Are you eyeing those cute cloth diapers at the local boutique, but have no idea how you’d even go about caring for them?
Or maybe you’re already a cloth diapering mom but are experiencing problems with stink, repelling inserts, or something else altogether?
Believe me when I say that I hear you. When I started cloth diapering four years ago I had no idea what I was doing.
Within a few months, I was dealing with a massive stink issue that was so bad I almost gave up cloth completely. Instead, I took some time to research, and troubleshoot everything about cloth diapering.
How we wash our baby’s diapers is important, not only for our sanity but for our baby’s health. Read on for the ultimate guide to washing cloth diapers — your nose can thank me later.
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 your baby is exclusively breastfed you don’t have to do anything, because breastfed poop is water soluble and can be placed directly into your storage system (1).
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 (2).
If you see baby’s waste is solid in any way, I recommend either scraping or rinsing the diaper out before tossing it into your storage system. Leaving stool can cause some major stink problems, and can also lead to mold or even maggots if left too long (3).
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, a spatula or plastic spoon, dedicated specifically for this task, can be used to scrape the poop off of the diaper into the toilet.Make sure to rinse the spatula off after use and keep it in a designated spot in the bathroom.
- Diaper sprayer: A diaper sprayer can be bought and attached 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 on how to make one yourself if you’re on a budget.
- Dunk And Swish: Not my favorite method, but it’s what my grandmother used to do. With this, you 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, I recommend gloves.
- Shake it: If your baby’s stool is solid this method will work great. You just simply shake the waste out into the toilet. No dunking your hands in, no cleaning of the spatula, no rinsing off the diaper required.
Storing Dirty Diapers
Before we get into the nitty-gritty about washing your cloth diapers, we need to talk about what happens before that. Storing your cloth diapers with a correct method can save you a lot of time and heartache.
1. Dry Pail
Diapers are stored in a dry, waterproof bag. These bags are normally a liner placed inside a trash can or pail, and sometimes are hung by themselves on the wall or the back of a door.
Unlike with wet storage, in this method diapers are placed directly into the bag after any stool has been removed from the diapers. 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.
I recommend purchasing two liner bags, so your pail always has a liner if the other is in the wash. I also recommend a bag that has elastic around the top so it can 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.
Do you find parts of both wet and dry storage appealing? So do many other moms. The good news is you don’t have to pick one or the other, you can do both!
Many parents will rinse the inserts, prefolds, or flats and store them into a wet pail, then put the covers, pockets, or all-in-ones into a dry pail for storage.
3. Wet Pail
In the wet pail method, diapers are soaked in a small amount of water. This helps to pre-treat the diapers and reduce staining and stink. Some additives such as vinegar or baking soda can help with the smell even further, but the water needs to be changed daily to prevent bacteria from breeding.
Don’t add detergent or bleach to the water, if they sit on the diaper too long they can be harsh, and even void the warranties on many diapers.
This method is not normally used for modern diapers, as many manufacturers caution against soaking PUL lined all-in-ones, pockets, or covers for too long (4).
Wet pails can also be a drowning risk for young children, so if you use this method make sure that you use a container with a childproof lid.
How Often Do I Wash Diapers?
There are some who wash every day, and others who have built up a stash of diapers big enough they only have to wash once a week.
Most people wash every 2-3 days, as recommended by many manufacturers (5). 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, 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 the integrity of their clothing. But what about cloth diapers? Shouldn’t we always wash them in hot to make sure they are really clean?
Well no, not always — at least not through your entire wash routine.
During your pre-wash cycle, wash your diapers in cold water. Washing in cold during this cycle will help to get rid of any stains on your diapers that stool has left behind. If you wash in hot during this cycle, it’s likely to set the stains (6).
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 be worried about hot water causing damage to the diapers, because manufacturers make the diapers 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.
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 all the way out, that’s generally an okay 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 cloth diaper with a front load machine, you just have to tweak your routine.
Front load and HE machines don’t have an agitator in them like the typical top loaders do, instead, they rely on the clothes rubbing together in the wash to get them clean (7).
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 of the stool and urine has been rinsed out of the diapers and it’s perfectly safe to add in towels or even baby clothes if you need to in order to fill up your washer.
Building A Washing Routine
A solid washing routine will be your key to success when it comes to cloth diapering. Your wash routine can be tweaked depending on what kind of washer you have, if you 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 little 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 it.Just 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 full recommended amount of detergent. Many choose hot water for this wash cycle. Just make sure to turn off any extra rinses.
2. Standard Washing Machines
Washing your diapers in a standard machine is very similar to washing it 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 little 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 is going to do most of the cleaning. For this wash, you’ll use the full 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 hot water will be required to break it down and make it work effectively. Again, make sure it runs through the full cycle.
Choosing The Perfect Detergent
If you’re using cloth diapers for financial reasons you might be tempted to use a homemade laundry detergent that’s more affordable.
This isn’t recommended 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.
So what’s recommended? There are several detergents, both plant-based and non-plant based, that are okay to use. Seventh Generation is considered safe, as long as it’s not their free and clear option, as are Arm & Hammer, and Method detergents.
The most popularly recommended though 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 in order to ensure that the oils from the natural fibers, such as cotton or bamboo, don’t cause buildup in the other diapers.
However, this is not necessary unless the natural diapers are not prepared yet. Once these diapers are prepped and ready for wear, you don’t have to worry about build-up any longer.
How Do I Dry My 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 is safe at a high heat and 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 play it safe and air dry them to make sure no damage is done to the PUL or elastic.
There is an upside to air drying: if you’re doing so outside the sun can help to bleach your diapers and get rid of any stains.
Cloth Diaper Troubleshooting
While washing and caring for your cloth diapers is generally an easy job, sometimes roadblocks do happen.
Read below to find out how to both troubleshoot your issues and solve the problems for good.
1. Hard water
It’s recommended you test your water before you ever prep your diapers, but 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 1/4 cup of borax directly into the drum of your washer during the pre-wash cycle, then 1/2 cup during the main wash (8). If you water is above 250 ppm add 1/2 cup during both.
2. Soft water
Soft water can cause its own set of problems, because with 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, extra rinses are not recommended for every load.
3. Mold, mildew, and yeast
Mold happens. It stinks, but sometimes it just does. As we’ve said, the best way to prevent it from happening to you is to wash your diapers every 2-3 days.
However, life happens. If you’re a cloth diapering mom and have never accidentally left a travel wet bag in a car, I’m bowing down to you or calling your bluff. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to literally every friend I have who uses cloth — 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
In order to keep your diapers clean and tidy, it’s recommended you wash them with bleach regularly once a month (9). Adding 1/4 cup of bleach to your warm wash cycle is recommended, but some do a full bleach soak monthly.
To do a bleach soak, simply fill your top load washing machine or bath tub with cold water, then add bleach. Use the following guide to know how much bleach to use:
- Small capacity: Add1/3 cup of bleach.
- Medium capacity: Add 1/2 cup of bleach.
- Large capacity: Add 3/4 cup of bleach.
- Half full: Add 1/2 cup of bleach.
- Full: Add 1 cup of bleach.
Once the tub is filled and bleach is added, place 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 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.
5. Iron hard water
If your water is iron hard 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 buildup that causes diapers to stink and repel urine.
Build-up can happen for several reasons such as:
- Hard water: The minerals in hard water can cause build up 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 (10).
- Not enough detergent: Without the adequate amount of detergent, your diapers may not get clean enough. This can cause bacteria to buildup 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, a good strip is recommended.
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
Agitate the diapers to mix up the solution and then leave them to soak overnight, or at least 6 hours.
When you’re done soaking, run the diapers through hot rinses 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, 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. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told how I brave I am for taking on the task of cleaning my child’s diapers. I’ve always figured if my grandmother was able to do it without a modern washing machine, surely it’s not impossible for me!
Cleaning your cloth diapers might be a learning curve, but once you have all the information and get your washing routine down, your sailing will be much smoother.
Did you cloth diaper your babies? Have any laundry tips or tricks to share? If so please comment down below, we always love to hear your ideas!
And if you have a mom friend who is starting her journey with cloth diapering, please share this article with her!