Beginner, How to Cloth Diaper, Washing Issues

Cleaning Cloth Diapers at Home Part 2 – Washing Instructions

Now that we know what to do with the poop on the diapers, we are ready to look at the actual washing routine!

Washing instructions for cleaning cloth diapers are not as different from washing clothes as you might think. Diapers are just soiled laundry! There are a few things you will want to consider when washing your diapers.

Type of Water

hard-water-cloth-diapers

Sometimes when people have issues with diaper washing, it’s because their water is far too hard.

The minerals and deposits in hard water can sometimes cause issues with odors and repelling (the liquid not soaking into the inserts properly).

If you have a water softener, keeping it stocked with salt is a great idea. If you don’t have a water softener, do not fret–you can still wash diapers. You can buy water softener powders, such as Calgon or Borax, to add directly to your load.

I recommend doing one of two things: test your water using test strips (can easily order online) to know if your water is hard or not, or you can just try out your wash routine with your current water and see how it goes before adding anything such as Calgon to your loads.

If your water is too soft, that could cause issues, too. Do not oversoften your water thinking that will avoid issues. I believe sometimes people get a little carried away with thinking their water hardness is an issue.

The water you currently have in your home is probably just fine. 85% of Americans have hard water, and no, 85% of cloth diaper users do not have to treat their water when washing diapers.

Just keep the idea of water softeners in the back of your head in case you run into issues.

You can read more about navigating hard water with cloth diapers here.

Load Size and Water to Diaper Ratio

You will need to pay a little more attention to your load size than you maybe have for other loads of laundry. Your load size is dependent upon the size of your washer, but here are some general guidelines for a regular, non-HE washer:

Small Load: Around 10 diapers (or whatever number will fill your machine full about 1/3 of the way)

Medium Load: Around 12-14 diapers (or whatever will fill your machine about 1/2 of the way)

Large Load: 15+ diapers (or whatever amount makes your machine about 2/3 to 3/4 full–do not overstuff your washer)

As for the water to diaper ratio, you need enough water that they get plenty clean, but not so much that they don’t agitate or scrub against each other.

One temptation people have is to do a small or medium load with the washer set to use the amount of water needed for a large load. Please don’t do this! Not only is it a waste of water, but it actually won’t get your diapers as clean.

I know that seems counter-intuitive, but the most important factor in whether diapers get clean or not (assuming you use enough of a quality detergent) is if they agitated properly. They need enough water so that they get properly cleaned, but not so much that they float around and don’t agitate against each other.

Using the correct amount of water for your load size is essential.

A great analogy I heard many years ago is this: you want diaper stew, not diaper chili OR diaper soup! Think about the difference between stew, soup, and chili. Soup has lots of liquid and is much thinner than chili. Chili has less liquid and is very thick. Stew has some liquid, but the bulk of the recipe is the good stuff. That is what you want to aim for with your diapers.

What about HE Machines?

There is a myth going around that you can’t cloth diaper with a HE washer, and that is not true.

A HE machine can sometimes pose a challenge with getting enough water and agitation for your load to properly clean the diapers, but there are workarounds for this and many people successfully cloth diaper with a HE washer.

The trick is to make sure your load size is appropriate. Small loads are not recommended because the diapers will not agitate against each other properly. Somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 full is usually recommended, and it may require some experimentation to find the best load size for your particular machine. My machine does best at 3/4 full.

Check out my tips for washing with a HE front loader here.

That said, I recommend you don’t overthink this. You will likely wash your diapers with no issue. If you do start to have issues getting them completely clean, at that point you can start to analyze and note take about your load size, detergent amounts, etc.

Detergent

There are many schools of thought about what laundry detergent is right for cloth diapers. Many diaper manufacturers also say in their washing instructions that you need to buy their detergent for best results. That simply isn’t true.

There are some cloth diaper detergents available that you can purchase if you want. Charlie’s is one popular cloth diaper detergent (though it is also controversial and not one I personally recommend).

However, I personally preferred to buy detergent that was a bit more cost-effective and could be used on all of my clothes to keep things simple.

To put it simply, you can use almost any detergent on cloth diapers! There are just a couple guidelines you want to follow to protect the quality of your diapers.

  1. Do not buy detergents with fabric softeners (and do not use fabric softener on your diapers). Fabric softeners will negatively affect the absorbency of your diapers.
  2. Pick a laundry detergent, not a laundry soap. Laundry soaps can leave a residue that negatively impacts the absorbency.
  3. Avoid homemade detergents. The reason homemade detergents aren’t recommended is that most homemade detergent recipes are actually soaps, not detergents. Laundry soaps (as described in number 2) can be harmful to your diapers.

Now I’m going to share with you what has worked for me for over FIVE years of continuous cloth diapering without a single issue.

Yep–just Tide Original Powder. It’s served me well.

Some other popular detergents that people have loved to use with their diapers are Tide Free & Gentle, Gain, Arm & Hammer, All, All Free & Clear, Cheer….etc. Here are some tried and true recommended detergents.

If you have a HE machine, make sure you use a detergent meant for a HE machine.

I hope you are gathering from this that most detergents are okay! You may be able to use your current detergent as long as it meets the guidelines above.

As far as the amount of detergent you need to use: It will depend on your load size, but typically, somewhere between lines 2 & 3 for powder detergents, and a capful for liquid is what is appropriate to use for an average load size for a non-HE machine.

Some people feel that is too much detergent, but since we are dealing with soiled laundry, I prefer to use an appropriate amount and do an extra rinse at the end of the wash cycle if it is necessary.

(note: if you have higher than average hard water, you may want to skip an extra rinse since you won’t be able to treat the water with Calgon or Borax).

What about green detergents?

Some green detergents work well for cloth diapers, but not all. Check out this post if you’re interested in finding a good quality, plant-based detergent.

It’s also important to note that you may need to use a little more detergent in your diaper loads than what a typical load would require. Plant-based detergents are just not as powerful as mainstream detergents.

My own experience with green detergents is that I was able to get them to work well in my regular washer, but now that I have a HE washer, I have struggled to get the same results. Be open to the idea that a green detergent may not work out, but feel free to try.

What about the Dryer?

Whether or not you use the dryer is up to you.

If you are using natural fiber diapers, I would dry without hesitation (unless you want to save energy!) If your diapers have an outer layer of PUL, you may consider hang drying or using the dryer on the delicate option/LOW heat. You do not want to use high heat on PUL as it may damage it.

I dry my diapers (most of them have PUL) on low and haven’t had an issue.

Simplified Step-by-Step Routine

Now that you got the low down on things to consider, here is my wash routine in step-by-step form.

  1. Load diapers and the pail liner into the washer. Make sure you remove any waste if your baby is on solid food. With my HE washer, I need to make sure the drum is exactly 3/4 full, so I add additional kid clothes and dish towels to bulk it up. When I had a regular washer, I just put the diapers in and selected the right water level to create “diaper stew.”
  2. Do a rinse or express wash (this helps get all the ick out before you get washing). If you want to start with a rinse and see if that is enough for you, that’s fine. Many people feel a light wash with a little bit of detergent (half the amount required for the main wash is recommended) is most helpful.
  3. Prepare for main wash– Add your detergent (I use between lines 2 & 3 of Tide Original Powder or a full cap of liquid detergent).
  4. Run a regular wash or heavy-duty wash. With my regular washer, I could get away with regular wash settings. Now that I have a HE washer, I need to do Heavy Duty.
  5. I usually use warm or hot for the temp but have done cold successfully, too. You can do that if you’re trying to save energy.
  6. Optional: Extra rinse at the end (cold) to make sure all soap residue is gone. Avoid this with extremely hard water.
  7. Tumble dry on LOW (if drying anything with PUL) or delicate option. If you hang dry your shells/covers, you can dry inserts/prefolds/flats on high.

That’s it! See? That’s not too bad! My regular laundry is typically a regular wash with an extra rinse anyway, so it’s only an extra step to that.

If you would like to get a free printable PDF of a simple cloth diaper washing routine, click here to sign up for my mailing list!

I hope you have enjoyed this post on washing instructions for your cloth diapers! There is one more post in this series about cloth diaper accessories.

Leave a comment below–what are you still wondering about? Do you have your own routine you’d like to share?

how-to-wash-cloth-diapers

Holly Lee

I'm Holly and I'm the mom of two awesome young boys. We have been cloth diapering for 5 years. My family and I live in Minnesota with our dog, Ruby, and cat, Gherkin. Outside of Rocking the Cloth, I am also a middle school teacher. Thank you for visiting Rocking the Cloth--feel free to email me at holly@rockingthecloth.com if you have any questions or concerns. I'd love to help!

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10 Comments

  1. Hi Holly, Great information on how to wash cloth diapers. I am a big fan of using Tide, I am not sure the difference between a laundry soap and a laundry detergent? Do you mean a liquid versus a powder? I have learned a lot in this article, I am one who uses a full load of water to wash a small load, thinking it will come out cleaner. I will change my ways, after reading this. Thank you.

    1. Hi Jenny! A soap vs. detergent is not necessarily liquid vs. powder–either liquid or powder can work great. The difference is in the ingredients. Soaps tend to leave a lot of residue due to the fats/oils in the product and don’t work up a good lather. The residue can prevent the diapers from absorbing the liquid, therefore causing leaks. Great question!

  2. Hello Jenny, I really love your post and it was very informative. I have decided to put into practice the instructions that you have outline and see the result. Thank you so much for sharing this information.

    1. Thanks, I hope it helps you out! -Holly

  3. This is such a helpful and informative post, thank you. I’ve been thinking of making the move to cloth diapers for a while and washing was one of my concerns so your guide to cleaning them is really helpful. My other worry is whether they’re sufficently absorbent at night? My baby sleeps through in a decent night nappy. Do you find cloth ones as effective?

    1. Hi Amy! Cloth diapers can work well at night with the right diaper/inserts. Fitteds are a great night option because they are one of the most absorbent diapers. You can also buy some ultra-absorbent inserts (like hemp or bamboo) to use specifically at night, double stuff them, etc.

      Alternatively, lots of families will use cloth all day but then one disposable at night.

      Hope that helps!

  4. Hello!

    I don’t have a baby … yet! however, you’ve noted things in this article that I haven’t even begun to think about! I would probably use cloth diapers, for a variety of reasons, one being for waste and recycling purposes, and two being cost efficiencies. Babies are expensive, and as I am sure you already know, cloth diapers seem to be the way to go!

    But washing them! Oh boy, I hadn’t even considered the dreaded “washing” part. Things like the soap you use, and even right down to the type of water your household provides are efficient ways to wash these diapers that HAVE to be clean for next use. This is your baby after all, you want them clean and fresh!

    Thank you for all the information!

    1. Hi Alanna! Yes, the washing part scares a lot of people off, but it really doesn’t have to be more complicated than a regular load of laundry! 🙂 As long as your detergent is free of fabric softeners (so no “added Downy!” on the package or anything), it’s probably fine to use. I just do a rinse, hot wash with detergent (usually line 2), and extra rinse at the end. Hope that helps!

  5. Holly,
    Great tips on making diapers come out of the wash clean and ready for the bottom. We always had to rinse them out before putting in the bucket. We always hung them up to dry on a line, either inside or outside to dry. Outside was always better as the wind would make them very soft and easy to fold.
    John

    1. I love drying clothes out in the fresh air. So soft and fresh!

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