How to Wash Cloth Diapers

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Most cloth diapering families will address these three basic questions at some point in their experience:

-What detergent should we use?
-What kind of wash routine should we follow?
-How do we troubleshoot diaper laundry problems?

Here are some basic laundry tips I’ve learned after 5 years of diapering (and still counting). They should be helpful to anyone, no matter what kind of diapers, water or machine you have. Two other great resources when it comes to laundry troubleshooting are local support groups and diaper manufacturers.

#1 Don’t Stress About Detergent 

Cloth diapering mothers use a variety of detergents to get their diapers clean. It can be a learning process, and things like machine type, water type and laundry routine will determine what works best for you (you can get a free water test strip from Morton Salt). No matter which detergent or soap you choose, make sure you (1) use enough for a heavily soiled load (2) use hot water and (3) use enough water to allow diapers to agitate fully.

How do you know if your detergent or soap of choice is NOT WORKING? You’ll have one or more of the following: smelly diapers, bad diaper rash and an ammonia odor that knocks you off your feet.

  • Mainstream detergents like Arm & Hammer, Tide and ALL are easy to buy because you can pick them up just about anywhere. They help streamline your routine when you can use the same thing for your diapers that you do for your clothes. They may potentially help with odor or other problems that a natural or “cloth safe” detergent wasn’t able to address.
  • Cloth-safe detergents are specifically marketed for cleaning diapers. If you are concerned about certain ingredients or additives in detergent, then these products will eliminate the guesswork for you because there’s nothing in there that’s contraindicated when it comes to diapers. Popular brands include Lulu’s in the Fluff and Ruby Moon. I’ve personally reviewed several “cloth safe” detergents over the years and they worked initially, but not long-term.
  • Natural detergents are basically mainstream detergents with “eco-friendly labeling. Two examples are Seventh Generation and Molly’s Suds. If the ingredients in mainstream detergent are causing a reaction or rash in your child, natural products might be your answer.
  • Homemade diaper soap is appealing to many families because of the cost-savings, and because of being able to hand-pick most of the ingredients. Homemade soaps are probably not as strong as mainstream detergents, so may or may not work for you depending on the factors mentioned above. There’s an interesting study which shows that mothers who use homemade soap for their diapers report the highest level of satisfaction overall compared to mothers who used all the other kinds of detergent.

The Real Diaper Association (RDA) has a handy detergent-finder that you can use to search for brands with or without ingredients, if that’s important to you.

#2 Dealing with the Poo

Solids must be removed from a diaper before it’s washed. You can accomplish this with a diaper sprayer, the beloved Spray Pal or more recent innovations like the Diaper Dawgs spray collar. These are all very handy little helpers if your budget allows, but don’t fret if funds are tight because you can always resort to flushable diaper liners (I like the Bummis and Buttons brands) in the meantime. Some more useful tips:

– Newborn breastfed poo is water soluable. No dunking or rinsing is required. Just toss the soiled diaper in the pail.
– You can shake solid infant/toddler poo into the toilet, or scrape it off with toilet paper.
– Dunk and swish the runny stuff; use a pair of Diaper Dawgs to make this task less ikky. Your husband might especially appreciate them!
– After solids are tossed in the toilet, you can do some additional rinsing in the tub or a deep laundry sink.

#3 Washing Should be Simple

Nearly every manufacturer recommends a very basic washing routine that’s easy to follow.

  • Cool or warm pre-rinse.
  • Hot wash with detergent, and with plenty of water. Use the bulky setting on a HE washer, and make sure the cycle is 15 minutes or more.
  • One extra rinse at the end.

This is the basic routine. It works for most as is, but may require some fine-tuning depending on your needs.

Put diapers in the dryer, or on a clothesline or indoor rack. Sun exposure will help naturally bleach stains.

#4 Dealing with Common Problems

  • Ammonia odor: uric acid crystals can get trapped in your diapers if they aren’t getting cleaned or rinsed properly, and this can cause instant odor when the diaper is wet as well as burning rashes on your baby’s bottom. GroVia Mighty Bubbles works great for ammonia problems and minerals from extremely hard water. You can purchase it at Diaper Junction (aff) – just follow the instructions on the package.
  • Diaper cream or fabric softener residue: Petroleum based creams and fabric softeners can coat your diapers with a film that causes repelling/leaking. If this happens, they’ll need to be “de-greased.” Blue Dawn can do the trick but you only need A FEW DROPS. Hand wash in hot water with the Dawn in your sink, and then do two rinses.
  • Stinky diapers (even after washing): They aren’t getting clean enough! Try more detergent, or switch to a more powerful one. Check your water heater and washer. Is the water hot enough? Is the machine filling with enough water? Is there some other kind of malfunction?
  • Bacteria and microbes: If the fabric has come in contact with yeast or some type of bacteria or infection, or you just want to make a “fresh start” with used diapers you’ve purchased, then you’ll need to disinfect. Bleach is the gold standard, properly used. In regards to yeast, a recent science-based study by the RDA shows that Grapefruit Seed Extract, when used in sufficient amounts, can be just as effective.

Note: I like using BacOut Biokleen in a spray bottle to mist my diapers before they go into the pail. This is really effective at odor control until laundry day.

#5 Be Realistic About Diaper Damage

If you notice wear and tear on your diapers after some time, that’s normal. Don’t automatically blame your laundry routine or detergent when the ravages of time and heavy use start to show. Granted, damage in the first year is not normal and should be reported to the manufacturer, but beyond that, fabric that is washed hundreds of times after being soaked with pee and loaded with poo is eventually going to lose its sparkle. In this finite world we live in, elastic does eventually loosen up, snaps do sometimes malfunction and absorbent fabrics slowly lose some of their absorbency.

It’s kind of ironic that cloth diaper laundry is perceived to be difficult, when it’s not at all. Most of the troubles that arise come about simply because diapers aren’t getting clean enough. And as I’ve just pointed out, that’s not hard at all to accomplish.

The very first diapers I bought came with 4 PAGES of tips, warnings and washing instructions. I know the diaper shop meant well but……YIKES! Don’t do that to a newbie, for goodness sakes. I didn’t have the money to buy the special (“cloth safe”) detergent the store recommended and was terrified that I would “ruin my diapers” by using our regular detergent.

I often wonder how many mothers have given up cloth diapers in frustration because of laundry issues that could have been avoided had they not been bombarded with so many myths, warnings and scare tactics. You don’t give up on wearing clothes if a stain proves hard to remove or your washer damages a zipper, so please don’t give up on cloth just because an issue (or two) arises. There IS a solution, and it’s probably very SIMPLE.

If you have any questions or tips to share, leave a comment below or use the Contact Me link on the top menu to dispatch an email. As always, happy diapering!

Find more washing tips from the Real Diaper Association and participating bloggers below.

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  1. Pingback: 6 Cloth Diapering Secrets for Beginners

  2. What do you think about Purex free and clear to use on pocket diapers. I have Charlie Banana and Alva