There are many different methods to washing cloth diapers. Most cloth diapering mothers have their own washing method that they swear by. However, I’m going to tell you this tidbit that will be so freeing:
There is no one, perfect method to wash cloth diapers.
Here’s the thing: there are way too many variables involved in washing diapers for there to be only one perfect way to wash diapers to get them clean and permanently stink-free.
What works wonderfully for me is possibly not going to work so great for another household. Water temperature, hard vs. soft water, detergent – these all play a part in the effectiveness of one’s wash routine.
So read through these wash routine variables and washing hints and figure out the system that works for you.
Washing Machine Cycle
The pre-rinse involves getting the initial ‘ick’ out of the fibers of the diapers. Usually a rinse cycle runs about 15-30 minutes or so on a washing machine. You do not need any detergent or additives in this pre-rinse cycle. Only water is needed.
When choosing which wash cycle is best on your machine, choose the one that has the longest cycle of agitation. On many washers, it will be labeled as ‘heavy-duty’ or ‘extra heavy’ or ‘whitest whites.’ If you don’t have a setting similar to these, use the ‘normal/regular’ setting, but adjust the soil level to ‘heavy.’ This will ensure the cycle uses the maximum time of agitation. I recommend at least 12-15 minutes of agitation to really clean diapers well.
Most washers default to one rinse cycle per setting. I recommend using an extra-rinse cycle at the end. The setting on your machine will read ‘extra-rinse’ or ‘2nd rinse’. You will have to set the extra rinse manually and it will start as soon as the regular wash cycle is complete. The final rinse and extra-rinse cycles are literally trying to rinse any leftover detergent from the diapers. Since extra detergent often leads to stink, you don’t want to skip this step.
Your washing cycle will be most effective if you follow these settings. Remember that the hotter the water is that cleans the clothes, the more effective it makes the detergent.
It is best to do this rinse on a cold temperature setting, which helps prevent staining.
Use the hottest temperature setting on your washer. Yes, hot water can be damaging to elastic but it is more the dry heat of the dryer that causes this type of wear and tear in the case of diapers. Cloth diaper manufacturers know that the diapers need to be washed vigorously and in hot water to clean them effectively, so they make the diapers to be sturdy. Cloth diapers can certainly be washed in warm water. Fibers like microfiber tend to hold on to stink however, so they probably won’t be able to tolerate a warm cycle continuously. I definitely do not recommend using cold water during the wash cycle on diapers. Cold water just cannot be efficient enough to get diapers as clean as they need to be. (Yes, I know there are those that disagree!)
Rinse cycle and extra-rinse
It is acceptable to use cold water in the final rinse and extra-rinse. The machine is literally trying to rinse out any extra detergent that might be left over in the diapers.
Safe Detergents for Cloth Diapers
This is where things get a little trickier in the washing of cloth diapers. It’s the age-old question of: what is the best detergent for my diapers and how much do I use?
When choosing a detergent, it is often best to choose the one with the fewest ingredients. Avoid detergents with added fabric softeners, enzymes, bleach or oxygen-based cleaners. These additives are designed to not rinse out in the final rinse, and this is not the desired result in washing diapers. The goal is to have the fabric rinsed as cleanly as possible.
There are several comprehensive lists advising the best detergents to use for cloth diapering. Happy Heineys offers an excellent list on what to look for in a detergent and specifically those detergents to avoid. Pinstripes and Polkadots offers a comprehensive list of frequently used detergents and a list for high-efficiency detergents as well. Diaper Jungle also has a list of frequently used detergents and how they rate in the cloth diaper world as well as a chart for high-efficiency detergents.
Since you want diapers to rinse as cleanly as possible, it is recommended to use only 1/4 – 1/2 of the amount of detergent you would use in a load of typical laundry. If you find your diapers are not getting clean in the wash cycle with that reduced amount, slowly increase it until you find what is most effective while still rinsing out well.
Additional Products to Use in the Wash Cycle
The potential for smelly or repelling diapers increases with the amount of products that you use in your wash routine. Keep the routine as simple as possible, using only detergent if you can.
That being said, there are other additives you might want to consider in your diaper washing regimen:
- Baking Soda
Baking soda is an excellent cleaner in and of itself. Because of its pH, it neutralizes odors and doesn’t just cover them up. If you have continuous ammonia stink issues, baking soda may be a good choice in getting to the root of the problem.
- White Vinegar
If you use vinegar, make sure it goes in the final rinse of the diapers in the wash cycle (not the extra or second rinse). Vinegar also helps neutralize the pH which aids in reducing smelly dipes. It also helps eliminate detergent build-up on fabrics. Caution: Vinegar can also contribute to smelly diapers which I’ll cover in a later Cloth Diaper Care post. Just be careful with it.
The use of bleach in relation to cloth diapering is fairly controversial. Bleach weakens the strength of fabrics over time, simply because of its chemical makeup. However, there are times when a small amount of bleach is needed (ie: sick laundry and diapers). Bleach should never be a routine part of your cloth diaper washing regimen if you want your diapers to last.
- Essential Oils/Grapefruit Seed Extract
Essential oils and Grapefruit Seed Extract have bacterial-cleansing properties that can be helpful in sanitizing diapers. And they smell wonderful which can be a nice perk. However oils and water definitely do not mix, so only a few drops are necessary. Do not be heavy-handed!
- Oxygen Bleach
Oxygen bleach can be used in a load of heavily stained diapers to prevent set-in stains. Oxygen bleach works wonders on protein-based stains, which is what urine/poop stains are made up of. Don’t be heavy-handed with oxygen bleach either, as it can also cause diaper build-up.
Top-Loaders and Front-Loaders
Both types of washing machines have their pros and cons. However, in the cloth diaper world a top-loader wins hands down in my opinion. Top-loading washers use triple the amount of water than a front-loader in a typical wash cycle. While this is bad for the water bill, it is great for cleaning diapers. Diapers need a lot of water to get clean during the agitation cycle and then a lot more water to rinse the detergent out well.
If you have a front-loader, you might need to ‘trick’ your machine into using more water. At the very most, your front-loader uses 14-15 gallons of water per cycle – that includes rinsing too! Remember that a front-loader has a sensor to determine the amount of water needed in each load. So if you have a small load, the amount of water will be even less.
To trick your front-loader into using more water, add in an old towel to the wash load. Or two towels if your load is fairly small. The machine will sense that more is in the drum and increase the amount of water used. Designate an old towel just for this purpose if needed.
Drying Cloth Diapers
It is best to hang-dry cloth diapers. By allowing diapers to air dry, you save the wear and tear that the dryer heat causes on the elastic. Over time, dryer heat will cause the breakdown of elastic in your diapers.
Cloth diapers and covers can certainly be dried routinely in the dryer if that is your only option. There are no contraindications except the whole elastic issue.
If you do decide to dry your diapers in the dryer, use a lower heat setting. While the drying cycle will last longer, it will be easier on your elastic.
If you suspect you have any pinpoint-size holes in the PUL of the diaper, the heat from the dryer can actually seal them up in certain cases.
Do you have specific questions on washing your diapers? Feel free to ask in the comments or shoot me an email.