Cloth Diaper Washing 101: The Basics

I would like to begin this article by saying:

  1. If your cloth diaper washing routine is fine, disregard what I write below. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
  2. What I am writing below is what’s worked for me (after much trial and error in the beginning) while cloth diapering my own six kids, and what’s been working for my friends and neighbors whom I’ve helped with their cloth diapering journey.
    There will always be examples of a wash routine being very different but it will work for that person, however, I feel the need to put into words what I’ve seen working after seeing so many struggle with keeping their diapers clean.

Clean diapers are more than just a “want”, if you have stinky diapers you have bacteria lingering behind, which can cause skin issues that can be troublesome to fix and diapers that stink to high heaven.

Wash problems are usually caused by one of two problems:

  1. Wrong detergent,
  2. Too much detergent, or not enough detergent.
Choosing a detergent for cloth diaper washing.

What Detergent is Best for Cloth Diapers?

Let’s start with number one, the wrong detergent. Here are some cliff notes for choosing a detergent:

  • Don’t choose a detergent with fabric softeners.
  • Don’t choose a “soap,” soap nuts, or use a DIY detergent recipe.
  • Both mainstream powders and liquids are fine to use. You do not have to use a cloth diaper detergent to get your diapers clean, in fact, they’re usually not as good.

Over 12 years of troubleshooting wash issues with my six babies, I found one detergent leading the pack over and over again: Tide.

Tide? Before you shoot the idea down completely, take a peek at who else recommends Tide:

That being said, if you hate the idea of Tide, try another mainstream store detergent even a generic one if it fits the budget better. Worst case scenario, you strip and start over.

How Much Detergent Should You Use to Wash Cloth Diapers?

The second part of this equation is using the right amount of detergent. You have to use enough detergent to get your diapers clean but it’s very easy to overdo it.

The best way to make sure you’re not using too much or too little is to measure it all out to make sure you’re using the right amount for your load size and that your load size isn’t too big for your washer.

You also have to measure your water hardness since hard water needs more detergent than normal, and soft water needs less detergent than normal.

The Best Wash Routine I’ve Found for Diapers

It can seem OVERLY complicated at first, but the absolute best cloth diaper washing routine I’ve found for diapers is using the system over at Cloth Diapers for Beginners.

The woman behind it created a whole system to measure everything and balance it out so you’re getting the perfect detergent, water, and dirty diaper ratio.

She has information on how to wash cloth diapers and a worksheet to help you figure it out here:

If you can afford the extra expense, she also has a wash and care handbook that explains everything a little more in-depth, I bought it even after I’d figured out my wash routine, and still found it helpful with some troubleshooting. If I’d had a copy years ago I think I could have saved myself a lot of re-washing.

My Cloth Diaper Laundry Routine

One thing I have found over almost 12 years of diapering is having a regular diaper laundry routine makes things much easier. Now for our regular clothes, forget it, it gets done when it gets done, but with diapers if you run out you are really stuck, so having a good routine going keeps things in supply.

For our house, I dump the diapers in the wash right before I go to bed. That way the hot water doesn’t run out in the showers, and it provides one last time to make sure the doors are locked and lights are out. If I happen to walk by the fridge and shove some M&M’s in my mouth, that doesn’t hurt either (and makes laundry a little more exciting!)

Hubby puts them in the dryer when he goes to work first thing, so by noon I can fold and sort while the kids eat lunch. I usually wash every day for the most part, but now that Lucy is just over two and I don’t have any others in diapers, I go every other day since she uses less diapers than before.

I find many of my friends and family stuff their pockets when they pull them out of the dryer, but if you can let them cool for an hour, this will help prolong your elastic.

While some parents like to stuff as they go, I like to have them ready in the changing area.

One thing you learn following a balanced laundry routine is that your individual wash routine will be different from others, so you shouldn’t just copy someone’s system.

But to give you an idea of what a wash routine can look like here’s mine (note that I have soft water; if I had hard water, I wouldn’t do so many final rinses):

-Warm or hot pre-rinse (see my note on pre-rinsing below)
-Hot wash with the right amount of detergent (not the sanitary cycle, your regular hot cycle, your water heater should be set to 120 degrees F)
-Two cold rinses. The machine does one automatically, and I add another.

Hot vs. Cold Pre-Rinse for Cloth Diapers

For years it was actually advised to do a hot pre-rinse, the reason for hot being that many water heaters didn’t get up to 120 in the pre-rinse, so setting it to warm gave you room temperature water, setting it to hot gave you the higher temperature that is needed.

In recent years with more sophisticated machines, I’ve adjusted my rinse recommendation to hot or cold.

In my experience and lots of testing with friends and family, we found the cold pre-rinse set in stains and make it much harder to wash the fresh feces and urine out of the diapers. Switch your pre-rinse, and see if it helps. If your water heater doesn’t get very hot, consider doing a hot pre-rinse to boost those temps a little.

If you don’t have the option for a warm or hot pre-rinse, you can do a little trial and error to see if your water conditions make it better to skip the pre-rinse completely ( I would advise using a diaper sprayer to rinse the poopy diapers individually before going in the pail if that is the case), or using a cold pre-rinse.

Depending on how “pre-cleaned” the diapers are from your diaper sprayer, some find they can eliminate this step completely, however, if you don’t have that option or are running into issues getting them cleaned, opt for the cold. I would say for HE machines, go with the cold over opting out of the pre-rinse, if your machine is water efficient using as many rinse cycles as you can will help in the water-efficient wash cycle.

Stripping Your Cloth Diapers

You hear a lot how to strip diapers online when researching cloth diaper washing. Stripping refers to an action of doing something to the diapers strip them of detergent buildup, ointment buildup, old feces or urine buildup, fabric softener, and basically anything that is hindering absorbency.

When Not to Strip Your Diapers

Many times, truly most times, when a friend thinks the diaper needs to be stripped, it is actually a scenario where more absorbency is needed, or the fit is incorrect for the baby.

You do NOT need to strip if:

  • The diapers leak, but more than 30-60 minutes has passed
  • The diapers leak, but the entire diaper/fitted or insert is wet
  • The diapers leak but do not have odors to them

If you are having leaking but find that the above fits, you likely have an absorbency or fit issue, not a need to strip. Very, very rarely will buildup occur without an accompanying odor. If you have enough buildup left to hinder absorbency, you will be trapping old feces and urine, and it will stink.

When You Should Strip Your Diapers

What may cause a need to strip is:

  • Odors out of the dryer, or once freshly peed in.
  • Leaking within the first few minutes of the diaper being on.
  • Leaking and the diaper is wet in spots only.
  • Use of creams, and you can see and smell spots where ointment has been.
  • Use of the wrong detergent, this is also evident when you take the diapers out and they have a sticky or thick feel to them, almost like they are coated with something.

I like to highlight the odor key in all of this, remember you cannot ever mask the smell of poop. You can spray perfume on it, put bleach spray on it, it will smell like perfumed and bleached poo. It is incredibly rare when we see buildup not accompanying odors, it can happen, but really is very rare.

If you suspect buildup and do not have any odors, we will first go the route of more absorbency/checking the fit. If you strip and it is an absorbency or fit issue, you won’t solve anything and be right back where you started with leaky diapers.

I do want to throw one more tidbit in, I see websites promoting the “water drip test” to see if your diapers are repelling. The idea being you dribble a few drops of water on the diaper, if it doesn’t sink in right away the diapers need to be stripped. The truth is I can do this on my perfectly fine pocket diapers and you won’t see it sink in, the pressure of the baby against the diaper pushes urine into it, so don’t rely on that test to see if you have buildup and need to strip.

How NOT to Strip Your Cloth Diapers

There is a lot of advice about stripping diapers online

  1. In the dishwasher. There was a method that was very popular a few years ago in stripping, and I sincerely hope it has completely died out but I know some still recommend it. It involves using your dishwasher to strip the diapers. Now, this is a fire hazard, and will render your snaps and elastic pretty useless, so under no circumstances should you ever put your diapers in the dishwasher, please, please, please.
  2. With dish soap. Another popular method is to put Dawn dish soap in the washing machine. I don’t recommend this either, your washing machine wasn’t made for dish soap, it is high sudsing and can clog the hoses. If you have a new washer under warranty you could void it. I have had family members who used Dawn, and when their machine broke and the repairman came, it was very easy to tell soap had been used, and the warranty was voided, so please take note of those problems if you go the Dawn route.

How to Safely Strip Your Diapers

What is safer for you and the machine, is to use a real diaper stripping product on the diapers if you have buildup. Either one package of RLR or a GroVia Mighty Bubbles pack (Amazon Links) in the detergent cycle with clean cloth diapers, and hot water, will take care of the problem.

Make sure the diapers have been washed and dried, if they are soiled the strip won’t do much.

Once in a blue moon strip is fine on your diapers, it is when it is used on a regular basis that you see premature wear and tear, just like you would on your clothing.

Other Wash Issues: Detergent Buildup, Ammonia and Other Strong Mystery Odors.

If you’ve stripped your diapers and the stink is not going away or coming back after a wash or two, you may have a buildup problem caused by too much detergent.

How to tell if you are using too much? Above, I recommended the Cloth Diapers for Beginners wash routine worksheet (or book), I stand by that advice because it helps you measure everything to see if you’re actually getting the detergent amount right for your diapers, in your washer, with your water hardness.

If everything is fine and smells like clean fabric, don’t worry about taking the time to create a detailed wash routine like this. Cloth diaper washing just needs to work! However, if you have this problem of stink when peed in, and stripping isn’t helping, check to see if you have detergent buildup, and if so, fill out a wash worksheet.

Here’s how you can check for detergent buildup:

  1. If you have an HE machine, look at the glass during the second cycle, do you see lots of bubbles coming out? You may have buildup on your diapers, or in your machine (that’s keeping your diapers from rinsing clean).
  2. Dip a clean and dry diaper into a bowl of warm water and swoosh it around for a bit. If you see some soapy bubbles (not just little air bubbles from swishing fabric around), then you may have buildup.

How to Remove Detergent Buildup

If the buildup isn’t bad (and hopefully you can catch this early so you don’t get a lot of bacteria built up), doing 2-3 wash cycles with just hot water on CLEAN diapers (make sure you wash them first and then do this), should strip out the residue.

Don’t do any cold pre-rinses, try to hit them with as much hot water as possible. If they are really stenchy, you may still need strip them. Again, that link above has proper stripping techniques, please do not use Dawn dish soap to strip.

How to Fix too Much Detergent

Once they have been stripped of the detergent buildup, reductions in detergent are needed or a new detergent. Make sure you’re using an HE detergent, even if you’re using it in a regular machine. You can never use regular detergent in an HE machine, but you can use HE detergent in a regular machine with soft water, it is formulated to be low sudsing for HE machines, and will rinse easier.

You have to be careful with detergent levels, too high and you get buildup, too low and you will get that bacteria left behind/stink out of the dryer problem.

Ammonia Problems

Part of this problem also embraces ammonia. Old detergent buildup can trap old feces and urine, which can lead to ammonia odors. That being said, there are some times when ammonia can be normal and not a result of problems with your cloth diaper washing routine. Click here to read my full post on ammonia in cloth diapers for more information if you suspect this is a problem for you.

Dirty Diaper Storage

After switching around for a bit, I landed on a Diaper Dekor Pail (Amazon link) with the washable liners (Amazon link) for my home dirty diaper storage, which works fine for me because I wash daily.

Once a month, I like to clean out my diaper pail, just to get rid of anything that may have hit the lid and keep the pail itself smelling fresh. An easy way I have found to do this, take it outside, squirt some liquid dish soap on the inside, and full blast your hose at it.

I don’t ever scrub it manually, just swishing and spraying seems to do the job nicely, and it waters the lawn.

Drying Diapers

In warm weather line drying is easier and many moms like let their diapers line dry to help them last longer.

If you want to make it a faster process, mix the two. Let them start outside, bring them in about halfway dry and finish in the machine. This cuts down on your machine use, and keeps your aplix in good shape.

Cloth Wipes

I like to go over cloth wipes in this section; if you are on the fence, consider my very lazy way of using cloth wipes.

If you have a three-month-old or younger, you are using a lot of wipes throughout the day. When my babies are little, I get an empty Huggies wipe container and prewet the wipes in the morning with just water. I use that throughout the day, and at the end of the day whatever is unused gets washed anyway to prevent mildew odors.

As the babies get older, I keep them dry in a basket, and run them under the tap when I grab a diaper if I know there is a poopy change.

It really is easy to use cloth wipes, it saves you the trouble of picking out disintegrated pieces from your diaper laundry if you wash them, or having to bag them and take out stinky garbage if you toss them in the trash.

Baby washcloths make great cloth wipes, you can get a five-pack at the dollar store, for a few dollars you will have all you will ever need for your baby’s time in cloth. Take the money you save on disposable wipes and treat yourself to a nice Starbucks instead!

Conclusion: It Sounds Like a Lot of Work, But It’s Not That Hard

I can’t believe how long this post turned out, even though I’m really trying to simplify cloth diaper washing here.

The truth is, it’s a lot to take in at once, especially if you’re reading it all for the first time.

In practice though, cloth diaper washing a lot easier than it sounds! Really, once you have all the nuances down, like measuring out your load size and water hardness, it’s just another load of laundry at the end of the day.