When I teach Cloth Diapering 101, there are a few questions that seem to pop up in every class. The topic that every family wants to discuss, in detail, is the wash routine. (A close second place- “What are all of these styles of diapers and how do they work?”) From my experiences with so many people, it seems that laundry questions and concerns are the number one barrier to a family choosing to use cloth diapers. They also tend to become the number one frustration for cloth diapering families. Perhaps this is because there is so much information online- much of it conflicting, or at least more involved than is really necessary.
I have seen some claims online that there is no need to tailor a washing routine. Having lived in three different geographic regions during my time using cloth diapers, I have to reject this “one size fits all” laundry fantasy. I have experienced the effect that different water types can have on the results of a laundry routine, and after some trials and tweaks, a theme has emerged. In my experience, a basic laundry formula exists, but special circumstances call for adjustments to the basic plan.
For me, the basic routine that has been constant from day one, is rinse – wash – rinse. I have a “traditional” (aka OLD) machine, which I love because it allows me to easily adjust the water level to the needs of any given load of diapers. In the first rinse cycle I use cold water with my machine’s extra rinse cycle. It has a short agitation period, which helps to remove the inevitable gunk on the dirty diapers. I make sure to use a high water level in this cycle. Once the spin cycle is complete, I do a washing cycle with detergent. I finish my routine with a final cold rinse and spin, to ensure that my diapers are free of lurking detergent.
There are differing opinions about what the temperature of the detergent cycle should be. When my son was born, we lived in Germany and my washing machine did not offer warm or hot water! If I wanted to use the machine to wash my diapers (as opposed to doing wash in a bathtub) I had to use cold water. I spent a lot of time fretting over this, but after lots of research I discovered that if my water temperature couldn’t be above 140 degrees farenheit, the hot water wouldn’t kill the bacteria anyway. (Science News, “The Case for Very Hot Water” http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/37933/description/The_Case_for_Very_Hot_Water ) Instead of washing in moderately-hot water in my bathtub, I opted to use the cold water detergent cycle and to sun-dry, or machine dry, my diapers. Dryer heat, or the sun’s heat and UV rays, will help to kill many microbes lurking in diapers. Bonus points to the sun for helping to remove staining, naturally!
When I returned to the US, I had the luxury of choosing between cold, warm, or hot washing cycles. Some people prefer to use the hot water option even if they know their water heater’s upper limit isn’t set high enough to kill bacteria, because the hot water makes them feel more comfortable in their wash routine. Others are of the opinion that warm water, in conjunction with machine or sun drying, is sufficient to kill germs and will be more gentle on the fibers of their diapers over time. Some people even go as far as to recalibrate their water heater so it will exceed 140 degrees farenheit. (If you choose this option, please remember that your water can scald during a shower, a bath, or dish washing and adjust the faucet accordingly!) Different diaper brands suggest different washing temperatures, which certainly can add to the confusion about which water temperature is the “right” one for your laundry. Personally, I take the middle route, opting for warm water and sunning, with occasional machine drying. I believe in making informed decisions, and understand that my choice won’t feel like the right one for every family, so in my classes I encourage people to consider the options and to choose the one that seems to be the best fit for their situation.
As I have mentioned, I prefer sunning diapers as the ultimate method of drying. But line drying can leave diapers stiff, so many families wonder if it is safe to put their diaper laundry in the dryer. In general, inserts that are free of elastics and PUL/TPU are safe in the dryer, though medium heat or lower is preferrable because repeated exposure high heat will break down fibers more quickly. Covers and items with elastic can go through dryer cycles occasionally, but again require medium or low heat to maintain the integrity of the waterproofing material or elastic long-term. In the end, will some electric dryer cycles hurt your diapers? Probably not that much. But if you hope to use the same stash for more than one child, minimizing the time the diapers spend in the electric dryer will help to keep the diapers in great condition. During the winter, I will sometimes use a combination method, where I hang my covers, pockets, all-in-ones, and hybrid shells on a drying rack by a window, and put my inserts and prefolds in the dryer.
I have tried a number of detergents and discovered that different options have worked well with different water types. In Germany our water was very average- not particularly hard or soft. I used a cloth diaper safe detergent very happily there, and it was not specially formulated for any particular water type. When I first returned to the US my son and I stayed in Pennsylvania with family for a number of weeks. My parents have well water that is treated with a house-wide water softener, which results in very soft water. (It tastes delicious, incidentally.) The detergent I used in Germany continued to work well during this time, though I discovered that I needed to use less than I had in Germany. If I used the same amount I had used overseas, I had some residual detergent in my final rinse. I decreased the amount of detergent from 2 tbsp to 1 tbsp- the amounts suggested by the manufacturer for regular and HE washers, respectively. Even though I was using a regular washing machine, the very soft water just didn’t need much detergent to get the diapers clean. It was nice to go through my detergent so slowly!
We finally settled in Colorado, where our water can only be described as horrifyingly hard. It is mineral-laden and every running of the shower leaves bright white water spots on the glass door. My old standby detergent suddenly left my diapers smelly and looking, well, not-so-fresh. I started to try samples of cloth diapering detergents specifically formulated for hard water. Some seemed to work for a little while, but none seemed to do the job quite as well as my old detergent in normal- to soft- water. I even tried non-cloth diaper detergents to see if they would help; my son (whose skin is fairly sensitive) had bad reactions and even my normal laundry didn’t seem as clean as usual. After a decent amount of frustration, some attempts at stripping, and even a foray into the world of bleach (which I generally avoid altogether) I finally figured out the trick to laundering with very hard water. Using a water softener such as Calgon can make all the difference if you have struggles with hard water laundering. This trick is especially useful if you can’t afford a whole-house water softening system. Adding some water softener to the detergent cycle can help the detergent to provide its most effective cleaning. I wish I had realized much sooner, that my hard water was preventing my detergent from doing its job!
Often people will ask me about various laundry additives such as vinegar, bleach, and tea tree oil. Full disclosure- I have tried all of these at different times in my cloth laundering journey. I had varying success with the products and overall I prefer to figure out a reliable routine that works without having to add anything that is potentially harsh on the diapers or a child’s skin. I also caution everyone to find out if an additive will influence the warranty on new diapers, and to take that into consideration before choosing to use something extra in the wash routine. In some cases it might be worth the risk- for example, I used tea tree oil on my prefolds when my newborn son had a yeast rash, and I am glad I made that decision. But that is going to be a personal risk versus reward assessment for any family.
In the end, the key to successful cloth diaper laundering is finding a routine that works for you (again, I highly recommend the basic rinse-wash-rinse method) and when troubles arise, discovering the reason for the issue. You don’t necessarily need to involve yourself in some confusing, excessive washing routine. If your root problem is the condition of your water, fix that. If your root problem is going too long between washings, adjust your laundering frequency. If your diapers hold on to ammonia, rinse them right after use (including urine-only diapers) and wash frequently- add an ammonia bouncer if better rinsing and more frequent washing doesn’t help. Don’t be afraid to ask a manufacturer, local store, or online retailer for help discovering your root issue. And as much as possible, keep it all simple! Your cloth diaper laundry should not become a major source of anxiety in your life. You’re a parent, you’ve got enough to worry about.