When parents start looking into cloth diapers, many are turned off by how overwhelming it can seem. Washing cloth diapers is probably the most confusing part of the whole ordeal, and for most people that end up deciding not to use cloth diapers, I’m willing to bet that most of the time it is due to intimidation surrounding the washing process.
Are cloth diapers really hard to wash? Most of the time, no.
Can it be hard to figure out how to wash them? Sometimes. The cloth diaper community has some divide when it comes to washing–on one hand, you have the people that have a 10 step washing process with routine strips to keep their diapers in top shape. On the other hand, you have people that maybe just do a tweak here and there from a regular clothes washing routine to accommodate the heavy soil of their diapers.
Who is doing it correctly? My opinion is the latter group.
Here is the deal: cloth diapers do function a little differently from regular laundry, and we do want to maintain their absorbency and protect them when washing. However, they are still clothes. What that means is we really don’t need to over-complicate this.
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What to Keep in Mind When Washing Diapers
There are a few things we want to be cognizant of when washing diapers over other loads of laundry:
- No fabric softeners (they make clothing less absorbent–not a big deal for your t-shirts, but definitely a big deal for diapers!)
- Warm/hot washes are good, but do not go above 120 degrees (it could damage the PUL, or waterproof layer, on your diaper and wear out the elastics faster)
- Use a quality detergent that can handle human waste (this means no homemade laundry soaps–sorry, they just will not clean off waste the way a true detergent will)
- Use an appropriate amount of water–not too much, not too little.
Those are the main things you need to keep in mind. However, now and then you hear about water hardness being an issue, and you may read about people adding extra things besides detergent to their laundry. What is this about?
What Is The Problem With Hard Water?
Hard water can certainly be problematic, but it is problematic for more than just diapers. It can dry out your skin, wear out appliances (like washing machine and dishwasher) much faster, and cause mineral buildup on faucets. It can also affect the efficacy of detergents or cause mineral build up on clothing (such as diapers).
Mineral buildup on diapers can also negatively impact absorbency.
However, 85% of the United States has hard water. Does that mean 85% of the cloth diaper community is putting additives in their laundry or otherwise dealing with issues? Nope!
There are varying levels of water hardness, and while extremely hard water can certainly cause problems, there are more variables to consider.
Many people order test strips from the internet or bring water samples places to get their water hardness tested, and then they meticulously measure out exactly how much water softener to add based on results. Is that really necessary?
Should I Test My Water? How Do I Know If It Is Hard?
Here’s the thing: hard water isn’t a secret. You may have hard water if you have:
- Mineral buildup around faucets or spouts
- Soap scum that builds up in your shower
- Dry skin
- Your clothing is dull or itchy
- You have water spots on dishes after washing in the dishwasher
- Your appliances break down faster
If you have any of those things, you are part of the 85% of the US that has hard water.
If you know your water falls in the “Extremely Hard” category, it may be worth testing. Your city’s water hardness should be available online–my own city’s water hardness level was found easily with a Google search, and if you’re curious, it is indeed “extremely hard.”
I have never tested it personally. We do have a water softener, but I will admit we only keep it stocked with salt about half the year. It’s something we definitely forget about–oops!
If you can’t find your city’s water hardness online, there is nothing wrong with testing your water if you want to; it’s not going to hurt anything to know your exact level, and for many, knowledge is power! Test strips can be purchased easily on Amazon or at hardware stores. Alternatively, you can bring in a water sample to your pet store and they will usually test it for you.
When Do I Need To Add A Softener?
Before deciding to add a water softener, consider your detergent choice. If you are using a plant based “eco-friendly” detergent, a water softener is definitely recommended for hard water above 120 ppm (moderately hard). However, many commercial powder detergents (like Tide and Gain) already have water softeners added in them! For many families, these are enough and adding more softener is not necessary.
Before we started cloth diapering, we used the cheapest laundry detergent we could get–so usually whatever was on sale. However, once we started researching cloth diapers and getting a plan in place, I committed to using Tide Original Powder because it seemed like it was the go-to detergent in the cloth diapering community, and it seemed to be the “cure all” for many cloth diaper issues. I just wanted to be proactive and avoid issues as much as possible.
I will say, Tide Original Powder has never failed me once. It definitely lived up to the hype. It has been 5 years of cloth diapering now, and while I have tried out other detergents here and there and they all worked well and fine, Tide Original Powder is still my top recommendation. And this is with only keeping my water softener stocked with salt about 50% of the time and having extremely hard water (harder than the threshold that Tide is supposed to treat).
If you do not want to use a powder detergent with water softeners already added (or if your water is extraordinarily hard), adding a separate water softener to your laundry can be a good idea (as long as your water is actually hard–if it’s not, super soft water can make getting diapers clean an issue, too).
If you have been having issues getting diapers clean and you’re following all the best advice for washing cloth diapers AND using a good detergent, a water softener may be what you need.
If you do decide to add a water softener, I recommend testing your water at that point so you know how much is needed. The most common water softeners are Calgon and Borax. Most diaper manufacturers recommend Calgon over Borax, but either one would work. Borax has been known to be irritating to some people, so that’s important to keep in mind if your family has any sensitivities.
Here is a table with water hardness levels that may help you out:
|Water Hardness||Levels in ppm||Softener Recommendations|
|Soft||Less than 17 ppm||No softeners needed|
|Slightly Hard||17-60 ppm||No softeners needed|
|Moderately Hard||60-120 ppm||No softeners needed|
|Very Hard||120-180 ppm||Use a powder detergent with softeners (Tide, Gain, etc.) OR add Calgon|
|Extremely Hard||Greater than 180 ppm||May need to consider powder softener in every load if diapers are not getting clean.|
What If I Have Hard Water Build Up On My Diapers?
If you know you have very hard water, have been washing your diapers without softeners and it’s just not working out, it could very well mean you have a mineral buildup. The answer at that point is to perform a strip.
One way to strip and deal with the mineral buildup is to do a few washes with just Calgon and no detergent to help remove the mineral buildup and get them back to square one. Other people like to use something called RLR (see here for more info).
In conclusion, hard water can be a nuisance sometimes, but it doesn’t have to over-complicate your cloth diapering experience. Most people with hard water can get by with a good quality detergent (powder if water is very hard), and for those that struggle beyond that, Calgon or Borax are good options to consider.
Do you have hard water? How do you wash your diapers? If you don’t have diapers to wash yet, do you have a plan in place or have any questions? Let me know in the comments!