My cloth diaper laundry regimen has changed a lot in the last two years. When Isla was first born, we lived in Portland, where the water is very soft and where Isla’s breastmilk poops could easily be laundered away with a little bit of gentle, environmentally-friendly soap. Over time, though, as we’ve transitioned to solid foods and moved to Austin, where the water is hard, we’ve had to change how we wash our cloth diapers in order to keep them clean, fresh-smelling, and stain-free.
Despite the changes, though, there are a few constants to successfully keeping your diapers clean:
- Launder with hot water.
- Launder with enough water.
- Launder with enough of the right detergent, which will vary depending on the hardness of your water, your washing machine, and your feelings about the environment.
- Do not use fabric softener or detergents with fabric softeners.
- Remove excess poop from diapers before laundering.
- Wash all diapers within 3 days of use.
- Avoid using diaper rash creams that contain petroleum jelly, paraffin, mineral oil, and also possibly zinc oxide when your baby is in cloth.
With a good cleaning regimen, you should have diapers that smell good, are free from stains, and which do not repel or cause rashes or redness on your baby. If a diaper stinks or is stained, it isn’t clean, and if a diaper is repelling or causing redness, it’s likely that soap, detergent, diaper rash cream, and/or yeast and bacteria which need to be removed from the diaper. More on that below.
Launder with Hot Water
Make sure you wash your diapers with hot water. You can do a cold pre-rinse and a cold rinse, but when you are washing your diapers, hot water is best. The reason for this is less about killing germs, as most washing machines don’t get hot enough to be very effective at killing germs. Rather, most detergents work best in hot water. If you use a detergent formulated to work well in cold water, then consider using cold water, but for the most part, hot water is best for cleaning our most disgusting items–like towels, sheets, socks, gym clothes, and diapers–because that’s how you get the most cleaning power from your detergent.
Launder with Enough Water
This is a pretty obvious issue and often an easy issue to troubleshoot if you’re having laundry issues. Plenty of water is required to give clothes and other items enough room to agitate out dirt and soil. When you wash anything in a washing machine, once the machine fills with water, the items in the wash should be able to move about freely. A good rule of thumb is to dip your hand into a machine once it’s filled with water and see if you can move your hand easily through the items. If you can’t, you aren’t using enough water. If you’ve noticed your diapers stinking, one of the first things you can try to fix is making sure you have enough water. Shrink the size of your loads or up the water settings. Sometimes, this is enough to solve your stink problems.
Launder with Enough of the Right Detergent
Detergent has become something of a controversial topic in the cloth diapering world of late. You will generally find people are of two opinions: 1) Tide and other conventional detergents are the Holy Grail of cloth diaper laundry, and 2) the road to cloth diaper laundry hell is paved with Tide, and you should stick to cloth diaper-friendly detergents. My personal opinion? Both sides have valid points, and both sides are typically able to find a successful way to launder their diapers without doing too much damage.
- Conventional Detergents: Many people manage to use conventional detergents on their diapers without many problems. Particularly if you live in an area with hard water, you might find that conventional detergent gives you the bang you need to knock out persistent stink issues, as the petroleum-based surfactants in conventional detergents are specifically geared to combat minerals in hard water which can build up on your clothes. Conventional detergents are also typically less expensive than cloth diaper-friendly detergents. The downside to conventional detergents are: 1) they are not environmentally-friendly and contain a number of chemicals you may not want to expose your child to, including fragrances and dyes which your child or even you may be allergic to; 2) some chemicals in conventional detergents, including optical brighteners and fragrance, can lead to build-up on your diapers, which long-term will trap bacteria and may cause diapers to repel and stink; and 3) the chemicals may be harsher on your diapers and cause your diapers to wear faster than with a CD-friendly detergent, and for this reason, using conventional detergents may void the warranty on your cloth diapers from certain manufacturers.
- Cloth Diaper-Friendly Detergents: These detergents are often made without the fragrances, dyes, and optical brighteners that can cause build-up on diapers from conventional detergents. Because they are made with gentler chemicals, they may allow your diapers to last longer, and using these will ensure the manufacturer warranty on your diapers remains in tact. Cloth diaper-friendly detergents are made with natural oil- and fat-based surfactants, and less of other harsh chemicals, which generally make them better for the environment. You are less likely to encounter chemicals and fragrances which cause allergic reaction on babies. The downsides to cloth diaper-friendly detergents: 1) they typically are more expensive; 2) they can be hard to purchase locally; 3) the oil- and fat-based detergents may not work as well if you have hard water, so you will need either to find a detergent which is intended for hard water (like Rockin’ Green’s Hard Rock) or use an additive which combats hard water, like Calgon, to prevent soap and detergent build up on your diapers.
Once you’ve picked the right detergent, be sure you are using the right amount. If you have soft water, you will need less detergent. If you have hard water, you will need more detergent. If you use too little detergent, your diapers will not get clean. If you use too much detergent, the detergent may not be completely washed out. You can tell you are using the right amount of detergent when your laundry is soapy and sudsy on the wash cycle, but much less so in the rinse cycle. Too little detergent, your laundry will never get soapy or sudsy. Too much detergent, and your diapers will still be very sudsy in the rinse cycle. You can rinse out a diaper in your sink in this case to see just how much soap lingers on the diaper when you use too much detergent. A lot of people recommend doing a second rinse, even when you use the right amount of detergent, just to make sure you’ve gotten all the detergent out.
Note that if you have an HE washer, you will either need to use less detergent or use an HE-specific detergent.
Do Not Use Fabric Softener
This is a biggie, and virtually everyone agrees that fabric softeners on diapers are a terrible idea. Fabric softeners work by creating a coat of lubricating chemicals on fabric. If you’ve ever used too much fabric softener on your towels, you might be aware of what too much fabric softener can do to fabrics–fabrics lose their absorbency! Obviously, diapers’ ability to absorb is the entire point, so we don’t want to do anything to cause them to start repelling liquids. Don’t use fabric softeners and be on the look out for fabric softeners (not to be confused with water softeners, which help to soften hard water and make your detergent more effective) in your detergent.
Remove Excess Poop From Diapers
From my personal experience, this really depends on your baby’s diet and the kind of water you have, but generally speaking, it’s always a good idea to remove excess poop from your diapers before throwing them in the machine. If your baby is exclusively breastfed, this is one you can skip, but once you add solids, and certainly once your older child is exclusively eating solids, poop can become a big, stinky, chunky mess.
Dump all solid poops into the toilet, and for runny poops, do your best to remove as much of the excess as you can by dunking, swirling, and spraying into the toilet. A little poop in your washing machine will pretty easily be broken up and washed down the drain, along with everything else, and breastmilk poops are water-soluble and will break up easily as well. But if you have a lot of poop in a diaper, it’s not going to break down all the way and you may end up with tiny chunks of fecal matter all over everything in your washing machine. (I’m not saying this happened to me, but if this did happen to me, I would pull everything out of the laundry, remove as much poop as I could into the toilet, thoroughly clean the washing machine, and then rewash everything.)
Popular tools for removing poop:
- Diaper sprayer: This bad boy attaches to your toilet and is a quick and easy way to spray excess poop off your diapers and into the toilet. Also helpful if you are having problems with ammonia build-up. Spraying down all diapers as soon as they come off your baby/toddler helps prevent a lot of the issues with ammonia and bacteria building up on the diaper, which can be difficult to get out in the wash, especially the longer you go between washes.
- Spray pal: This is a splatter shield for your diaper sprayer. If you’re one of those people (like me) who can’t seem to use their diaper sprayer without getting half the bathroom covered in water, this will help you direct the water–and the poop–into the toilet instead of all over the place.
- Diaper liners: You can get either disposable or reusable diaper liners. They’re strips of fabric you can put in the diaper so that when your baby poops, you can just pull the liners out and either flush them, trash them, or dump them into the toilet.
Wash All Diapers Within 3 Days of Use
The longer you let your diapers sit in a pail or wet bag, the longer you allow bacteria to breed and ammonia to form on your diapers, which means the more your diapers smell and the harder it is to wash the yuckies out. Wash your diapers at least every 3 days. I once forgot about a batch of diapers for 5 days, and it took nearly 2 months of laundry experimentation to get them back to normal again.
The other benefits to frequent washing are: it keeps your load sizes small and more manageable, and you don’t have to buy as many diapers.
Avoid Non-Cloth Diaper-Friendly Diaper Creams
Diaper creams that contain petroleum jelly, paraffin, mineral oil, and also possibly zinc oxide are known to cause diapers to repel. These diaper creams work on your baby by creating a water-proof layer between your baby’s skin and diaper. Unfortunately, if these things get into your diaper, they create a water-proof layer between your baby’s skin and diaper. Try to find cloth diaper-friendly diaper creams that will keep your baby’s bottom dry and rash-free without creating build-up on the diaper which won’t easily wash out of the diaper in your washing machine.
If you’ve already made this mistake, and your diapers are repelling, try scrubbing the offending diaper cream out with dish soap and a tooth brush. Make sure you rinse really well to get all the soap out, because dish soap can do a number on your washing machine later.
Other Potential Issues
There are other things which may come up in the course of laundering your diapers which it’s good to be aware of.
- Your washing machine: Every model of washing machine is a little different, and especially with new washing machines, they may have “efficient” water and heat settings which may not get your diapers as clean as you like. For instance, I found out my new washing machine has one rinse setting which only does a spray rinse. The other rinse setting does a full rinse. The spray rinse caused my diapers to smell pretty bad, so I had to make sure to use the right rinse cycle to get my diapers clean. Your washing machine may have special quirks which can help you or hurt you in finding the right regimen for your diapers. Research your washer!
- Dryer vs. Line Dry: The nice thing about using your dryer for your cloth diapers is that it’s faster and more convenient than line-drying. However, dryers are harder on all fabrics, and especially on the waterproof linings of diapers, so the dryer may shorten the lifespan of your diapers. Line drying provides many benefits, besides preserving the lifespan of your diapers. Line drying is a huge help at reducing nasty stains on diapers, and what’s more, the rays of the sun are a great natural way to kill bacteria on your diapers. Your diapers will look, smell, and actually be cleaner if you line dry.
- Ammonia: Ammonia build-up is a common problem with cloth diapers, especially as children get older and become heavier wetters, if you cloth diaper overnight, and if you go a little bit longer than you should between washes. Honestly, the best thing I’ve found at handling ammonia problems is Rockin’ Green’s Funk Rock. I did an ammonia bounce on my entire stash a while back and had excellent results, after weeks of trying to overcome ammonia issues with my diapers. Now, I use a tablespoon of Funk Rock with every single wash, and I haven’t had any more ammonia issues. Other prophylactic measures can include rinsing all your diapers before you put them in the pail or wet bag, leaving your pail open to allow air to circulate, using a wet pail, or putting some sort of additive in your pail to combat ammonia.
- Bleach: Bleach is another controversial topic among the cloth diapering community. Some rightly point out that bleach is very corrosive, especially for natural fibers, and that in many cases it will void the manufacturer’s warranty. Others argue you can’t get your diapers clean without bleach. While I have used bleach on some of my diapers, it has always been as a last resort and with great trepidation, using the least amount of bleach I possibly could to get results. Honestly, if you are that worried about germs on your diapers, the best and safest thing you can do is hang them on a line in the sunshine.
- Stripping: If you find you need to strip your diapers, chances are, there’s something going awry somewhere in your laundry regimen that needs to be adjusted. However, if your diapers are so far gone you can’t just clean up your laundry regimen, stripping may be in order. In the past, I’ve done the Dawn + bleach method with decent results, but it’s a method I’m less inclined to recommend now, given what I know about how well it works (not very) and how Dawn and bleach might affect your washing machine and diapers. Before you bust out the bleach and dish soap, start simple. You can rock a soak on your diapers or do an ammonia bounce, if ammonia is the issue. You can try RLR or Mighty Bubbles. All of these methods not only won’t void the warranty on your diapers, they’re also less likely to do serious damage to your diapers. And in my experience, these methods are very effective at resolving pretty much any stink issue, given that you’ve already made adjustments to your laundry regimen to prevent the problems from persisting. Bleach and Dawn should be the desperate last resort, only if your final step is throwing the diapers in the trash. I’ve heard of others trying Cascade soaks, some with disastrous results for their diapers and their babies, so honestly, if you’re considering that, don’t.
This sums up my diaper laundry wisdom. If you have any questions or your own advice, please feel free to share in the comments!