As you may know from my washing cloth diapers post, there’s no “one size fits all” wash routine or detergent. For a long time, “the rules” have said that if you use detergents with fragrances, enzymes, dyes or optical brighteners, you would damage your diapers. Science is now showing that if rinsed out, enzymes are not likely to damage your diapers or your child’s skin.
I 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 research done on how optical brighteners truly affect cloth diapers. The theory is that they bind to the fabric of your diapers and can cause repelling.
I know it doesn’t mean much, but I have never heard of this actually happening to anyone, despite lots and lots of families using “standard” detergents for many years. I’ve used Tide for over two years with no issues myself.
I know there is concern about using chemicals on clothing that will touch skin, as well as putting chemicals in the water supply. Ideally, everyone would have an affordable, effective, natural detergent readily available to them, but that’s not always the case. I think it’s better to use a “no no” detergent & have clean cloth diapers, than to give up and switch back to disposables because of difficulty with washing, but that’s just my opinion.
So what are optical brighteners and how do they work? A reader comment on that old Mailbox Mondays post re-ignited my desire to figure this out. She linked a study that described them as water soluble dyes and theorized that they would then wash out. Each brand has proprietary ingredients & we don’t really know exactly how they work, but in general they are blue dyes that reflect yellow light & make clothing look whiter. Same theory as little old ladies using blue rinse on their hair.
I want to save the world as much as the next gal, but sometimes environmentalist websites can make statements that are questionable to me. I had actually found this fact sheet about optical brighteners in my research last year, but I kind of furrowed my brow when it said that optical brighteners are why line dried laundry feels stiff. I don’t believe that, and it makes the assertion that “brightening agents bind irreversibly to the skin” a little less believable. In fact, I think it’s simply the fibers of the fabric relaxing when wet, and drying rigid in the position in which they were hung. (Would be interesting to try to moisten & hang dry some “virgin” fabric and see what happens.)
So in the end, I truly don’t know for sure that they will or won’t cause diapers to repel, I only know that Tide & other detergents containing them work for many families. You really have to decide for yourself. I just hate to see people struggling with smelly diapers, spending tons of money on detergent after detergent and wasting countless gallons of water, just because they are afraid of standard detergents.
I can’t help but wonder though, if it is a water soluble dye, then why don’t flats or prefolds that people dye end up repelling? How does it differ? Is the assertion that a normal color dye penetrates the fiber, and once it absorbs as much as it can, it doesn’t absorb anymore, but that optical brighteners coat the fabric ? I guess the idea is that brighteners also bind to previously deposited brighteners, building up, rather than only binding to fabric with excess washing away? Why don’t my towels, wash cloths, rags etc. repel? I have some that I’ve washed with optical brighteners for 12 years.
If anyone has night vision equipment (LOL) my hubby has an idea for an experiment. 😉 I know that I am probably not popular in the cloth diaper world for rebelling against the “rules” and asking too many questions. Sometimes we forget that not everyone uses cloth because they are “crunchy” or want to save the earth. Perhaps more people might try cloth if they thought they could just try the detergent they use on their laundry, instead of hunting down special detergent. If you remember, the reason I didn’t cloth diaper my older son from birth was because I couldn’t find a “safe” detergent locally. When his rashes from disposables were out of control, I switched to cloth, and spent 6 months and a ton of money washing and rinsing and bleaching and rinsing and rinsing to no avail. Tide saved my butt and hasn’t hurt my sons’.
What do you think? Have you used a detergent with optical brighteners? Have any great info or links on how they work?