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 up to a full scoop 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 generous amount of detergent (the same amount you’d use if you were washing that amount of clothing) and a 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?
[…] spent hours researching the “correct” detergent to use, the proper washing process, and how, why, and how often I should “strip” the diapers. […]
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[…] spent hours researching the “correct” detergent to use, the proper washing process, and how, why, and how often I should “strip” the diapers. […]
By “cloth diaper” do you mean all kinds and parts of cloth diaper?? I’ve washed all my prefolds and they are ready to go, but now Im trying to figure out the covers!! (next will come the pocket diapers) I don’t mind risking the warranty, but I really don’t want to ruin the PUL on these expensive covers!! Would appreciate any help. Thanks!
Hi Julie, prefolds & flats are very forgiving, which is why our mothers/grandmothers used Ivory Snow, wet pails etc. and didn’t fuss over this like we do!
That said, the PUL & elastic in “modern” cloth diapers & covers will be fine with standard detergents. More brands are no longer voiding warranties for standard detergents and some even recommend them.
I don’t suggest regularly bleaching anything with PUL or elastic but otherwise it’s highly unlikely that you will damage your diapers. Hope that helps!
Hi, my prefolds are turning to shreds after only a few months of use. I’ve always used the rockin green or other very similar powder. I can’t figure out why this is happening. Any ideas?
Do you have any issues with your clothing? Have you changed washing machines etc? Do you soak them or just wash?
Are you pretty sure you are getting them clean each time you wash? So sorry this is happening to you!
I will soon be a first time mom and plan on cloth diapering. I was researching cloth diaper washing and freaked out that I had to have special detergent. I usually use Tide on my clothes. My question is does it matter if it is powder or liquid, Original or not original formula, do you have to wash in warm or hot or does cold work just fine? Finally, do you have to wash your new diapers (inserts) a bunch of times to “open up the fibers” or some such thing or can you just proceed to GO?
Hi Mindy, congrats! Avoid any Tide that contains fabric softeners. Other than that, you can use whatever works well for your family’s clothing. Powder has water softeners that the liquid does not so it can sometimes be a better choice for hard water.
I recommend washing on hot but some families have success washing on cold. You only need to “prep” natural fibers. If you have pocket diapers with microfiber inserts, simply wash once. Cotton and hemp should be washed a few times to remove natural oils before using but you can expect them to gain absorbency for 6-8 (or more) wash & dry cycles. I often use natural fibers right away after 1 wash, knowing that I need to change more quickly until they are prepped!
Thank you for this, im expecting my first and can’t tell you how much research I have done on cloth diapers. Not going to lie the whole washing/ figuring out your water is intimidating.
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this is very helpful and useful for a newbie like me
I think it’s so interesting that there is so much heated debate on this subject. I haven’t started CD yet because I’m pregnant with my first, but it’s so difficult to know what you should actually do!
Don’t overthink it & don’t let detergent stop you from using cloth! Try a brand recommended by the manufacturer of your diaper. If that isn’t possible, or doesn’t work for you, look for something without bleach or fabric softeners, that works for your family on laundry! 🙂
This is very helpful!
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I just want to say that I appreciate this. It’s a voice that is not heard often and not enough light is given to when people are putting their complete trust in what other say they should do instead of trying it out for themselves. At almost a year later, your post is still strong and a very relative topic.
There are two sides to all stories and you really do have to find what works for you. I think you presented your information in a fairly unbiased way that makes readers consider what they are actually doing to clean these products as opposed to what they feel they should be doing or at least try.
I have not yet had my first little one, but I was never going to get caught up in the “what is going to be best detergent for my child and diapers according to the big names” game. Personally, I don’t feel it has to be that crucial. Find your detergent and establish your routine and do what you have to do. Trust YOURSELF. Everyone is different. What you find that works for you…let it work for you. It doesn’t have to be what everyone else does.
Just think back to the times when NONE of this was available. Come on, just use your intuition and COMMON SENSE (which is not all that common nowadays…)
Any who, I said all of that just to say thanks. Thanks for helping others to see that it doesn’t have to be what is most popular or accepted at the time, that textbook is not so bad to go back to.
Has anyone used Tide with hemp inserts? what about bamboo? I have microfiber as well. I use BumGenius detergent now and don’t feel it’s getting stuff clean. But I don’t want to switch to Tide and ruin the natural fibers. Any thoughts?
I have four hemp blend inserts which I currently wash with Tide. I used Grovia bamboo prefolds in newborn sizes & washed those with Tide as well. Other than a little staining on the prefolds, which came out in time with washing & sunning, it’s been good!
Finally! I am so glad to have found this!!! Thank you!!
Thanks for the very useful information! Have been cloth diapering for two years now, using regular detergent and cold water in a top-loading washing machine (not HE). I used to follow the instructions to use just 1/2 or even 1/4 of the usual detergent amount but found that this left my inserts stiff and the shells stinky, even when stripping every 2 months or so. Now my routine is:
1. Cold pre-wash with no detergent
2. Regular wash with extra rinse cycle using regular amount of detergent
I used Tide Original (powder) when we were in the Philippines and am currently using Arau Baby Laundry Soap (liquid) here in Japan. Both detergents leave my inserts and shells fluffy and smelling like nothing although I stripped more often in the Philippines as we had hard water there. Have not had any repelling issues with my diapers (Fuzzibunz, Kawaii Baby and Sunbaby), and I only strip when they start to stink. All of the diapers in my stash look great, and the elastics in the waist and legs are still going strong. I was so worried about not having hot water to wash the diapers in at first, but it’s really not an issue once you find the detergent and wash routine that work for you.
I’m so glad you figured out a great wash routine!
I am about to start cloth diapering my youngest, and this is all great information.
Aren’t you supposed to sun bleach your diapers if they’re looking dingy. I haven’t tried it yet (and I’m not sure where I would in my apartment) but it’s supposed to help.
Some manufacturers allow, or even encourage it. I find that the sun is the best thing for dingy diapers!
I’ve never understood why people think that their cloths need a strong detergent (and plenty of it) but that poopy diapers only need a teaspoon of some special safe detergent to get clean. For the record, I use Tide and it works great for me. No problems, so no reason to change. I wonder what everything thinks their grandparents washed dirty diapers in?
This was a very helpful post, as I have struggled with ammonia buildup and rash issues. I have been using Charlie’s but would like to try Tide!
I use the cloth diaper “safe” detergent but I have actually used my homemade laundry detergent to clean my cloth diapers and found it worked pretty well. There was a little smell though. However, after reading your article I think I will wash again but using a little more and see how they clean up. Thanks for posting!
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I followed the rules…and it gave me stink issues. The barnyard kind. Until I just said to my husband are you okay with me possibly voiding the warranty on our diapers. I opened the box of *unsaid laundry detergent* that I bought to kill the moss on the roof (you read that right). Didn’t get to doing it because I had a m/c and then I found out we were having a rainbow baby. So it had been sitting on the shelf until I read this post. Tired of fighting stink issues and our hard water. The diapers come out clean. Also, I must say I never used this brand before because I had skin rashes from it (I was told) and so far nothing has come of the detergent. Wanted you to know this post helped me make the move to get my diapers clean. At least for now.
Very glad to hear that!
Bravo! Very well said, what a fantastic post! 🙂
Here, here! I am a proud Tide user at the normal amount for a load. I have super clean diapers, no more rashes from diapers that aren’t clean enough, a super easy wash routine, and I have never had to strip my diapers . I recommend it to anyone who isn’t opposed to a non-natural alternative.
If only I was this eloquent… Kudos… I do use F&C (tide) and like you use 1 for small load, 2 for bigger load, etc. works very well. I dont look for bubbles.. I dont care about bubbles. I care about clean and rash free… know when my kid got a rash? when I tried using a ‘hard water’ ‘safe’ detergent.. burned the bejeezus out of her and caused ammonia stink as well. I eventually had barnyard issues I couldn’t get rid of with microfiber, but they’d been through over a year of hard water with ‘safe’ detergents and I just couldn’t face stripping them with dawn or trying to scrub them so of course.. you know, I went with flats. Best. move. ever!
Awesome article! I wish I could have figured out the same thing when I first cloth diapered my girl. I started out using Arm and Hammer I think, and then I was told that I couldn’t by a major cloth diaper store, so I started using ‘cloth safe’ detergent. My girl got terrible rashes so I ended up giving up when she was five months, after endless stripping and rashes. I tried everything under the sun except dancing naked and chanting and using a commercial detergent. lol Now I use pretty much whatever I have without any problems. I just make sure to do an extra, separate rinse on my synthetics.
I have been making my own powdered laundry detergent out of feels naptha, baking soda, washing soda, borax, and the oxi clean without fragrance. Is this safe to use on cloth diapers? I have yet to start cloth diapering as my baby is due in 8 weeks. I need to start prepping the diapers I do have and I am worried the detergent won’t be safe. Can anyone help me?
By the “rules,” no. However, tons and tons of people use homemade “recipes” like this with success.
Thank you for posting this! There are so many people that worry like crazy over how to wash their diapers. I really do think that the cloth diaper world in general is over thinking their wash routine. I mean your t-shirt does not repel or anything crazy when it gets wet.
So what is the entire process you use to clean? Do you ever strip them? I’m new to cloth diapering and love the idea of using regular detergent! You described me exactly when you said people can get overwhelmed with how to clean them!!
I do a warm “speed wash” (I don’t have a warm rinse option) with no detergent. Then I do a hot heavy duty wash/double rinse with a generous amount of Tide. Line 1 if I’m doing a small load, line 2 for medium & line 3 for large. I also add a small amount of Oxi Clean free when I have really soiled loads. I have soft water so if I peek & see a lot of suds in the rinse cycle I’ll add in a warm quick wash for a good rinse. I don’t babysit it, but if I happen to be in there! That’s pretty much the extent of any “stripping” I do – an extra wash/rinse or two now & again!
Ok thanks!! Does it matter that we are using prefolds? Do those need to be washed any differently? Also do you use the thing in the toilet to wash them off before you put them in the washing machine?
Katie, prefolds are actually some of the easiest to wash! Much easier than microfiber products. I do not use a diaper sprayer. I shake/plop what I can (I use a square or two of TP if it’s really icky and doesn’t come off easily) and the rest goes in the wash. If I have a yucky one right after I’ve washed (figures, eh?) so it will sit for a bit, I sometimes swish it (made a video to show how to do this without putting your hand in the toilet!: https://change-diapers.com/2011/02/video-demo-of-the-dunk-swish-flush-method/)
Thanks for the feedback! I used Nellie’s in coin-op wash initially, and dd had bad burns. 🙁 I used free and clear mainstream detergents for a while (Purex and Sunlight) with success, but was afraid of build-up due to the optical brighteners. I started switching detergents. Maybe I should go back to the Sunlight after all…
Thank you for this! I started out washing my diapers in my regular Arm and Hammer and never had any problems. Then people convinced me I needed to use something “safe” and had the hardest time getting them clean! Baby #2 is due in March and I’m so glad I know better now. Regular bleaching can definitely cause problems but I always do a bleach soak on used diapers just in case there’s anything lurking like yeast.
I am past my due date do have not started cloth diapering yet but I am super excited. I bought some rumparooz off diaperswappers (which I regret my purchase because the day after I found them on sale for the price I paid unused and didn’t realize they were aplix but that’s beside the point. They smell, not exactly sure like what but its pretty strong and after one wash with tide it is still there. Do you have a suggestion for the easiest way to get the smell out? I just did a regular wash because they were supposedly washed before I got them. Thanks for your help!
Hmm…is it a barnyard smell, ammonia smell, musty smell? Just in the insert or on the diaper itself?
It’s the insert and the diapers. It’s almost a chlorine or chemical smell. Definitely not ammonia or barnyard. Smells chemical kinda to me and I wonder if it wasn’t the brand of detergent and I just dislike the smell.
Hmm…I wonder if they had bleached them? What I would do is re-wash with extra detergent, then follow with lots of washes & rinses.
This is so so refreshing! I have had it with ammonia build up on my diapers and my daughter’s awful rash. I was about to spend days boiling them all as a last ditch effort – but I think I might try my regular detergent (and enough of it) first! I mean, why shouldn’t the diapers have ammonia build up?! I was using hardly any detergent!
Sing it, sister. I’m not going to put petrified urine and feces on my kid’s bottom for the sake of a warranty or a wicked stupid “safe detergent” chart. There are some manufacturers, like Bummis and Grovia, that give good advice. Use the full amount of a good-cleaning detergent and give it an extra rinse. Nothing complicated. No fabric-eating soaking necessary.
For us (since we use dumb coin-op machines): whites wash with Tide Ultra HE powder to -2- or -3- depending on load size and age; whites wash with nothing; dry anything absorbent on medium, dry covers and empty pockets on our Ikea octopus. The end.
I hate the “rules” of washing! It def makes things intimidating. But I’m a researcher, so after exhausting TONS of searches, reading countless blogs I finally started a routine. And then did the same thing when I needed to prep gently used diapers. I was so undecided on using bleach that it took me a few days to finally stick them in the washer and get them prepped! I think our routine is working but we’ve only been at it for just over a month.
m so glad it only took me a little over a month to decide F it just use tide! and use the recommended amount because I’m sick of that barnyard smell out of the dryer. gross. I really don’t know why the very knowledgeable lady at the cloth diaper store recommended I use 1/4 amount of recommended country save when it just straight up doesn’t work! I mean it must work for some, she cloth diapered three kids, but still… so glad I’m a google fiend and was able to find the solution for me. I am a bit weary of going over the 1 line on my tide scoop and will continue to have reservations ever since my mil washed my diapers and they WREAKED of detergent and fabric softener. I didn’t ask but she must have used a heaping full scoop of tide. it was awful – even the covers. I washed them of course and rinsed 5832847 times. of course. like I said- still scared if “buildup” I guess 😉