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How to Wash Cloth Diapers

Washing Cloth Diapers Requires Extra TLC

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Woman unloading washing machine
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Using cloth diapers means you'll have some extra laundry to deal with, but in my house, the extra washing is worth it. Certainly, I never thought I'd be singing the praises of a product that requires me to do even more loads of laundry. My son is one who has never had a diaper rash while wearing cloth diapers, though, and the soft cotton and fleece just seems so much more comfortable to me than the crunchy disposables. Also? Cloth diapers are cute!

The cuteness only helps a little, though, when my wet bag is full and there are smelly, soggy diapers to deal with. Some parents use a complicated system to wash their cloth diapers, involving custom wash cycles, different varieties of detergent, and even different wash methods on different days. The method I'm going to describe here is pretty simple. It's the method I use in my own house, and it works really well for us. I've only had to strip my cloth diapers once in a year, and they have never repelled moisture, so I'd say that's the true test.

Pre-Laundry Notes

Before we get started, there are a couple of things that might make your diaper laundry situation turn out differently than mine. First, you need to know about your water. If you have hard water, the detergents you choose might not be able to clean as well.

Second, you need to choose a detergent that works well with cloth diapers. Most of the regular laundry detergents you find at the store have additives that can build up on cloth diapers or cause other problems, particularly if your diapers aren't rinsed well enough. I've experimented with several different types of detergent for diaper laundry, and I've found that simpler is better. A basic detergent without optical brighteners or extra enzymes tends to work best. Some parents feel that the enzyme additives can be a real problem for a sensitive baby's skin.

Several cloth diaper companies make their own diaper soaps, plus there are some cloth-diaper-specific soaps, such as Rockin Green, if you want to try something that is made for your dipes. Eco-friendly detergents are usually a good choice, too, since they often have fewer additives. Ecos makes a great fragrance-free liquid detergent that works well on cloth diapers.

If you want a handy chart of which detergents have worked well for other parents, I like the one at Diaper Jungle. I've tried several of the detergents on their list and agree with their assessments.

After a lot of experimenting, I decided that I liked my own homemade detergent best. I make a powder detergent with some basic, inexpensive supplies, and I can use it for all of our household laundry. This works well in our often-chaotic household because I can ask someone else to start the diaper laundry without worrying about them using the wrong soap. If I use a store-bought liquid detergent, it's usually Mrs. Meyers or Ecos.

Before You Wash Cloth Diapers

You don't have to make a big effort to clean up the cloth diapers before you put them in your diaper pail or wet bag. Some parents swish dipes in the toilet or use a sprayer hooked onto the toilet water supply to spray off the mess. If that makes you more comfortable with diaper laundry, spray or swish away! It's not a requirement, though. In our house, dirty diapers get a quick shake over the toilet and go directly into the wet bag, which gets washed right along with the diapers on laundry day. Diapers that are just wet get tossed into the bag immediately.

If you're concerned about staining or about washing so much yuck in the same appliance that cleans your own clothes, consider diaper liners. These thin, porous strips sit in the diaper's "containment zone" and catch any solids. Some diaper liners go in the trash, and others can be flushed. I've tried the liners, and they do work. As my son has gotten older and I've simplified our diaper system, the liners don't save me that much time. However, the beauty of cloth diapering is that you get to design your own system!

Staining, residual stinkiness, and diaper wear and tear can be reduced by how often you do laundry. At times, when I've had a large stash of cloth diapers, I've been able to delay washing for 3 or 4 days. Going more than a couple of days has almost always resulted in more washes to get the diapers clean or a mildew stain somewhere. I do diaper laundry every other day now, and have very little trouble with stains.

Wash Day

So your clean diaper basket is looking a little bare, or the diaper pail is getting a little rank. It's time to wash diapers! The basic method I use for cloth diaper laundry is a cold water rinse followed by a very hot wash. There are many ways you can accomplish the cold/hot series with today's washers, so the actual cycle doesn't matter much, in my opinion. Starting with cold water is important, though, because it greatly reduces staining. For my diaper stash, the beginning cold rinse has nearly eliminated the stain problem. A hot water wash to finish is also important, because the hot water does a better job of getting the diapers truly clean.

My preferred method is to turn out the entire wet bag into the washer and start with a "speed wash" using cold water for the wash and the rinse. I use only a small amount of detergent, and I add a scoop of OxyClean. Once that first wash is done, I check to be sure the inserts have come out of any pocket diapers, and if there are any Velcro or Aplix closure diapers in the load, I double check that the fold-back tabs are still secured so I don't end up with a big chain of diapers stuck together.

Next, I run a second wash using very hot water. I use a normal amount of detergent for my washer, and sometimes I include a small scoop of baking soda to boost the cleaning.

Rinse, Rinse, Rinse!

On my hot wash, I always use the maximum water setting for my HE machine, and I set it to include an extra rinse. The more water you're putting through the diapers, the less chance of residues or repelling. Some parents actually pour additional water into their machine, or use some method of "tricking" the machine into using more water. It's hard to go wrong with more rinsing.

Other Washing Methods

If I won't be home to set two different wash cycles, I set my machine for the hot water wash and add a pre-wash or stain cycle along with the extra water and extra rinse. Pre-wash and stain cycle both mean you're getting cold water at the beginning. On my machine, this method results in a little less rinsing, which is why I prefer the two-cycle method, but adding the pre-wash works nicely if I'm short of time.

The exact washing routine isn't important. The basic strategy for getting diapers clean is the important part. You may need to experiment a little with your washing machine to see which combination of cold water for stains, hot water for cleansing, and lots of rinsing will work best for your diapers.

Bleach & Vinegar

Some cloth diaper manufacturers recommend an occasional bleach session to keep diapers fresh. I've used a small amount of bleach in my diaper loads occasionally, with good results. I've never had the diaper colors fade, or had any noticeable damage to the diapers or inserts. However, before you use bleach on your cloth diapers, check the manufacturer's recommendations. For some cloth diapers, using bleach can void the warranty. If you need to use bleach, be sparing. Remember that it is a very harsh chemical, and can damage fabrics if you use too much.

Using vinegar isn't likely to void your diaper warranty, but don't let that fool you into using it too much. Vinegar is a powerful cleaning acid! It's great for softening fabrics and freshening diapers, but as with bleach, you should use the smallest effective amount to avoid damaging your diapers.

Time To Dry

The best way to dry cloth diapers is on a line, outside in the sun. Not because we're trying to get back to pioneer roots, but because the sun is your stain-fighting friend. Cloth diapers always smell fresher and have fewer stains if they get a good dose of sunshine.

If you can't dry your dipes outside, a clothesline in the house is also a good method. When you air dry diapers, there's no additional wear on them as there can be in the dryer. The downside of air-drying, especially indoors, is that it takes a long time

A faster method is to use the air dry setting on the dryer, or use low heat. High heat can be damaging to elastics, snaps and waterproof linings. Again it's a good idea to check the recommendations for your specific diapers, because some manufacturers recommend higher heat for drying.

Just Say No To Softeners

Cloth diapers are not friends with fabric softeners or dryer sheets. These things are unnecessary for diaper laundry, and they could ruin your diapers, or at least make a ton more work for you when you have to remove the residues. Fabric softener and dryer sheets almost always leave a water-resistant residue on things. If it's just on the outside of a diaper, fine. Adding a water-repellant coating to the absorbant parts of your diapers though, will spell disaster at baby's next wet or dirty moment.

If you want to add something to the dryer to soften diaper inserts or reduce static, try dryer balls. The rubber or plastic nubbed balls tumble with the diapers and help soften things up. Felted wool dryer balls are also popular among cloth diaperers.

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