In-depth reviews guided by a Pediatrician

Cloth Diaper Laundering Basics & Helpful Hints

Not sure what to do with the stink? We can help.
By Juliet Spurrier, MD ⋅ Mom-in-Chief
Monday September 2, 2019

This article is part of our comprehensive Search for the Best Cloth Diapers. If you are on the fence about cloth, and just looking to educate yourself, take a look at our comparison of cloth and disposable diapers which gets down and dirty into the pros and cons of each style. We reviewed some of the top-performing diapers on the market and can give you some great recommendations.

If you have already made up your mind, and chose cloth, then congratulations! You're in the right place. This article will give you a collection of practical tips to make washing cloth diapers easier, as well as get the most absorbency and lifespan out of your investment. Proper laundering can help assure that your cloth diaper stash remains sanitary for baby's use with optimal performance.

Using cloth doesn't have to be a chore  but you do need to make sure you follow a proper wash routine to keep potential issues at bay.
Using cloth doesn't have to be a chore, but you do need to make sure you follow a proper wash routine to keep potential issues at bay.

Cloth Diapers Aren't Regular Laundry


A cloth diaper is going to be one of the dirtiest pieces of laundry in your household hands-down. As such, they require special care to get them clean and avoid ammonia build-up, odor retention, and diaper rashes.

Furthermore, cloth diapers require special attention due to their fabric makeup. Covers typically contain PUL and TPU laminates for waterproofing and stretchy elastic for comfort, neither of which hold up well in high heat or prolonged exposure to sunlight. They will have a central absorptive core often with a top wicking layer to keep baby dry. These fabrics vary and can include microfiber, cotton, bamboo, hemp, or various blends of each.

Please keep in mind that every household is different, so it may take some trial and error on your part as well as some investigative work to find the solution that works best, for your baby, lifestyle, washing machine, and water type.

We will take you through the entire process. From prepping brand new diapers to changing baby to laundering, we cover it all.

Prepping Diapers


Before putting those new cloth diapers on your baby, it is important to pre-wash, or prep them for use according to the manufacturer's instructions. Typically, instructions for synthetic-based fabrics will differ from those that use natural fabrics.
  • Natural Fibers — Hemp, bamboo, and natural cotton fibers all have oils that are naturally water repellent and can hinder absorbency. These diapers need to be washed and dried 3 to 6 times before their first use so some patience will be necessary. Multiple washes help rinse out the natural oils and achieve maximum absorbency. On this note, be sure to prewash natural fabrics separate to avoid natural oils getting into the synthetics.
  • Synthetic Cloth Diapers — Mainly made up of microfiber, these only require one washing with detergent before their first use, so the process of getting started is much quicker. Although synthetic fabrics aren't typically as absorbent as natural fibers, they wick well and soak in urine quicker. They are generally better for babies with a fast and heavy stream.

Natural fibers and even some synthetics will increase in absorbency as they go through more washing and drying cycles.

Special attention must be given to the products you use with cloth diapers  be it diaper creams or laundry detergent.
Special attention must be given to the products you use with cloth diapers, be it diaper creams or laundry detergent.

Changing Baby


The process of changing baby is similar to that of disposables in that you remove the dirty diaper and clean baby's bum. However, this is where the similarity ends. Even when preparing a fresh cloth diaper, a few tricks and special products can help maintain the diaper's ability to function well throughout its lifetime.
  • Cloth-Based Diaper Cream — Cloth-safe diaper creams do not contain petroleum or zinc. These ingredients can be extremely challenging to remove from cloth diapers and will guarantee problems with leakage. If baby needs a prescription or over the counter diaper cream containing either petroleum or zinc, be sure to use a thick, reusable liner to protect the fabric of the diaper.
  • Liners — We will go into further detail about liners soon, but their function is relatively simple. They act as a barrier between diaper creams and cloth and make it easier to clean up poopy diapers.

While the disposable heads to the trash and subsequently, to the landfill, cloth diapers are laundered and re-used. But, before that cloth diaper heads to the washing machine, a few steps must be taken.

If you are using a disposable liner, lift it out of diaper with solids and throw into the toilet. If there are no solids, drop it in the trash. If any solids remain on the diaper, or if there is lots of urine (such as in an overnight diaper), you must remove it. You can do this either with some toilet paper or use a diaper sprayer to rinse it. After this, the cloth diaper can be placed in a dry pail to await laundering along with any other washable changing accouterments like cloth wipes and reusable liners.

The way you fasten and unfasten snap closures can make a big difference in how long they last.
The way you fasten and unfasten snap closures can make a big difference in how long they last.

Care for Closures


The way you care for the closures on your cloth diapers will make a big difference in how long they last. Though most cloth diapers are fairly hardy, they can only handle a certain amount of shearing force. Take care to be gentle when removing a diaper by unfastening snaps with two hands rather than ripping them off with one. This way, you can keep snaps from being accidentally removed as well as prevent tears in the fabric. After the diaper is off baby, you may want to consider closing the snaps before laundering. Loose snaps flying around in the washing machine and dryer have greater potential to break.

If your diapers have hook-and-loop closures, this step is even more crucial. Free velcro will stick to everything in the washing machine and create snags in the fabric of other diapers, ruining the inherent aesthetic cuteness of cloth diaper covers. Velcro also collects "stuff," which will lessen its gripping strength and ultimately render it unusable.

Accessories


The following are extras that will make changing baby so much easier.

Liners


We recommend using liners to ease poop management. They will reduce the amount of clean up that is necessary as well as aid in minimizing stains and repelling issues. The only question is reusable or disposable?

Stool should always be flushed down the toilet, even if you are using disposables. Poop is considered biohazardous waste and could potentially leak into water systems if not handled properly.

Flushable Liners
GroVia Bioliners
We tend to prefer flushable liners over re-useable cloth ones. With a flushable, the majority of poop will come off and can be flushed right down most toilets. A word of caution here as most flushable liners will not work well with septic systems or old, weak plumping. In this situation, you will have to throw it in the garbage after you flush solids down the toilet.

Reusable Cloth Liners
Kanga Care Diaper Liner
With washable liners, there is a bit more dirty work to be done. You will have to remove the poop before tossing it into the dry pail. Reusable liners come in handy when you need to use diaper cream. It is best to use cloth-safe products, but occasionally it is necessary to use those pasty, white ones containing zinc oxide and petroleum. In this circumstance, washable liners are thicker and will offer more protection than a disposable one. Diaper cream is difficult to remove from cloth and will cause repelling and leakage. Good old Dawn dish soap can help remedy this, but you may never get the fabric back to its original performance. As a general rule of thumb, even when using cloth diaper-safe creams, it is a good idea to use liners.

Diaper Sprayer


Bumkins Cloth Diaper Sprayer
Considered a luxury by some, diaper sprayers can make rinsing solids from cloth diaper so much easier. We much prefer this method over the good ole dunk and swirl in the toilet. We highly recommend one! Install it in the most convenient bathroom for easy-access rinsing. Once rinsed, place cloth diapers into a dry diaper pail or dry wet bag until washing. Any small solids left on the diaper will dissolve and rinse out in the wash.

If you are exclusively breastfeeding your baby, don't worry about rinsing the diaper. Breastfed stools will magically disintegrate and wash right away in the pre-rinse cycle. You will not see hide nor hair of them after this. Isn't that cool?! Unfortunately, this trick does not jive with formula or "solid" foods.

Spray Pal


Spray Pal
On the "nice-to-have" list, the Spray Pal is a product we recommend using if you decide to get a diaper sprayer. It helps water from splattering everywhere during cleanup. When not in use, it folds down flat and can be placed into a wet bag and hung on a hook out of the way.

Cloth Diaper Pail


The Ubbi Diaper Pail main can body is made from powder coated stainless steel
These days, practically all cloth diapering brands recommend storing dirty diapers in a dry pail or bin to await laundering. Wet pails are out of vogue. Modern cloth diapers do not need soaking; this will only promote stink and wear. In particular, soaking them in caustic liquids like bleach will especially wreak havoc on the materials.

The most important reason not to use wet pails is that they present a very unnecessary drowning hazard for baby within the home.

When using an enclosed dry pail or bag, a handy tip is to consider either propping the lid open or leaving the zipper open a bit. Doing this allows for additional airflow as this will lessen ammonia build-up, and is especially relevant during the warm summer months.

Once you get a routine figured out  washing cloth diapers won't feel much different than any other load of laundry.
Once you get a routine figured out, washing cloth diapers won't feel much different than any other load of laundry.

Everyday Wash Routine


Laundry is possibly the biggest obstacle that cloth diaper users will encounter. There will be a lot of it, and you must use specific products and follow the correct process if you want your diapers to last. However, once you get into a good routine, it will become second nature.

When to Wash


Get your cloth diaper laundry done every two days if possible, three days max. If you wait any longer, urine-soaked diapers will lock in ammonia and microorganisms then have greater opportunity to grow. Eventually, this will lead to persistent issues with odor and the potential for diaper rash. Once ammonia and stink lock-in, they are harder to remove. We highly recommend getting to know the website Fluff Love University which has excellent common-sense advice. You will find information regarding not only cloth diaper laundering but every conceivable issue that you may come across in your journey.

It's a Number's Game — Having an adequate supply of cloth diapers will help you avoid the laundry scramble. A good number to take you from birth to potty training is about 36 diapers if you are choosing a one-size system. It is important not to overestimate your cloth diapers; they can only do so much. Expecting to get by on a stash half this size means you will be laundering each one twice as much. Over time, even the nicest quality cloth diapers are going to wear out. Our lifetime cost analysis for each brand tested in our Cloth Diaper Review factors in 36 sets total.

Doing that Laundry


Laundering instructions vary among manufacturers. Following each can certainly maximize lifespan and absorbency, but if you have a mixture of brands, instructions will sometimes vary by quite a bit. In this case, it becomes necessary to streamline a wash routine for both sanity and practicality. Just make sure that there is enough laundry in each load to generate sufficient agitation to get the soiled cloth clean. Filling a machine's drum two-thirds to three-fourths works well (about 20-30 diapers for a standard-sized drum). If your dirty cloth diapers are short of this mark, we recommend adding dirty towels to the load. If you can set your machine to heavily soiled and high spin, this will help achieve the correct water and agitation levels to get the dirty stuff out. It will also help get the dirty water out of the drum.

The Sanitize Cycle — All home water heaters should be at 120F or lower to prevent scalding injury. As such, the sanitize cycle in a typical household will not reach a proper temperature of around 160F to truly sanitize. Most modern cloth diapers should not be exposed to these high sanitizing temperatures anyway. Temperatures that high will eventually delaminate the waterproof barrier, and stretchy elastic, as well as plastic snaps, will not last as long.

To Extra Rinse or Not


There is conflicting information out there on whether to do one or two extra rinses after the main wash to further eliminate detergent residue.

The following is the Real Diaper Association's best practice Cloth Diaper Laundry Guide. It promotes the idea that before drying, you must ensure that all detergent residue is gone. That is, in the final rinse, there should be no lingering suds. Their cycle would go as follows:
  • Rinse warm
  • Wash hot with detergent (a longer cycle)
  • Rinse warm twice
  • Machine dry on low or line dry

However, Fluff Love University disagrees with these extra rinse cycles based on the idea that they unnecessarily introduce mineral deposits into the cloth. Minerals can wreak havoc by creating prime conditions for bacterial overgrowth and down the road possible problems with repelling and diaper rashes. They argue that if any residue is present after the main hot wash, then either the brand or amount of detergent should be changed.

Thus, it is ultimately up to you which technique works best in your household as there are several variables at play.

Water Type


The mineral content of water varies geographically, and this will make a difference in your laundry routine.
Test Strip to Measure Water Quality
Test Strip to Measure Water Quality
Familiarity with your water quality will set the foundation for squeaky clean cloth diapers. Don't be deterred by the bit of fine-tuning involved. If you don't know your total water hardness, purchasing water quality test strips will help you find your starting point. One of our favorite brands of detergent, Rockin' Green Laundry Detergent, offers Soft Rock, Classic Rock, and Hard Rock varieties for use with different water types. It is a big help and, in our experience, works very well.

If you live in an area with hard water, it is typically more challenging to get cloth clean. Thus, more detergent is generally needed as well as a water softener such as Calgon. Extra rinses are discouraged so you can avoid mineral build-up. If you have soft water from your geographical location or via a water softener in your home, the converse is true. Soft water generally doesn't need as much detergent as hard water to get the dirty out of cloth diapers.

Cloth diapers should come out of the wash clean and fresh with no odor. If they smell of urine or poop, rewash them with more soap. If this doesn't work, consider trying a different brand of detergent.

Top Loading Washer
Front Loading Washing Machine

Top-Loading Machines VS Front-Loading HE Machines


Top-loading machines and front-loading HE washing machines differ more than just in aesthetics.

Top-loading machines clean cloth diapers effectively because it is easy to adjust the amount of water in a load and the central axis agitates diapers thoroughly. However, increased physical agitation will put additional wear and tear on your diapers over time.

HE machines are great for water conservation and tend to more gentle on cloth diapers than top-loading machines. However, they may not agitate as well unless used properly. Though they may require a smaller amount of detergent for regular laundry, this isn't so for cloth diapering laundry because it is super dirty. HE Machines function best when the drum is 2/3rds to 3/4ths full, so this will mean anywhere between 20 to 30 cloth diapers, typically a few days worth of cloth diaper laundry.

The following is sound advice from Fluff Love University on how to use both types of washing machines properly for cloth diaper laundering:

Choosing a Detergent


Most cloth diaper manufacturers have loads of information on their websites detailing proper care for their brand. They include specific recommendations and usually lean more towards green, cloth-centric detergents. Is this a marketing ploy? Can conventional detergents be used with good results? The answer is yes.

Conventional Detergents


Conventional, synthetic-based detergents include Tide, Dreft, All, Arm & Hammer, Cheer, Purex, and Gain. They are usually less expensive than other green or cloth-centric detergents but tend to contain chemical ingredients such as:
  • Fabric softener
  • Fragrance
  • Dyes
  • Phosphates
  • Optical or UV brighteners
  • Whiteners
  • Chlorine bleach
  • Stain guards
  • Wax
  • Natural oils

Conventional "free and clear" while free of fragrances and dyes for those allergy and rash-prone typically contain at least some of the above chemical additives, and subsequently, aren't great for the environment.

Many cloth diaper manufacturers recommend cloth-based detergents because they do not contain fabric softener, which is a common cause of residue build-up. Residue can propagate bacterial and ammonia retention, the latter producing a particularly unpleasant eye-watering odor. So, avoiding fabric softener in detergent used for cloth diaper laundering sounds like a particularly good idea.

In terms of the synthetic chemical ingredients outlined above causing potential problems, we'd like to see some hard evidence to support this. There is a well-established history of cloth diapering parents using conventional detergents without issue.

However, one compelling reason for cloth diapering is to avoid synthetic chemicals coming into contact with baby's skin. Therefore, a good wash routine is necessary to ensure that detergent is entirely gone. If your budget allows, using a green, plant-based soap can further this effort.

Cloth Diaper Detergents


Cloth diaper-specific detergents are usually plant-based and greener because they do not contain as many synthetic chemicals. However, they are generally weaker than conventional detergents, and you will need to use more. Because of this, overall you will be spending more than you would on traditional detergents. What works best can be highly variable. As such, we'd like to direct you to the following helpful web articles based upon time-tested experience and direct user feedback.

Before drying, there should be very few lingering suds at the end of the wash cycle, if any. Unquestionably, your clean diapers should not feel sudsy. If so, consider reducing the amount of detergent used in small increments. Everyone's household will be different, so a bit of extra consideration, in the beginning, to figure out what works best for you will pay off. We also recommend paying special attention when using a new detergent for the first time.

All the parts and pieces of cloth diapers. Systems can be vastly different from one another  and each has its pros and cons.
All the parts and pieces of cloth diapers. Systems can be vastly different from one another, and each has its pros and cons.

Drying Strategy


Every brand of cloth diaper has specific drying instructions. Some recommend air-drying the cover but machine-drying the insert. Some allow the whole thing to be machine-dried, but usually on either low or medium heat. Once machine dried, let cloth diapers cool before stretching via folding or stuffing to maintain laminate and elastic integrity. Avoid drying cloth diapers on high heat as this will degrade components much quicker.

Drying — When time allows, air drying is one thing that will certainly protect fabric wear and waterproofness over the lifespan of a cloth diaper. However, even if you usually air dry, the occasional cycle through the machine on low or medium heat is beneficial to minimize bacterial build-up and maintain fabric tightness.

The following are a few useful accessories:
  • Wool Dryer Balls — When drying cloth diapers in a machine, wool dryer balls can help reduce dry time by about 25%. They absorb moisture more quickly, saving time and minimizing wear and tear. They do not contain chemicals such as fabric softener, are hypoallergenic, and reduce wrinkling and static cling if thrown in with your regular laundry.
Woolzies Dyer Balls
  • Drying Line or Rack — Unless you have a convenient place built into your home, you are going to want to invest in an outdoor drying line or a drying rack. Having one of these near your washing machine is a handy way to air dry your cloth diapers.

Warranties


Many cloth diaper brands have warranties. However, they can be complex, and improper care can invalidate them. For instance, using bleach with Rumparooz will void your warranty. However, the Cotton Babies brands, bumGenius and Flip, recommend using 1/4 cup of bleach in the hot wash once a month to strip them of residue build-up. Other diaper manufacturers specify to steer clear of baking soda and vinegar. However, with BabyKicks Premium Pocket (which uses bamboo and hemp natural fibers), if odor becomes an issue, instructions are to wash the diaper with baking soda and vinegar until suds disappear. We recommend looking at manufacturer-specific washing instructions, as well as the warranty before you use either method. This way, you can be sure you are using the right approach for your diaper.

Shedding Stains & Odor


Get used to the idea that the interior of your baby's cloth diapers will never get back to that pristine, out-of-the-package white. Despite best washing practices, cloth diapers will eventually stain. However, there are some things you can do to minimize and reduce this.

Sunlight


For troublesome stains or persistent odor, dry cloth diapers out in the sun for a few hours when they are wet, after washing. The UV rays bleach out the stains and can help kill the odor-causing bacteria. However, proceed with caution, as UV light will take its toll on the elastic and waterproof lining. Particularly hot sun can even melt waterproof lining if diapers are left out too long. If its overcast or rainy, laying diapers in front of a window will even work some magic.

Machine Drying


Keep in mind that occasional machine drying (if allowed by the manufacturer) can help keep cloth diapers clean by killing bacteria build-up. Thirsties brand recommends machine drying even laminated covers once a month as this aids in the laminate's performance.

Troubleshooting


For problems with persistent odor retention, most manufacturers have specialized website instructions for addressing this. It seems that every brand has its tricks, all of which can vary widely. For instance, BabyKicks recommends a baking soda/vinegar regimen for when its hemp-based product gets stinky. Other brands don't do well with the vinegar or baking soda, so pay attention to these fine details among brands if special cleaning is needed.

Ammonia build-up can be tough to remove. We have found Rockin' Green's Funk Rock Ammonia Bouncer useful in both removing ammonia as well as for preventive use. We put it in the rinse cycle before washing to keep ammonia away.

If the situation isn't resolving, don't be shy about contacting the manufacturer directly to ask for help. Often, leading cloth diaper websites also have very well-vetted, helpful information. One such online retailer, Kelly's Closet, has the following article focused on getting rid of the stinkies.

The Skinny on "Stripping" Cloth Diapers


Stripping cloth diapers shouldn't be necessary if you use a proper cleaning regime as outlined above. However, despite your best efforts, this may need to be done once in a blue moon. It usually means that residue has accumulated typically from either hard water mineral deposits, bacterial build-up, or even diaper cream residue. The following are some scenarios where stripping may be necessary:
  • Repeated washing in untreated hard water for over a month
  • Second-hand cloth diapers receiving the above treatment
  • Consistent repelling (a.k.a. leaking)
  • Frequent use of fabric softener
  • Ammonia smell is not resolving despite best washing efforts
  • Persistent barnyard odor despite proper washing technique
  • Diaper rash caused by staph, strep, yeast (includes ringworm)
  • Baby has Clostridium difficile colitis (C. diff)

Each brand's website typically has detailed recommended instructions on how to strip their product. Again, this advice can vary widely by brand and site. Additionally, stripping should only be done on freshly washed diapers, they can be wet out of the machine but not dirty. We will refer you once again to Fluff Love University's stripping advice as it is both well-documented, clear, and well-vetted.

In general, stripping necessitates two separate SOAKING STEPS with a water-only washing cycle in between, followed by repetitive normal washing in hot water with detergent to rinse everything out:
1) First Soak — A combination of hot water and mineral-removing solution, well dissolved such as RLR or GroVia Mighty Bubbles Laundry Treatment
2) Water Only Wash Cycle
3) Second Soak — 30 minute soak in cold chlorine bleach dilution. You can do this in a non-HE top-loading washing machine. If you don't have one, you must use a bathtub or smaller vessel. If so, make sure children do not have access.

4) Repetitive Washing Cycles — 2 to 4 normal washing cycles on hot with detergent to rinse everything out

If you are having issues with repelling due to some petroleum or zinc-based diaper cream inadvertently getting onto cloth diapers, have no fear. Try spot cleaning affected diapers in the sink with a small amount of original blue Dawn liquid soap. It is not a good idea to use Dawn in a washing machine (even a top-loader) as it can damage internal parts and cause an overzealous bubble situation.

No Easy Access to a Washer and Dryer?


Where there's a will, there's a way, and it doesn't have to be toilsome!

There are options for cleaning your cloth diapers even if you do not own a wash and dryer. Hobo Mama has some great tips on using communal washer and dryers, along with some portable washer ideas. You can also check out Zany Zebra for some great information on handwashing your cloth diapers.
Wonder Wash
Nina Soft Spin Dryer

Additional Resources For Cloth Diapering Success


Now get out there and enjoy your fluff!


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