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Cloth Diaper Laundry: Keep it Simple (Just Like Grandma Did)

by Regan

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There are a lot of opinions out there on cloth diaper laundry. Some sources are rather rigid and assertive while others are more open to more than one way of washing cloth diapers.

I am of the school of thought that says if it works for you, do it and that cloth diaper laundry should be simple. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers didn’t have crazy wash routines and neither should we. 

Cloth Diaper Laundry: Keep it Simple (Just Like Grandma Did)
Photo credit: The Bees Knees Daily via Flickr

The point of this post today is to give you ideas. I will talk about different types of detergent and the pros and cons of using each one. It is up to you to find a detergent that makes you comfortable and develop a wash routine that aligns with your reasons for using cloth diapers in the first place.

I used cloth diapers for four years and when I started, the washing recommendations often ranged from confusing to downright crazy. Even today I read things from people, mostly in Facebook cloth diaper groups, where they are running their diapers through the washing machine two or three times and regularly stripping their diapers. 

Stop it.

This is just a waste of time, water, and detergent.

If your cloth diaper laundry routine is overly complicated then there is something wrong. If you need to strip your diapers then there is something wrong.

Diapers are just laundry and they shouldn’t be more difficult to wash than your towels. A simple routine saves you time, money, and sanity, so here are my tips for developing a simple cloth diaper wash routine.

The differences between cloth diaper detergents, natural detergents, and cloth diaper safe commercial detergents

Cloth diaper laundry detergent and cloth diapers

Cloth diaper detergents

These are boutique brands that are marketed as being specifically for cloth diapers or are completely free of chemicals, dyes, fragrances, and enzymes.

Most cloth diaper detergents are made up of either Sodium Carbonate, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Sulfate, and/or Sodium Percarbonate. These are the scientific names for washing soda, baking soda, sodium salt of sulfuric acid, and a hydrogen peroxide alternative. Think OxiClean.

Pros

  • environmentally friendly
  • clean rinsing
  • minimal ingredients, less potential for allergies or sensitivities

Cons

  • expensive per load
  • hard to find; usually must be ordered online from a specific retailer
  • doesn’t work well for everyone

Natural laundry detergent and cloth diapers

Natural laundry detergents

Natural laundry detergents are made with natural ingredients that are mostly plant-based. These detergents can usually be found locally at the grocery store or discount chain while others would be easier to find at Whole Foods, Sprouts, or a health food store. 

In addition to the ingredients in cloth diaper detergents, plant-based commercial detergents contain additional ingredients such as Laureth 7 (plant-based surfactant) and enzymes (protease, amylase and mannanase).

Pros

  • environmentally friendly
  • clean rinsing
  • minimal ingredients, less potential for allergies or sensitivities

Cons

  • more expensive than commercial detergents per load
  • you may have to go to a separate store to locate some brands
  • usually works well, but not all brands will work as well as others for some people

Commercial laundry detergent and cloth diapers

Cloth diaper safe commercial detergents

Pros

  • easy to find
  • stronger than natural detergents
  • costs less per load

Cons

  • higher environmental impact
  • ingredients can cause allergies or sensitivities

Cloth diaper safe detergents are commercial detergents that do not contain fabric softener or bleach alternatives.

There used to be a lot of talk about not using detergents with brighteners or enzymes, but the tides are turning (no pun intended) and people aren’t finding either of those things to be a problem for cloth diaper laundry. You can use either a powder or liquid detergent, though many people prefer to use powder for cloth diapers since it reportedly rinses more thoroughly.

The detergent you choose is an important part of your cloth diaper laundry routine and it may take some time to find the right detergent and the right amount for your laundry. The most important thing to remember is that not all detergents and routines work for everyone. You can get pointers on where to start or how to tweak it, but a perfect routine will come with some trial and error. 

Why are you using cloth diapers?

1. To save the planet

If you are cloth diapering to be more environmentally friendly then you most likely don’t want to use a commercial detergent due to its environmental impact.

That’s fine, but in my humble opinion, two tablespoons of detergent isn’t going to get anything clean. If you prefer to use a cloth diaper specific detergent then I recommend using the max amount on the package if not more to get your diapers clean.

If your diapers are stinky or your baby gets a rash, use more of it or switch to something stronger like a natural commercial detergent. They contain surfactants and enzymes where cloth diaper detergents don’t.

Note: cloth diaper specific detergents didn’t work for us. Our diapers looked and smelled clean, but our son got terrible rashes. However, they have worked well for others so I can’t make a blanket statement like they don’t work at all for anyone ever. 

2. To save money 

If you are using cloth diapers to save money then you are probably more open to commercial laundry detergents. In this case, as long as your regular detergent doesn’t have bleach alternatives or fabric softeners in it, you can use it.

Use the full amount recommended on the package for a heavily soiled load. You are washing urine and feces that has been sitting for a few days, treat it as such.

Cloth Diaper Laundry: Keep it Simple

My cloth diaper laundry routine

Everyone’s routines will be slightly different depending on their water conditions, baby’s age, type of diapers, etc, but as a guide, this was my wash routine for over three years and it worked very well for me. Note: I have very hard water.

  1. Rinse cycle; either warm or cold is fine.
  2. Add the full amount of Tide HE Original powder detergent recommended for the load; to line 2 for babies and young toddlers and line 3 for older toddlers with larger, more difficult messes.
  3. A scoop of oxygen bleach powder for stains.
  4. Hot wash on the power wash or whites setting in my HE top-loading machine.
  5. Cold rinse
  6. If needed, a second rinse.
  7. Hang covers to air dry and put inserts and prefolds in the dryer on medium. 

That’s it. Just one extra step than my normal household laundry and I never had bad smells, rashes, or stains. Not even my natural fiber diapers. 

The bottom line:

Don’t be afraid of cloth diaper laundry. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments if something isn’t working and be open to trying different detergents and amounts. If you are having trouble with your routine, don’t be afraid to ask an experienced cloth diapering parent for help. Most importantly, keep it simple. 

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