Optical Brighteners & Cloth Diapers

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?

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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.
  • May 3, 2019 at 12:29 am

    […] Maria at Change-Diapers did some research back in 2012, and basically came up with the same thing I did.  […]

  • Diana So
    April 13, 2018 at 5:15 pm

    I found this while researching laundry detergent. Super old post, but holds relevant information and the comments are helpful with my decision!

    We’re going to be budgeting harder than we have been and I was looking into Purex, because we don’t care for Tide (makes our clothes dingy for some reason). So to see someone who uses the cheap Chinese diapers (like we will use) makes me feel better, cos I don’t want to go through too many trial and errors on cheap detergent to find the right formula. I want to use FOCA but our washer and dryer are HE and their powder is not HE friendly, so Purex it is!

  • ayron
    May 20, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    I cloth diaper because we are a family with an almost 2 year old and a baby on the way and this is one of the ways that allows me to be a stay at home mom. In the last few years I have gotten some what crunchy but that’s not why we do it. We do it cause it’s cheaper. I currently use only cheapo Chinese cloth diapers for $2 or $3 each online…. but when I did my research I decided right after reading a few blogs like yours and a few of the overly careful almost nonsensical ones that if I’m really trying to do cheaper I’m gonna have to buy affordable laundry soap and user the same for everything. I’ve used tide as well but I primarily use Purex. Either the linen and lilies naturals or the ultra mountain breeze. I can buy it for $6.97 at walmary for 150 oz. I use the exact same amount, if not a little more as I do for any other load of clothes. And I have never had any issues (side from our washer being down and having to use my mom’s and I got ammonia, but it’s fixed now). I generally line dry, though usually indoors and my inserts (micro fiber and bamboo for pocket diapers) don’t come out crunchy just the cloth wipes (flannel).

    • May 20, 2015 at 2:42 pm

      Thank you for your comments! It’s hard to believe this post is 3 years old now! At that time I was seriously a black sheep for using mainstream detergents and questioning warranties being voided for doing so. Now it seems to be more acceptable and people are scoffing at the “use half the amount” blah blah recommendations that used to be thrown around. When I wrote this post I’d been using Tide for two years and now I’m at 5 years (though I switched to Persil a few months ago after they changed the Tide scent).

      In 2010 I wrote a blog post series about “the future of cloth” and a lot of it is coming true, including that mainstream detergents are becoming more acceptable!

      As you pointed out, not everyone uses cloth for the same reasons, and while I don’t PUSH mainstream detergent (plenty of people have great success with “natural” versions) I think every family should feel comfortable choosing something that is right for them!

  • Michelle T
    May 11, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    This post may be old as dirt, but it still stands and should be read more! Finding your site while researching cding had been a breath of real life in a sea of ideals. Normal people have a real tough time finding information on cloth they can trust, and I feel this post would really help normal, nonactivist people lead a greener life by bringing some detergents stocked in grocery stores back into the conversation on cloth diapers.

    Keep up this blog please, I love it! (I probably stop by every day…)

    • May 12, 2014 at 7:58 am

      This was a great comment to wake up to. Thanks Michelle! I’m so glad it has been helpful and it’s very encouraging that my bring vocal about stuff like this is worth it!

  • Erika
    January 29, 2014 at 11:05 pm

    I always liked Foca (Mexican made) detergent for it’s cost and because it’s biodegradable but I’ve never used in my diapers. On a recent trip to the store I noticed it said it was phosphate-free as well. These are the ingredients: Water, anionic and non-ionic tensoactives, fragrance, water softeners, optical whitener and Blue 199. Beside the optical brightener and fragrance is there anything in here you wouldn’t “typically” use in your diapers? BTW,, my diapers also dry stiff on the line regardless of using cd “safe” diapers.

    • January 30, 2014 at 9:01 am

      Hi Erika. Foca is one that has received rave reviews for success with cloth diapers. Some manufacturers say you cannot use enzymes on your diapers, but many others say enzymes are helpful, as does “laundry science” (http://blog.bummis.com/2011/10/laundry-science.html) I agree that diapers will dry stiff even if brand new due to the tightening of the fibers!

  • Kim
    January 14, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    I am also the hated one on mcn (modem cloth nappy) sites over here in Australia. I use a washing liquid with enzymes and it works really well. It is the same one I have always used. I bought one of the safe ones (they are easy to buy here though, just the supermarket stocks them) and my nappies still had poo on them (stains) and smelled funky. Went back to my normal stuff and they are fine…. It doesn’t contain optical brighteners though, their liquid version doesn’t for some reason.

  • December 30, 2013 at 9:10 am

    […] diapers, and are in fact helpful. There is no truly scientific evidence (that I’ve seen) that optical brighteners will damage diapers/cause repelling, but there is tons of anecdotal evidence (people using them for […]

  • Amber
    November 20, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    As far as line drying goes, I line dry a lot of clothes and it actually has a lot to do with the movement of the fabric during the drying process. A light breezy day is perfect for line drying which results in soft laundry with NO fabric softener and a hot day is horrible because the fabric drys too quickly and has less movement during the drying process. I like to dry all of our laundry that way when I can, but it’s often too rainy.

    I found you because I’ve had stink issues that I can’t get rid of and rashing as well. I use Rockin Green currently and had issues with Charlie’s too. I’ve tried everything BUT conventional detergent and I’ve been feeling ready to turn in the towel. I may have to try this first and read some of your other information.

    • November 21, 2012 at 8:33 am

      Have you tried EcoSprout? Lots of families for whom RnG doesn’t work, find success with EcoSprout. Of course, I am loyal to Tide, but I know not everyone is comfortable with it!

  • May 27, 2012 at 9:15 am

    yup we have used Tide and it does a great job. The worst thing would be: they repel and you have to buy a different detergent or strip every now and then. That is much better than millions of unused detergents on your shelf. I’ve been there!

  • May 24, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    “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.”…”
    Sometimes we forget that not everyone uses clot…h 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.”… these are my two favorite lines from the post…we do not use optical brightners because if you look at my husband’s arm in my profile picture and at him in my wall photo he is in the military and optical brightners are a no no for his uniform…my baby also has been getting rashes from stuff so we use all free and clear…I did order some special detergant today, but more just because the scent intrigued me and I wanted the free diaper from Kelly’s Closet and well I have been buying mroe diapers than I need laterly (including two at Abby’s Lane, two in my cart at ecobaby buy, 10 on their way from eco-baby buy, one from etsy, and the 6 I just got from Kelly’s Closet last week 😉 )…maybe I can sell my cheap China diapers soon and stock up on USA made ones…but I digress…I commend you for your post and the fact that you are doing what you can, but showing that you don’t have to be full fledged crunchy to cloth diaper 🙂 thanks Maria 🙂

  • May 24, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    I think cotton diapers are a lot less picky with detergents, and that is something to keep in mind as well for people looking into doing cloth. I used a yucky-fakey-scented cheapo detergent on my prefolds for quite some time. Couldn’t figure out why my ONE pocket diaper always gave my son a rash…it was the detergent. I use Country Save now b/c I have a good local place to get it and have more variety in my stash. But when my stash was 99% cotton fabrics, anything seemed to work.

    I would love to see some surveys showing the results of long-term use of various detergents, taking into account the diaper type and hardness of water etc.

    • May 24, 2012 at 7:45 pm

      I didn’t ask diaper type on my survey. Good point!

  • Beth
    May 24, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    I love Calgon! Plus, I’ve used regular detergent, and also homemade detergent. Both work fine.
    The good thing about posting this type of thing is that it helps those who are starting to think about Cloth to save money. I recently had a friend who had done some research and she ended up deciding not to cloth because of all the reading she did on the “safe” wash routine. When I told her our wash routine, and how laid back we were with cloth diapers she decided to take the plunge (which is fantastic since she’ll be adding twins in just a few months)

  • judi
    May 24, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Just an FYI, no optical brighteners in my current detergent and my clothes still come off of the line crispy.

    • May 24, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      Thanks! Good to know. 🙂

  • Amii
    May 24, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Ive used tide in a pinch with no adverse results at all. Also, I’ve found a little Calgon to be quite beneficial with ammonia and build up.

  • Corrie
    May 24, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I just started using Tide a week ago but my diapers already smell much better and so far we haven’t had issues with repelling. It might be early to say that it’s not hurting our diapers but at least the stink is gone that even Funk Rock wouldn’t wash away.

  • May 24, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    I like you MORE for your bravery in saying what I’ve had trouble understanding for forever: if it’s fine for my clothes, why not for diapers? They’re not made out of a magic fabric! I struggled for MONTHS with a tiny baby as a first time mom and diapers I couldn’t get clean (um, overwhelmed, much?) My sister (who was living with us) was unhappy that the CD-safe detergent I was making everyone use on their clothes was starting to cause stink issues on her workout clothes, and my hubby didn’t like the CD-safe fabric softener I started using on our clothes (so it wouldn’t get on the inside of the washer and damage the diapers!) After a LOT of trial and error (and a TON of research on diaperswappers and listening to other moms like you!) I finally switched back to a commercial detergent, went back to using normal Downy on our clothes (I don’t use it on the diapers, but everything else gets it!) and haven’t looked back! It’s been over a year now, and no issues! I don’t know anything about optical brighteners, but I figure if Tide works for my family on our clothes (nobody has any enzyme or fragrance sensitivities) then it’s fine for the diapers 😉

  • Katie
    May 24, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    I have wondered the same things! Why is it that our jeans or shirts don’t repel when they get wet in the rain? I realize cloth diapers are made differently but, aren’t they made out of the same fabrics as our clothes. Our clothes don’t have buildup from our everyday detergents. I use All free and clear with Oxy in it and never had a problem. My only issues are ammonia. And that gets resolved when I bleache them. With that said I want to try Tide powder. I have for a while now. But daughter doesn’t have sensitivities to anything. Fingers crossed x! Thanks for this article 🙂

  • May 24, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Well, I can be tarred and feathered with you. I had a tough time with the “cloth diaper” detergents. My diapers had stank no matter what one I used. I started using my standard store brand generic detergent on them (just less than you would for a normal wash), and I have not looked back. You just have to make sure you rinse all the soap out, and I think that is the main problem so many people have with their diapers. They don’t get all of the soap out.

  • May 24, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    […] I wrote another post about […]

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