Cloth Diapering Detergents How To/Demo Washing

Is Detergent Build Up Real? The Cloth Diaper Debate Continues

Is detergent buildup real cloth diapers

Is Detergent Build Up Real?

Before we get into it, here’s a quick summary if you don’t have time to read the whole post (I do recommend clicking my links to see what I was saying a decade ago as well!)

Best ways to wash cloth diapers

  • Today’s detergents are very concentrated; you may not need as much as you think
  • However, cloth diapers are heavily soiled laundry, treat it that way!
  • Detergent that works well on your family’s laundry should be fine for cloth diapers
  • Try to wash every 2-3 days
  • Don’t pack the washer full!

Why do I care about cloth diaper detergent?

Cloth diaper detergents and washing cloth diapers have always been subjects near and dear to my heart. One of the first posts I wrote on this blog in 2009 talked about how the myth of needing special cloth diaper detergents prevented me from using cloth diapers from birth with my second child. 

Washing cloth diapers in 2009

At that time, the general consensus in the cloth diapering world was that you must use special cloth diapering detergents, or at least one that didn’t contain optical brighteners, enzymes, or scents. Some cloth diaper manufacturers required use of these detergents to preserve the diaper warranty, and cloth diaper groups warned that you could hurt your baby, your diapers, or both by using standard detergents. Cloth diaper stores sold some detergent brands, and work-at-home-mom brands popped up with homemade versions. I was typically shopping sales and using coupons to get detergent for next to nothing, so needing special detergent was a huge burden for me.

Not only were special detergents recommended, but families talked of using just a few teaspoons (yes, teaspoons, not tablespoons) of detergent. Unsurprisingly, after following these instructions, I quickly found myself needing to strip my cloth diapers, which was another divisive issue. People recommended everything from using Dawn dish soap to putting the diapers in your dishwasher (don’t do this!!) and more. I spent hours and hours trying various methods to get my diapers clean.

My cloth diaper washing routine

What worked? Treating my cloth diapers like heavily soiled laundry (which they are)! If you had a large load of clothing soaked in urine and feces, how much detergent would you use? What load size and settings would you use? I don’t wash a full load of sweaty motocross gear that’s been sitting in the van for three days with 2 tablespoons of detergent, nor would I wash cloth diapers that way.

It took me a long time to come out of the (laundry) closet and admit that I was using Tide (gasp!) on my diapers. 10 years ago, I wrote my post on how to wash cloth diapers and found that I wasn’t the only one.

I quite often was asked for advice on washing cloth diapers and aside from a few tweaks to account for washer type, load size, or water hardness, most families found success with a similar routine.

Too much detergent?

I have seen a woman on TikTok who is an appliance repair person, suggest that detergents today are highly concentrated, and a few tablespoons is plenty. In most cases, I agree. If you are using a cup of detergent with every load, try washing your towels without detergent.  Unless you have extremely hard water, you may be seeing lots of suds. Small, lightly soiled loads need very little detergent, not a cap-full.

Detergent buildup vs. residue

In previous posts I have noted that while I believe that detergent residue is real (see my towel example above), if it doesn’t contain fabric softener, you shouldn’t have an issue rinsing it out and adjusting the amount you use in the future. If your laundry feels soapy, or you see lots of suds in the rinse cycle, that’s a good indication you may be using a bit too much.  

Not enough detergent?

That said, cloth diapers will be some of the dirtiest laundry you will do. Sweaty gym gear, greasy work clothes, and other heavily soiled items need a little extra. If your laundry still smells dirty, try using a bit more. No, I don’t suggest that you use a massive amount of detergent either! Again, treat it like you would any heavily soiled load of laundry for your washing machine and water type.

Side note: don’t try to trick your HE washer into using more water. They are designed to make up for the reduced amount of water and using too much water can cause your items to just swish around in the water, rather than agitating against other items to get clean.

Laundry science

The real science of laundry is a combination of water, agitation, time, chemical action, and heat.  If you reduce one, you’ll increase the other. You’ll notice that HE machines generally have longer cycles than traditional top loaders. The knowledge I have of laundry science is from an actual laundry scientist.  I attended a webinar hosted by the Real Diaper Industry Association nearly a decade ago, and was able to ask questions of laundry science expert, Steven Tinker. Mr. Tinker has been a product development scientist in the professional laundry industry for 50 years.  Yes, fifty.

Washing cloth diapers isn’t hard

I had hoped that by 2022, we would be through overcomplicating cloth diaper laundry, but apparently, it’s still happening. You figured out how to wash all of your other laundry and you can do this too! If you have a good wash routine, washing cloth diapers will feel like any other laundry.  If you feel like you are following a detailed, complicated set of instructions because someone told you that’s what you had to do, and constantly dealing with issues, don’t fret.

When it comes to washing cloth diapers, keep it simple sweetie, and it will be no sweat!

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Maria is an aspiring "fit mom" of 3 children, writing about cloth diapers, going green, and her life as a single mom. Maria works with many companies within the cloth diaper industry and beyond, providing social media management, product development, and other services.
  • January 23, 2022 at 7:29 am

    It’s like we’ve gone in the opposite direction to make it equally as complicated, but with way more detergent, ha ha. I wish more people realized how easy it really is. I would have used cloth much sooner (and not wasted so much time and money trying to wash them!)

  • January 22, 2022 at 11:31 pm

    I can’t believe this is still an issue. I remember fighting over and over against people making it terribly complicated and then eventually gave up. It wasn’t worth the stress.

  • January 18, 2022 at 3:35 pm

    Exactly, what in the world were we thinking?

  • Gabrielle
    January 18, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    I cloth diapered my son in 2013 to 2016-ish and I remember this. Those days were wild. Using a spoonful of ‘detergent’ to wash your loadful of diapers or clothing. What were we thinking? I thankfully went back to regular detergent quick enough.

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