Mailbox Mondays

Mailbox Mondays 2/7/11 – Cloth Diaper Detergent

#clothdiapers detergent via @chgdiapers

Every Monday (if I have received a submission)I will answer reader submitted questions in my Mailbox Mondays post, and ask readers to weigh in with their opinions.

Questions don’t have to be cloth diaper related, just email maria at with “Mailbox Mondays” in the subject, or Fill out my contact form for readers, which you will always be able to find on my Contact Page.

Naomi says:

hey Maria,

I’ve got a two questions for ya.

#1: My All Free & Clear detergent has “optical brighteners” in it…how does that effect cloth diapers?

#2: What safe-for-cloth-diaper detergents are available at department and grocery stores? I don’t really want to order detergent online (not even really sure why) and we only have one or two ‘natural’ stores in town and I don’t think either has some of detergents I’ve seen for cloth diapers. (i.e. charlies soap or soap nuts etc.)

I’ve been using All Free & Clear happily for a year, but want to try something new.


OK so, I’m reading this.  I’m reading, reading, then I get to this: “I’ve been using All Free & Clear happily for a year, but want to try something new.”

Cue ominous music…

In all seriousness, for the love of Pete, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  Switching from a detergent that is working well for you could cause a long process of stink, stripping and endless rinsing.  Take it from me, don’t do it.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system…optical brighteners are chemicals that bind to the fibers of your laundry.  While they don’t actually make your laundry any cleaner, they absorb ultraviolet light, and reflect back blue light, making your laundry appear whiter.  Interestingly, military approved detergents do not contain optical brighteners.  Clothing washed with them could potentially make soldiers visible to night-vision, and therefore vulnerable to attack.  If you buy All Free & Clear in a commissary, it will likely say that it does not contain optical brighteners.  I’m not in the military, so I’m not an expert, but I believe the uniform care instructions may have been relaxed in some branches to allow optical brighteners.

The concern with optical brighteners and cloth diapers is first, that they could potentially cause repelling since they have to bind to the fabric in order to work.  In addition, they could potentially be irritating to skin.

I haven’t been able to find any “safe” detergents locally.  However, some that have reportedly been found in grocery stores are: Allen’s Naturally, Country Save and Charlie’s Soap.  Standard A.K.A. “no-no” detergents that work well for a lot of people include Arm & Hammer Essentials, Arm & Hammer with OxyClean and Tide Original Powder. 

While I haven’t personally used these, a few “green” detergents have been used with mixed success, and may be available locally.  They include Ecover, Planet and Seventh Generation.  Generally, “green” or biodegradable detergents will not contain optical brighteners, but check with the company to be sure.

I really think that if a detergent is working of you, keep using it, “rules” be darned.  However, with something like brighteners, it can take long-term use for buildup to cause issues.  I would think after a year of use, you’re in the clear, but who knows, right?

Now that I’ve told you way more than you wanted to hear…

Edit 5/17/12: In case anyone else finds this post. 🙂 Like the commenter below, I had been unable to find any evidence that optical brighteners damage your diapers, or somehow permanently attach to fibers. I try to be cautious since I don’t want to be the black sheep in the cloth diaper world, but this sort of thing (recommendations without science behind it) were what fueled my washing survey and washing cloth diapers post. I have been using a detergent with enzymes, brighteners & the like for more that two years with no issue. I’ve been using a touch of Oxi Clean Free in every load for more than a year & no longer need to use bleach on my microfiber.

A true laundry expert assisted with an RDIA Laundry Science Webinar and explained that if diapers are rinsed well, enzymes will not harm diapers or baby. Any damage may be due to a reaction when chemicals react with heat from a dryer.

Following the webinar (in March I believe?) I suggested that we look into the idea that optical brighteners build up & damage your diapers, and I really hope we do. Thank you for the link!!

5/24/12 I wrote another post about this.

Cloth diaper care recommendations have been repeated so much, and while the theories make sense, the science and real world use just doesn’t support them. As always, carefully follow manufacturer instructions, I am not responsible for damage and so forth.

How about the rest of you?  Do you use a standard detergent or one that is known to contain optical brighteners?  Did you have any problems?  How long did you use the detergent before you started having problems?

Share on Pinterest
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.
  • Jennifer F
    April 11, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    I use tide with vivid boost for my diapers and never have stains. I use a sprayer to clean them and run a cold rinse, hot wash, and no extra rinsing. No problems so far I was concerned about the optical brightners but have not found one case or example online where anyone has had a problem with them.

  • May 24, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    […] did a ton of Googling & reading about 16 months ago when I had a Mailbox Mondays question about optical brighteners, and I mentioned to the RDIA’s laundry science committee that I’d love to see more […]

  • Leslie
    May 17, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    So, I was searching optical brighteners and cloth diapers and this post popped up. So far, everything I’ve read about optical brighteners states that they generally come in the form of a blue tinged dye that is water soluble. If the dye is water soluble, then I would think it likely is washed out and re-deposited every time you do a load of laundry, rather then binding to your fabrics and creating a build-up. That being said, I do not know the chemical formulation of any optical brightners because they tend to have patents through the detergent companies that use them, apparently every company uses something slightly different. The reason why I was searching for this type of information is because I already know why other additives would be bad for cloth diapers, I just didn’t know the reason brighteners would be bad, none of the websites listing safe alternatives ever really explain what brightners are made out of, and how they might bind to fabrics. Anyways, just felt the need to comment somewhere about what I read and thought I’d share my findings.

    The article I read that states optical brightners are water soluble dyes is actually a study and the important statement is on page 7:
    This isn’t exactly light reading material, but I (partially) found what I was looking for anyways.

    • May 17, 2012 at 9:21 pm

      Very helpful, thank you! I am on the RDIA’s laundry committee and asked that we research this. “They” say this or that is harmful for diapers, but the proof doesn’t necessarily back it up. Case in point an expert finally debunked the ideas that enzymes will hurt diapers (or skin) AND that a miniscule amount of detergent will get your diapers clean.

    • May 18, 2012 at 9:03 am

      I wanted to give you some additional info from a laundry science expert:

      “Because something is water soluble does not mean it will wash away, so the statement about some brighteners being “dyes” is correct but not that they wash away. Dyes are designed to remain behind. I do know that there are many types of brighteners on the market that work by different mechanisms but they are all designed to be left behind. I do not have a great scientific link handy to provide you but this one, just gleamed from Google, is at least informative, for the most part:

      That said, I haven’t had any issues whatsoever after 2 years of use, and the same goes for many other families, so you really just have to decide for yourself!

      • May 18, 2012 at 9:05 am

        P.S. This is the same link I found in previous Google searching, which just says a chemical residue is left behind. It doesn’t explain how it binds to the fabric, that it’s permanent, etc. It also says that optical brighteners are the reason laundry feels stiff when line dried, which I don’t necessarily believe, so I don’t know how credible the information is!

  • October 21, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is an extremely well written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post. I’ll certainly comeback.

  • Maddy
    May 16, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    For detergents: Try Crunchy Clean if you’re itching for something new! The scents are absolutely LUSCIOUS, and they’re cloth diaper safe (there’s no residual fragrance from the detergent alone – you can buy wool dryer balls from the CC website,, and have them scented to match your detergent. Makes laundry day absolutely dreamy.), and it works wonderfully on build up, stains, repelling, and stink. We have slightly hard water here, but are using the normal cloth diaper formulation with huge success! I’ve heard that the hard water formulation works great. They also have a ‘regular’ laundry detergent for your other clothes (I guess it’s a little tougher on stains and such?), available in all the same scents as the cloth diaper detergent. :]

  • February 10, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    >Have not found it yet, Maria. :)hahahaMost of the time I don't mind cloth diapering at all, but if I get a day behind in the washing, suddenly nearly every diaper is dirty, I run out of larges for DD and I could really use an auto folding detergent! (I know, I'm nuts). Add to it a three and a half year old who refuses to have anything to do with a potty and oh the joys of #2 diapers. blech.Thanks again for the info on brighteners. I'll probably just stick with All Free & Clear, I do like it, it works and the price is loverly. bye!

  • February 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    >If you find that magical detergent Naomi, please let me know! LOLAllison, hard water is tough! Does less detergent not get your diapers clean, or is it just that you don't see bubbles?

    • Maddy
      May 16, 2011 at 4:40 pm

      I replied to Allison; you might find it interesting.

      • May 16, 2011 at 5:24 pm

        Um, she said “the kind that also folds the diapers and puts it away for you.” That’s what I was saying I’d like. Have you found that? LOL Three replies on a 3-month old post, seeming to push a particular detergent, makes you seem awfully spammy. Sorry if that sounds rude.

        Especially since anyone who has read my blog for a while knows that “detergent police” are a peeve of mine, since lack of affordable “safe” detergents are what stopped me from starting cloth at birth. Not to mention I probably spent $150+ and a zillion hours trying “safe” detergents before finally (reluctantly), switching to a *GASP* no-no detergent. It’s still working for me a year later with no problems.

  • February 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    >I've tried Nellie's All Natural Laundry Soda, Soap Nuts (sample), Rockin Green and am now trying Country Save. My problem seems to be hard water. I can't use the recommended amount of detergent for CD's because I just can't get my diapers clean! 2-3 Tbsp's of Rockin Green (I have a top loader) and I do not get any bubbles in my water. 1-2 Tbsp's of Nellies and I do not get any bubbles in my water. So far only Country Save gives me bubbles in my water (using about 1-2 Tbsps). Since I have to use much more detergent I have to make sure I get all the detergent out in the rinse. So I often need multiple hot rinses. I'm trying some new washing techniques to see if I can get away with using less hot water. Hopefully it works!

    • Maddy
      May 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm

      You don’t actually need lots of bubbles to clean your clothes. Certain detergents won’t suds up much at all – soap nuts generally don’t, RnG isn’t supposed to, and if you ever try Crunchy Clean, it doesn’t, either. Plus, it smells yummy. Plus, you only need 1-2 tablespoons (at the most!) in a regular washer; half as much in an HE washer. PLUS, it’s available in a pretty glass jar with a little wooden scoop that measures 1 tablespon. :] I could go on. Suds are really just to ‘prove’ that a product is working to clean something. They don’t actually do anything; they just make it look more effective. I’ve heard that Crunchy Clean has a wonderful hard water formulation, and it’s cheaper than Rockin Green.

      Also, if stains are your issue (not build up), try sunning your diapers.

  • February 7, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    >I guess I say "happily" cuz I don't want to turn people off from a readily available detergent. It has worked quite well for us, but at times we get stink issues. I'm sure most of that has to do with user error, or more, umm…"poo" than usual. I hear ya about not switching detergents if it is working. I tried a sample of a detergent and was soo not impressed, yet I know many moms swear by it.I think I want something that works ridiculously well…no extra rinses, no pre-wash…ya know, the kind that also folds the diapers and puts it away for you. 😀 hahahathanks for the info on brighteners. I had just heard that they were bad for diapers, but was not sure what it was effecting.

  • February 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    >I tried a bunch of the "right detergents" and had issues with all of them. I just switched to Tide Original Powder, and it's going great so far!

Leave Your Comment

Your Comment*

Your Name*
Your Webpage