Laundry detergent is a big deal in the cloth diapering world. It seems everywhere you look, you get conflicting advice about what kind of detergent you need and how much you need. Do you really need a special cloth diaper laundry detergent?
Some brands of diapers will push for you to buy their own line of detergent by saying it’s the only one that’s safe to use on their diapers (not true!). Other people will want to buy the most natural detergent possible (though there are some acceptable eco-friendly detergents you can use), but the majority of what is marketed as “green” is not strong enough to clean human waste.
Another common issue is that we LOVE our wonderfully scented and soft clothes. Some laundry detergent has added fabric softeners nowadays, and while that may be a perk for general laundry, fabric softeners can negatively impact the absorbency of our diapers.
So with all of these potential issues surrounding laundry detergent, should we buy a special kind?
No! You do not need a special kind at all. There are just a few things you need to consider with your water, and a few things to make sure check out with your current detergent.
Water: Hard, Soft, Normal?
Having extremely hard water can cause mineral build up on your diapers, which can cause issues with getting them completely clean. On the other hand, extremely soft water can cause your detergent to get overly frothy and over-sud.
“Average” water is the most low maintenance for cloth diapering. That may mean somewhat hard, somewhat soft, or right in the middle. It’s not that you can’t cloth diaper with super hard or super soft water, but you might need to make a tweak to your wash routine.
Note: As we talk about developing your routine around the type of water you have, my biggest advice is this– don’t overthink it, and don’t stand there watching your washer and over-analyze what it’s doing. I say this because I think some people create an issue based on seeing a bit of suds here or there, or whatever else they observe, and they set out to try to fix something that isn’t broken.
If your water is very soft, it still might be fine as it is for washing diapers. The best thing to do is just to try to see. You can test your water to see just how soft it is if you feel that you really need to know, but honestly you will know if your wash routine is working or if it isn’t–your diapers will get clean, or they won’t! You can tweak from there.
If you have already been washing with extremely soft water and know for a fact you have an issue because you can tell your diapers aren’t getting clean or rinsed out properly, here is a resource with more soft water troubleshooting info.
Now for hard water: If your water is very hard, you might add a little Borax or Calgon to your washing machine when you wash your diapers. However, if it is just a bit hard, that probably isn’t necessary. It also depends on what kind of detergent you use–some detergents (like Tide Original Powder) have some water softeners in them. Other detergents (like plant-based eco-friendly detergents) don’t perform as optimally if the water is even slightly hard, so adding a softener is necessary.
Just like I recommended for those with soft water, I would try developing your wash routine without any extra additions first and see how it goes. However, a reasonable amount of Borax or Calgon isn’t going to hurt anything, so if you feel you don’t want to risk it, go ahead and use. You could also just pick a detergent that has some water softening agents already in it if it would make you feel better.
No Fabric Softeners
Fabric softener is a common addition to many mainstream detergents (such as Tide with Downy). You should not use softeners on your diapers. Fabric softeners will leave a coating on the diapers that may cause liquid to repel and prevent it from soaking in all the way.
Did you know you’re not supposed to use detergents with fabric softeners on towels for the same reason? I had never thought about that before and I’m sure I’ve made my towels less absorbent in the past by doing that. Thing is we probably just don’t notice it as much with towels…we will definitely notice it with diaper leaks!
If the detergent you are using has fabric softener in it, consider switching detergents, or just get a second bottle/box of the kind you like in its “original” form to use specifically for your diaper loads.
Be Wary of Natural Detergents
People interested in cloth diapers are often interested in all sorts of eco-friendly products and ideas, myself included. However, most natural, plant-based detergents are not powerful enough to clean human waste. Nothing sours your experience with cloth diapers faster than consistently dealing with stinky, leaky diapers.
There are some plant-based detergents that rate highly for cloth diapers. If an eco-friendly detergent is important to you, go for a tried and true option. If you are partial to a certain detergent but are worried it’s not powerful enough for waste, you can continue to use it on your regular clothes and get a separate one for diaper loads.
If you are worried about your detergent from more of a skin-sensitivity standpoint rather than an environmental standpoint, you can consider using a mainstream detergent, but doing an extra rinse at the end to remove as much leftover residue as possible. Depending on the sensitivity, that may be all you need to do.
Don’t Make Your Own Detergents
Another group of people that cloth diapers appeal to is the frugal people out there–I’m also part of this group! You make your own laundry detergent all you want for regular laundry that isn’t heavily soiled or highly dependent on absorbency function. Diapers do not fall in either of those two categories. They’re slightly more complicated than washing a few shirts because of how soiled they are.
Most homemade laundry detergents aren’t actually detergents–they’re soaps. The difference between detergents and soaps are in the ingredients. Soaps aren’t ideal for washing diapers because they can leave a residue that repels moisture. They also lack the power necessary to truly get the diapers clean.
All that said, there are cloth diapering families out there that make their own “detergents” and cloth diaper. I can’t imagine their results are as good as those who use a mainstream detergent, but it is worth it to them. Their laundry routine is likely a lot longer and more involved. For the most optimal cloth diapering experience possible, I recommend the following detergents.
Recommended Cloth Diaper Detergents
**For all detergents listed here, follow what is recommended on the package for the amount needed for soiled laundry. Do not skimp on the amount of detergent.
**Also note–follow the principles above when selecting these detergents. Certain brands listed below may have a variety of detergent on the shelf that doesn’t meet the above requirements. If there is a specific kind within that brand that is better than others, I try to specify, but some may be missed. (For example–you can get #2 below in a “with Downy” version–that is not what you want. You want regular).
1. Tide Original Powder–this detergent is probably the most highly and frequently recommended detergent in the cloth diapering community. It has some water softeners build into the detergent, which makes it the perfect choice for those worried about their water hardness.
2. Tide Liquid Detergent and/or Pods–note: these do not have the added softeners like the powder does (those are usually only found in powder detergents).
8. Arm & Hammer
9. All Powder
10. All Powder Free & Clear
12. Biokleen Powder
15. Country Save
19. Kirkland Environmentally Responsible
Time to Get Washing!
There you have it! In summary:
- You do not need a special detergent (you likely recognize most or all of the brands listed above!)
- Don’t buy detergent with added fabric softener
- Be wary of plant-based detergents and pick a tried and true one if you want to go that route
- Consider how hard or soft your water is when choosing a detergent
If you cloth diaper already, which detergent do you use? If not, does yours match the requirements here? Let me know in the comments!