces of a number of heavy metals. Organic baby clothing and crib sheets that use non-toxic, water-based/natural and azo-free dyes do seem to be a healthier choice in this regard.
Conventional Cotton and Its Discontents
Despite being everywhere, there are a lot of problems with conventional cotton.
Most of us have heard that before, but it’s hard to wrap your head around how bad cotton can be, without really digging into it.
The Environmental Justice Foundation has laid out the environmental and social cost against conventional cotton in detail in their report, The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton. And it’s not pretty.
The TLDR of it is conventional cotton (and the toxic pesticides used to grow it) is bad for the earth, for our water supply, and for local human and animal populations, and is often grown in politically complicated places.
Indeed, the downsides of cotton are well-researched and numerous. In so many ways, organic cotton is a better choice.
But is it actually better for the end user? A baby with sensitive skin who is wearing the clothing, or an infant who’s snuggling up to their cotton baby blanket, which is right up against their sensitivity baby skin?
Harsh Chemicals in Raw Cotton vs Finished Cotton: The Polish Study
There’s no doubt conventional cotton is bad for workers involved in the cotton industry, nearby communities, and in some cases, entire countries of people.
But do the chemicals used in cotton production actually make it into cotton clothing, crib sheets, and other products? And in enough levels to cause health concerns for your baby, or make organic cotton better for your baby when it comes to baby clothes and crib sheets?
In 2004, researchers at the Technical University of Lodz, Poland, published an eye-opening study measuring heavy metal, pesticide, and pentachlorophenol (PCP) levels in raw cotton from different geographic sources, as well as in different finished cotton items purchased in the Polish market, comparing levels to the Oeko-Tex Standard 100.
Researchers found heavy metals in all samples of raw cotton, and traces of pesticides in raw cotton from some growing regions – including traces of prohibited pesticides – but not others.
Raw cotton sourced from central Asia, in particular, was most problematic from a pesticide point-of-view:
“A considerable excess of the permissible level according to the established criteria was stated for aldrin, 4,4’-DDT, dieldrin, endrin (Uzbek cotton only), γ, β-HCH (Kazakh cotton only) and parathion….The presence of 4,4’- DDT was stated in 25% of samples [from all regions], and of γ-HCH in 15%. The usage of both of these is forbidden.”
No PCP was found in any of the raw samples.
Tests continued throughout the manufacturing journey, from raw cotton to finished products.
In one finished product studied (a cotton “bed cloth”), researchers found no traces of pesticides or PCP in the bed cloth (although it’s unclear if the raw cotton used for this particular product contained pesticides or not – a pretty big flaw in understanding risk, in my opinion), but there were traces of heavy metals.
Not surprisingly, the content of some heavy metals increased throughout the manufacturing process, in particular from dyeing and coloring, indicating it’s not only the cotton that consumers need to consider, but also the use of toxic dyes in the textile industry.
Additional German Studies
The Polish study – which found no pesticides in the finished cotton bed cloth – seems to track with additional evidence out of Germany that conventional cotton fabric is probably okay for babies, at least from a pesticide point of view.
According to Debra Lynn Dadd’s conversation with Home Environmental Consultant and Certified Bau-Biologist, Mary Cordaro,
“German fabric tests on conventional cotton fabric have shown that, unlike cotton batting, pesticides are not usually present in cotton fabric. The fabric milling and production process removes the pesticides.”
It’s Up to Parents to Decide Whether to Invest in Organic Cotton Baby Clothing and Bedding
It’s worth noting, the researchers in the Polish study concluded the pesticide content found in the raw cotton batting – in aggregate – weren’t in levels high enough to harm human health. They pointed out the heavy metals found in the finished products were from the dyeing and coloring process, and were likely to be of higher concern.
For parents, this leaves it up to personal choice.
Research suggests the harmful chemicals used in non-organic cotton production aren’t actually a huge problem in terms of dermal absorption.
This means you have to decide yourself whether you’re willing to accept some levels of heavy metals and pesticide residue in your baby’s clothing and bedding, or not.
Worth noting, this information applies to conventional cotton fabric, which is contrasted with conventional cotton batting. Cotton batting was shownto have pesticide residue in the Polish study.
Dadd sums it up well, I think:
“I’m not concerned about health effects from pesticide residues in cotton fabrics (though they are present in cotton batting, so it would be important to get organic cotton in a mattress or pillows).”
It’s also worth pointing out that conventional vs organic cotton is really only part of a parent’s decision.
We also need to consider the dyes and pigments we’re willing to buy, since dyes are a significant source of toxic chemicals in finished textiles.
Benefits of Organic Cotton for Babies
There’s a lot of fear mongering out there about conventional vs organic cotton. Some of it is justified, and some of it appears not to be.
However, I think there are some legitimate benefits of organic cotton for babies, which I’ve listed below.
It Could be a Good Choice for Babies with Eczema and Sensitive Skin
Unlike conventional cotton, which can be scratchy and coarse to the touch, organic cotton tends to be quite soft to the touch. This is due to their longer fibers as compared to conventional cotton.
The softness of organic cotton seems to give babies with sensitive skin, irritations, and eczema some relief, as is evidenced by this snippet from a review of Naturepedic organic cotton crib sheets:
My son has very sensitive skin…His issues with eczema and itching and reactions to fabrics and detergents left me looking for higher quality, organic options. I was able to get the Organic Cotton Sateen Crib sheets and the difference between them and his “cutesy” big box store sheets is incredible. These just feel amazing- so soft and well made. They have yet to pill or show wear when washed and my son loves them. He snuggles and rubs and they don’t irritate him at all. I also feel like they are more breathable than his other sheets.
It’s More Likely to Use Non Toxic Dyes
This isn’t a slam dunk, but organic cotton clothing and sheets typically use non toxic dyes to color and print them, including azo-free dyes, and natural or water based dyes.
If you remember from the Polish study, discussed above, the dying process added heavy metals to the final bed cloth, meaning organic cotton alone isn’t enough to ensure your baby’s clothes or bed sheets are non toxic.
Note, this isn’t covered by USDA use of the term organic, so it’s worth looking specifically at the types of dyes used before adding to cart.
You can also look to third party certifications (i.e. MADE SAFE, GOTS certified organic cotton, Oeko-Tex Standard 100).
Organic Cotton Legitimately Lasts Longer, and Stands Up Better to Multiple Washes Compared to the Normal Stuff
Fewer chemicals used during the growing, harvesting and processing cycle means the natural fibers are longer and stronger in organic cotton vs conventional.
That means your organic cotton baby clothes or crib sheets will last longer, through multiple washes than conventional.
It Leaves Your Baby With a Better World
Organic cotton is unequivocally better when it comes to environmental concerns, and shifting consumer demand means more and more companies, retailers, and growers are implementing organic cotton growing practices.
Leaving your baby with a less polluted world seems like a great reason to buy organic, when you can, and as your budget allows.
Personally, I’ve found great organic baby clothing and crib sheets on the used market where I live, which makes it more affordable still.
Personally, I buy organic for my kiddo when and where I can, and in areas where I think it makes the most difference. I most certainly advocate for buying organic mattresses, pillows, duvets and quilts, etc., when cotton batting is used (vs cotton fabric).
I also think there’s something to be said for buying organic baby clothes for the youngest babies.
Beyond that, however, I look at it more as an environmental issue than a health issue for my kids, when looking at the fabric choice alone.
Of course, when I take into consideration dyes and pigments used, organic does tend to come out on top, especially when third party certifications such as MADE SAFE, GOTS, and Oeko-Tex are stacked on top!