My Cloth Diaper Wash Routine Then and Now
My cloth diaper wash routine has changed a lot over the seven years I’ve been cloth diapering. Actually, it’s more like five years of diaper laundry stretched out over seven years, but you get the idea.
When I started-
When I started using cloth diapers, I didn’t really know you were supposed to use a special laundry detergent, and we used Tide Original Powder for our normal laundry, so that’s what I used for the diapers too. I didn’t know that putting your diapers in the dryer would shorten their life, so I put them in the dryer. I don’t even know if I used less laundry detergent than normal. I don’t know if I’d heard about that rule back in the beginning. I just threw them in the high efficiency washing machine like normal (I only had 6-10 diapers back then), machine dried them, and stuck them on my newborn’s bum and they were fine.
In my search for more cloth diapers, I came across lots of cloth diaper blogs and found tons of information on how to wash them. I learned that you should add a rinse or two—before and sometimes after the wash, and that you need to use 1/2 the regular amount of detergent on the diapers. I found out that you should avoid fabric softeners and rash creams. I also learned you’re supposed to use a special cloth diaper detergent. There was so much to more to washing diapers than I had thought! So, when I had the money, I bought a CD detergent that was popular at the time, and made the switch. Meanwhile, my stash was slowly growing which meant that the amount of diapers in my loads began to grow as well.
Battling ammonia and stink-
Soon, I faced the dreaded stink in my microfiber. Back with my oldest, just about all my diapers were pocket diapers with microfiber inserts and I didn’t know why they were stinking. I read up on it and found that they needed to be stripped, and tried a couple of different ways of doing so: a soak in the bath tub with dish detergent, a soak in the bath tub with CD safe laundry detergent, and a soak in the bath tub with only hot water were some of my methods. Sometimes the stink would go away for awhile, but it mostly came back. I was now using a brand of eco friendly laundry detergent that we found at Sam’s Club to wash my diapers in an attempt to keep them free and clear from all this ammonia buildup. When that didn’t do the trick, I complicated my laundry routine by adding pitcherfuls of water to my HE washing machine through the laundry detergent dispenser. That took so much time, though. I hated doing it. It seemed to help a little, though, so I kept it up until my first was potty trained.
I don’t exactly know what the issue was, but I chalked it up to my lousy HE machine and begged my husband to buy a regular, old fashioned, water hogging top loader—which was hard to find. A friend of mine who was also cloth diapering at the time, was using an old-fashioned top loader and never had stink issues. To compensate for my HE’s lack of water, I added so many rinses to my cloth diaper loads (in addition to pitcherfuls of water) that they would take up the washer for the majority of a day. I also decreased the size of each load that I was washing which meant they were taking up space in the washing machine for half of the week.
Trial and error-
Believe it or not, all of my efforts helped. More rinses, less diapers in a load, adding water: this was all a benefit to my diapers. My laundry routine started improving as I learned more about my machine, my water, and the fiber of my diapers. .
Meanwhile, my daughter had super sensitive skin (I don’t think it was related to the laundry routine at all), so I’d started using mostly fitteds that I’d made out of T shirts, prefolds, and flats on her bum without a cover. That definitely helped her little bottom breathe and it also helped with the stink problem. I started really loving all natural fibers, but at this point my stash was pretty large and she was nearly done so there was no need to buy more diapers or restash.
After two years, my daughter potty trained and I boxed up her hefty stash of cloth diapers in anticipation of a sibling sometime soon and mostly forgot about them. Though we tried and tried, that sibling didn’t come until she was almost four years old. At some point during that time, we switched back to Tide for our regular clothing because it just did a better job, and I also got a peek at my friend’s pocket stash that she been using since I’d started using mine and it still looked so fresh and new while mine was looking tired. She told me she just switched back to Tide and stopped using special cloth diaper detergents. She also said that she stopped fighting the stinky diaper issue all together and was stuffing her pocket diapers with flats instead of microfiber. I made a mental note for that day when I’d finally pee on a stick and see two lines instead of one.
The next time around-
Two years later, when my son was born, we switched to Tide and I traded all his microfiber inserts for pad folded flats and prefolds. I threw all the microfiber into a bag and forgot about them down in the basement and settled into a routine of a rinse, wash, and rinse in my HE without adding any extra water. Despite the fact that his sister’s four year old diapers were starting to wear out, we didn’t have many issues with stink. Meanwhile, a friend of my husband’s moved and sold him her old fashioned, top loading washing machine and dryer, and he changed the plumbing in our basement so I could have two washing machines: the HE for regular clothing and the top loader for diapers. Wow, did that change things! My diapers were definitely coming out much cleaner! Fast forward a year and a half and I was suddenly and unexpectedly pregnant with our third and too sick to spend time stuffing pockets, so I began re-stashing with inexpensive AIO diapers: mostly Diaper Rite AIOs and some Imagine Bamboo AIOs. I also pulled out and bleached all the microfiber inserts to use again so I wouldn’t have to spend so much time pad folding flat diapers. Towards the end of my pregnancy, our water softener broke and we had the hardest, most calcified and mineralized water you can imagine. Untreated, our town’s water is so hard that there are little flakes of calcium floating on the bottom of your water glass if you let it sit too long. Despite my wonderful, water guzzling, old fashioned machine, the stink was back. It had been slowly building all the time our water softener had been slowly dying and pregnant and miserable, I tried to ignore it. Soon, though, I had to do something about it because my pregnant nose couldn’t take it. I did a soak or two in the tub with all the diapers, but since all of our water was hard, that only helped a little. We added twice the amount of detergent to the wash and that helped a lot. We also added an extra rinse or two, even in our monster water guzzler. In addition, I kicked out the microfiber again in favor of natural fibers. All of it helped, but the problem wasn’t solved until a few months later when we had two in cloth diapers and we were finally able to afford a new water softener.
To say that our cloth diaper laundry journey has been long and winding is an understatement!
My cloth diaper wash routine now-
Now, our water is the right pH and we’re able to keep a more normal laundry routine. I am pretty sure that hard water was part of the cause all along because I think that our softener was faulty even from the start. Once we replaced it, we had water quality unlike any we’d seen since moving into our house. That said, I could probably wash my diapers in the HE with a little more success than what I had there with my first child, but I still use my top loader because it does such a great job! I also find that I use much less detergent. Hard water uses a lot of detergent because the detergent needs to both soften the water and clean the clothes. The softer your water is, the less capable it is of rinsing out all the bubbles and the less detergent you need. We had it so soft I was rinsing even our regular laundry two or three times before the bubbles were gone. It took a month or two of tweaking the softener, but we finally got it to the right balance.
Now, I wait to wash my diapers until they’ve built up for about three days, rather than putting them in every day or two, and I set the machine to large or extra large setting which is a lot of water. I wash them with a cold rinse first, then a hot/cold wash, sometimes followed by a hot rinse with a small or medium amount of water. Every month or two my microfibers get stinky so I set them in the bathtub to soak in hot water, or I just run them through my wash cycle a couple of times before using them, and the stink goes away.
I’ve learned a lot about washing cloth diapers during all these years of using them, but I’m still no expert. I feel that laundry is one area of cloth diapering where I am always a little behind the curve! Still, here are a list of things I’ve discovered throughout the years:
You don’t necessarily need special cloth diaper detergents.
You don’t always have to use a special cloth diapering detergent for your diapers. Some of those CD safe cloth diaper detergents were so gentle, they just weren’t washing my diapers well enough. I switched to Tide Original Powder because it’s powerful enough to really get my diapers clean and it also doesn’t have any additives that are harmful to them. I’ve also heard that Country Save and Gain are both great regular detergents that work well on cloth diapers. As long as you have a detergent without scents and fabric softeners, you should do okay. Don’t be afraid to experiment either. What works well for your friend in the next town might not work well for you due to your water, your washer, or even your washing routine.
Fabric Softeners and Rash creams
You should always stay away from fabric softeners, as they cause your diapers to repel moisture and mainline diaper rash creams as the barrier they put on your baby’s skin becomes a barrier on the diaper that not only repels moisture but is very difficult to remove. I replaced the velcro on a friend’s cloth diapers once and half of them had little smears of rash cream on the fabric that needed to be scrubbed and stripped away. If you want softer diapers, try adding a couple of dryer balls to your machine. You can make them yourself or you can purchase them. They can help cut the drying time and keep your diapers softer. If your baby has a rash, buy some cloth diaper safe rash creams, or use coconut oil, breastmilk, or unpetroleum jelly to help combat it. Another amazing way to help diaper rash is to go coverless with fitteds, or with prefolds and flats fastened with pins. All my babies have sensitive skin to one degree or another and this is my favorite way of combating diaper rash.
Don’t be afraid of trial and error
As with everything, finding a good laundry routine means lots of trial and error. How much water should you use? How many rinses? What kind of detergent? How much of it? Those are all things that generally vary from house to house depending on washer type and water pH. You might hit a home run and never have any washer issues right from the start, or you may have to try a couple of different things before finding a routine that works for you. Your Internet friend who swears by two cold rinses, a couple of head stands, a hot rinse and a half, then two washes both with half the amount of detergent and finally a couple of unicorn turds may promise you that their routine alone is the cure to your stinky diaper blues… but her friend two comments down vehemently disagrees with her because she prefers adding the very rare hair of a narwhal rather than the turds. Lots of cloth diapering mamas you’ll find swear by their wash routine and affirm that it will make all your troubles disappear. It might, but you might find something that works better for you. I, for one, prefer adding Phoenix tears to my laundry and letting lose some Blast Ended Screwts to help speed up the drying process. Works wonders. Seriously, though. I do a cold rinse, a hot wash with less detergent than I would use for my regular clothes, followed by a hot rinse. Then I machine or line dry the inserts and air dry any diaper components with PUL and elastics. You can start here with my routine if you don’t know where to begin (or better yet follow the instructions that come with one of your cloth diapers), but don’t be afraid to tweak it. It’s not an exact science.
Good water to diaper/detergent ratio
Something you definitely need in your wash routine is a good amount of water. High efficiency washing machines don’t work well for cloth diapers because cloth diapers need a lot of water to rinse out all those amazingly absorbent layers. You need to find a way to give your diapers all the water they need for all the residue to be washed away. Keep in mind that the more diapers you have in one load, the more water you will need. If you can, keep your loads on the small end, especially if you have an HE washer.
Natural fibers wash best
If you’re sick of fighting the stink, consider switching to diapers made of natural fibers. Flat diapers, usually made of cotton, are the absolute easiest to wash. You can even abuse them just a little bit with forbidden rash creams and they seem to bounce back. They wash well without the extra rinses and you can dry them in the dryer or in the sun every day, if you like, and they aren’t going to die on you any time soon. They only get softer and more absorbent with your abuse! Prefold diapers come in second place as the easiest diapers to wash. They’re only more difficult than flats because their layers are sewn together and they’ll probably need an extra rinse or maybe two. You can also machine dry them or sun them without worrying about shortening their lifespan. Fitteds, pockets, and AIO diapers with all natural fibers will need a more extensive routine than their old fashioned counterparts with an extra rinse or two, and abstinence from the dryer and the sun most of the time, only because PUL and elastics need a gentler touch. When you switch to natural fibered diapers, you’ll find to your delight that they’re less prone to getting stinky and needing to be stripped.
Stripping isn’t scary.
Stripping your diapers, that is. Plain hot water is great for stripping. Many people say to add dish detergent or laundry detergent to your wash, but it’s not necessary. The purpose of stripping is to remove the extra buildup and adding detergents may only add more buildup which will exacerbate the problem. An easy way to strip your diapers is this: fill your bathtub with lots of steaming, hot water, put the offending diapers in the water, and let them soak and soak and soak. Then drain them, and put them in the washing machine. Wash them with the same amount of detergent as you normally do for your diapers, and then rinse and rinse until there are no bubbles left after they’ve been agitated and you catch no whiff of the stinkies. You can also strip diapers by putting them through many hot washes in your washing machine, but without detergent. Again, wash and wash in the hot water until there are no more bubbles in the agitation process, and then they should be good. Sunning stinky diapers can also help with the smell by killing any bacteria that resides inside, but should be preceded or followed with a good stripping soak because what really needs to happen is for any buildup and residue to be washed away, and not just killed. You can also use bleach or Biokleen’s Bac Out on occasion, though I would refrain from using either of these on PUL and elastics. Only use them on the absorbent layers that can be removed. These will both help kill and/or break down any bacteria that may be hiding deep inside your fabrics.
Drying your diapers
So I already mentioned this, but I’ll give it its own section just because it’s so important. Plan on regularly air drying your diapers away from sunlight if you want them to last longer. The dryer and the clothesline all have their place and can be used on occasion with no long term consequences, but both will shorten the life of your diapers when used regularly.
This may all sound very overwhelming, especially if you’re a newbie, but though I’ve waxed long in my description, it’s not really a huge inconvenience or a big complication to wash your diapers. Just remember the following:
Mainline rash creams
Lots of water
Line dry in the sun
A hot water soak
Washing cloth diapers really isn’t that that bad. I promise! I should know, I’ve been doing it myself since my seven year old was a newborn.
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