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Why I Care About The Cloth Diaper Detergent “Rules”

#clothdiapers detergent wars via @chgdiapers

Why is cloth diaper detergent such a hot button issue for me? Why do I care how you wash your diapers? Why does an internet “fight” about this way vs. that way, and arguments over semantics make me want to tear my hair out? Well, first of all because the detergent rules/fear is what stopped me from cloth diapering earlier, and I was pretty ticked when I found out that what I’d been told through the old game of telephone was simply untrue (yet 4 years later, the same things are repeated daily.)

Second, because I struggled for SIX MONTHS with washing issues and now I HATE to see people going through what I went through. Washing 20 diapers in the largest load setting, yet using 1/2 tsp of detergent. For poop. And pee. And wondering why the diapers reek.

Third, it drives me bonkers when people say “but I use 1/2 tsp of xyz detergent to wash 20 diapers and it works GREAT!” Yet that same person needs to constantly strip diapers, use additives, and may even resort to bleach, or using mainstream detergent to “strip.” Then those same people are in groups/boards etc. telling new cloth diaper users the same old stuff about washing diapers. Your diapers will not get clean with water alone (and yes, 1/2 tsp of detergent in a large load is essentially water alone.) If they don’t smell clean, they aren’t.

Use the proper amount of detergent, whatever detergent you choose. A larger load size requires more detergent. More water does not equal better for cloth diapers. It’s a delicate balance between temperature, agitation and water. Too much water means the diapers float around vs. agitating against each other (or the agitator in a top loader.) Hard water requires even more detergent. The detergent has to “work” on the minerals in the water, so if you are barely using any, there’s no more left to work on the diapers! Repeated rinsing can cause more issues with hard water as minerals are re-deposited on the diapers. (Note: consider Calgon water softener if you have very hard water.)

Lastly, I hate to see people decide against cloth because they are frightened of voiding warranties, or switch back to disposables because they can’t get their diapers clean by following the “rules.” I think manufacturers are doing consumers a huge disservice by saying that mainstream detergents will void warranties, and implying that they will damage the diapers or hurt your child. No two manufacturers seem to say exactly the same thing either, even though many brands are very, very similar in construction/materials. I double hate that I am so, so afraid to say something like that, lest I totally alienate myself, make all diaper manufacturers hate me, and ruin any chances of working with anyone ever again. On the other hand, I’m not alone here! There are many reputable manufacturers and retailers that recommend using normal amounts of detergent, even (GASP) mainstream detergents. They have decades of anecdotal evidence between them, to show that your diapers won’t repel, stink or fall apart, which is about all the “other side” has. (Also dislike that I feel like I’m “choosing sides.” I’m on team clean diapers!)

I don’t think there is ONE detergent or ONE perfect method of washing that is right (not having trouble? Great, don’t change a thing!), but at least use the proper amount of detergent, and realize that stinky diapers and requiring regular stripping means your diapers aren’t clean. Take a look at your wash routine and with some small tweaks, you can get them clean without a bunch of hoopla!

Have you struggled with washing diapers? Did the oft repeated “rules” steer you wrong?

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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.
  • March 17, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    I think these rules are newer. With my first three I never ran into such debates (18-13 yrs ago). Then by baby 4 I started hearing these rules. I live that you are team clean diapers. I consider my routine to be common sense. I wash my diapers much like my regular laundry except that I add vinegar (which I consider personal choice). Second I do diapers every 2-3 days to avoid ammonia build up. Oh I also dry in the sun when possible which I dont do with reg laundry unless stained. I dont use bleach or fabric softener etc but I dont in my regular laundry either. Personally I think the “rules” are a big scam. But not using enough detergent? That’s just not sensible (as you said(. J have never had to strip for ammonia.

    • March 17, 2014 at 10:04 pm

      I need a “like” button for your comment. 🙂

  • January 16, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    Great post! I started out with one routine that I felt was very excessive after a few months, so I pared it down little by little. My test: diaper stink. It’s usually only a few covers or inserts. If a diaper or insert stinks, I don’t dry it in the dryer. I reuse it and wash it again and there is no more stink. I have found that I have less stink since getting rid of the pre-soak cycle and the extra rinse.

    I use the natural detergent’s recommended amount for a Small or Medium load (not the 1/2 tsp or tbsp as I have read for cloth diapers). No issues with detergent build up or stink.

  • Melissa C.
    January 16, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    It’s always refreshing to me when I see manufacturers give sound, rational laundry advice (thanks, Grovia!). On the “Flip” side it really irritates me that the most prominent cloth diaper company out there has some pretty arcane rules in their warranty and recently posted in their facebook fan group that members shouldn’t post wash routine suggestions that are contrary to the warranty rules. Oy! What am we supposed to tell people new to cloth diapers when they’re inadvertently putting stinky, bacteria-laden diapers on their kids?

  • Becky N.
    January 16, 2014 at 9:25 am

    I struggled with the laundry detergent issue early on, but now I have finally figure out my laundry woes and get everything straightened out. Now I have a method that works for me. I try to not give laundry advice because, as you said, every person’s water and washing machine are different. What works for me, may not work for them. I hate that the manufacturers try to say ‘you must use a detergent from this list or else’….the detergents on their list didn’t work for us! I just want clean diapers that don’t stink, regardless what I have to use to get them.

  • Stacy T.
    January 15, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    I started cloth diapering about a month ago, so I’m new at this. I have started to wonder about the exact same things you wrote about. Thank you for confirming that I’m on the right track. I’m also on Team Clean Diapers.

    • January 15, 2014 at 6:22 pm

      I feel like we should have “Team Clean Diapers” t-shirts. 😉

  • christine k
    January 15, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    *We also had a huge rash issue and my poor munchkin had horrible open sores. Our diapers looked and smelled clean, but after 6 months of using too little detergent (which we thought was enough at that time, of course) he ended up with horrible sores. They didn’t go away until he pretty much stopped using cloth, though after we switched our routine around, they were much less frequent. Instead of lots of really sad spots, he would get one that never became open and it would be tiny and didn’t even hurt him. (He’s really sensitive to stuff in general). My daughter has never had an issue (she is 6mo currently)

  • Kelly S
    January 15, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    I’d rather void a warranty than deal with stinky diapers and monthly bleaching.
    I think diaper warranties are pretty useless anyways.

  • christine k
    January 15, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    we have really hard water and I use 1 scoop (2 tbsp) for my prewash and 2 scoops for my wash (I use tiny bubbles). I dissolve my detergent in hot water before adding so i have less of a chance of it not breaking down all the way thus not cleaning my diapers fully or leaving residue which would lead to repelling. I love Tiny bubbles… we use it for everything now 🙂

  • Elizabeth
    January 15, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    The RDA needs to get its crap together and spank the manufacturers. They need to create broad categories of acceptable detergents for the various fabrics, versus all this mumbo jumbo that they are spreading about. TPU/PLU/microfiber/cotton/hemp/etc. Can you tell that I’m irritated?

  • January 15, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Hahaha, Team Clean Diapers, I LOVE that! I’m on that team, too 🙂 And it is frustrating when you have multiples of the same diaper washed in the same conditions, and ONE of them goes bad (if it was really my wash routine wouldn’t they ALL be falling apart? Why are the leg elastics all stretched out on only ONE of those? And why aren’t any of my other similar items doing the same thing, then?)

  • January 15, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    We fought rashes for about a year using CD detergents. The diapers smelled and looked clean so we never suspected that was our problem. We battled countless painful rashes, doctor appointments, needle sticks for allergies all to find out that once we switched to Tide and used the correct amount the rashes went away. I switched when we moved to a hard water area and didn’t want to buy 401 laundry products just for diapers. Now we only get rashes due to acidic poo once in a while but they’re nothing like the open, painful rashes he had before. I have never had to make a warranty claim on any of my (many) diapers in 2½ years so I’m okay with the “risk” though I do think it’s really silly to void a warranty based on a detergent that is known to work fine for diapers.

    I know these detergents work well for others but my son seems to be pretty sensitive and they don’t work for us without using more than the recommended amount and doing a soak beforehand. It’s not cost or time effective for me, unfortunately.

  • January 15, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    It never even occured to me that too much water could be a bad thing too. Unfortunately my machine has only two setting, full to the brim or why are you even running a load with that little in it.
    I am helping host a local cloth diaper workshop/get together and what we decided as a group to share as cloth diaper washing info is samples of our methods and to state that no two laundry machines are the same and it is trial and error. It can be a challenge finding the right ratio for your wash load and the only thing that you don’t want in your wash ever is fabric softeners.

  • January 15, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    It took me a little while to figure out the wash routine that works best for us to get the diapers clean but the one thing that was always consistent was using enough detergent. You’re right, it’s key!

  • Elizabeth
    January 15, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    The entire detergent issue is my only problem with cloth. I have cloth diapered 3 kids. I’d love the ease of use of pockets/AIO/hybrids/etc., but the reality is that they require special care that I don’t have the time to give. When I had problems with my pockets, the manufacturers jumped all over me with detergent questions, machine cycle questions, and drying questions, and I *was* using special detergent and an acceptable routine. If your $30 pocket diaper requires such special care that I am afraid to use it, and knowing that the manufacturers will treat all warranty requests with an insane amount of customer distrust – I’m going to stick with plain Jane prefolds and straight cotton fitteds.

  • Jessica
    January 15, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    I use extra clothdiaper detergant than recomended. We have hard water so I use calgon sometimes and bleach sometimes when I run out of cd detergant I will deff switch to TIDE. You are right about manufacturaer

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