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How to Wash Cloth Diapers

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Schlette, MSN, RN
Updated
Washing cloth diapers doesn't have to feel daunting.

How we wash our baby’s cloth diapers is important — not only for our sanity but for our baby’s health.

The thought of washing cloth diapers can put many parents off the whole idea before they’ve even started. But it doesn’t have to be complicated.

We’ve been using cloth diapers for years, and washing them hardly feels like an inconvenience — especially when you consider the money you save by using cloth diapers instead of disposables!

In this guide, we’ll answer all your questions and explain how to wash cloth diapers — the easy way.


How Do I Empty the Diapers?

Let’s just get the nastiest part over with first — what do you do with the waste in your child’s diaper?

Well, it depends. If you breastfeed your baby exclusively, you don’t have to do anything. Breast milk poop is water-soluble, so the diapers can go straight into your diaper pail without rinsing.

If your baby is formula-fed, things get a bit more complicated. If the stool is runny and liquid, it can also be placed directly into the storage system, but bear in mind, it may be stinkier, darker, and more formed.

If your baby’s poop is solid in any way, we recommend either scraping or rinsing the diaper before tossing it into your storage system. Leaving stool in the diapers can cause some major stink problems and lead to mold or bacteria overgrowth — or even maggots if you leave it too long.

As your baby gets older and their stools become more solid, there are several ways to remove waste from the diaper.

  • Spatula: If the stool is soft and sticky, you can dedicate a spatula or plastic spoon specifically for this task and use it to scrape the poop off of the diaper into the toilet. Make sure to label the spatula, and rinse it off after every use. Store it in a designated spot in the bathroom.
  • Diaper sprayer: The easiest solution — and our favorite, by far — is to purchase a diaper sprayer and attach it to the back of the toilet. It works like a shower to spray the stool into the toilet bowl without much work from you. There are even YouTube videos about how to make one yourself if you’re on a budget.
  • Dunk And Swish: This is our least favorite method, but it’s what our grandmothers used to do. Simply place the diaper, waste-side-down, into the toilet bowl and swish it around in the water until the diaper is clean. If you go this route, we recommend wearing gloves.
  • Shake it: This method works great if your baby’s stool is solid. Simply shake the waste out into the toilet: no dunking your hands in, no cleaning the spatula, and no diaper rinsing required.
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Storing Dirty Cloth Diapers

Before we get into the nitty-gritty about washing your cloth diapers, we need to talk about what happens before that. Storing your soiled cloth diapers with the correct method can save you a lot of time and heartache.

1. Dry Pail

The dry pail method is the most common method for storing soiled cloth diapers.

Store your diapers in a dry, waterproof bag. These bags usually consist of a liner placed inside a trash can or pail or hung on the wall or the back of a door.

Unlike wet storage, in this method, diapers are placed directly into the bag after removing any stool. This makes a lot less work for you because you aren’t changing the water each day.

This method is also safer for children, since there’s no drowning hazard, and can be used with all modern diapers without the risk of bothering the PUL.

We recommend purchasing two liner bags, so your pail always has a liner if one is in the wash. We also recommend looking for a bag with elastic around the top to fit inside a flip-top garbage pail the same way a trash bag would.

It makes life a lot easier if you aren’t trying to untie the bag, or even worse, having it fall into the pail all the time.

But what if you’re traveling? Traveling with cloth diapers doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Many dry storage bags are available online that can hold several cloth diapers while on the road.

What About Wet Pails?

We do not recommend using wet pails as a storage system for dirty diapers. They tend to breed a high volume of bacteria and may even be a drowning risk for small children.

2. Diaper Liner

If you’re not a fan of the pail system, another viable option is the diaper liner. Diaper liners are a thin, disposable layer placed inside the cloth diaper against your baby’s skin. They are designed to catch your baby’s poop while letting pee seep through to the diaper.

When it’s time to change your little one’s diaper, simply empty the waste into the toilet, and dispose of the diaper liner. While they aren’t exactly a means of storing dirty diapers, diaper liners allow you to throw away the gunk before storing the diapers in a dry pail.

If you’re environmentally conscious, you can purchase flushable (biodegradable) diaper liner options. There are also alternatives made from renewable resources such as bamboo.

How Often Do I Wash Cloth Diapers?

Some moms wash their cloth diapers every day, and others build up a stash of diapers big enough that they only have to wash once a week.

Most people choose to wash their cloth diapers every two to three days, as recommended by many manufacturers (1). Washing more often than that can be a hassle, and washing less often isn’t good for your diapers.

Diaper pails are dark and damp places, whether you use a dry or wet pail system. They are the perfect breeding ground for mold, mildew, fungi, bacteria, and all sorts of other things.

The longer you leave diapers in the pail, the more likely you are to have to deal with the extra hassle of stripping and sanitizing your diapers.

Hot or Cold Water?

Most people wash their white clothes in hot water and the rest in cold to preserve their quality. But what about cloth diapers? Shouldn’t we always wash them in hot to make sure they’re really clean?

Well, no, not always — at least not through your entire wash routine.

1. Pre-Wash

During your pre-wash cycle, wash your diapers in cold water. Washing in cold water during this cycle will help to eliminate any poop stains on your diapers. If you wash in hot during this cycle, it’s likely to set the stains.

2. Main Wash

During your main wash cycle, you can still wash on cold if you’d like, but many like to wash on hot because they feel it’s required to get the diapers really clean.

Don’t worry about hot water damaging the diapers because manufacturers make them durable, and hot water won’t affect the elastic or PUL used to keep them waterproof. That kind of damage will occur more often in a dryer than in a hot water wash.

Should You Use Fabric Softener?

As pleasant as fabric softener may smell, we advise against using it for your cloth diapers. Fabric softeners can cause buildup that can damage your cloth diapers and cause them to repel moisture.

3. Rinse Cycle

When it comes to the rinse cycle, you can once again use cold water. The washing itself is already done, and now you’re just trying to get out any leftover detergent.

You might decide you want to do more than one rinse to ensure the detergent is out. That’s generally a good idea unless you have hard water — but we’ll talk about that later on.

Front-Loader and HE Washing Machines

You might have been told that cloth diapers aren’t going to work if you have a front-loading or HE washing machine. This is a myth. You can wash cloth diapers in a front-load machine; you just have to tweak your routine.

Front-load and HE machines don’t have an agitator like typical top-loaders do. Instead, they rely on the clothes rubbing together in the wash to get clean (2).

This means you need to make sure you’re cleaning enough cloth diapers to make a full load.

Do you have a small stash and aren’t sure it’s enough to qualify as a full load in your machine? After your pre-wash, all stool and urine have been rinsed out of the diapers, so it’s perfectly safe to add towels or baby clothes to fill up your washer.

Building a Washing Routine

A solid washing routine will be your key to cloth diapering success. Your wash routine can be tweaked, depending on what kind of washer you have, if your water is hard or soft, and the number of times you want to wash your diapers a week.

1. Front-Load or HE Machines

Here are the basic steps to a solid wash routine if you have a front-loader or HE unit:

  • Pre-wash: Wash items in cold water with a bit of detergent, roughly half of what you would use in the main wash. You want a shorter cycle for this wash, about 30-45 minutes, so pick the quick or speed-wash setting if you have one. Make sure you also set on the highest soil and spin levels possible and turn off any extra rinses.
  • Main wash: Start by opening the washer and peeling off any diapers that have gotten stuck to the sides. You’re going to choose the most aggressive washing option for this wash, such as “cotton” or “whites,” and add the total recommended amount of detergent. Many choose hot water for this wash cycle.

2. Standard Washing Machines

Washing your diapers in a standard machine is very similar to washing them in a front-load or HE machine. The main difference is you don’t have to do the extra work of peeling the diapers off the sides or making sure the barrel is full enough.

Standard machines have agitators in them to do that work for you.

Here are the basic steps to washing your cloth diapers in a standard washing machine.

  • Pre-wash: Pre-wash in cold water with a bit of detergent, about half the recommended dose for the main wash. Pick your shortest full wash cycle, ensuring it has at least six minutes of agitation. Make sure to run the cycle until it is completely finished.
  • Main wash: Your main wash will do most of the cleaning. For this wash, you’ll use the total amount of detergent recommended and set your washer to its most aggressive setting, such as “cotton” or “super wash.” You can use either hot or cold water for this wash, but if you’re using a plant-based detergent, you’ll need hot water to break it down and make it work effectively. Again, make sure it runs through the entire cycle.

Rinse Tip

Some moms run an extra rinse after the main cycle to guarantee all the detergent is out. But we don’t recommend this — especially if you have hard water — because the minerals in the water can cause buildup and create other issues.

Choosing the Perfect Detergent

If you’re using cloth diapers for financial reasons, you might be tempted to use a more affordable homemade laundry detergent.

We don’t recommend this because some homemade detergents aren’t detergent at all. Most recipes call for bar soap, which is very hard to rinse clean. Over time, buildup will occur, and your diapers will eventually trap more dirt in them because they’re not getting properly cleaned.

This doesn’t mean you have to buy fancy diaper detergents. You might have heard special detergents are required to get your cloth diapers clean — but this isn’t true.

There are several detergents, both plant-based and non-plant-based, that are okay to use. Seventh Generation is a safe option, as are Arm & Hammer and Method detergents.

However, the most commonly recommended detergent is good ol’ powdered Tide (called Ace in Spanish-speaking countries).

Natural and Synthetic Fibers

Many moms choose to wash natural- and synthetic-fibered diapers separately to ensure the oils from the natural fibers don’t cause buildup in the other diapers.

However, this is not necessary unless the natural diapers haven’t been prepped before use. Once these diapers are prepped and ready for wear, you no longer have to worry about buildup.

How Do I Dry My Cloth Diapers?

Another debate you might hear going around the cloth diapering community is whether or not to put your diapers in the dryer. Generally, PUL can withstand the heat of a dryer.

The only thing you really have to pay attention to is making sure you don’t stretch the elastic while the diaper is still hot, as this could cause permanent stretching.

While today’s diapers are heavy-duty, some moms still choose to play it safe and air dry them to prevent damage to the PUL or elastic. You should also avoid using dryer sheets as the residue from the sheets can transfer to your diapers and reduce their function.

There is an upside to air drying: if you’re doing so outside, the sun can help bleach your diapers and remove any stains.

Troubleshooting

While washing and caring for your cloth diapers is generally an easy job, sometimes roadblocks happen.

Here’s how to troubleshoot your issues and solve the problems for good.

1. Hard Water

Test your water before you ever prep your cloth diapers. I’ll admit, I didn’t do that at first. Before I knew it, my diapers started to have a distinct barnyard smell as well as some leaking.

A quick water test showed me I had hard water issues and needed to adjust my routine.

If you have hard water, the fix is simple. After stripping your diapers, start adding a water softener, such as borax, to your pre-wash and main wash cycles.

If your water hardness is less than 250 ppm, you can add one-quarter cup of borax directly into the drum of your washer during the pre-wash cycle, then half a cup during the main wash. If your water is above 250 ppm, add half a cup during both.

2. Soft Water

Soft water can cause its own set of problems because soft water detergents tend to create more suds.

Usually, this doesn’t affect your diapers, but if they’re coming out slimy or feeling like a wet bar of soap, you might give them an extra rinse. That said, even with soft water, we don’t recommend extra rinses for every load.

3. Mold, Mildew, and Yeast

The best way to prevent mold is to wash your diapers every two to three days.

However, life happens. If you’re a cloth diapering mom and have never accidentally left a travel wet bag in a car, we’re bowing to you — or calling your bluff. It’s happened to us more times than we care to remember, and chances are, it will happen to you too.

If it does, don’t panic. You don’t need to toss the diapers to fix this. What you do need is a bleach soak.

4. How to Bleach Soak Diapers

To keep your diapers clean and tidy, bleach your cloth diapers once a month (3). Adding 1/4 cup of bleach to your warm wash cycle is recommended, but some moms do a full bleach soak monthly.

To do a bleach soak, simply fill your top-load washing machine or bathtub with cold water, then add bleach. Use the following guide to know how much bleach to use:

Top-loaders

  • Small capacity: Add 1/3 cup of bleach.
  • Medium capacity: Add 1/2 cup of bleach.
  • Large capacity: Add 3/4 cup of bleach.

Bathtub

  • Half full: Add 1/2 cup of bleach.
  • Full: Add 1 cup of bleach.

Warning

To prevent drowning, always ensure that small children do not have access to a bathtub of water.

Once you’ve filled the tub and added the bleach, place your clean diapers into the tub to soak for 30-45 minutes. Once the time is up, go through your wash routine again.

If the stains remain on the diaper from the mold or mildew, you can also try a concentrated bleach soak or use an OxiClean paste to remove the stain.

If your child develops a yeast rash, it’s important to bleach soak the diapers right away. Until you do, the rash won’t get better because the yeast will continue to thrive in the diaper. Contact your child’s pediatrician regarding your child’s yeast rash.

Bleach Tip

Don’t use splashless bleach — it doesn’t kill germs like regular bleach does and won’t kill mold or mildew either.

5. Iron Hard Water

If you have hard water that contains iron, don’t use bleach. Instead, use a borax and peroxide soak to get rid of mold and mildew. The iron in the water will react with bleach and cause stains.

For a half-full bathtub, use 1 cup of borax mixed with 4 cups of peroxide. After 30 minutes of soaking, rinse diapers in hot water, and follow with a hot wash cycle.

6. What Is Diaper Stripping?

Stripping diapers is different from sanitizing them. While sanitizing gets rid of the germs and yeast hiding in your baby’s diaper, stripping helps to get rid of the buildup that causes diapers to stink and repel urine.

Buildup can happen for several reasons.

  • Hard water: The minerals in hard water can cause buildup in diapers if water softeners are not used.
  • Diaper creams: Not all diaper creams are cloth diaper safe. Petroleum-based creams can cause repelling in cloth diapers, especially those made out of synthetic fibers.
  • Detergent buildup: If you don’t use enough water in your wash routine, detergent buildup can happen over time. This can cause repelling and make your diapers leak.
  • Not enough detergent: Without an adequate amount of detergent, your diapers may not get clean enough. This can cause bacteria to build up and create the infamous barnyard smell. It can also lead to ammonia burns in your baby.

While stripping should not be a part of your regular wash routine, if you’re experiencing any of these problems, we recommend stripping your diapers.

Some say to boil the diapers with a little bit of Dawn dish soap, but the most effective way to strip diapers is using detergents such as RLR or GroVia Mighty Bubbles.

7. To Strip With RLR

First, fill either your top-load machine or your bathtub with hot water, then add one packet of RLR for every 30 diapers you will be stripping. Ensure the bathroom door is securely closed so small children do not accidentally fall in and drown.

Agitate the diapers to mix up the solution, and then leave them to soak overnight or for at least six hours.

When the diapers are done soaking, drain the water and squeeze them dry. Run them through hot rinses in your washer with no detergent until most of the bubbles are gone — this may take several rinses.

8. To Strip With GroVia Mighty Bubbles

Throw one Mighty Bubbles pod into the washing machine for every 24 diapers you’re stripping. Make sure you’re using clean diapers, and if you have more than 24, divide them into separate washes.

Turn on a heavy-duty wash cycle with hot water and no detergent or additives. Follow the wash cycle with one warm rinse then one hot rinse. When the diapers come out, check to see if the smell is still there. If it is, repeat the process.


Easy as 1-2-3

Cloth diapering can be daunting. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve been told how brave we are for taking on the task of cleaning our child’s diapers. We’ve always figured that if grandmothers could do it without a modern washing machine, surely it’s not impossible for us!

Cleaning your cloth diapers might include a learning curve, but once you have all the information and get your washing routine down, your sailing will be much smoother.

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Headshot of Jennifer Schlette, MSN, RN

Medically Reviewed by

Jennifer Schlette, MSN, RN

Jennifer Schlette MSN, RN, is a pediatric intensive care nurse at Children's Hospital of New York for the past 14 years. Jennifer also has extensive experience teaching Maternity and Obstetric Nursing, as well as Pediatrics Nursing.