Before I begin, I just wanted to point out that I am on a cloth diapering journey just like you, and I learn new stuff all the time. There is a LOT of conflicting information online about how to wash these things, and its overwhelming to say the least. The stuff I talk about in this post is stuff that I have found to be true through my own trial and error, research, and chatting with other veteran moms who CD. You are totally entitled to do whatever you want to do with your cloth diapers, but be aware of the risks! This is just what I do. Most of the stuff i talk about in this post is backed by experience and evidence, so here is my personal guide to washing cloth diapers. I hope this works for you and can help you establish a good routine, or troubleshoot a bad one!
This is one of the first posts I intended to write and I have been putting it off. Why? Because I knew it was going to be a long one and one that I needed to make as clear as possible. Washing cloth diapers is not as simple as putting diapers in a machine, adding detergent, and going about your day. I mean, realistically thats exactly what you are doing, and its important not to complicate things or take it too seriously…after all, people used and washed cloth diapers for years successfully! But a good wash routine is absolutely essential when it comes to cloth diapers. This isnt the same as washing normal clothes, we are washing poop and pee out of something we are going to put back on our baby. Actually, wash routine related troubles are probably the number one reason people give up on cloth! But it does not have to be that difficult.
Why is a good wash routine so important?
Its simple really. Not getting your diapers properly clean means that you are leaving behind residue of human waste. Putting that back on your baby can result in rashes, which is counter productive since some people switch to cloth due to skin issues. Not getting them properly clean can also cause them to smell badly. Too much detergent in your wash can lead to it not washing out enough, known as detergent build up, which can cause them to start repelling liquid. Leaving hard water untreated can cause mineral build up in the fibers of the diapers, which can also cause repelling issues, and stink problems long term – sometimes even rashes. Drying them on too high of a heat can damage the elastics. And using the wrong products and a bad routine can ruin the elastics and the PUL. While doing these things incorrectly a few times could be harmless, long term repetition of these things is what causes issues. Ahhh! Its a lot to take in. Theres actual SCIENCE that goes behind this stuff, its crazy. If it sounds like im exaggerating, im not. I have seen some crazy sh*t since I got involved in the world of CD. But dont get intimidated!
Its not as scary as it sounds…I promise.
Seriously, its not that bad at all. I think a lot of the time people overthink things because they get worried, and start using weird products or doing extra steps. The more simple and straightforward your routine, the better. Get good products, do your research, and everything will be a-okay. And if not, there are thousands of women online willing to help, me included. Do NOT let the intimidation of properly washing these diapers prevent you from doing what you want to do! We have run into a couple issues, one from a bad routine when I first started, and one from our water being so hard…both were fixed relatively easily. Running into issues isnt a dealbreaker, but like I said earlier, a good routine is key to stress free cloth diapering.
Where do I begin??
Theres a few things you definitely need to be aware of ahead of time:
1. Your water hardness level. Heres why: hard water contains more minerals than soft water. This prevents soap from lathering well and working to its full potential, and it can lead to mineral build up in your diapers, which I mentioned above. If you know your water hardness level, you will know how much water softener you need to use. Water softener is relatively inexpensive at the store, and you can get a water hardness test for free online or at some pet stores. I ordered mine online for free from Morton, the salt company, and received it in a few days. You might already know whether or not your water is hard, but knowing the exact level is best for a few reasons. First of all, some detergent has water softener built in (like Tide powder, which covers up to 180 hardness). So in that case, if you use that detergent, theres no need for extra softener. If your water is VERY hard, like mine, you will need to add more water softener than someone with moderately hard water. I use the maximum amount of softener the instructions say I can use, whereas you might only need half a scoop for moderately hard water. Over softening your water is definitely a thing too – if you have soft water and add water softeners for no reason, your detergent may not rinse out as well. See why this is a good thing to be aware of? Knowing exactly what kind of water you’re working with can help you troubleshoot any potential problems. The most popular examples of water softener are Calgon and Borax, and there are some eco-friendly ones on the market as well.
2. Know what detergent to use. This one is vital! First and foremost, homemade laundry detergent is a huge no-no! And coming from me, a lover of DIY natural products, this means something. Homemade laundry detergent is usually made from soap which is very different from detergent. Not only that, but even the best recipe for DIY laundry detergent will be lacking in enzymes – and enzymes are 100% necessary when you are dealing with cloth diapers. Enzymes are the main thing responsible for breaking down poop and pee in your washing machine. No enzymes = dirty diapers. Not only that – but DIY laundry soap is usually not good for your clothes or washer in general, so much so it can even void your washing machines warranty! Yikes! So when looking for a detergent, enzymes are a must! Most commercial detergents will contain enzymes, but if you choose to go the plant-based route like me, it can be a bit of a challenge to find a detergent that contains enzymes. Recently, we have been using one called “Biokleen premium powder plus” and we are loving it. One more thing – powder detergent is usually preferred over liquid. Myself and other moms seem to find it works better for our cloth, and lasts longer too. This is not to say you cant use liquid detergent, but its something to keep in mind. If you surf the web, you can find lists upon lists of “cloth diaper safe detergents”. But please, make sure its from a reliable source. A lot of companies claim to be CD safe on their website to appeal to a wider crowd, but their detergent really sucks for cloth (Rockin’ Green, im looking at you), so dont go to a manufacturer’s website, find an unbiased website dedicated to cloth diapers, or better yet join a CD facebook group and see what other moms are using.
3. Be weary of laundry additives. Remember when I said that the more simple the better? Fabric softener, scent boosters, and dryer sheets are a no, they coat the fabric of the diapers and can cause repelling issues. Plus, you dont want to be putting such strong synthetic fragrances on your babys bottom, its a very sensitive area. Some detergents, like Dreft, have fabric softeners built in as well, so thats something you wouldnt want to use. And please, no vinegar or bleach on a regular basis. Bleach should only be used on your diapers if you are having an issue with yeast rashes or need to sanitize them, and vinegar is never needed. Keep in mind that your diapers have rubber elastics in them and rubber and vinegar are not friends. Some laundry additives are okay though, like odor removers (such as BIZ) and stain removing sprays (like spray n wash) or laundry boosters (like oxi clean). Its all about knowing why something isnt okay, and that can help you figure out what products are good and what products are bad.
4. Be knowledgeable about extra rinses. If you have hard water, you should absolutely never do a second rinse cycle. This introduces new water into the machine, and your use of water softener will go to waste because all the minerals you worked hard to soften will be reintroduced to your diapers. If you have extremely soft water, then extra rinses might be beneficial to wash out all the detergent, since very soft water is known for not rinsing detergent as well.
Okay, what next?
Now that you have your foundation: knowledge of your water hardness level and what detergent and/or softener you plan on using…we can talk about the act of actually washing your diapers. You will always need to wash your diapers two times. This is called a prewash and a mainwash. The prewash is a shorter cycle, it serves the purpose of getting out most of the gunk and grossness so you have a fairly clean base to do your mainwash. The mainwash is going to be the hot and heavy cycle that deeply cleans your diapers. Both cycles are necessary and neither should be skipped. There are graphics that showcase the importance of two full wash cycles, and its pretty gnarly. Two wash cycles is the best way to get your diapers truly clean.
When loading your machine, proper agitation is important. Too little diapers and theyll just be floating in water, too many diapers and they will stick together and have a hard time getting clean. Most machines function best at 1/2-2/3 of the way full.
Wash routine break down:
Step one: Load your machine.
This is the part where you will disassemble all your diapers. Pull the inserts out of pockets, unsnap your all in twos, unfold your flats. Ideally nothing should have poop on it by this point, because unless your baby is exclusively breastfed, you should be spraying or plopping poop off before you get to this step. EBF poop technically doesnt need to be sprayed, believe it or not, because its completely water soluble! That blows my mind. I dont like germs, so when I have my next baby I will be rinsing EBF poop before putting it in my washer, just because. Make sure your machine is loaded evenly, especially if your machine does not have an agitator. It should be about 1/2 way full. During this step, if i notice any stubborn stains on poop diapers, i spray them with a stain remover – particularly on days i cant dry them outside (more about that later). This part is optional, but im a stain nazi when it comes to CD and i want them to stay stain free. I have been using the Grove stain remover, and I hear a lot of moms use Seventh Generation stain remover.
Step two: Adding detergent to your prewash.
Once your machine is loaded, you will need to add detergent. You need to look at your detergents instructions and use the amount that calls for a “small or lightly soiled load”. This usually means filling the scoop or cup to line 1 or 2. You only add a small amount to the prewash because the purpose of this cycle is more about getting the majority of grossness out, not deep cleaning. We use Biokleen premium powder plus, because it has enzymes and is plant based, but across the board it seems like Tide Powder and Gain Powder are the most popular detergents. I used to just do a quick rinse cycle and not a full wash, but that wasnt doing a good enough job of getting all the pee and leftover poop out my diapers. When i opened the washing machine, it still smelled like pee, so I knew it wasnt all getting out. Now that I started adding a small amount of detergent to my prewash and running a full cycle, my diapers dont have a smell at all when I open the machine. On days I am feeling fancy, this is also the part where I will add odor remover. I mainly do this if I cant dry them outside, or if I have gone a little too long without washing and they smell bad. Right now I am using “fresh wave laundry odor remover”. Its plant based and only has two ingredients. I dont know if its “CD approved” because its not a well known product, but I like to live dangerously 😂…in all honesty, its been hard finding an odor remover thats not full of chemicals and this was the best I could find. So we are trying it out, and if it causes issues ill deal with it. But its been several weeks and so far, so good. Oh, and dont forget to add water softener to the prewash, if needed.
Step 3: The settings for the prewash
For your prewash, you will want to use cool or warm water. Theres a bit of debate about which one is best, and to be honest, I go back and forth myself. Some moms say washing in cold helps prevent stains from setting in. Some say warm makes them cleaner. Right now I am doing cool for my prewash, to save on energy. You want to set the wash cycle to whatever your “normal” setting is. Mine just says “normal”. The soil level should read heavy, because it is quite literally a heavily soiled load. The water level setting should always match the amount of laundry in the machine – never add extra water because you want an accurate water level to help your diapers agitate properly. The diapers rubbing against one another in the machine is part of what helps them clean properly, so you dont want them swimming in a pool of water. And only one rinse for me, because we have hard water.
Step 4: Bulking and Fluffing
As you can see, after the prewash, the diapers are all stuck to the side of the machine. If you dont fix that, its gonna make the next wash less efficient. So this is the part where you “fluff” the load. That basically means that you want to unstick all the diapers from one another so they are evenly distributed through the washing machine. At this point you can also “bulk” the load. Many washers function best at 2/3 full, and you want to do as little laundry as possible, so to get the best wash I add in my daughters clothes. You can use any small items for this, from dish towels, to wash cloths, to t-shirts. Just steer away from big items like towels and sheets. If your machine does not have an agitator, bulking is a must. If you do have one, like I do, you can skip this step – but I am all for killing two birds with one stone so I bulk. After you bulk and fluff, its time to add detergent for your mainwash.
Step 5: Mainwash detergent
So for this wash, you want to use the amount of detergent recommended for a “heavily soiled load”. For most detergent brands, that would be around lines 3-5. For me, its one full scoop of Biokleen. You also need to add your water softener again, we are using Charlie’s Soap laundry booster/hard water treatment right now. I have heard from several women that Charlies Soap laundry detergent doesnt work for them, so we do not use that, but the hard water treatment only has a few ingredients and is very affordable and eco friendly. It seems to be working great.
Step 6: Mainwash settings
For this wash cycle, you will want to use HOT water. Soil level should be heavy, and the wash cycle should be set to the heaviest, longest one, ours is “Heavy Duty”. No extra rinses for me, due to hard water 🙂 If my machine offered the option, we would use the water level that went best with a large load, but ours just has an “auto sensing” setting.
Step seven: drying your diapers
You can go one of two ways here. If you choose to dry your diapers in the sun, there are several benefits. The suns UV rays are a natural sanitizer, so your diapers are sure to be clean, and its a natural stain remover. It also removes odors. Plus, its free! I dry mine in the sun whenever possible, and often times I just do the pockets themselves since thats what touches babies skin and gets stains. But thats not always feasible for everyone, unfortunately. Anything with elastics in it will benefit from being dried in the sun or hung to dry indoors, but its still safe to dry them on low or medium heat in the dryer. Inserts, prefolds, fleece liners, flats and wipes can be dried on high heat. Remember no dryer sheets! We use wool dryer balls instead. And when hang drying diapers with elastics, do so in a way that supports the elastic, to help it last longer. Also, its best to let your diapers cool down before taking them out the dryer, if you choose to dry the ones with elastic.
Anything else I need to know?
Just a couple tips. Cleaning your washing machine monthly can seriously help prevent odors long term, and extend the life of your machine. We use the brand “affresh” at the first of every month, because thats what my washing machine manufacturer recommends.
If you have very hard water, mineral build up can sometimes be inevitable, so we also do monthly diaper washes with a powder product called “RLR”. Its designed to remove hard water mineral build up and is super cheap. We do this as a preventative measure by simply following the instructions on the packet because even after doing everything right, our diapers still smelled weird and looked dingy, a common problem with very hard water and an early sign of mineral build up. We have well water, and our water is so hard it maxed out the test strip. So if your water is hard like mine, that may be something to look in to. We order RLR off amazon.
What if I do something wrong and mess them up?
Its totally okay if you do something wrong! If you had a bad wash routine and are paying the price for it, there are ways to get your diapers back in shape. Unless the PUL is ruined, its not a lost cause, and you dont need new diapers. Elastics can be replaced, and diapers can be “stripped”. Stripping your diapers means removing them of all build up and gunk and essentially starting at square one. You can look up how to do this online, as its super common, but a bit time consuming. There are also ways to sanitize them with bleach, which is necessary if you are buying used diapers. I had to strip my diapers a couple months after starting because I was doing everything wrong, and it completely helped, and prevented me from giving up.
One last thing
This was probably a LOT to take in, but thats about all you need to know about washing cloth diapers. To make things easier im going to write my wash routine out below, plain and simple, for you to copy and paste if necessary. I have this written down somewhere myself, in case Braxton ever needs to wash our diapers.
Fill drum 1/2 full
Line 1-2 detergent
Water softener (if necessary)
Cool or warm water
Water level medium
No extra rinses (for hard water)
~ bulk and fluff load ~
Drum should be about 2/3 full.
Line 3-5 detergent.
Water softener (if necessary)
Heavy duty wash cycle
Water level large
No extra rinses (for hard water)
Hang dry diapers in the sun
Dry everything on low/medium heat – let cool before removing
Let me know if you have any questions! Take it one step at a time, and dont stress yourself out. Its not life or death, but a good wash routine is important and very helpful! ❤️❤️❤️ Happy cloth diapering!