Cloth Diapering Detergents Repelling Stink Stripping Washing

Cloth Diaper Detergent – My Journey and my Opinion

>This may be long, but it’s very relevant and I want to get my entire story out there.

I’ve mentioned before that detergent is a hot button issue for me because it was the only thing that prevented me from cloth diapering earlier.  So, I’ll start from the beginning.

When I chose the diapers I wanted to try, I knew I wanted to start with just a few to see how it went.  I also knew that I needed a “safe” detergent.  Googling led me to a chart with stars, that rated detergents based on their ingredients.  The one I was looking at rated detergents from 1 to 4 red stars.  None of the “4 star” detergents were available at any of our grocery stores, Target, Wal Mart, or anywhere else I could think to check.

So, I started looking into ordering some.  At the time of my research, there were 4 or 5 detergents that I could order online, that had 4 red stars/thumbs up ratings.  I eliminated the detergents that were reported to give babies burns, as well as those with so-so reviews.

Now, keep in mind that I’m cheap frugal, so my maximum price for detergent was $2.99 for a 32 load bottle, and I’d only pay that much if we desperately needed it.  My “stock up” price was closer to free, or pennies.

A single bottle of the “thumbs up” detergent was about $12, then add shipping.  I could potentially buy a case to bring the price per bottle down a bit, but yikes.  All this for 3 diapers I didn’t even know if I’d like?  So, that’s where it ended.  I gave up on cloth diapering.  I couldn’t make 3 diapers a $75 experiment.

When my son’s rashes (clearly caused by disposable diapers since they disappeared when we switched to cloth) were so bad that it hurt to look at, I decided I was going to do this darn it!  One way or another.

My poor husband searched high and low at every store within a 30 mile radius, in at least 3 cities and two states.  He finally found a 4 star/thumbs up detergent at an Organic store we had just discovered.  He bought it and I ordered my diapers.

I googled the chart again (I hadn’t bookmarked it) and was shocked to see that the detergent he had bought had only a single red star, not four!  What?!  Had I made a mistake??  It didn’t take me too long to figure out that there are two different charts out there that look very much the same, but one uses 1-4 red stars, and the other uses 1-5 stars: red, black or gold.

I was upset.  I had ordered the diapers and was anxiously awaiting their arrival.  It had been 5 years now since my first interest in cloth diapering (before my daughter was born.)  I turned to the ladies in a cloth diaper group I belong to, to get advice and find out what they did.  They all recommended one work-at-home-mom made detergent.  Shipping was included, and while still quite expensive to me, it was cheaper than the alternative, and highly recommended.  I ordered it and just washed the diapers in the Method detergent I had while I was waiting for it to arrive.

That WAHM made detergent worked for a while and stopped working after a few months.  I started using Naturoli Soap nuts (another brand of soap nuts are listed on one chart; no soap nuts are listed on the other.)  They stopped working after a while too.  I used a sample of Rockin’ Green that I received, then I began using Tide after seeing it was used successfully by so many Moms.  I figured if it didn’t work on the diapers, I could use it on our clothing, and while far more expensive than my standard detergent, it was still inexpensive compared to others.  The amount of money I had already spent on diaper washing items sitting in my laundry room, was just ridiculous.  I cannot keep spending $15-$20 (or more!) on things that don’t work.   (side note: I’ve also been very successfully using a different WAHM detergent for several days recently.)

So, the charts.  How are they made?  Well, there are common “no-nos” for diaper detergent, including optical whiteners/brighteners, fabric softeners, fragrance and enzymes.  These charts were compiled based on experience, right?  Nope!  They were compiled solely based on what ingredients detergents contain.

How does one get listed on this chart?  Beats me.  I suppose you’d have to contact the maker of the chart with a list of your ingredients, proof that you test regularly to ensure PH balance (or whatever else they are looking for.)  Who knows what else.  The little guy loses again.  Rockin’ Green is probably the biggest name in WAHM detergent, yet it was JUST listed on the charts.  Even so, if you buy scented Rockin’ Green, wave buh-bye to a star (and potentially your warranty.)

Well, they have research to back up the fact that those ingredients would damage diapers, right?  Nope!  In fact, several diaper manufacturers recommend using the standard “no-no” detergents, which contain enzymes.  They say they from their experience they do not damage diapers, and in fact get them clean.

The optical whiteners/brighteners and fabric softeners make sense to me.  They would bind to the fabric of the diapers and potentially cause repelling.  But, worst case, you strip and start over.  Fragrance and enzymes (in  my opinion!) have more to do with the baby’s bottom than with the diapers.  Even in my soft water, I am not usually able to smell the detergent after rinsing, and if I’ve accidentally used too much and can smell it, I rinse again.  My diapers are rinsed clean, and my son’s poor sensitive hiney was never bothered by the enzymes in the detergent either.

It is my humble opinion that someone interested in cloth diapering should find the most highly recommended detergent, which is also affordable, available locally, and that they wouldn’t mind using on their other laundry, should it not work on the diapers.  Use it.  If it works, sweet.  If it doesn’t, well, strip and try again.  You’re out a couple bucks, and can use it on your other laundry.

So what is the problem?  Certain diaper manufacturers may not honor their warranty if you have used a detergent that isn’t “5 stars” on the chart that they recommend. 

Maybe I’m too analytical, but where is the evidence that fragrance (etc.) will damage a part of the diaper that would otherwise be covered under warranty?

How about a controlled study.  Take 30 identical washing machines, supplied with identical water.  30 brand new, identical diapers, each washed with a different detergent 200 times (or whatever they consider to be the lifetime of the diaper.)  In fact, each diaper should be “soiled” from the same “supply” between each washing, right?  Since the ammonia in urine could affect the results.

Photos and scientific testing should be done after every x number of washes to evaluate the elastic, aplix, laundry tabs, inner lining, waterproof outer, and any other part of the diaper that would be covered under warranty.

Only then should they be “allowed” to void a warranty based on the detergent used (quotes around “allowed” because I know they will do whatever they darn well please).  I would think that the bleach they (the company I am thinking of) say is OK to use once per month, would be much more likely to damage diapers than fragrance.  I was discussing this with my husband and he kept interrupting me, outraged.  He said (the man comes out in him here!) it would be like Ford saying that your warranty was void if you didn’t use Shell gasoline.  I said, yeah but if they said that there was an ingredient in Exxon gasoline that would damage your engine…  He said, “Then Exxon should sue them!”  Where’s the proof?

So, what do I do?  Spend potentially hundreds of dollars having pricey “safe” detergents shipped to me, hoping they will work?  What if none of them work?  Warranties don’t cover staining, repelling, stink or my baby’s rash.  Should I just stick with disposables? Or should I find a detergent that works, and stick with it, rules be darned?

I am a strict rule follower, but I chose to be able to cloth diaper my son.  Save his tush, save the earth and save my wallet too.  Unfortunately, that may mean that an issue I’ve had with a couple of diapers, will not be covered under warranty.  The same problem, if experienced by someone using a “5-star” detergent, would be covered.

There were two diapers that are bad enough to be sent in.  Two packages of “safe” detergent would cost about as much as those diapers.  So, I will enjoy my clean, stain and stink-free diapers, my son’s rash-free tush, and all that extra $ in my pocket can buy two new diapers from a different company.

A truly good product will hold up just fine with typical use.  Meaning, average use and washing with a number of detergents that are affordable, and available at any grocery store.  If your product requires delicate handling and pricey detergent, how good is it?

I would love to see fluff on every tush, but if detergent is such a hassle for someone who wants to cloth diaper, it’s not going to help our case in persuading people who are on the fence (or on the other side of it!)

Silent *SCREAM* so I don’t wake my son.  🙂


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Maria Moser
Maria is the mother of 3, writing about cloth diapers & going green. You'll often find her juggling her preschooler and typing 1-handed in between sips of cold coffee. Maria works with many companies within the cloth diaper industry and beyond, providing social media management, product development and other services.
14 Comments
  • September 3, 2010 at 8:34 pm
    Reply

    >Shirley, thanks for your input, I totally agree with you! We have soft, mountain spring well water, with a water softener as well, and soap nuts stopped working for us after a few months. There was no residue, it was just as if the diapers weren't washed. I use a tiny, tiny amount of Tide and have excellent results!The #1 question I get it about detergent and wash routines, and it's so hard not be be able to say "use this, wash like this and you'll have no problems!"

  • September 3, 2010 at 7:51 pm
    Reply

    >Hi Maria,First let me say I loved your post and I think it reflects how many cloth diapering moms feel these days about detergents.And second, let me say that all that follows is my personal opinion and that I do not represent all in my field. We are a manufacturer of cloth diapers and we publish a list on our website that has a yes, no and maybe beside detergent names. It does not mean you are forbidden to ever use a "no" detergent but it does mean that if you do, you are far more likely to have residue problems and may need to strip. We do evaluate the ingredients for known "problem" chemicals and also follow feedback from our customers on our toll free number. Regular detergents will not "ruin" our diapers unless we are talking about bleach or another caustic additive. Your detergent would not normally void a warranty but if you bleached our PUL with a cup of regular chlorine, it might! You are right that scents and enzymes are more about tender skin than about diapers. If you choose them, it should not cause a problem with our diapers unless there is an unnatural amount of a scented oil in the detergent. You are again right about optical brighteners and fabric softeners which can coat fibers and cause repelling. Nine out of 10 times you can strip the offending chemicals off your diapers and they will work well again (some though are so thick they they will not – think softners).The thing with soap nuts is that they are very sensitive to the hardness of water and unless you have soft water, you may experience a soapy residue, similar to what you could experience when using a natural soap. Some CDing moms use Tide or Tide Free (which is better since it has no OBs) with great success and most of them use it in great moderation and rinse well. And again those that have problems, can strip it away (to me that is extra work I would want to avoid, hence why we put a "no" next to regular tide).The most diffucult thing with washing is all the variables, from water hardness, to machine type and now, with all the new fibers, the type of fabric you are washing. Each of these has an effect on how well a detergent is going to work for any one person and it is impossible to predict which will work with whom. Something might work for your best friend using detergent A with machine B, water C and diapers D but if you that same detergent A but you have machine E, water F and diapers G, it may not work for you! Just my two cents!

  • September 1, 2010 at 5:28 am
    Reply

    >Thank you!! Of course, when I got my first cloth diaper I did the same thing. I spent hours googling detergents and trying to track down one that was "approved" and affordable. My husband didn't think cloth diapering was going to work out for us if I was goign to spend so much money on detergents and all kinds of products related to cleaning. I've had issues with staining and don't know what to do differently. But I've decided to try different types of "cheap" brands and see what happens. It's frustrating and I've only just started! I hate stains!

  • August 30, 2010 at 5:32 pm
    Reply

    >Thank you for this post. I am new to cloth diapering and other than prepping my diapers, I have not started washing them yet (baby is due in weeks). I get so confused at all the detergent dos and donts and it does seem pretty silly that such a simple a product would require such special care. I am going to try and stick with the detergents that are reasonably priced and readily available to me and you are right, it it goes bad, I'll just strip and try something else.

  • August 26, 2010 at 4:06 pm
    Reply

    >After a while, I finally discovered Charlie's Soap- and have used it now for over a year- and now on our clothes. I get it at Whole Foods and it lasts (in liquid) for several months. I do, however have a friend and it stopped working for her- so not sure why I am still going strong. I'm sory for your issues and am always on the alert for something to happen and break this spell. Sad, isn't it?

  • August 26, 2010 at 3:27 pm
    Reply

    >I think the trick to tide is making sure it is completely rinsed clean. Use 1/4-1/2 of the lowest load line, I also find that the powder rinses out more easily. You may have to do another full wash with no detergent to rinse it toallt (check the rinse cycle for residue or bubbles.)The towel trick is to make the load heavier, so the machine thinks there is more in there and that it needs more water. Mine is a top load so I am able to add more water with my sink sprayer, which is nice!If I had W&D hookups in my basement, I'd buy a cheapie cheap washer for just the diapers!

  • August 26, 2010 at 1:50 pm
    Reply

    >After 2 years of exclusively cloth diapering, I have come to hate the laundry! I dream of diapers washing (and stuffing) themselves with no issues. We have an older HE front loader and hard water. Everyone says I have to "trick" my washer by putting a wet towel in to raise the water level. Now to me, that just seems ridiculous! I just don't see how adding a big, bulky towel will help my diapers get cleaner.I live in a state where the largest city doesn't even have a cloth diaper store and my husband hate ordering on-line. Naturally it has been hard to find anything "approved" that keeps them clean and stink-free. Currently, we have 6 different detergents in our laundry room. I ended up trying Tide HE and it worked… except it gave my son a rash. I have noticed that I had to strip more often, but it is available locally and the stink stays away. I just washed my first load in Tide HE Free and Gentle last night, so the jury is still out.

  • August 26, 2010 at 1:13 pm
    Reply

    >Emailed you Ash!

  • August 26, 2010 at 3:38 am
    Reply

    >When I started cloth diapering I had NO idea about any of those issues. I dove in head first with out knowing really anything at all! I've done pretty well with detergents, I've only had to switch once! And this one is doing pretty well but there could be some issues. ha! But I am curious as to what Tide you use! Can you email me please?! Thank you!ashleppek at gmail dot com

  • August 26, 2010 at 2:40 am
    Reply

    >I'm moving soon so my water might change so I'm holding off on any changes. Thanks for your thoughts. I think besides "what do you do with poop", detergent problems might be the biggest turnoff for people to cloth diapers (when they hear from people…It worked for awhile but then they started to stink/leak/repel…).

  • August 26, 2010 at 2:07 am
    Reply

    >I emailed you Jill!

  • August 26, 2010 at 2:01 am
    Reply

    >Bless you for reading all of this! :-)The whole washing thing is hard, detergent, wash routines…there's no "one size fits all" do this and your diapers will be clean-and-stink-free answer!Trial and error and "going with the flow" are not my fortes. I'm a planner and a listmaker, so cloth diapering has actually helped me loosen up a lot!Thumbs up to your homemade (but "unsafe" wwhwhoooooooo, I'm shaking!) detergent!

  • August 26, 2010 at 1:59 am
    Reply

    >I too, had to start using tide. I have 3 different WAHM/safe detergents on my shelf. I will probably use them up on washing towels when I get around to it. What tide do you use? Will you please email me? I am using plain liquid, but I can still smell it. I rinse, wash w/ and then do a wash w/out. Doesn't hurt anything (and my baby's butt, which was BLEEDING when using the 'safe' detergent from ammonia build up) — is free and clear now! There was a dramatic change when we moved to a more rural area, with rural water, which is not softened in any way. Yup, I even tried the 'hard' versions of those 'safe' detergents and they just failed. jill dot shoemaker at gmail dot com

  • August 26, 2010 at 1:38 am
    Reply

    >I understand the frustration. I live in a remote rural area and don't have access to natural food stores. I finally just decided to mostly ignore the charts and forget the hype. After trying two popular WAHM brands, I found a recipe online to make my own diaper detergent. Some people have used the same recipe and had problems with it but with my machine, my washing schedule and rinsing practices and the water in my region- I'm delighted with it.There are so many variables that one detergent will never work for everyone. You had a great point by pointing out that if certain diapers aren't made to stand the test of time and detergent, then my money is best spent on sturdier brands (many of which are cheaper anyway!). Detergent should never be an issue for a family looking to cloth diaper and as a general rule, the simpler the stash, the less fussy you need to be when choosing a detergent. Prefolds? The detergent aisle is your oyster. Microfiber? You may need to read labels a bit closer. One thing I remember reading is an article that said the absolute cheapest detergents were usually devoid of the enzymes, brighteners and softeners name brands charge extra to provide. The 3.59 they cost is far cheaper than the shipping cost alone of the "approved brands".

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