Cloth Diaper Washing 101
Mother-ease Cloth Diaper Washing 101
Some of the most frequently posted questions online have to do with issues related to washing cloth diapers. To help, you have to understand the basics of laundering, which detergents to use, the correct dosage, and the wash and drying cycles.
Understanding the wash:
When washing cloth diapers you will follow the same process as your regular wash - there's nothing magic or mysterious about caring for your diapers as long as you have a good routine and a good detergent. For the best results, use a 10-minute pre-soak to loosen solids and relax the diaper fibers so they release solids and stains. Select your washers normal cycle and set the water temperature to hot. Add the detergent manufacturer's recommended amount of washing detergent then let the machine take care of the rest! When finished, dry your cloth diapers in a tumble dryer or on a clothesline.
The root of almost every cloth diaper issue we see can be traced back to the laundry detergent. If you have soft or softened water, cleansing diapers are pretty easy because almost all detergents and wash potions work well in soft water. If you're one of the 90% who doesn't have soft water, it's really important that you find a detergent that works well for the water in your area. The harder your water, the more likely you'll need a big-brand detergent.
Dissolved magnesium and calcium are the primary minerals that make water hard (others include manganese, iron and mineral ions). These dissolved minerals interfere with the laundry detergents ability to clean and rinse, that's why detergents work better in soft water. If you're using the wrong type of detergent for your water, detergent residues will not rinse clean and hard water minerals will accumulate in your cloth diaper. Over time these minerals build up on fibers, restricting the absorbency and making the diaper progressively harder to clean. If your diapers get too much buildup, you have to 'strip' them of mineral and residue buildups, similar to using CLR to clean the crusty residue from around a drain or faucet. For more information, see stripping below.
Detergents come in 2 basic types, those with surfactants and those with surfactants, chelating agents and/or builders. Boutique brands like Charlie's and Allen's are the first type and big-branded detergents like Tide and Cheer are the second type.
Surfactants are the part of the detergent that softens and releases soils from fabrics, all detergents have surfactants. In soft water, surfactants work great, but in hard water, the minerals act like dirt and use up the surfactants making them unavailable to clean the fabrics. To counteract the hard water minerals, big-branded detergent makers add chelating agents and/or builders to their formula. These ingredients soften the wash water so the minerals won't interfere with the surfactants. The effect is better cleaning, better rinsing, and fewer hard water mineral deposits in your diapers.
Chelating agents and builders are complex and expensive to produce, that's why they are mostly in the big-brand detergents. Boutique detergent makers rely on the user to supply soft water. Unfortunately, they don't always print that on the label!
Since most of us have hard water, big-brand detergents with 'builders' will usually work better at cleansing and reducing mineral buildup. If your water is naturally soft or you have a water softener, the boutique detergents should work fine (you probably never have stripping problems anyway). If in doubt about what works best in your area, visit the biggest grocer in your area and ask which brand of detergent sells best - chances are the masses have already figured it out for you.
Once you decide on a detergent brand, choose the type that does not contain brighteners (oxygen bleach, sodium polycarbonate, hydrogen peroxide or optical brighteners), fabric softeners or strong fragrances as these will inhibit absorption. See our Detergent Disclaimer.
The practice of low detergent dosing is something that has been promoted by some cloth diaper manufacturers who don't understand how water, detergent, and textiles interact in the wash. There is no good reason for low dosing, it's simply a bad practice.
When detergent and water hardness are mismatched, several things happen to the fabrics as they are trying to wash. First, the fabrics never get the proper cleansing they need, so both cleaning and rinsing are compromised. When you use the wrong detergents, soils, detergent residue, and minerals build up on fabrics. Low dosing slows down the buildup of detergent residues, but not the others - so over time, your diapers accumulate unwanted buildup of soils and minerals that make them hard to use. It's common to see a reduction in absorbency, odor problems, and sometimes increases in skin irritation.
If you're using the right detergent for your water, regular doses maximize cleansing, sanitizing, and rinsing. Low dosing reduces cleansing and rinsing, so your diapers will eventually accumulate those unwanted soils, residues, and minerals.
Special Situations and Remedial Actions
Stripping is a process that removes buildup and residues from fabrics. If you have a good wash routine and you have matched your detergent to your water hardness you should never need to strip a cloth diaper. If you're low dosing, using essential oils or fabric softeners, or boutique brand detergents in hard water, stripping is inevitable!
Stripping is best done in 2 stages, the first to remove residues and hardened soils, the second to remove mineral buildup.
Stage 1: Remove residues. Pre-soak your cloth diapers for 45 minutes in a laundry tub/sink using hot water mixed with 1/8 cup of good grease cutting dishwasher detergent (Dawn). Now send your diaper to the washer, wash HOT without using detergent, double rinse. Do not dry.
Stage 2: Removing minerals: There are a few options for removing minerals. You can use off the shelf demineralizers like CLR or simpler solutions like vinegar (acetic acid) or lemon juice (citric acid). In either case, you're adding a slight acid to dissolve minerals. Add 1 cup of CLR together with a half load size (top load washing machine) or mix together in your laundry sink. If using vinegar or citric acid, you'll need 4-8 cups per load. Let your diaper soak in this solution for an hour, then send them for another detergent free wash cycle, again doubling the rinse at the end.
Tumble dry on warm.
Your cloth diapers should be good after this process. If you detect any residual small from the detergents, CLR, vinegar etc, run them through a regular wash cycle.
Persistent odors are a result of a problem with your washing regimen - most often low dosing is the reason. If you have this problem it's recommended that you disinfect and sanitize all your cloth diapers, pails, and wet bags at the same time. You need to do 2 things when you face this issue: 1) fix the immediate problem and 2) review and fix your wash routine.
If your cloth diapers smell like a gym bag, you need a better wash routine. Often these bacteria get ‘hardened’, meaning they need an extra shock to remove them. To fix this problem you can use chlorine bleach (North American chlorine bleach - USA/CDN) or any good fabric safe sanitizer and the right dose of detergent!
If your cloth diapers have ammonia or barn-smell, its likely poop residue is left in your diapers after washing. This is more likely to happen to diapers that have a napped lining (Sherpa, fleece, suede cloth) than diapers with a smooth lining (pique, jersey, flannel). It’s also more common for dry pail users as dried solids are harder to cleanse. You can fix this by washing 2 times using a long hot pre-soak, hot wash followed by a warm tumble dry. Be sure to use the right dose of detergent!
Be sure to sanitize your diaper pail and wet bags as they hold the same bacteria and will quickly transfer them back to your diapers.
Spending a little time researching your water and detergent choices will make cleaning diapers easy, and should eliminate sanitary, maintenance and odor issues.
If your cloth diapers need periodic stripping or treatment for persistent odor, consider that an indicator you need to address a problem with your wash routine.
If you’re one of the 90% that has hard water, use brand name detergents with builders and softeners. They will get your diapers cleaner and may eliminate the need for stripping altogether. If you have soft water, you have more choices; use the brand you like best!
Use the recommended dose of detergent. Not only will your cloth diapers get cleansed more completely, using the right dose eliminates buildup that leads to trouble.
This article has been moved from our MEZ Forum into our blog for parents to use as a learning resource. The original publication date is Wednesday, September 26, 2012