Is Cornstarch Safe for Diaper Rash (and Cloth Diapers)?


With all the controversy surrounding baby powder over the past few years, it’s no wonder that it’s hard to know if other powders, like cornstarch, are good for your baby or not.

To help put an end to the mystery, I took a deep look into whether or not cornstarch powder is safe to use for diaper rashes in cloth diapers. Confirming my own experience using cornstarch on my own baby in cloth diapers, I found that yes, it is safe to put cornstarch on your baby and it is also safe to use cornstarch with cloth diapers.  

The Problem with Baby Powder

It’s pretty well known that baby powder is not good for babies. The big problem with baby powder is the ingredient talc.

The recent controversy, and lost court battles, by Johnson and Johnson has shed light on the topic. Johnson and Johnson has been accused of hiding evidence of possible asbestos in it’s talc since the early 1970’s. You can read about the court cases and cover-up in detail in this article by the New York Times.

The court cases it describes involve asbestos-related health problems like cancer of the lungs, voice box and ovaries, as well as mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer linked to asbestos, which develops in the thin layer of tissue that covers many internal organs (known as the mesothelium). The most common area affected is the lining of the lungs and chest wall [source].

Even talc without asbestos is not without its hazards.

In its most extreme form, talc can cause the rare condition known as talcosis. While this is a very serious condition, it is rare and often only a result of extreme misuse, like snorting talc or using drugs with talc in them [source].

With normal use, the danger is that some particles can be inhaled and travel deep into the lungs. I’ll touch on why this is such a problem in the next section where I compare talc particles to cornstarch particles, but for now suffice it to say that you want to avoid you or your baby inhaling talc.

Why Cornstarch is Better than Talc

There are a number of differences between cornstarch and talcum baby powder, including:

Safer origins.

Talc is a clay mineral, often found in deposits near asbestos; Cornstarch (also called corn flour) is made from corn kernels and is an ingredient in many food items.

Larger particle size.

Cornstarch contains larger particles than talc and therefore is considered safer.
As the World Health Organization explains,

“Whether or not an airborne particle is inhaled depends on its aerodynamic diameter, the velocity of the surrounding air, and the persons’ breathing rate. How particles then proceed through the respiratory tract to the different regions of the lungs, and where they are likely to deposit, depend on the particle aerodynamic diameter, the airway dimensions and the breathing pattern…. When a relatively large particle (say 30 µm) is inhaled, it is usually deposited in the nose or upper airways. Finer particles may reach the gas-exchange region in the depths of the lungs, where removal mechanisms are less efficient. Certain substances, if deposited in this region, can cause serious disease, for example, free crystalline silica dust can cause silicosis. The smaller the aerodynamic diameter, the greater the probability that a particle will penetrate deep into the respiratory tract.”

World Health Organization

The particle size of talc is 2.4 to 3.1 µm in the United States [source], whereas cornstarch has an average diameter of about 15 µm [source].

Special note: According to ScienceDirect.com, the particle size of the talc used in the United States is significantly smaller than the French talc that is used in Europe (10th percentile diameter 2.4 to 3.1 µm in the United States versus 10.5 µm for French talc).

This is a big difference in particle size, making cornstarch less likely to travel deep into the respiratory tract.

Is Cornstarch Good For Rashes?

One thing cornstarch has in common with talc, it significantly reduces how many diaper rashes baby will experience as well as how bad any rashes will be.

There are five reasons cornstarch is so awesome for rashes, let’s take a look at each one:

  1. Creates a barrier.
    Cornstarch is not actually soluble in water (or with an acid like vinegar, which is more acidic than urine), so it creates a nice barrier between the skin and the diaper after baby wets, protecting the delicate skin from exposure to urine.
  2. pH neutral.
    Cornstarch is ph neutral [source], so it’s very gentle on the skin.
  3. Reduces friction.
    Cornstarch has a silky, fine texture that naturally reduces friction between the skin and the surface of the diaper in the same way as talc baby powder.
  4. Drying.
    Though it’s not water soluble, cornstarch will “suspend” itself with water, so when put on baby’s skin, it will both dry the skin, which is great for diaper rash, and create a smooth barrier around it at the same time. Rubbing some into your own skin (after a shower, or washing your hands) is the best way to experience and understand this strange and opposite effects.
  5. Natural.
    While it still undergoes some processing, I think it’s worth noting that corn flour is a well known pantry staple on the same level as coconut oil and vinegar. As most moms will agree, there’s something to be said for using pantry-safe items over commercially mixed and packaged lotions and balms no matter how much green ink the packaging uses.

Combining these characteristics, cornstarch stacks up to be both a gentle and natural way to add a barrier to baby’s skin keeping wetness away and reducing friction, just like many commercial barrier creams promise to do. This makes it very good at calming moisture-related diaper rashes , and preventing new ones from happening.  

Will Cornstarch Flare Up A Diaper Rash Caused By Yeast?

A lot of resources online claim that cornstarch will feed yeast and make the infection worse. This seems logical since it’s a simple starch. However, according to a 1984 study by JJ.Leyden, “The growth of Candida albicans experimentally inoculated onto the skin of human volunteers was not enhanced by the addition of either cornstarch powder or talcum powder. Sufficient nutrients for growth of C. albicans exist on human skin, provided sufficient moisture is present. Cornstarch and talc powders were shown to minimize frictional injury experimentally induced in human volunteers. These studies indicate that cornstarch and talc powders do not enhance the growth of yeasts on human skin and do provide protection against frictional injury.

In everyday English, this means that according to this study, the growth of yeast was not made any worse from cornstarch, but actually cornstarch can help protect the affected skin from becoming injured by friction (remembering that yeast infected skin is usually red and sore).

Will Cornstarch Damage Diapers?

As mentioned earlier, cornstarch isn’t water soluble. This means that even during washing, it won’t find its way deep inside your diaper where they can cause trouble. It also means your detergent can easily grab cornstarch particles and wash them away.

All that to say, cornstarch is perfectly safe to use with your cloth diapers, even without liners.

How Do You Use Cornstarch For Diaper Rash?

Higher up in this post, I mentioned that even though cornstarch particles are larger than talc particles, you do want to take caution as they should not be inhaled.

As WebMd suggests, the safest way to proceed is to place the cornstarch in your hand, then apply it to the diaper area directly.

I’d even suggest keeping it in a small container with a spoon or something to scoop it into your hand, rather than using a baby powder-like bottle.

I recommend applying cornstarch on it’s own after every diaper change (I did this while cloth diapering and it made a world of difference in the number and frequency of rashes, cutting them down to basically none) when there is no rash present.

If baby has or gets a rash, I recommend putting it on top of a cloth safe diaper cream to help it stay on baby (remember, cornstarch isn’t water soluble) and dry things up a bit (this also worked wonders in my own experience).

Conclusion

Cornstarch is safe both for your baby and for your cloth diapers.

In a nutshell, cornstarch is a natural, safe, and effective alternative to baby powder that helps prevent and heal diaper rashes caused by moisture, which is a common complaint when cloth diapering as cloth diapers don’t have the “stay dry” chemical magic that disposables do.

Despite claims saying that cornstarch feeds yeast rashes, I couldn’t find any reliable sources that say it does, though there is scientific evidence that it does not.

When using cornstarch, make sure to apply it by hand and not with a bottle that will make it airborne (like a baby powder bottle). Applying it daily during diaper changes alone, or on top of diaper safe diaper creams is ideal.

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