Cloth diapers can feel intimidating at first, especially when setting up a cloth diaper wash routine. What detergents do you use for cloth diapers? How hot does your water have to be? Can you really wash poopy diapers in the same machine as your clothes?
There’s so much conflicting advice out there. So we’ve put together this, a beginner’s guide to setting up a wash routine for cloth diapers. We talk about:
- The basic steps of a wash routine
- How water hardness affects your wash
- How to choose the suitable detergent for your machine and water
- Identifying the appropriate diaper wash settings on your washing machine
- Our take on commonly debated cloth diaper washing information
- Wash routine issues and what to do about them
Setting Up a Wash Routine for Your Cloth Diapers
We think of wash routines as being like a recipe. If you want to make, for example, a simple loaf of bread, the general steps are similar for everyone. However, you might make adjustments to the type or amount o flour you use, the length of time you leave your bread to prove, or your baking time.
Consequently, we’ll set out the basic steps, highlight when, where, and why you might need to make adjustments, and then share the best way to find what works for you.
So, let’s begin by looking at the basic steps.
The Basic Cloth Diaper Wash Routine
These are the five basic steps of a cloth diaper wash routine. It may look intimidating at first, but don’t worry. It isn’t difficult at all.
After this rundown of the steps, we’ll take a look at:
- How water hardness affects your wash, and what to do about it
- Choosing a detergent
- Identifying the best settings on your washing machine
- Commonly debated cloth diaper washing information
- Wash routine issues and what to do about them
The basic routine for washing cloth diapers looks like this:
Step One - Dispose of Waste
For wet diapers, there’s no need to do anything you can drop them straight into your dirty diaper storage until it’s time for step two.
Soiled diapers fall into two categories:
Exclusively breast-fed baby poop.
If you are breastfeeding and your baby doesn’t have any formula or solids, things are a little easier. Poo from breastfeeding is water-soluble and will effectively dissolve in the wash.
You can either scrape, spray, swish, or shake it off, or drop the diaper into the wash, poop, and all.
Formula, mixed breast and formula, and “after you introduce solids” baby poop.
If your baby has any formula or solids, even if they also have breast milk, you’ll have to deal with the poop before washing.
To do this, either spray, scrape, squash, or shake the poop off into the toilet bowl. Get as much as you possibly can off, and then ensure the diaper is good and wet before putting it in with your dirty diaper storage.
If any lingering poo has a chance to dry out on the diaper, it will be more challenging to get the diaper clean.
Step Two - Cold Wash
When it’s time to wash your diapers, drop them into the machine and run them through a cold wash cycle without any detergent. This cold wash will loosen up the peep, poop, and bacteria, making it easier for the detergent to do its thing in the next step.
It is essential to use cold water for this step. If you use warm or hot water, it can cause stains to set into the cloth.
Step Three - Hot Wash
Next, wash the diapers on a hot cycle with detergent.
Reach into the machine and move enough diapers to one side so you can see the bottom of the drum. Then add your detergent and put the diapers back.
This is where the action happens, cleaning all of the human waste from your diapers and sanitizing them.
Step Four - Extra Rinse
After the wash, run your diapers through another rinse cycle. This can be either a cold or warm rinse. Choose whichever is easiest to set up on your machine.
This additional rinse cycle will ensure all of the detergent is thoroughly flushed from your diapers, minimizing the potential for detergent build-up.
However, if you have especially hard water - we’ll tell you how to find out if you have a little later - skip the extra rinse. In extremely hard water, too much rinsing can cause a gradual mineral build-up on your diapers. This will affect their absorbency.
Step Five - Dry
Finally, dry your diapers.
In an ideal world, we would all be able to hang our diapers on a clothesline in the sun. Sunlight helps to bleach out any lingering stains and kill bacteria.
However, don’t worry if you can’t do this; hanging your diapers inside or drying them in the dryer is also fine.
So, there you have it—the six steps of washing cloth diapers.
Now let’s take a look at how to fine-tune the details of your wash routine, including:
- Water hardness and cloth diapers
- How to choose and use a laundry detergent for cloth diapers
- Choosing the best settings on your washing machine
Water Hardness and Cloth Diapers
Water hardness is measured by the amount of two minerals - calcium and magnesium - dissolved in your water. The higher the level of minerals, the harder your water. This is important because the hardness of your water affects how well your laundry detergent works.
Laundry Detergents and Water Hardness
Simply put, your laundry detergent is made up of tiny blocks. These blocks have a head and a tail. The tail of the block grips onto the dirt, and the head attaches to the water. When the water is washed away, so too are the blocks and the dirt stuck to them.
When you have hard water, many of the blocks attach to the minerals in your water rather than dirt. The harder your water, the higher the number of detergent blocks that stick to the minerals instead of the dirt. So, you need more detergent to get things clean.
How to Test Your Water Hardness
You can do a quick test of your water hardness with a clear, clean plastic bottle. Fill the bottle straight from your tap to about the one-third full point. Add a couple of drops of dish soap and give it a vigorous shake.
If there are lots of bubbles and when the water settles, it’s clear, you have water that’s at the softer end of the range. If, when it clears, the water is cloudy, and there’s a lack of frothy bubbles, your water is on the harder end. To find out exactly how hard, you’ll need water testing strips. You can buy these online, at the hardware store, or even at your local pet store.
The test itself is very simple. All you do is run the tap and hold the strip in the water. Then hold the strip against the squares on the side of the pot and see which color square it most closely matches. Each square will have a number telling you roughly what level of minerals you have in your water.
Why It’s Important to Check Your Water Hardness
The hardness of your water will affect which detergents you use, whether you’ll need to add an extra water softener, and how much softener and detergent you need for an effective wash.
Most regular, mainstream detergents have water softeners as part of their formulas. So, you don’t necessarily have to add a water softener.
If your water tests at 60ppm or above and you use a plant-based or “free and clear” laundry detergent, consider adding a water softener to your wash. If you use a regular detergent, you don’t need to worry about adding a water softener until your water hardness is over 180ppm.
Choosing the Best Detergent for Your Family, Water, and Machine
Although you can, there is no need to use a special detergent for your baby’s clothes, including their diapers, unless they have a skin condition such as eczema or an allergy that causes skin reactions. If you have an effective detergent that works well for your family and is capable of dealing with heavy soiling, there’s no need to change.
If you are considering a change of detergent, it’s helpful to know about detergent ingredients.
Laundry Detergent Ingredients - The Detailed Version
First, let’s take a look at what each ingredient does and how ingredients impact your choice of detergent.
The main ingredient in laundry detergents is surfactants. They break up the dirt and stains, then suspend everything in the water until it is rinsed away.
You will see three main types of surfactant listed in detergents:
- Anionics - alkyl sulfates
- Anionics - alkyl ethoxylate sulfates
- Non-ionic - ethers of fatty alcohol
If you have particularly hard water, a detergent with non-ionic surfactants is more effective than anionic surfactants.
One particular surfactant to avoid is sodium cocoate. This is a perfectly safe ingredient, but it is a coconut oil-based surfactant that can build up on your diapers, causing them to repel liquids.
While you might automatically think enzymes sound like a nasty additive to have in your laundry detergent, don’t panic. Enzymes are simply proteins folded into complex shapes. They can be naturally occurring or created artificially, and your body could not function if it weren’t for the enzymes working away within it.
Each enzyme in laundry detergent targets a different type of dirt, breaking it down into pieces small enough to be washed away.
Common enzymes found in laundry detergents include:
Amylase is used for starch-based or carbohydrate dirt. It is also found in human saliva where it helps our digestion process by helping to change starches into sugars.
Cellulase breaks down cotton fibers, allowing them to “let go” of the dirt. It is also used in the medical treatment of a condition called phytobezoars.
Lipase breaks up fat-based dirt. In addition to being found in laundry detergents, they are in your gut, helping to break down the fat in your food.
Mannanase is good for general food stains.
Pectinase works well on stains caused by fruits and fruit juices.
- Protease is effective against protein-based dirt.
Aside from colors and dyes, these are the other ingredients found in laundry detergents.
- Optical brighteners are only there to make your whites whiter. Your cloth diapers wash routine will not suffer if your detergent doesn’t have brighteners.
- pH modifiers are important. Not for their cleaning power but to ensure your laundry does not become too acidic.
- Preservatives in your detergent prevent bacterial or mold growth - but only in your detergent, not in the clothes you wash!
- A water conditioner is usually added to ensure the water is soft enough for the detergent to be effective. If you chose a detergent without or with minimal water softeners and you have hard water, you may have to add a softener to your laundry.
- Silicone or soap may be added to control the sud levels.
Laundry Detergent Ingredients - The Short Version
For an effective detergent:
You need plenty of surfactants with enzymes and ph modifiers. You can find all of this in a natural or “free and clear” detergent.
- Do not use detergents with fabric softeners or anti-static additives. Also, avoid detergents that have a fragrance. These ingredients will coat the fibers of your diapers, preventing them from effectively absorbing fluids.
Cold Water Detergents
Coldwater detergents have a different formulation from their regular counterparts. While washing in cold water is better from an environmental and budget perspective, you have to use hot water when you are washing cloth diapers.
Because the formula is different, washing cloth diapers in cold water formula detergents is not recommended.
HE Specific Detergents
Detergents for HE machines have a formula that creates fewer suds and disperses more quickly.
Do not use regular detergents in HE machines. They cause more suds, which in turn can cause detergent build-up on your diapers.
You can use HE detergents in a regular machine, but you may need more detergent for each load.
Powder, Liquid, or Pods?
There isn’t any cleaning power difference between the three forms of detergent.
In general, powder detergents are better for cloth diapers than liquid. That’s because it is easier to use too much liquid and too much detergent causes build-up on your diapers.
Laundry liquid pods are not the best for cloth diapers. Not because they do not work, but because you need a lot of them to be effective. You may need up to four pods for your wash, and the cost for that number of pods can quickly become prohibitive.
A Quick Word About Price
In general, price isn’t a good indicator of effectiveness. However, in general, the cost of a detergent reflects the ingredients.
More expensive detergents
For example - Tide, Persil
The more expensive detergents tend to have more surfactants, enzymes, and other hard-working ingredients. They are the most efficient for heavy soiling or in cooler water.
For example - Arm & Hammer, Gain
These detergents have fewer additives and enzymes and may not be as effective on heavily soiled clothes or cloth diapers.
You may need to use extra detergent to get your diapers clean, which can end up costing more than using the more expensive detergent in the first place.
For example - Own-brand store detergents
These brands usually have higher levels of surfactants and lower levels of enzymes for fighting biologically based stains.
They are best reserved for clothes that are lightly soiled.
How Much Detergent Do You Need to Use?
Use the amount of detergent recommended on the box or packaging. This is usually dependent on your load size. If there are a variety of choices according to dirtiness, use the measurement for “heavy soil.”
Don’t, whatever you do, use less than the recommended amount of detergent. Remember, you are washing human waste out of cloth. You do not want to scrimp on the detergent.
On the other hand, don’t throw in extra detergent to make sure you get things clean. Excess detergent can build up on your diapers and cause problems.
Stick with the maker’s recommendations and move up or down from that point a little at a time if you have issues.
Washing Machine Settings for Cloth Diapers
This is where setting up your wash routine can become overwhelming.
Because there are so many makes, models, and styles of washing machines, it is impossible to give blanket “use this setting” advice. But we’ll do our best!
It may be that the best settings for the cold wash-hot wash-rinse routine are obvious on your machine. If not, these are the settings or types of setting to look for.
Look for a setting that lets you wash the diapers in cold water, without detergent.
If your machine has a pre-wash or pre-soak that stops entirely and allows you to put detergent in before the hot wash begins, you can use that setting.
If the pre-wash or pre-soak moves straight into the main wash without stopping completely, do not use those settings. Instead:
- Choose the “quick wash” or “speed wash” setting, or if you don’t have one of these, use “Normal” or similar.
- Set the temperature to cold.
This is more straightforward.
Choose the “Regular,” “Normal,” or “Cotton” setting. Most machines have one of the three. These are the settings that give the longest, hottest wash with the highest level of agitation.
If you have an exceptionally heavily soiled batch, you can use a “Heavy Wash” or similar setting, but don’t do this on a regular basis.
- You need a temperature of at least 60C / 140F to kill bacteria. Choose the hot or hot/cold temperature setting. This will wash the diapers at a high enough temperature to clean and sanitize them.
Again, the last rinse can be pretty straightforward.
- If your machine has a separate setting for rinse - perfect - choose that.
- If not, turn the dial to the point where it says rinse, or rinse and spin.
- The temperature should be warm.
Commonly Debated Wash Routine Topics
In our opinion, there are very few hard and fast rules. If you are happy with your routine, it is getting your diapers clean, and you’re not having any problems, keep doing what you’re doing.
However, for the sake of completeness, these are the areas that are most hotly debated in the cloth diaper world.
One Wash or Two?
Many people swear by a single hot wash. However, the first cold wash loosens up the dirt and makes stains significantly less likely. Therefore you’ll have cleaner diapers for longer if you take the time for a cold wash.
Do I Need an Extra Rinse?
Some people believe that additional rinses leave excess mineral deposits on your diapers. However, this is only a potential issue in a tiny number of places with exceptionally hard water.
If your water is hard enough to cause this problem, the likelihood is that you already have a water softening system in place to prevent your pipes and other plumbing from furring up.
Should I Add Oxiclean or Other Wash Boosters
Many sites recommend a scoop of Oxiclean either in the first cold wash or the main hot wash.
As a rule, wash boosters are helpful if you have a particularly heavily soiled batch of diapers or if you notice your diapers are becoming dingy.
However, if you have an effective laundry detergent, there’s no need to add wash boosters on a regular basis.
A common suggestion is to use vinegar in your wash or rinse. This likely comes from way back when our grandparents used vinegar to soften up their washing.
However, if you have an effective detergent and wash routine, you do not need vinegar.
There are recommendations for vinegar in the rinse, or the wash, in every wash, or occasionally, there are even people who will tell you to use vinegar and baking soda. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Does adding vinegar to your wash will help prevent detergent build-up?
Vinegar is an acid, and detergents are on the alkali end of the ph spectrum. The theory is that the vinegar will neutralize any excess detergent, preventing build-up.
Vinegar will begin neutralizing your detergent straight away, reducing the detergent’s effectiveness and potentially leaving your diapers less than clean.
Inserted of using vinegar, it is more efficient and kinder to your diapers to use the extra rinse outlined in our wash routine.
Does vinegar make detergents clean more efficiently?
No. Vinegar neutralizes detergent, making your detergent less efficient and potentially resulting in dirty diapers and a bacteria build-up.
Does adding vinegar to hard water dissolve the minerals, so they don’t deposit on your diapers?
Yes and no.
The theory comes from the fact you can use vinegar to clean hard water deposits from faucets and other fittings. The general recommendation is to put the vinegar in a bag, tie it around your faucet and leave it to soak overnight.
This places pure vinegar against the mineral build-up for roughly 12 hours.
The amount of vinegar you would put into a cloth diaper load is highly diluted by the water in the wash. Consequently, vinegar in your wash will not dissolve enough minerals, effectively enough, to make any difference.
Will Vinegar sanitize your diapers?
No. While vinegar is an acid and does have mild germ-killing properties, it is not strong enough to kill the bacteria found in human waste. Putting vinegar into your wash will make no difference to germs from your child’s poop.
Nor is it effective as an anti-fungal agent. Vinegar will not kill the pathogens involved in a yeast infection.
Should you use a vinegar and baking soda combination for cleaning, soaking, or striping your diapers?
No. Vinegar is an acid, and baking soda is an alkali. They neutralize each other rendering them both ineffective.
Baking soda can neutralize acidic odors and remove protein-based stains. It can be an effective detergent booster for a heavily soiled load.
If you have an effective detergent, you do not need to add baking soda regularly.
Is Build-Up A Real Thing?
While some people say there is no such thing, we feel there is potential for both detergent and mineral build-up. However, mineral build-up is exceptionally rare and only an issue for people with exceptionally hard water.
Problems with detergent build-up are more common than mineral build-up, BUT if you follow the manufacturer’s recommended measurements for detergent and thoroughly rinse, it is unlikely to happen.
Wash Routine Problems and What to do About Them
If your baby develops diaper rash, your diapers don’t seem as absorbent as they were, you are experiencing leaks, or your diapers have an odor, it could be an issue with your wash routine.
Most babies will experience diaper rash at one time or another. Diaper rash can be caused by:
Irritation from pee or poop, especially if your baby has eaten certain foods, such as grapes, strawberries, or tomatoes.
Being in a wet diaper for too long
Bacterial or yeast infections.
Diapers are not getting clean enough.
Diaper rash is not usually caused by detergent sensitivity. When a baby is sensitive to a detergent, they will react in other areas where their clothes touch the skin, not just the diaper area.
When your baby experiences diaper rash, and you have excluded the first four causes, it may be a case of your diapers not getting clean enough. If this is the case, your diapers will likely have a vague smell after they are dry or may develop a “barnyard” smell after your baby has peed in them.
To deal with this, you’ll need to look at your wash routine.
Dealing With “Barnyard” Smell
If you have been using less than the manufacturer’s recommended measure of detergent, start using the right amount. Run your diapers through two rounds of washing using the correct measure of detergent. If you have been using the recommended amount of detergent, try running two washes with 25% extra.
This, along with leaving your baby’s diaper off as much as possible and/or using diaper cream, may be all that’s needed to clear up the rash.
If this doesn’t help, the next consideration is an ammonia build-up. Ammonia build-up usually causes a rash anywhere the wet diaper touches the skin. The only way to deal with this is to stop using your diapers and strip them.
If your diapers are less absorbent than they used to be, or you have started to experience leaks without a noticeable increase in urine volume, you could have an issue called repelling.
Repelling happens when something coats the surface of your cloth diapers and prevents fluids from passing through. There are multiple reasons why this might occur. For example, using a diaper cream that’s not suitable for cloth, putting dryer sheets in your dryer, or using a laundry detergent with built-in softeners.
Repelling can also happen when using homemade detergents, detergents with soap as an ingredient, or mineral build-up in exceptionally hard water areas.
If your diapers are repelling, you will have to strip them and then alter your wash routine to prevent it from happening again.
You get two types of odor problems with cloth diapers. First is the “barnyard” smell, which comes from an ineffective wash routine. The solution to this is above, in the diaper rash section.
The second is an ammonia smell. This is the type of eye-wateringly-strong, astringent smell that is distinct from the occasional smell you might get from strong urine. If you have ammonia issues, the first step is to strip your diapers, the second is to alter your wash routine to prevent a reoccurrence.
How to Strip Cloth Diapers
Stripping your diapers is often viewed as some complex magical process with lots of steps.
Stripping is simply a way of washing your diapers to remove any ammonia or build-up and get them back to their original state.
If you do not have any issues with your diapers, you do not need to strip them.
Some people prefer to strip their diapers every few months because they want to avoid issues. Unnecessary stripping results in extra stress to your diaper’s fabric and can cause them to wear out more quickly.
If you do need to strip your cloth diapers, there are multiple techniques. Some ways are better than others, depending on why you are stripping.
Stripping - #1
Take your clean diapers and put them into the washing machine without any detergent. Then run them through the hot cycle several times.
This is a good starting point and is often all you need to do, especially if your problem is detergent build-up.
Stripping - #2
GroVia Mighty Bubbles is a simple treatment designed for stripping cloth diapers. You place one pod in the washing machine with your clean diapers, run them through a hot wash without detergent. Then do an extra rinse, and you’re done.
Yes, it may be surprising that we are recommending a treatment made by another diaper company, but we are more concerned about you, your baby, and your diapers than we are about an “Us vs. them” approach.
Stripping - #3
RLR is a good option for ammonia issues and those rare cases of mineral build-up.
You can use a package of RLR in the washing machine, making sure that your diapers are clean before you strip them. Alternatively, put your clean diapers in the bath, cover with hot water, add a pack of RLR, and leave to soak for six hours.
How NOT to Strip Cloth Diapers
You’ll see many other methods online, from using a drop of Dawn in your laundry or soaking in dilute bleach to using DIY stripping mixes and even washing your diapers in the dishwasher.
All of the methods have a high potential for, at best, being ineffective and a waste of your time and effort, and at worst, they will damage your diapers, void any warranty, and possibly void the warranty of your dishwasher or washing machine.
Don’t Fear the Cloth Diaper Wash Routine
We get it, cloth diapers are something new, and you may not have a knowledgeable or supportive community around you. But you do have us, and we want to help you succeed. That’s why we share as much information as possible while demystifying the world of cloth diapers.
If there’s anything you need to know that we haven’t covered here, come on over to our Facebook page and ask your question. We’ll do what we can to answer you there and maybe even follow up with an article inspired by your question.