Washing Cloth Diapers
Want the too long;didn’t read version? Here’s the cliffs notes:
- Remove solids from diapers (breastfed babies’ diapers can go right in the wash.
- Wash every 2-3 days and don’t pack your washer full.
- Use a detergent that works well for your family (choose one without fabric softeners).
- Rinse diapers. (If you have very hard water you may need to add a small amount of detergent to this step.)
- Run a hot/heavy duty cycle with the amount of detergent recommended for a heavily soiled load.
- Line dry/lay flat covers and shells, tumble dry inserts.
Some families with extremely hard water choose to add calgon to the wash. I recommend keeping your routine simple and avoiding additives unless necessary.
I spent the first 6 months of my cloth diapering stint trying to figure out a wash routine. I had seen all the charts that told you which detergents were “safe” and which would cause your diapers to spontaneously combust (kidding.) I spent countless dollars and hours on detergents & stripping. What finally saved me was a detergent with pretty much all the “no-no” ingredients. Then I started to realize that all these companies said these detergents would damage your diapers, but did they really know? Some companies actually recommended the mainstream, “no no” detergents, saying enzymes were necessary to get your diapers cleaned.
I wondered, had anyone actually washed diapers in different detergents under controlled conditions? Before a company could justify voiding a warranty based on detergent, I would think they should have: washed 18 diapers at a time, every 3 days for whatever the typical life expectancy on their diaper is, checked after every 10 or so washes, Oh, and they would need to do this in soft water, hard water, top load HE, front load HE and standard top loading machines. Chlorinated city water & well water, with and without a water softener, and in different brand machines. Yeah. Too expensive and too much work.
So I thought the next best thing would be a database of actual user experience, rather than a star rating based on ingredients & conjecture. This was the basis of my cloth diaper detergent survey. In hindsight, I should have asked more yes/no and/or multiple choice questions, so I could let Google docs summarize for me and make assumptions based on that. Instead, I did lots of “fill in the blank” type questions so respondents could tell me more. This means I had to read a zillion responses. 🙂
My ultimate goal is to analyze & compile the data based on what is most and least likely to work in different water & washer conditions. Hire a programmer to create an SQL database so I can enter the data, then allow users to select one more options (water type, washer type, detergent type) and see a list of what is and isn’t likely to work for their situation. Unfortunately I don’t have the time or money to invest right now, but still hope to do so in the future.
For now, I just wanted to share with you what I learned, and what surprised me the most is that nothing surprised me! I’ve been cloth diapering for about
2 1/2 years update, 4 years 5 years and still feel the same, no spontaneously combusting diapers (which is peanuts compared to people who have cloth diapered for a decade or more) and it seems that my experiences and conclusions about detergents, wash routines, stripping & additives are nothing unique. I have not “scientifically analyzed” the results, this is simply a summary based on sorting and reading survey results.
94% of respondents report no damage to their diapers. Those who selected “yes” for damage to their diapers were unsure as to whether the leaking, repelling, fraying, delamination etc. was due to detergent. Less than 1/4 of those people were using a “no-no” mainstream detergent. The remainder were using detergents that are recommended on “the lists” etc.
What do I do with a diaper when I change it?
If your baby is breastfed, simply store until wash day. Otherwise, shake solids into the toilet & store (I use a piece of TP to scrape what’s not “ploppable” and the rest goes in the wash.) Optionally, you can use a diaper sprayer on difficult to remove solids. You can use a kitchen size trash can with a liner or a zippered wet bag to store dirty diapers. I find that smells are minimized by leaving your pail open a crack. I prefer to remove pocket inserts as I put them in the “pail” so I can shake the whole thing into the washer without having to touch them again.
How often do I wash & how many do I wash at once?
Every 2-3 days is optimal. 18-24 diapers in each load works well; they need room to move around, but also need to agitate against each other to get clean. Washing less often may leave you with too many diapers to wash at once, and it may be more difficult to get them clean after they have been sitting.
How do I wash them?
The most common successful wash routine is a rinse or quick wash (warm if your washer has it) followed by a hot wash (with detergent) and a double rinse. You may need to add a bit of detergent to your pre-wash and if you have very hard water, extra rinses can do more harm than good. In a standard washer use a slightly larger load size than you need so diapers are covered by water but not swimming in it (don’t go overboard, you can use “too much” water – diapers need to agitate against each other and the washer’s agitator). In an HE washer, you can add similarly sized laundry to bulk up the load.
61% of survey respondents have standard top load machine, 33% have a front loading HE and 7% have a top load HE.
Should I add anything to the wash?
Commonly used additives included Biokleen Bac Out, baking soda, bleach, Borax, Oxiclean, Crunchy Clean Oxygen, vinegar, tea tree oil, washing soda and Calgon. Use caution and only use when necessary. The most successful wash routines are the simplest!
Do I need to “strip” my diapers?
49% of respondents to strip their diapers, even if their detergent is working well. 40% don’t strip, and 11% selected “other.” People strip because of microfiber stink, ammonia smell, repelling and other issues. Some people commented that they didn’t necessarily need it but didn’t think it would hurt, or were seeing if it would help with baby’s rash, thought it was a good idea since they shared a washer, were stripping preventively and so forth. “Stripping” varies from a soak and/or extra rinses, to some bleach, Calgon, dawn or similar added occasionally. (I find that with the proper detergent & wash routine, you should not need to strip your diapers)
What detergent works best?
73% of survey respondents use powder detergent, 27% use liquid and a few use soap nuts.
Finding the detergent that works for you is trial and error based on your washing conditions, but many people with very hard water have great results with Rockin’ Green. It seems that RnG either works marvelously or doesn’t work at all (several reported that it worked initially, but led to stink & repelling.) All Free & Clear, Arm & Hammer, Charlie’s Soap, Crunchy Clean, Country Save, (these 5 seem most commonly used with top-loading standard machines) Eco Sprout, Ecos, Eco Nuts, Tiny Bubbles and homemade detergent were most commonly used successfully by survey respondents. (There were others, but for now, I’m listing only those which appeared more than a handful of times.)
The most successfully used standard detergent is Tide. Overwhelming numbers of families with all water & washer types have great results with it. I realize many want to avoid the chemicals it contains, and no, we’re not sponsored by P&G in any way! 🙂
What are the most common water types?
50% of survey respondents have hard water, 19% have soft and 31% are “other” (don’t know, average, varies etc.) 12% have a water softener.
Rockin’ Green, Tide, Eco Sprout, Country Save, Crunchy Clean, Charlie’s Soap, Arm & Hammer & All are often reported as working well with hard water.
Rockin’ Green classic or soft rock, Tide, Country Save, Crunchy Clean, Arm & Hammer and All are often used successfully by people with soft water.
Tide powder ingredients (PDF) include water softeners while Tide liquid ingredients (PDF) do not. You can logically assume that the powder may work better for hard water, while the liquid might rinse out more cleanly in soft water. That said, I have a water softener and use powder with no trouble.
How much detergent do I use in my machine?
This is also trial & error & varies based on your washer, water, and how many diapers you’re washing. I recommend starting with the same amount you’d use for a clothing load the same size. If your diapers aren’t coming out smelling clean, up the amount a bit. If you are having to do too many rinses to get the majority of the suds out, cut back a bit. You don’t need to rinse the diapers a dozen times until every.single.bubble. is gone. Generally, you should be using the recommended amount of detergent for the load size (the lowest load line for a very small load of diapers, not a washer full.) It’s very rare that a miniscule amount will get diapers clean.
If you want to know all about the science of laundry, check out Bummis Laundry Science. Check out the RDIA’s detergent database to search for detergents that meet your needs.
Do any of the survey results surprise you? Will it change your method for washing cloth diapers?
Information is based on opinion & survey results. Change-Diapers.com is not liable for any damage or injury that may arise from your diaper washing routine!