How to wash cloth diapers - Cloth Diapering 101
Updated: Apr 13
When you use cloth diapers, it is very important to properly clean the diapers. Besides the fact that they can start to smell, they can also leave behind residues in the cloth diapers that can irritate your baby’s bum. An example of this is ammonia. Ammonia is present in urine (you can smell this when the diapers have been in a wetbag for a while) and ammonia can cause burns in your baby’s skin if it is not washed from your cloth diapers. Therefore a good washing routine is needed to make sure your diapers are cleaned every time so you can use them to the fullest.
Before you wash
There are a few things to take into consideration even before your diapers end up in the laundry.
Where to store dirty diapers until washday
Before you wash your cloth diapers, you need a place to store dirty diapers. Don’t store your diapers in a layer of water. This is a very old-fashioned method and will deteriorate your diapers faster. This is because when a diaper is wet, it contains a lot of urine and urine contains ammonia. Soaking diapers in this water for a long time does not increase their lifespan and should be avoided.
This is also the reason why you shouldn’t wait too long before washing your diapers.
I store my diaper in a large wet bag (pail liner). I remove the poop before I put them in this bag where it will stay until the bag is full enough to fill up my laundry machine. I put this pail liner in a nice-looking trashcan (as it sits in the middle of my living room) with a lid. The lid is not airtight but it contains smells perfectly. Only when you open the lid you can smell that there are dirty diapers in there. When closed, no one will know.
What to do with the poo
Diapers collect poo. There is no going around it but you want to avoid poo ending up in your washing machine. There are several options you could use to avoid poo ending up in the laundry.
If your baby is 100% breastfed, you don’t have to remove the poop before washing as this type of poop is completely water-soluble. Meaning your washing machine will have no problem cleaning it from the diapers.
Biodegradable (disposable) liners are placed in the diaper when your baby is bottle-fed or is already eating solids. These liners are used in cloth diapers to collect the baby poo to prevent (most of it) from entering the washing machine. There are two types of liners. The first one is disposables. In this case, liners are disposed of in the trash can when it has collected poop. Be sure to change the trash can frequently to avoid bad smells. Even though most liners are biodegradable I don’t recommend putting them in the compost bin as human feces contains bacteria. A home compost bin does not become hot enough to kill these bacteria.
The second one is reusable liners, in this case, a soiled liner is emptied above a toilet when it has collected poop and washed afterward. The latter is often made from fleece which helps with a dry feel against your baby's skin. It is also recommended to switch to reusable liners only once the poop the baby produces is more solid to make removing it into the toilet easier.
A diaper sprayer is another option you could use to deal with the poo. This is a toilet attachment used to rinse stool from dirty diapers over a toilet. This eliminates the use of a liner but can use lots of water.
There is no overall best detergent to wash your cloth diapers with. Just make sure you choose a detergent that is sufficiently strong to deal with extreme stains as cloth diapers are the dirtiest type of laundry you can get. Also, make sure that the laundry detergent you use has enzymes. Poop contains protein. To remove these, we need enzymes because enzymes break down protein. An enzyme-free detergent is not strong enough to deal with dirty diapers.
I don’t recommend homemade detergent. You want a detergent that has been sufficiently tested to get rid of lots of dirt and kill all the bacteria that may be present in your diapers. When using a homemade detergent, you can’t be sure if this is indeed the case. Initially, you might think it works great but over time, there may be build-up in your diapers which may affect absorbency and could even result in a rash on your baby's skin.
I also don’t recommend natural detergents like soap nuts to wash your cloth diapers. These are not sufficiently strong to clean cloth diapers. When using a natural detergent for a long time, residues that have not been removed properly from the diapers may build up over time. This not only affects the absorbency of the diaper but could also cause rashes on your baby's skin.
Some of us live in an area with hard water. Hard water contains high amounts of calcium and magnesium carbonates, bicarbonates, and sulfates. Washing cloth diapers in untreated hard water could result in problems like a mineral build-up (of the previously mentioned minerals) within the diaper fabric. This can cause reduced absorption and bacteria growth in the diapers when these bacteria are not removed properly during laundry.
So, it is essential to use a water softener each time you wash cloth diapers if you live in an area with hard water.
The washing routine
Now it is time to finally wash cloth diapers. I remove the pail liner with the dirty diapers from the trash can so I can put them in my laundry machine. As I have a front loader, it is quite the challenge to put the diapers in the machine as I have to turn the pail liner inside out so all the diapers are loose in the machine. As you can imagine, this took some practice.
Wash your diapers separately
Wash cloth diapers without any other types of clothes. Your clothing needs a less harsh laundry routine compared to your diapers. Which increases the lifespan of your clothes. Besides, when cloth diapering full time it is not that hard to collect a sufficient amount of diapers for a full load in about two to three days.
How many to wash
The amount of diapers to wash at a time depends on the size of your washing machine. You don’t want to stuff your machine too full but you also don’t want too few diapers in your machine. When there are both too many or too few diapers in your machine, the machine can’t create enough friction between the diapers to properly clean them. So, what is a good amount? It is best to fill the machine 2/3 to about 3/4. This way there is enough space to create the friction the washing machine needs to do to clean your diapers.
We first start with a cold rinse cycle. Even when we use a diaper sprayer or liner, there may still be some stool left on the diapers. We want to rinse this away before we properly wash it. This prevents us from washing our diapers in ‘poopy’ water when there is stool left in our diapers but we forgot the rinse cycle. Remember that a washing machine does not pump off the water during the washing cycle so we first want to rinse.
We rinse at a cold temperature as poop contains protein and protein solidify in hot water. When they solidify they are fixed in the fabric making it harder to remove. We use some detergent during a rinse cycle but I also like to add a little detergent enhancer and some water softener to give them a proper rinse.
Please use a separate washing program for your rinse cycle. A prewash program attached to the ‘real’ washing program may not pump off the dirty water which could result in you doing laundry in dirty water.
Now for the second washing cycle for your diapers. You don’t need to dry the diapers in between the rinse and the full cycle. You can leave them in your washing machine. We use a hotter cycle now as we first rinsed and now we want to clean. Choose a full cycle at about 140F or 60C. This is enough to kill bacteria. Hotter is not required as it won’t kill more bacteria. Hotter requires more energy and deteriorates fabric faster so it is unnecessary.
Use a good quality laundry detergent and use the recommended amount for extremely dirty laundry with the water type in your area. This can be a lot of laundry detergent but we want our diapers to be sufficiently clean so I recommend sticking to this.
Extra rinsing is not necessary and may even be harmful if you live in an area with hard water. For the water, for washing, we used laundry detergent (which already has water softener) and we added water softener. An extra rinse cycle does not have a water softening treatment which could affect your diapers negatively in the long run. As hard water contains minerals that could build up in your diapers.
How often to wash
Cloth diapers need to be washed frequently. Not only do you never run out of diapers also diapers staying dirty too long is not good for your diapers. Diapers are saturated with urine and urine contains ammonia. Ammonia can damage natural fibers like the ones your cloth diapers are made from. So you don’t want your diapers to remain dirty too long.
Another reason you don’t want your diapers to stay dirty for too long is that they can cause bacteria to grow. Even though we remove most of the poop from the diapers, this does not mean that there are no bacteria present on your cloth diapers. To prevent these bacteria to thrive, we need to wash diapers frequently. I wash my diapers every 2 - 3 days. I don’t recommend leaving more than 4 days in between washings to prevent it from negatively affecting your diapers.
Soft diapers for your baby sound like a great idea. However, fabric softener is not the way to do it. Fabric softener gives the fabric a coat that feels soft to the touch however, this layer also affects the absorbency of diapers. So, don’t use fabric softener on cloth diapers.
I have never used bleach on my cloth diapers. There are multiple reasons for this, the biggest one is that I get a severe skin rash when I come in contact with bleach therefore I would like to avoid it as much as possible. As the skin of my baby could be even more sensitive, this is even more reason to avoid doing laundry with bleach. Another reason is that bleach deteriorates fabric much faster meaning you will be able to use your diapers for less long until they are completely worn out.
Cleaning your machine
To make sure my washing machine remains properly clean when cloth diapering I clean my washing machine about once a month or every other month. I do this by setting the washing machine on the hottest program and letting it run with some baking soda in the drum and vinegar in the laundry detergent dispenser.
Drying cloth diapers
After washing you need to dry your diapers. You can either line dry your diapers or use a dryer.
Line drying your diapers is not only the most energy-efficient method to dry your diapers, it will also make sure your diapers last longer. A big downside of line drying diapers is that it may take a while for your diapers to dry. I don’t have a dryer and during the winter months, it may take longer than 24 hours for my diaper to dry.
When you don’t have space to line dry your clothes or you are cloth diapering twins and time is limited, a dryer is a great solution. Dry cloth diapers at low to medium temperature to make sure your diapers last the longest.
Stripping cloth diapers
Deep cleaning of cloth diapers is called stripping cloth diapers. Stripping is not a way you clean diapers regularly. If you have a good washing routine, stripping should not be necessary. However, there are a few cases where stripping may be required like washing cloth diapers in an insufficient washing routine over an extended time or if you purchased diapers secondhand and you don’t know the previous owner's washing routine. You can read all about stripping cloth diapers in this blog post.
Lengthen the lifecycle of your diapers
There are a few things that you can do to make your diapers last longer:
Don’t use a dryer but hang dry your diapers.
Line dry your diapers over 2 lines to avoid too much stress on the elastic.
Don’t use a high temperature on your diapers if you decide to use a dryer.
Don’t use bleach
Don’t use fabric softener
Use the power of the sun to ‘bleach’ stains naturally.