Learn how to wash your cloth diapers
Besides figuring out which cloth diaper styles you want to buy, learning how to successfully care for and wash your cloth diapers is vital. Over the years cloth diaper washing advice has evolved. Here’s what you need to know about caring for and washing your cloth diapers successfully.
How often and how many should you wash?
Cloth diapers, as with any other laundry, require agitation to get clean. Too few diapers in a load or too many can keep your diapers from getting properly cleaned. I personally recommend a minimum of 8-12 per load and a max of 18, depending on the cloth diaper style and size of your washer. Heavily soiled diapers will likely remain soiled if you are trying to wash too many at once.
If you are washing too many at once then you need to wash more frequently, whenever you reach the amount of dirty cloth diapers needed to wash an entire load.
I recommend washing every 48 to 72 hours and no longer. These diapers have been peed and pooped in. Surely if your child soiled his clothing you would not just toss it in the basket until laundry day, whenever that might be. If you’ve ever let your diapers or soiled clothing sit too long then you know that the ammonia smell only strengthens in intensity making additional rinses and sometimes wash cycles necessary. Likewise, staining, mold, mildew, bacteria and even maggots can appear when cloth diapers, especially moist ones, are left too long without washing.
TIP: Wash your cloth diapers when you have a full load to wash, even if it’s every 24 hour to 36 hours. Why let your diapers sit unnecessarily when you already have enough to make up a full load?
What kind of detergent can you use?
Contrary to popular belief, there are natural detergents capable of washing your cloth diapers. Yes, you can use Tide, but for those who choose cloth diapers because they are looking to reduce their child’s exposure to toxins, fragrances and chemicals, natural detergents are still an option.
*If you’re experiencing issues with any of the above natural detergents then I would recommend you go to each brand for washing support. Note: You will often need more natural detergent per scoop than you would mainstream. Natural detergent manufacturers are happy to help troubleshoot and should be considered the foremost expert on their brand and any issues that might arise while using it.
What to avoid: Free & Clear styles, Pods, Downy, Febreeze and anything that claims to have a built-in fabric softener.
Why can’t you use fabric softeners?
Fabric softeners are made to coat your laundry keeping them smelling fresh with the addition of synthetic fragrances and soft by coating them. This “coating” can often build-up causing cloth diaper fibers that are meant to absorb moisture to actually repel moisture. Bacteria and odor can also become trapped causing build-up which can cause leaks, rash, odors, strange staining and more.
To soften diapers and laundry naturally I recommend the use of wool dryer balls. Four to eight dryer balls per load will bounce around helping laundry dry more quickly and soften them without the use of chemicals.
Do you need a pre-rinse?
The need for a pre-rinse can *sometimes* be eliminated by using a diaper sprayer. A diaper sprayer can often effectively rinse (into the toilet) your diapers clean of the majority of urine and fecal matter leaving them “rinsed” enough to skip the often recommended pre-rinse.
You should discover pretty quickly if skipping the pre-rinse worked or if you still need it. If you DO still need a pre-rinse use a warm or hot water pre-rinse cycle with no detergent immediately preceding your wash.
Do you need to use the sanitary cycle when washing your cloth diapers?
Nope. Unless you are washing only inserts and prefolds I would not recommend the sanitary cycle. Diaper Covers, Pocket Diapers, Wetbags and other modern cloth diaper components can melt, delaminate and be ruined if your temperatures are too hot. I would not personally recommend it.
Liquid or Powder?
If what you’re using is working fine for you then stick with it. If you’re using liquid and experiencing build up then try switching to a laundry powder which some find more soluble and less prone to creating cloth diaper wash issues.
Why choose warm or hot water over cold water?
Scientists have proven that the colder the water the greater the reduction in chemical reaction, meaning the colder the water the less likely your detergent is to work properly to get your soiled laundry and cloth diapers clean.
Can you bleach your cloth diapers?
Bleaching should not be done regularly and is not a part of any maintenance routine. Bleaching as needed is promoted when build-up, odors, extreme staining, bacterial diaper rashes or a yeast infection is being treated.
How to use bleach: Add 1/3 cup of bleach to one full load of clean diapers and wash on hot/warm without detergent.
Over bleaching can result in discoloration, fading, premature wear and deterioration of natural fibers such as organic cotton jersey, and deterioration of elastics which can be hard and sometimes nearly impossible to replace.
What about stains?
The first thing I would like to point out about staining is that just because there’s a “stain” after washing/drying, doesn’t mean that same stain will be there after subsequent use and washes. Many stains fade or go away completely over time. To speed up the stain removal process I recommend you invest in stain stick and try sunning. Placing your diapers in the sun for 20-30 minutes can easily and quickly fade stubborn organic stains.
A note about sunning: Too much sunning can harm your diapers. Over time sun can fade diaper prints, colors, break down fabrics and elastics and damage diapers. Very little sun is all it takes for the natural lightening of stains. Through trial and error you should be able to determine just how long you need to lay your diapers on the window sill, outside on a table or hang on the clothesline.
What odors are normal?
While disposable diapers contain chemicals and fragrances designed to mask odors, cloth diapers do not. There is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to what is normal and what is not. You will smell soiled diapers, however there are odors that mean something is wrong.
- Clean diapers should not smell “off” right out of the dryer.
- Clean diapers should not smell when activated by heat.
- Clean, dry diapers should not cause a rash or smell before baby has even soiled the diaper.
- Baby should not immediately smell like potent ammonia just after having peed.
Some abnormal cloth diaper odors can be described as strong ammonia, barnyard smell, poop smell (on clean diaper), fishy smell, mildew smell.
Odors are often caused by the buildup of bacteria from improper cleaning. Too much detergent, not enough detergent, fabric softener build-up and non-cloth diaper safe rash cream build-up are all common causes of cloth diaper odor and diaper rash.
If you’re experiencing any of the above then STRIPPING your cloth diapers is warranted using the bleach method mentioned above. Re: 1/3 cup bleach per load with hot wash, no detergent.
It’s important that you know that cloth diaper washing is not complicated. Often cloth diapering families get it right from the start and cloth diaper happily ever after, but in the event that you don’t, some troubleshooting may be needed. Use the above as a guide for finding your best cloth diaper wash routine and please don’t hesitate to comment or contact me should you have any additional issues. The fastest way to get in touch is via my “Message Me” option on my Facebook Page.
*This post does contain affiliate links but no brands have officially sponsored this post. All of the above recommendations are my own and are based on personal experience and years of working in this industry with brands, retailers and cloth diapering parents.