Cloth diaper washing 101
Wednesday, September 26, 2012 5:03 PM
Some of the most frequently posted questions here are to do with issues regarding washing cloth diapers. We happened to stumble across the following article. It is a great read and very informative. I concur with most of it (rarely happens as in my experience the cloth diaper internet world is full, full, full of misinformation as it is based on opinions of parents with limited experience and little factual knowlege).
Cloth Diaper Laundering 101
Most diaper manufacturers include simple washing instructions that quite
frankly are more harm than good. The reason for this is that manufacturers
are not always experts on textiles, and less often experts on laundering.
As such they offer simple instructions that work for a while, bit in most
cases leave the user with staining and odor problems down the line.
This article explains the washing process and some of the challenges you can
solve yourself with a little work.
Understanding the wash
Washing diapers follows the same process as your regular wash - there's
nothing magic or mysterious about caring for your diapers as long has you
have a good routine and good detergent. For best results, use a 10 minute
pre soak to loosen solids and relax the diaper fibers so they release solids
and stains. Select your washer's 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 diapers on medium heat or cloths line.
The root of almost every diaper issue I see can be traced back to laundry
detergent. If you have soft or softened water, cleansing diapers is 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 (manganese, iron and other mineral ions too). These dissolved minerals
interfere with laundry detergent’s 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 diaper. Over time these minerals
build up on fibers then restrict absorption and make the diaper
progressively harder to clean. If your diapers get too much buildup, you
have 'strip' them of mineral and residue buildups, not unlike using CLR to
clean the crusty residue from around a drain or faucet.
Hemp and cotton, bamboo, rayon, silk, are the most susceptible as they do
the job of absorbing moisture in your diapers. Least susceptible are the
hydrophobic fibers polyesters, nylon, polypropylene (fleece, micro fiber).
Detergents come in 2 basic types, those with surfactants, chelating agents
and/or builders and those that are surfactants only. Big name detergents
like Tide and Cheer are the first type, boutique brands like Charlie's and
Allen's are the latter
Surfactants are the part of detergent that softens and releases soils from
fabrics, all detergents have surfactants. In soft water surfactants work
great but in hard water, dissolved minerals act like dirt and use up the
surfactants making them unavailable to do the work of cleaning the fabrics.
To counteract the hard water minerals, some detergent makers add chelating
agents and/or builders to their formula. These ingredients soften the wash
water so the dissolved 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
often depend on the user to supply water soft enough that these additives
are not needed. 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, fabric softeners or strong fragrances as these will inhibit
The practice of low detergent dosing is something that has been created by
diaper manufacturers who don't understand how water, detergent and textiles
interact in the wash. There is no good reason for low doses, is simply a
When detergent and water hardness are mis-matched, several things happen to
the fabrics 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 dissolved 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 that makes them hard to use. It's common to see 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.
If you're unsure as to what the best detergent is for your water supply,
call a local water conditioning company and ask. An even better idea is to
go to your town's biggest grocer and ask which detergent sells best -- the
masses will have already figured this out for you.
Washing and Drying
Diapers are best cleaned using a regular cycle with a pre-soak. The
pre-soak softens soils in the diaper making them easier to cleanse free --
important for stain lifting and sanitization. All diapers can stand the
hottest water setting your washer has so use it! Heat kills bacteria and
really helps cleansing.
Use the right detergent, in the right dose -- even if your diaper
manufacturer recommends otherwise.
Disinfectants are OK - vinegar, small amounts of bleach and other laundry
safe sanitizers can be used.
No fabric softener.
Periodic use of bleach or oxy-bleach is OK unless your diapers are made with
hot-melt type PUL. Check with your diaper manufacturer.
Double the rinse cycle if your washer has that feature.
Tumble or line dry (no drier sheets). If you line dry it's a good idea to
tumble diapers in a drier occasionally to loosen and soften the diaper.
Special Situations and Remedial Actions
Hemp does not dry sufficiently on a line unless the relative humidity is
less than 8% (meaning you live in a desert). If you don't dry hemp
completely, trapped moisture enables microbes to feed on the diaper fibers –
even when they are clean. If you have this problem, your clean diapers will
have a persistent odor, affectionately known as 'hemp-stink'.
This fabric works by trapping moisture in between loops in it's pile. As
the fabric ages, the pile degrades and therefore absorbency diminishes. To
keep you micro fiber terry inserts in good shape, tumble dry on cool heat --
hotter settings will flatten the pile and degrade performance.
Stripping is a process that removing 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 diaper. If you're low
dosing, using essential oils or fabric softener, or boutique brand
detergents in hard water, stripping is inevitable!
Stripping is best done in 2 stages, the first to remove residues and
hardened solids, the second to remove mineral buildup.
Stage 1: Remove residues. Pre soak your 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. 1 cup of CLR mixed with a 1/2
load wash OR laundry sink will work. 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 diapers should good after this process. If you detect any residual
smell from the detergents, CLR, vinegar etc, run them through a regular was
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 you 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 2) review and fix your wash routine.
If your diapers smell like a gym bag, you need a better wash routine. Often
these bacteria get 'hardened', meaning they need extra shock to remove them.
To fix this problem you can use bleach or oxy-bleach and or any good fabric
safe sanitizer and the right dose of detergent!
If your diapers have ammonia or barn-smell, its likely poop residue is left
in your diapers after washing. This is more likely to happen if 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 include your diaper pail and wet bags as they hold the same
bacteria and will quickly transfer them back to you diapers.
Spending a little time researching your water and detergent choices will
make cleaning diapers easy, and should eliminate sanitary, maintenance and
If your diapers need periodic stripping or treatment for persistent odor,
consider that an indicator you need to cure a problem with your wash
If you’re one of the 90% that has hard water, use brand name detergents with
builder’s softeners. They will get your diapers cleaner and may eliminate
the need for stripping all together. 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 diapers get
cleansed more completely, using the right dose eliminated buildup that leads