I Stripped! …My Diapers.

Yeah, more cloth diaper talk, woo!

So to recap, my last post was about cloth diaper laundry and how it shouldn’t be any different than any other laundry.  I mean, think about it for a second, cloth diapers aren’t made of some kind of crazy magical fabrics, they’re made of stuff that we already know how to clean.  Things like cotton, PUL, microfiber, fleece.  These materials being cut into diaper shapes and used on a butt doesn’t change how they come clean in a washing machine.  So we should wash them normally.

I did also briefly mention that everyone’s normal cloth diaper routine would still be different from the next person’s, just as their clothing laundry should be different, and that’s because how you wash your clothes depends, primarily, on the total hardness and the acidity/basicity of your water, and then on the type of machine you have and the detergent you choose.

Up until now I took it for granted that we had hard water because the landlord told us that we did.  Nevermind that in the two years we’ve lived here the water softener in the garage has always beeped at us because it’s been empty the entire time, and nothing as terrible has happened to our clothes as what used to happen to me when I lived in a different part of town.  In this other place my whites would turn rusty orange.  Maddening!  Here, that wasn’t happening.

But was has been happening is that the beast ammonia has been creeping back into my life, and I’m not interested in doing business with ammonia.  I struggled with ammonia when the Toddlersaurus was a wee baby, a result of believing the cloth diaper washing myths, and it was horrible.  The Toddlersaurus ended up with truly horrible burns on her bum and the smell of her diapers would singe nose hairs.  Through a series of shots in the dark I managed to get the diapers to a reasonable condition for continued use with her and with Roly-Poly, but they’ve never been quite right.

When I stumbled across Fluff Love & CD Science is when it all changed for me.  Science, oh, science!  You are always there to make sense of things.  It was a bit embarrassing to admit that I’d not turned to a factual, science-based approach to cleaning my diapers when I like to play by the science-y rules in almost every other realm, but I didn’t want to dwell on what I’d done wrong for so long.  It was time to make a change.  And the first step was to order a water test so I could know without a doubt what kind of water we’re working with here.

WaterBoss offers free test strips and they don’t drag their feet about getting them to you either!  I got mine in under a week.  Bonus, they included three test strips for hardness and two for pH.  The fact that I could test more than once from the same free kit made me way too happy to be decent.  At any rate, this was our result:

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(Forgive the blurriness, I was using my terrible phone camera at night.)

So, hey, check it out, our water isn’t actually as hard as I had originally thought!  That explained why our whites weren’t turning dingy or orange and why we weren’t seeing mineral deposits in our tub and sink basins.  However, the water is still moderately hard, so it still does deposit minerals into the fabric of our clothing and diapers, which means that we need to be using some kind of softener in our laundry, particularly during rinses.  I also checked to see if our water is iron-hard by adding some bleach to water.  If it were iron-hard it would turn some shade of yellow or orange, but it stayed clear so I don’t have to worry about iron.  (Folks with iron-hard water should NOT be using bleach.  A bleach alternative will have to do.)

This seems like a good place to digress (again) and mention that, contrary to the popular belief that detergent builds up in diapers and causes ammonia, what actually causes buildup is minerals like those in hard water.  If you don’t use enough detergent and don’t use any kind of softener you’re going to get mineral buildup, especially if you’re rinsing your diapers multiple times each laundry day, which will then create an ammonia problem in your diapers.  Using plenty of detergent is actually part of the solution to the problem!  Using a softener, even during rinses, is essential as well.

Now back to my diapers.  Roly-Poly hasn’t suffered from ammonia burn yet, but he has developed a yeast rash.  While little girls can get easily end up with yeast overgrowth in their ladybits, what happens a lot of the time with boys is that the yeast in the gut will flourish out of control and then make its way into diapers in the stool, then take hold in the folds of the boy parts and cause a rash.  Now, imagine that there’s a buildup in a little boy’s cloth diapers of minerals and other yuckies (including lingering deposits from poo) from years of not being washed properly.  Imagine that all that gunk has been stubbornly stuck deep in the fibers of the diapers because the detergent can’t remove the minerals and soil as fast as the hard water is adding to it.

Basically, my son has a very itchy, burn-y, unfun rash because I took too long learning all this stuff.  Cue the mom guilt.

But this isn’t the end!  This mom has learned how to strip her diapers!  And strip them I did over the weekend.

Proper cloth diaper stripping starts with diapers that have already been washed.  It involves, first, a soak in hot water infused with something such as RLR laundry treatment, or some combination of borax, Calgon, and washing soda.  I will provide FL&CDS’s infographic with the details. The diapers are left to soak until the water cools, then they are promptly cold-soaked in water infused with bleach.  Bleach is pretty much the only thing that can get rid of ammonia buildup once it’s there.  Bleach also kills yeast.

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I followed this stripping routine, then rinsed my diapers in hot water (hot water neutralizes and rinses out bleach) and then washed with detergent, making sure to add my softener during the final rinse so no minerals would re-deposit.

Here’s the thing that made me really happy when I took my diapers out of the dryer – they did not smell.  At all!  AT. ALL.  I had given up all hope that diapers could ever smell like fresh, clean fabric once they’d been used for the first time.  My diapers have NEVER smelled like clean fabric.  They’ve always had a funk to them right out of the dryer.  The worst part about that is that funkiness, even a little bit, means the diapers are still dirty, it means there is still gunk deep in the fibers.  So Roly-Poly didn’t stand a chance once he’d had his first yeast-rich movement because that yeast never came out once it was in.

Now his diapers are as fresh and clean as the day they arrived in my mailbox.  I did use a few of his diapers on him after I stripped them just to see how they fared after he went in them (no ammonia stink, yay!) so I’ll need to bleach again to kill the yeast in those diapers.  I’ll also most likely to a second strip as well because I only had borax this time.  I want to do a good, thorough strip with RLR or with a solid mixture of borax AND washing soda and Calgon.

And, moving forward, I know exactly what I need to do in my personal cloth diaper laundry routine to keep the minerals from building up in my diapers.  It doesn’t involve a million rinses, it doesn’t involve a tiny amount of  expensive and ineffective “cloth diaper safe” detergent.  It involves a rinse with softener, a wash with softener and enough detergent, and a rinse with softener.  The end.

Hooray, science!

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Let’s Talk About Cloth Diapers and Laundry

Hello, friends!

It’s been a hot minute since my last update and that is because I have simply not had the desire to sit down and make a post.  I mean, let’s be honest.  Sometimes blogging is a pain, y’all.  But it’s just too fun to stay away!

Today I want to talk about cloth diapers because I am in a cloth diaper-y kind of mood and I wanted to share what I think is some really great information about cloth diapers.  Now, truth be told, this isn’t anything new or anything you couldn’t find somewhere else on the Internet.  However, it does go against the grain of conventional cloth diaper “wisdom,” and I wanted to add my voice to the ever-growing throng of cloth diaperers demanding that this information become more widely circulated.

I want to talk about washing cloth diapers.  PROPERLY.  I will be explaining what that means in my own words and I will be linking several absolutely wonderful resources to back up all this big talk.

1. Science!
The first really important thing you need to know about washing cloth diapers is that science is important!  I’m not going to get very technical here, mostly because I am not a scientist, but I have a basic understanding of this particular concept and I’m going to throw out one very important word – surfactants.  You need them!  What surfactants do, essentially, is make water more absorbable.  What?  Don’t worry, here is a link to an article that explains how that works.  It has to do with surface tension, hydrophobic and hydrophilic properties, and agitation.  Surfactants actually aid the process of getting all that clean water into those pooped-and-peed-upon fabrics, and then, as everything agitates, they hang onto the waste material and keep it from re-depositing itself into the fabric.  So when the water and detergent are drained and spun out of the drum of your washing machine all the waste goes with it.

2. Keep it real!
That is why it’s really important to use real detergent to clean your cloth diapers.  A lot of people use homemade detergent to clean their cloth diapers thinking they’re doing this great thing by not soaking their diapers in chemicals.  But here’s the thing; that word, chemicals, is tossed around a lot as some big and scary and very vague monster.  Not all chemicals are created equal.  (In fact, whether a chemical is naturally occurring or man-made says nothing about its level of toxicity!  But that’s a different topic altogether!)  In this case, you wouldn’t be doing yourself any favors by leaving out those all-important surfactants.  And the thing about these DIY “detergents” is that they’re not detergents at all.  They’re actually just combinations of laundry boosters, or combinations of laundry boosters and, most often, shredded bar soaps.  Laundry boosters paired with detergents can be a great asset, depending on the hardness of your water, but by themselves they aren’t effective at getting really deep into the fibers of the diapers and truly clearing the waste out of them.  And bar soap often leaves soap scum on the surface of the diapers, not only trapping old waste material inside the fibers but also making it easier for waste materials to adhere to the fibers.  The consequences are often stink issues, rash issues, sometimes even infections, and the need to strip the diapers with some degree of regularity.

So, with science on my side I can confidently say that not only should cloth diaperers be using real detergent, they should use whatever mainstream detergent is available to them at their local supermarket, as long as it’s got surfactants and hasn’t got fabric softener added in.  And I’m not the only one saying this!

3. How much is too much?  The buildup of a lie!
A very common misconception is that you need to use a tiny fraction of the amount of detergent you’d normally use because of the risk of detergent buildup.  But detergent buildup is a myth, plain and simple.  Detergents are designed to rinse out of fibers – blame those hydrophobic properties!  For the same reason that they’re so effective at removing waste residue from fabric and keeping it out, they’re also not capable of building up in fabric.  We don’t need to regularly strip our clothing because detergent does not build up in our clothing.  Same with diapers.  Regardless of the presence of suds in your washer during the rinse cycle, as long as your diapers do not still feel soapy after they’ve been rinsed, you’re good to go.  It’s not detergent buildup that causes stink issues.  Diapers still being dirty is what causes stink issues.  And the only way to ensure that the diapers are getting thoroughly clean is to use the recommended amount of detergent for your load size.  Maybe even a bit more, particularly with free and clear varieties, which tend to have weaker formulas.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that many who switch from DIY soaps to conventional detergents will become outraged by the sudden appearance of a rash on their babies’ bums.  What’s most often happening is that the new detergent is drawing out all the old, built-up, nasty junk that’s been hanging out in the diaper fibers all that time.  Yes, that can and often does cause a rash!  Especially in the case of ammonia, which can’t be washed out under normal circumstances and requires bleach to be gotten rid of.  Many well-versed cloth diaperers agree that a strip before making the big switch is necessary.  The good news is that one strip should be enough…forever!

4. What about water?
Conventional cloth diapering wisdom holds that the more water you use to launder your diapers the better.  Unfortunately, that is also false.  Once again, cloth diapers are not exempt from the laws of science.  In order for fabric to come clean in the washer it needs to agitate properly, and that means rubbing against the other stuff that’s in the drum.  If the diapers are floating freely in the water – what is often referred to as “diaper soup” – they’re not going to have the benefit of friction to help work out all the gunk.

Similarly, if there isn’t enough water in the drum the diapers won’t be able to move amongst each other.  This is often referred to as “diaper chili,” and that also prevents there being enough friction for the diapers to get properly clean.  What you’re looking for is “diaper stew,” which means there’s enough water for the diapers to be covered and to agitate against each other.  Too little is bad, too much is bad, just enough is just right.

Kind of like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, only with diapers.

5. It’s getting hot in here!
So what about water temperature?  Doesn’t the water need to be set to the hottest setting to get the diapers clean?  Well, no.  The idea that it’s even possible to sanitize diapers in the washer is, frankly, wrong.  There’s no household washing machine that can make the water hot enough to actually sanitize, and even if one could it wouldn’t be able to maintain the temperature long enough to sanitize the diapers.  Put simply, you can’t sanitize your diapers in your washing machine with just water.  There are products for that, one of which is bleach.

6. Rinse, repeat.  Right?
Rinsing is another big thing with cloth diapering.  There’s this idea that the diapers need to be rinsed tons of times after the detergent wash in order to prevent detergent buildup (there’s that phrase again).  Like I mentioned before, detergent buildup is a myth and even a little detergent residue will not have any bearing on the effectiveness of the diapers.  Even with soft water, which can be less effective at rinsing out detergent, there is no need to rinse until the suds are gone, there’s really no reason to rinse more than twice.  Personally, I rinse once after the detergent wash and I have not run into any issues yet.  In fact, if you have hard water extra rinses can be your doom.  Once the detergent and its handy surfactants have left the scene your fibers are wide open for minerals to deposit themselves again.  Extra rinses in hard water can actually cause mineral buildup, which can lead to stink and rashes.  This should be good news for some of us.  Fewer rinses equal less water usage!

Final Thoughts
This is just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to cloth diaper laundry.  One thing that remains true is that cloth diaper laundry routines will vary from household to household depending on the hardness and pH of the water, the type of machine, choice of detergent, the presence of laundry boosters, the size of the loads, and on and on.  With some really simple investigating and a bit of research it isn’t too difficult to figure out what fine-hair details you’ll need to know for your stash.  I’ll list a couple more resources below which are not just great jumping-off points but also reliable support if or when troubleshooting is necessary.  But to start with, what’s important to know is what I outlined above.

Don’t forget that when washing cloth diapers you are dealing with human waste.  Let’s deal with it responsibly, shall we?

For more information, check out the following sources:
Fluff Love and CD Science
I Dream of Diapers
C, G, & Mr. B
The American Cleaning Institute