Cloth Diapering Laundry Basics & Helpful Hints

Article By:
Juliet Spurrier, MD
Mom-in-Chief
BabyGearLab

Last Updated:
Monday
August 17, 2015

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This article is part of our comprehensive review of top performing cloth diapers titled, The Search for the Best Cloth Diapers.

Cloth Diapers Aren't Regular Laundry


Cloth diapers hands-down are or will be the some of the dirtiest laundry in your household. As such, they require special care to get them clean so as to avoid ammonia build-up, odor retention, and diaper rashes.

Furthermore, cloth diapers require special care due to their contained fabrics which will get washed hundreds of times. Covers typically contain PUL and TPU waterproofing for practicality in addition to stretchy elastic for comfort, neither of which hold up well in really high heat or prolonged hot sunlight. They also have a central absorptive core often with a top wicking layer to keep baby dry. These fabrics can vary and include microfiber, cotton, bamboo, hemp, and a variety of blends.

This article is designed to give you a collection of practical tips on how to make cloth diaper laundering easier, along with helpful hints to assure you get the most absorbency and lifespan out of your investment. Proper laundering can help assure that your cloth diaper stash remains sanitary for baby's use with optimal performance.

Please keep in mind that every household is different, so it may take some trial and error on your part as well as some investigative work to find the solution that works best, for your baby, your lifestyle, your washing machine, and your water type.

Below, we will take you through the whole process from prepping brand new diapers for first wear to changing baby to laundering.

Prepping Diapers


Before putting those new cloth diapers on your baby, it is important to prep them for use by following the manufacturer's instructions. Typically, instructions for synthetically-based diapers will differ from those that use natural fabrics such as hemp, unbleached cotton, and bamboo.
  • Natural Fiber Cloth Diapers — Anything containing hemp, bamboo, or natural cotton needs to be washed and dried around 3 to 6 times before first, so lots of patience is required. This rinses out the natural oils contained in the fibers. On this note, be sure to prep natural diapers separately from synthetics to avoid natural oils from getting into the synthetics.
  • Synthetic Cloth Diapers — Mainly microfiber-based, these only require one washing with detergent before first use, so the process of getting started is much easier. Although synthetic isn't typically as absorbent as natural fibers, they wick well and typically soak in urine quicker, so are nice for babies with a heavy, quick stream.

Both natural fibers and even some synthetics will increase in absorbency the more washing and drying cycles they go through.

Changing Baby


The process of changing baby is similar to that of disposables in that the dirty diaper needs to be removed and baby cleaned. However, this is where the similarity ends. Even when placing a fresh cloth diaper on a baby, a few tricks can help maintain the cloth's integrity to function well throughout its lifetime.
  • Cloth-Based Diaper Cream — Cloth-safe diaper creams do not contain petroleum or zinc which can be extremely difficult to remove from cloth diapers and will lead to problems with leakage, guaranteed. If baby needs a prescription or over the counter diaper cream containing either petroleum or zinc, use of a thick, reusable liner is important to protect the cloth.
  • Liners — We will go into further detail on liners soon, but basically they act as a barrier in between diaper cream and cloth as well as make it easier to clean up poopy diapers.

While the disposable heads to the trash and subsequently, to the landfill, cloth diapers are laundered and re-used. And, before that cloth diaper heads to a dry pail to await washing, a few steps need to be followed.
  • If using a disposable liner, lift it out of diaper with solids and throw into the toilet.
  • If solids remain on a diaper or washable liner or there is lots of urine (particularly from an overnight diaper), use a diaper sprayer to rinse it.
  • Place cloth diaper and any other washable changing accouterments like cloth wipes and washable liners in a dry pail to await laundering.

The following handy tips will help extend the lifespan of a cloth diaper:
  • Be Gentle When Unsnapping — Though most cloth diapers are fairly hardy, they can only handle a certain amount of shearing force. So, take care when removing a diaper by unfastening snaps with two hands rather than ripping them off with one. This will prevent snaps from being accidentally removed as well as prevent ripping of fabric.
  • Consider Closing Snaps Before Laundering — Before throwing that dirty diaper into the dry pail, closed the snaps. Loose snaps flying around in the washing machine and dryer do have the potential to break.
  • Securely Attach Velcro Closures Before Laundering — If you have diapers with velcro closures, secure all velcro/hook and loop before that diaper goes into the dry pail. Loose velcro will stick to everything in the washing machine and create snags in fabric, ruining the inherent aesthetic cuteness of cloth diaper covers. Velcro also collects "stuff" which will over time, ultimately render it unusable.

The following are extras that will make changing baby so much easier.

Liners


We recommend using either flushable or re-useable liners for poop management. They will reduce the amount of clean up that is necessary as well as aid in minimizing stains and repelling issues. Stool should always be flushed down the toilet!

Flushable Liners
GroVia Bioliners
We tend to prefer flushable liners over re-useable cloth liners. With a flushable one, the majority of poop will come off with the liner and can be flushed right down most toilets. A dose of caution here as most flushable liners are not compatible with either septic systems or old, weak plumping. In this situation, a flushable liner should be thrown in the garbage once the solids have been flushed down the toilet.

Reusable Cloth Liners
Kanga Care Diaper Liner
With washable liners, there is a bit more dirty work to be done. You will have to remove the poop from it before tossing it into the dry pail. Although it is best to use cloth safe diaper creams, it is occasionally necessary to use those thick, pasty, white ones containing zinc oxide and petroleum. In this circumstance, it is very important to use a liner and preferably a re-usable, washable liner which is thicker than a disposable liner. Diaper cream is very difficult to remove from cloth diapers and will cause repelling and leakage. Although good old blue Dawn dish soap can help fix this situation, you may never get the cloth back to its original performance. As a general rule of thumb, even when using cloth diaper-safe creams, it is a good idea to use liners.

Diaper Sprayer


Bumkins Cloth Diaper Sprayer
Considered a luxury by some, diaper sprayers can make rinsing solids from cloth diaper so much easier than a good ole dunk and swirl in the toilet. We highly recommend one! Install it at the most convenient toilet for easy-access rinsing. Once rinsed, cloth diapers just need to be placed into a dry diaper pail or dry wet bag until washing. Any small solids left on the diaper will dissolve and rinse out in the wash.

If your baby is exclusively breastfed, you don't need to rinse breastmilk stools from the diaper. They will magically disintegrate and wash right away in the pre-rinse cycle. You will not see hide nor hair of them after this. Isn't that cool?! Unfortunately, this trick does not jive with formula or "solid" foods.

Spray Pal


Spray Pal
On the "nice-to-have" list, the Spray Pal helps water from spraying everywhere when using the sprayer. When not in use, it folds down flat and can be placed it into a wet bag and hung on a hook to keep it out of the way.

Cloth Diaper Pail


The Ubbi Diaper Pail main can body is made from powder coated stainless steel
These days, practically all cloth diapering brands recommend storing dirty diapers in a dry pail or bin to await laundering. Wet pails are out of vogue. Modern cloth diapers do not need soaking; this will just promote stink and wear. In particular, soaking them in caustic liquids like bleach will really wreak havoc on the materials.

The most important reason not to use wet pails is that they present a very unnecessary drowning hazard for baby within the home.

When using an enclosed dry pail or bag, a handy tip is to consider either propping the lid open or opening the zipper for additional airflow as this will lessen ammonia build-up. This is especially important during the warm summer months.

Routine Washing



When to Wash


Get that cloth diaper laundry done every 2 days if possible, 3 days max. If you wait any longer, urine-soaked diapers will lock in ammonia and microorganisms have greater opportunity to grow which will lead to persistent issues with odor and the potential for diaper rash. Furthermore, once ammonia and stink lock-in, it is harder to remove. We highly recommend getting to know the website Fluff Love University which we feel has great common sense advice regarding not only cloth diaper laundering but every conceivable issue that you may come across in your journey. Not surprisingly there is contrary advice out there on the internet concerning cloth diapers (and any other topic for that matter), so

It's a Number's Game — Having an adequate supply of cloth diapers to take you from birth to potty training means that you will likely purchase about 36 total if you are choosing a one size system. This is important to realize. Expecting a cloth diaper stash half this size means you will be laundering each one twice as much. Over time, even the nicest quality cloth diapers taken care of properly are going to wear out. Our lifetime cost analysis for each brand tested in our Cloth Diaper Review factors in 36 sets total. For All-in-Two systems, this means 18 covers and 36 inserts, as with this system, covers may be re-used.

Doing that Laundry


Laundering instructions vary among manufacturers. Following each can certainly maximize their lifespan and absorbency, but if you have assorted brands, instructions will vary sometimes by quite a bit. In this case, it becomes necessary to streamline a wash routine for both sanity and practicality. Just make sure that there is enough laundry in each load to generate sufficient agitation to get the soiled cloth clean. Usually filling a machine's drum two-thirds to three-fourths works well (about 20-30 diapers for a standard-sized drum). If your dirty cloth diapers are short of this mark, we recommend adding dirty towels to the load. If you can set your machine to heavily soiled and high spin, this will also help with the correct water level and agitation to get the dirty stuff out and high spin will help get the dirty water out of the drum.

The Sanitize Cycle — All home water heaters should be set at 120F or lower to prevent scalding injury. As such, the sanitize cycle in a typical household will not reach a proper temperature of around 160F to truly sanitize. In addition, most modern cloth diapers should not be exposed to these high sanitizing temperatures; the waterproof barrier will eventually delaminate and stretchy elastic, as well as plastic snaps, will not last as long.

To Extra Rinse or Not


There is conflicting information out there regarding whether or not to do one or two extra rinses after the main detergent wash to further eliminate detergent residue.

The following is Real Diaper Association's best practice guide Cloth Diaper Laundry Guide which is based on the idea that before drying, all detergent residue should be thoroughly rinsed away. That is, in the final rinse, there should be no lingering suds.
  • Rinse warm
  • Wash hot with detergent (a longer cycle)
  • Rinse warm twice
  • Machine Dry on low or line dry

However, Fluff Love University disagrees with these extra rinse cycles based on the idea that they unnecessarily introduce mineral deposits into the cloth. This can, in turn, wreak its own havoc by creating prime real estate for bacterial overgrowth and down the road possible problems with repelling and diaper rashes. Their philosophy is that if a detergent residue is present after the main hot wash (taking care to adjust machine's settings on Heavy Soil and High Spin), then either the detergent brand or amount of detergent being used should be changed.

Thus, ultimately, it is up to you which technique works best in your household as there are several variables at play which include:
  • Water Type — Hard Water (high mineral content) versus Soft Water (low mineral content) versus Average Water (normal mineral content)
  • Machine Type — Standard Top-Loading Washing Machine versus HE Front-Loading Washing Machine
  • Detergent Type — Conventional Detergent versus Cloth Diaper Detergent (which is typically a "green" detergent)
  • Drying Strategy — Machine Drying versus Line Drying Indoors or Out
  • Cloth Diaper Fabrics — Natural Fabrics versus Synthetic Fabrics

Water Type


Test Strip to Measure Water Quality
Test Strip to Measure Water Quality
The mineral content of water varies geographically, and this will make a difference in your laundry routine. Familiarity with your water quality will set the foundation for squeaky clean cloth diapers. Don't be deterred by the bit of fine-tuning involved. If you don't know what total water hardness you have, purchasing water quality test strips will help you know your starting point. One of our favorite brands of detergent, Rockin' Green Laundry Detergent, offers Soft Rock, Classic Rock, and Hard Rock varieties which is a big help and, in our experience, it works really well.
  • Hard Water Zones — If you live in an area with hard water, it is typically more difficult to get cloth clean. Thus, more detergent is typically needed as well as a water softener such as Calgon. In addition, extra rinses generally aren't advised to avoid mineral build-up.
  • Soft Water Zones or Water Softener — If you have soft water either geographically or via a water softener in your home, the converse is true as for hard water. Soft water generally doesn't need as much detergent as hard water to get dirty cloth diapers clean.

Cloth diapers should come out of the wash smelling clean and fresh. If they smell of urine or poop, wash again and try using more detergent. If this doesn't work, consider trying a different detergent. We will discuss detergent in more depth below.

Top-Loading Machines VERSUS Front-Loading HE Machines


Top Loading Washer
Front Loading Washing Machine
 
Top-loading machines and front-loading HE washing machines differ more than just their look.

Top-loading machines launder cloth diapers well because it is both easy to adjust the amount of water in a load and the central axis agitates diapers nicely to get them clean. However, increased physical agitation will put additional wear and tear on your diapers over time.

HE machines are great for water conservation and tend to more gentle on cloth diapers than top-loading machines. However, they may not agitate as well unless used properly. Though they may need a smaller amount of detergent for regular laundry, this isn't so for cloth diapering laundry because it is super dirty. So, please read below on great recommendations on how to get them clean in this type of high-efficiency washer. HE Machines function best when the drum is 2/3rds to 3/4ths full, so this will mean anywhere between 20 to 30 cloth diapers, typically a few day's worth of cloth diaper laundry.

The following is sound advice from Fluff Love University on how to use both types of washing machines properly for cloth diaper laundering:

Choosing a Detergent


Rockin Green Laundry Detergent
Rockin Green Laundry Detergent
Most cloth diaper manufacturers have loads of information on their websites detailing proper care for their brand including detergent-specific recommendations, often heavy on green, cloth-centric detergents. Is this a marketing ploy? Can conventional detergents be used with good results? The answer is yes.

Conventional Detergents


Conventional detergents which are synthetic-based include Tide, Dreft, All, Arm & Hammer, Cheer, Purex, and Gain are usually less expensive than other green or cloth-centric detergents but tend to contain chemical ingredients such as:
  • Fabric softener
  • Fragrance
  • Dyes
  • Phosphates
  • Optical or UV brighteners
  • Whiteners
  • Chlorine bleach
  • Stain guards
  • Wax
  • Natural oils

Conventional "free and clear" while free of fragrances and dyes for those allergy and rash-prone typically contain at least some of the above chemical additives, and subsequently, aren't great for the environment.

Many cloth diaper manufacturers recommend cloth-based detergents because they do not contain fabric softener which is a common cause of residue build-up. As residue can propagate bacterial and ammonia retention, the later a particularly unpleasant, eye-tearing smell and odors, the avoidance of fabric softener in detergent used for cloth diaper laundering sounds like a particularly good idea.

In terms of the synthetic chemical ingredients outlined above causing potential problems, we'd like to see some hard evidence to support this as there is a well-established history of cloth diapering parents using conventional detergents without issue.

However, one very compelling and common reason for cloth diapering is to avoid synthetic chemicals coming into contact with baby's skin. Thus, a good wash routine is important to ensure that detergent is thoroughly washed from the diaper. And, if budget allows, using an effective green, plant-based detergent can further this effort.

Cloth Diaper Detergents


Cloth diaper-specific detergents are usually plant-based and greener because they do not contain the above synthetic chemicals. However, they are generally weaker than conventional detergents, so more is usually needed which means you will be spending more than with conventional detergents. What works best can be highly variable. As such, we'd like to direct you to the following helpful web articles below that are based upon time-tested experience (Fluff Love University) and direct user feedback (Padded Tush Stats).

Before drying, there should be very few lingering suds at the end of the wash cycle, if any. Certainly, your clean diapers should not feel sudsy. If so, consider reducing the amount of detergent used in small increments. Everyone's household set up will be different, so a bit of extra attention in the beginning of doing cloth diaper laundry to figure out what works best for you will pay off. This is also a good idea when using a new detergent.

Drying Strategy


Drying Rack
Every brand of cloth diaper has specific drying instructions. Some recommend air-drying the cover but machine-drying the insert. Some allow the whole thing to be machine-dried, but usually on either low or medium heat. Once machine dried, let cloth diapers cool before stretching via folding or stuffing to maintain laminate and elastic integrity. Avoid drying cloth diapers containing waterproofing, elastic, or velcro/hook and loop closures on high heat as this will degrade them much quicker.

Drying — When time allows, air dry. This is one thing that will certainly protect fabric wear and waterproofness over the lifespan of a cloth diaper. However, even if committed to solely air drying, occasional machine-drying on low or medium heat will be beneficial to minimize bacterial build-up in addition to helping maintain fabric tightness.

The following are a few useful accessories:
  • Wool Dryer Balls — When machine drying cloth diapers, wool dryer balls help absorb moisture in the dryer for about 25% dry faster drying time, thus saving time as well as extra wear and tear. They do not contain chemicals such as fabric softener, are hypoallergenic, and reduce wrinkling and static cling if thrown in with regular laundry.
Woolzies Dyer Balls
 
  • Drying Line or Rack — Unless you have a convenient place already built into your household, installing a drying line outdoors or a having a drying rack near your washing machine is a handy way to air dry your cloth diapers.

Warranties


Many cloth diaper brands have warranties, however, they can be complex and will be voided if their product is not cared for properly. For instance, using bleach with Rumparooz will void your warranty. However, the Cotton Babies brands, bumGenius and Flip, recommend using 1/4 cup of bleach in the hot wash once a month to strip them of residue build-up. Other diaper manufacturers specify to steer clear of baking soda and vinegar. However, with BabyKicks Premium Pocket (which uses bamboo and hemp natural fibers), if odor becomes an issue, instructions are to wash the diaper with baking soda and vinegar until suds disappear.

Shedding Stains & Odor


Get used to the idea that the interior of your baby's cloth diapers will never get back to that pristine, out-of-the-package white. Despite best washing practices, cloth diapers will stain.

Sunlight


For troublesome stains or persistent odor, dry cloth diapers out in the sun for a few hours when they are wet, after washing. The UV rays bleach out the stains and can help kill the odor-causing bacteria. Use caution, however, as UV light will take its toll on the elastic and waterproof lining and really hot sun can actually melt waterproof lining if left out too long. If its overcast or rainy, laying diapers in front of a window will even work some magic.

Machine Drying


Keep in mind that occasional machine drying (if an option) can help keep cloth diapers clean by killing bacterial build-up. Thirsties brand recommends machine drying even laminated covers once a month as this aids in the laminate's performance.

Troubleshooting


For problems with persistent odor retention refractory to the usual routine, most manufacturers have their own website instructions for addressing this. It seems that every brand has its tricks which can vary widely. For instance, BabyKicks Premium Pocket does recommend a baking soda/vinegar regimen for when its hemp-based product gets stinky. Other brands don't do well with the vinegar or baking soda, so pay attention to these fine details among brands if special cleaning is needed.

Ammonia build-up can be very difficult to remove. We have found Rockin' Green's Funk Rock Ammonia Bouncer useful in both removing ammonia as well as for preventive use in the rinse cycle before washing to keep ammonia away.

If the situation isn't resolving, don't be shy about contacting the manufacturer directly for help. Also, leading cloth diaper websites typically have very well-vetted, helpful information. One such online retailer, Kelly's Closet, has the following article focused on taking care of the stinkies. Kelly Wels (founder of Kelly's Closet and a leading diaper guru) also has her own website with such helpful articles as the following: Troubleshooting that Blasted Barnyard Diaper Smell.

The Skinny on "Stripping" Cloth Diapers


Stripping cloth diapers shouldn't be necessary if a proper cleaning regime is used as outlined above. However, despite best efforts, this may need to be done once in a blue moon. It usually means that some type of residue has accumulated typically from either hard water mineral deposits, bacterial build-up, or even diaper cream residue. The following are some scenarios where stripping may be necessary:
  • Repeated washing in untreated hard water for over a month
  • Second-hand cloth diapers receiving the above treatment
  • Consistent repelling (a.k.a. leaking)
  • Frequent use of fabric softener
  • Ammonia smell is not resolving despite best washing efforts
  • Persistent barnyard odor despite proper washing technique
  • Diaper rash caused by staph, strep, yeast (includes ringworm)
  • Baby has Clostridium difficile colitis (C. diff)

Each brand's website typically has detailed instructions on how they recommend stripping their product and, again, this advice can vary widely by brand and cloth diapering website. In addition, stripping should only be done on cleanly washed diapers, they can be wet out of the washing machine, but not dirty. We would like to refer you once again to Fluff Love University's stripping advice as it is both well-documented, clear, and well-vetted.

In general, stripping necessitates two separate SOAKING STEPS with a water-only washing cycle in between then repetitive normal washing in hot water with detergent to rinse everything out:
1) First Soak — A combination of hot water and mineral-removing solution, well dissolved such as RLR or GroVia Mighty Bubbles Laundry Treatment
2) Water Only Wash Cycle
3) Second Soak — 30 minute soak in cold chlorine bleach dilution. This can be done in a non-HE top loading washing machine. If you don't have one, you must use a bathtub or smaller vessel. If so, make sure children do not have access.
4) Repetitive Washing Cycles — 2 to 4 normal washing cycles on hot with detergent to rinse everything out

If some petroleum or zinc-based diaper cream inadvertently gets onto cloth diapers despite the use of a reusable liner and/or issues with repelling occur due to this issue, try spot cleaning affected diapers in the sink with a small amount of original blue Dawn liquid soap. It is not a good idea to use Dawn in any washing machine (even a top-loader) as it could damage its internal parts, in addition, cause an overzealous bubble situation.

No Easy Access to a Washer and Dryer?


When there's a will, there's a way. And, it doesn't have to be toilsome!

First Time Mom is such a blog written by a mother living with her husband and son in the city in a small apartment. They do their son's cloth diapering laundry at home without a conventional washer and dryer. Instead of going to the laundromat, they detail their solution for laundering cloth diapers at home without a washing machine.
Wonder Wash
Nina Soft Spin Dryer
 

A Few Additional Resources For Cloth Diapering Success

  • The Eco Chic Blog10 Things You Should Never Do To Cloth Diapers Herein lie some cloth diapering words to live by. In addition, a few other helpful links are referenced, two from Kelly's Closet and one from Diaper Shops, both well seasoned diaper experts!

Now go out there and enjoy your fluff!

Dr. Juliet Spurrier is founder and Mom-in-Chief at BabyGearLab
Juliet Spurrier, MD
About the Author
Dr. Juliet Baciocco Spurrier is a board certified pediatrician, mother of two, and founder of BabyGearLab. Juliet earned her Bachelor of Arts degrees in Anthropology and Italian Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and her Medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington DC. She completed her pediatric residency at the Doernbecher Children's Hospital at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR, and subsequently practiced pediatrics in both the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley. Juliet serves as Mom-in-Chief at BabyGearLab, where she oversees all baby product review activity, assuring that each review delivers on our commitment to quality.

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