Up until just a few years ago, my job was to live and breathe cloth diapering. I worked for Canada's premier cloth diapering company as both an instructor and a writer to help new parents (and parents who were just switching to cloth for the first time) think through their decisions to be able to decide if cloth diapering was right for them, and if so, choose the diapers that would best work in their situation.
Thus, I talked about washing A LOT! Over the years, I have answered thousands of questions about cloth diapers, mostly hinging around how to washing them.
I also wrote a full series on the science of doing laundry – how the type of water, the water quality, the amount of water, the type of agitation, water additives, the types of fabrics, the detergent ingredients, as well as other wash additives all affect HOW cloth diapers get clean – and this post is a very short summary of that full series.
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Update March 2016: I used to link to the full series of articles so you could read them all, but unfortunately the company I used to work for has gone through two new owners since I worked there and has redesigned a few times, so the articles have disappeared. If I can find their new home, I'll definitely link to them again!
How to Wash Cloth Diapers
So, to start, let's take a look at the basic cloth diapering wash routine recommended by many diaper manufacturers and then discuss why they make these recommendations:
*Rinse on cold
*Long wash on warm or hot
“Rinse on cold” – You need to have sufficient time to loosen and drain away any lingering nasties – you know, like the uric acid that’s been sitting on the diaper for two days and those little pieces of poo that remain after dumping the solids in the toilet. It’s sort of the same reason as why you scrape your dishes before you put them in the dishwasher – the more gunk the washer has to deal with, the more cycles you’re going to have to do in order to get them truly clean.
“Long wash on warm or hot” – You need time to activate and fully dissolve the detergent and give it time to do its work. Different detergents require different amounts of time to become fully activated. The length of time required for this will depend on the type of detergent, the temperature of your water, the amount of water, as well as the water quality. Once it’s fully activated and doing its work, it needs sufficient time to fully bond with the grime so the grime can be lifted from the fabric and washed away. Thus, you want a long wash.
“Double rinse” – You need to allow time for the detergent to be completely washed away too. If you skip this part of the cycle, it’s easy for detergent residue to be left on your lovely fluffy fibers, which can cause leaks, diaper rash, and possibly even extra-stinky diapers because of a chemical reaction that happens when urine hits that detergent residue the next time the diaper is used.
These recommendations certainly apply no matter what type of washing machine you have, but they are even more important if you have a high-efficiency machine. Since you have to “trick” your machine into using enough water and there’s not much agitation to have sufficient cleaning action, allowing enough time is absolutely crucial.
And of course, when you’re done washing, you can dry your diapers however you like – hanging them on a line, drying them on a rack, or tossing them in the dryer.
Why Washing Cloth Diapers is Different Than Washing Clothes
Why is washing cloth diapers different that washing clothes? The answer is really quite simple.
Think about it – with clothes, most of the dirtiness is on the outside: ice cream drips, grass stains, deodorant residue. With diapers, however, most of the dirtiness is on the inside, rather than just sitting on the surface.
Obviously, it’s going to take extra time to get all that water through the diaper rather than just dealing with the dirt and grime on the surface.
So let's take a closer look at all the factors at play here…
The “Swish” Factor
The lovely ladies over at the Rockin’ Green blog describe swish this way:
“Swish or agitation is a very important component of any good wash routine. The diapers need to not only move around in the wash tub, but they also need to rub up against one another.
Think of how you wash your hands – do you run them under water to get lather, or do you rub your hands together? With too many diapers in a load, they just rotate around the tub in a bunch. Not enough diapers and they swim around the wash basin blissfully (and dirtily) unaware of their neighbors.
So if you have a top loader, load the machine to about the halfway point. For a front loader, you want to have enough items in the drum to where you can put a hands width between the top of the drum and the clothing.”
And don’t worry about all this rubbing wearing out your diapers – diapers are designed to rub together in the wash. In fact, it actually “fluffs” them a bit, which makes sure excess oils that affect absorbency are removed, it creates more space between the fibers (which also increases absorbency), and it softens them.
This only matters because different types of water have different levels of minerals – such as calcium, iron, and phosphorus – and the minerals affect how your detergent works.
Overall, you don't really need to worry about this, unless you have extremely hard water (which you'll know because all your sinks, tubs, toilets, etc will have red iron stains on them!). In that case, just watch for absorbency issues and unexplained, prolonged diaper rash. If either of those issues arise, start adding a water softener or bit of washing soda along with your detergent, as the washing soda (sodium carbonate) will bind with the minerals and soften the water, allowing the detergent to better do its work.
Whether you have a top-loading, agitator machine or a front-loading, high-efficiency machine, how much water you use is critical is cleaning your diapers thoroughly.
Partially because diapers are thicker than many other types of wash, partially because you’re specifically trying to get the “dirty” out of the middle rather than just the surface, and partially because the ammonia from urine is particularly good at clinging to fabric fibers, water is the only way to thoroughly and efficiently clean your diapers through and through.
In a standard agitator machine, the level of water is easy to determine, as the machine is designed to fill with water to your predetermined level. It’s important to have enough water to cover the diapers fully without filling so much that the diapers float about like objects in space – the diapers need to be able to rub against each other in the wash action and if there’s too much water, they sort of just float past each other, as we discussed above.
In a high-efficiency washer, the amount of water is equally important, but more difficult to gauge merely because HE washers are designed to reduce the amount of water to just enough to saturate the fabrics. To make up for the lack of swish, the engineers extended the wash time (which is why loads in HE washers take f-o-r-e-v-e-r), which works well for most loads where the soil is on the surface of the fabrics, but not so great for diapers.
For diapers, an extended wash time alone just isn’t enough to get diapers squeaky clean – you still need as much water as possible in the drum. So, you basically just have to trick your washer into adding as much water as possible. Depending on your model, you can do a “rinse and spin” cycle with the spin cycle off or select the “prewash” setting. You can also add a wet towel or a pair of jeans to the load, as this will make the load heavier (the amount of water added to the drum is calculated by weight).
I won't get into a discussion of brands here, but there are two things to remember about detergent that come into play:
1. When it comes to diapers, don't skimp on the detergent. Detergent is designed to attract dirt, bacteria, and grime to itself, then release into the water to be easily washed away. With all the bacteria, proteins, fats, acids, and other components of human waste, less is NOT more.
I've seen lots of advice to use only a tablespoon or two of detergent per load of diapers, which is usually touted to save money or to avoid detergent buildup, both of which are well-meaning fallacies, as frugal-minded parents will end up spending more in the long-run by doing extra washes to deal with lingering smells and residues that aren't fully washed off, and detergent build-up isn't caused by excess detergent, but rather by excess grime on the diapers that trap the detergents, usually because insufficient detergent was used in the first place.
Those residues can be multiple things ranging from uric acid crystals to caked on soap to diaper creams to detergent additives that are designed to stay on the fabric, such as fabric softeners, optical brighteners, and fragrances.
Needless to say, generally you should use the full amount of detergent prescribed by the manufacturer during each wash.
2. Don't use detergents that include fabric softener, fragrance, brighteners, or dyes. Whether these ingredients leave residues after every wash or not, they're definitely capable of causing rashes and soreness on your baby's bum, so avoid them whenever possible.
I'm on the fence about enzymes, because on one hand, I see using Branch Basics – an enzyme-based cleaner – as an excellent addition to your laundry, but on the other the other hand, I've seen some brands stuffed with ingredients listed as enzymes that still leave fabrics feeling tacky afterward, so definitely use your own judgement and preference on this one.
So, there you have it. A short run-down of the laundry science when it comes to how to wash cloth diapers!
(And if that doesn't answer your questions, check out our post on how to strip cloth diapers for some ideas on troubleshooting problems with lingering odors….)
What are your biggest hurdles/frustrations when you're washing cloth diapers?