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


One thought on “Let’s Talk About Cloth Diapers and Laundry

  1. Pingback: I Stripped! …My Diapers. | Plain Jane Explains

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