1/25/14: I want to add some repetition and explanations to this post. My reason for hesitating (for nearly 4 years) to share my thoughts about detergent was not because I wanted free stuff. I donate my review items anyway. It wasn’t because I wanted to be BFFs with any company owners. It was because I didn’t want to be the black sheep, ruffle feathers, step on toes, rock the boat…insert any other overused phrases here. It was because I have a deep respect for cloth diaper manufacturers, and I do not think the intentions behind the “no enzymes/brighteners or you’ll void your warranty” rules were malicious or solely to sell their detergent brand. These “safe” detergents work swimmingly for many! For others, they don’t. I hate to see people give up (or not try) cloth because of detergent rules. The fact that laundry science has shown that enzymes are not harmful, and that several reputable manufacturers and retailers support the use of mainstream detergents, gave me the courage to speak out. My hope is that further studies will glean more facts about enzymes/brighteners, and the stringent “rules” will be relaxed, making cloth diapers more accessible to more families. I still cringe at the idea of coming face to face with a CEO at a conference or trade show & getting the stink eye (or worse, getting reamed out) for this post (not that they’d have a clue who I was!)
Disclaimer: This post contains my own personal opinions. Carefully follow your manufacturer’s washing instructions to preserve your warranty. What do you use to wash your cloth diapers? What detergent should I use? These questions practically incite riots in the cloth diapering world. There is one way to do it and it’s my way. I have a dream that someday, diapers can be washed without all the drama! If you’re struggling to get your diapers clean, this is for you.
I wrote my post about washing cloth diapers nearly two years ago, largely based on survey responses. In that post, I outed myself as a “not safe” detergent user (going on 4 years now) and discussed my experiences with trying to get my diapers clean and follow the “rules.” In my opinion, the “right” detergent for you is one that gets your diapers clean without doing a dozen rinses, regular stripping, or turning your clothes inside out and chanting in front of the washer. (Kidding but really, some of these wash routines? Wow.)
For the first 6 months I cloth diapered, I followed all the oft repeated “rules” of washing my diapers in a miniscule amount of “safe” detergent, and “stripping” them weekly. I tried dawn dish soap (great for removing oily residue/diaper cream, not an alternative to washing your diapers with detergent! Also not good to put in your washer!) RLR (great for removing minerals, not a substitute for washing), bleach and more. At one point I was washing diapers quite literally 24 hours per day, for a month straight.
I would much rather see someone use cloth, than stick with disposables because they were afraid of the washing instructions. Rumparooz, Abby’s Lane, Diaper Junction and many other experienced, reputable businesses recommend standard detergent in normal amounts as a good option for washing diapers. Laundry science has shown that enzymes are not harmful to 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 a decade) that they do not. I’ve used standard detergent for
nearly more than 4 years, and aside from some slightly relaxed elastic and some hook & loop replacements after 2 years, my 4 year old diapers are clean, white & in great shape. I’ve just recently noticed some wear at the middle rise snap on 2 of my original-washed twice per day & stripped weekly-diapers. There was far more damage done to them by my constant washing & stripping in my opinion.
I understand that companies need to protect themselves, and I don’t presume to know what it’s like to run a business, or what sort of warranty claims come in. This is solely from a cloth diaper user’s point of view. In my mind, a warranty certainly should be voided in cases of misuse, but it’s difficult to imagine a warranty claim that could be caused by the use of fragrance, optical brighteners or the like. My cloth diaper washing survey results show that most people with any diaper damage were using “safe” detergents. Warranties generally exclude stink, repelling/loss of absorbency etc., and this is what people often say is caused by standard detergents. I believe some also feel that enzymes will cause rapid deterioration of diapers. I do sometimes wonder if things are just repeated because they have been said over the years to be damaging. In many cases, the recommendations can seem down right contradictory.
Some people gnash their teeth at the idea of using “toxic chemicals” to wash their child’s diapers. It’s really important to remember that not everyone uses cloth for the environmental factor, nor to avoid the chemicals in disposables. Had I not switched to standard detergent, I may well have given up on cloth diapers. For myself and my family, I’d highly prefer the possibility of having lingering chemicals from the detergent, than putting my sons in disposable diapers. Sure, ideally I’d use 100% natural everything, but I am perfectly fine with the environmental impact of my detergent vs. that of 20,000 disposable diapers. I am not saying that standard detergents are the only way. There are loads of natural detergents that families use with great success.
I want to encourage people to use cloth diapers, not frighten them away with expensive detergents and scary & complex wash routines. It is a very fine line – I can’t tell you to use a standard detergent if you are worried about your warranty. Even though I do not feel standard detergents will damage your diapers, I have to be careful about what I say. Flats & prefolds are very forgiving. Our grandmothers didn’t do anything crazy. Have you ever told your Grandmother about the insane wash routines, detergents, support groups and “detergent wars?” She’d probably think you were off your rocker. Now I realize that modern synthetic fabrics aren’t quite as forgiving, but still. These are not silk, lace, delicate or dry-clean only fabrics. Sure, if I bought a pricey dress, or a pair of designer jeans, I’d treat them with extra care. Otherwise, if I can’t throw you in with my other laundry, you don’t get to come home with me, sorry clothes!
I feel that quite often, things have been repeated like a game of telephone, throughout the cloth diapering “world.” When I began cloth diapering, everyone said only these detergents, use a teaspoon, strip with dawn etc. I eventually found out that most people repeating these things had either never tried, or hadn’t had any success with the methods they were recommending. Those who had a good wash routine were using different detergents, much more detergent, and were not “stripping.” People seem to be afraid to speak up and go against the grain. Myself included, since I don’t want to be the black sheep.
The terms “detergent buildup” and “detergent residue” have been tossed around a lot lately, sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes not. I do think that detergent residue is a real thing. Many people could toss their clothing into the wash with no detergent and see heaps of bubbles. However, I don’t think that using “too much detergent” can necessarily damage your diapers. My biggest concern would be a) irritation to your child’s skin if they are very sensitive b) damage to the fibers if the diapers were put in the dryer coated with detergent, from the chemicals left in the fabric being heated by the dryer. Even that is based only on the opinions of a laundry expert when addressing concerns about enzymes. Mr. Tinker spoke at a Laundry science webinar for RDIA members, and I wish it could be required watching for the general public! My son had terrible rashes from a single disposable, he is very sensitive in general, but his skin isn’t bothered by Tide. Some say “don’t even look for bubbles” and others say “rinse every bubble out.” I’m in the middle. Use the correct amount of detergent for the load size (line 1 for small, 2 for medium etc.) and add an extra rinse. If you see tons of bubbles (suds, not agitation bubbles) in the rinse, consider cutting back a bit. But don’t fret every bubble. If you used “too much” it will wash out, no worries! Are you finding that you need to “strip” regularly? If you have a good wash routine, you shouldn’t need to do this. It seems many people are essentially washing their diapers in water since they are using a huge load of diapers with a tiny bit of detergent. Then they “strip” with something that actually cleans the diapers, then fall back into the no-wash routine until the barnyard & ammonia smells are too much to handle, then strip again. Don’t be shy with detergent. Diapers need just as much detergent as your clothing!
There are many wonderful detergents on the market that were specifically created for cloth diapers, and many families have great success with them. If that’s you, awesome! Don’t change a thing. If you’re using it but feel like it’s not working for you, try increasing the amount you’re using. If you are washing full loads of diapers, particularly if you have hard water, you may need 1/4 cup or more, not 1/2 tablespoon.
I would personally not use a detergent with fabric softeners, and some free & clear detergents are said to cause buildup, though many use them successfully. The less you do to your diapers, the longer they will last, as long as they are getting clean!
In the end, these diapers are being filled with urine & stool 3+ times per week and washed – 400 or more times in a 2.5 year period! If you washed your favorite sweater 400 times, I don’t think you’d expect that it would look brand new with no fading or loose buttons, would you? Cloth diapers are meant to be used, and they pay for themselves very quickly. I don’t think they should still look brand new with springy elastic & perfect hook & loop after 1-2 children. In fact, I think if a one-size diaper can be used for more than one child with no repairs, it’s a huge bonus! I’ve handed down plenty of clothing from child to child however, one article of clothing wasn’t washed 3 times a week and worn continuously for 3 years. In fact, some items didn’t make it all the way through the second, while others were worn by all 3.
Unless your cloth diaper stash is made up of only one brand, and you follow their washing recommendations, you will most likely be breaking someone’s “rules” when you wash your diapers, since recommendations are all over the place. So, why not get your diapers clean, in whatever way works best for you? The only warranty claim (aside from a known delamination issue) I have ever made was for 3 of my original cloth diapers. The ones that had been washed and stripped constantly in “safe” detergents. Again, I know this is completely anecdotal, but my diapers are stink free and damage free, and my boys have remained rash free. No build up, no repelling, no stink, no damage, no stripping necessary, and I (GASP) use standard detergent in generous amounts.
There’s not a whole lot you can do to truly ruin your diapers, and as far as using a detergent that doesn’t work out, you can rinse it out and start over, no harm no foul. Some people are OK with even bleaching natural fibers (using diluted bleach) and I know that my mother-in-law and grandmothers bleached their cotton prefolds & flats. However, I eventually saw little holes in my natural fibers when I was bleaching my inserts to try to deal with the stink.
Hard water throws an extra monkey wrench in the age old advice since if you use a tiny amount of detergent, you are not only not cleaning your diapers, but you are redepositing all the minerals from your water, onto your diapers. If you have hard water, you might want to add water softener to every load, increase your detergent amount, or try a detergent with added softeners (some powdered standard detergents, or hard water cloth safe formulas.)
Are you having a hard time washing your diapers? Are you ready to throw in the towel & go back to disposables? Try a warm rinse, then a hot wash with a lot of detergent (the same amount you’d use if you were washing that amount of clothing) and a double rinse. Do they smell clean? No? Take a look in your laundry room. What are you using to wash your clothing? The simpler/fewer ingredients the better of course, but before you totally give up on those diapers, try your regular detergent. Again, this is simply my opinion and yes, that goes against what many manufacturers say, but if you’re getting ready to give up because of washing, don’t.
If I had known that I didn’t need special detergent and a complicated wash routine, I would have switched to cloth diapers sooner. Had I known to use a normal amount of detergent, I would have saved myself a LOT of time, money and headache! I hope that someday everyone will be able to wash their diapers in whatever works for them, without fear of “voiding a warranty” or being torn to shreds for their choice!
Check out the RDIA’s detergent search to find a detergent that meets your requirements. There are standard, commercially available detergents free of fragrance, softeners, brighteners etc.
What do you think about all the contradictory advice about washing cloth diapers?