Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Long-awaited Laundry Post!

Let's get this blog rolling again, what do you say???

I hope this will be a good post to reference for many. The decision to cloth diaper is an awesome one, and for some, diaper laundry is easy! It was for me at times over the years, but in our current house, we have EXTREMELY hard water, and well water at that. Because of this, I not only have hard water to deal with, but inconsistencies in the water, based on the water table, etc. Our water table is pretty high, and our well is shallow, so very easily affected by local conditions. All that to say, this blog post on laundry may strike some as "over the top", but it's written from the "worst of the worst" perspective. Hopefully you have it easy, and you may not need all the steps outlined, but if you have a more difficult situation, you may find some tips to help you through!

Also, as much as we'd like it to be, diaper laundry is not yet an exact science...and may never be! For families, there are differences in water type, length of time between launderings, different washer types which affect the amount of water and length of time used to wash, varying water temperatures, dryer vs line-dry, sun vs no sun, dry pail vs wet pail, different detergents...and I've even found that different types of diapers launder differently, some easier than others.  There's no one solution that works for everyone, but I've tried to focus this on well-accepted, tried and true methods. There are some common tips and tricks out there that work well for some but that can wreak havoc for other (and that would probably be me!). So that leads me to the...

This post was put together with the best intentions as a compilation of the most widely-accepted current practices. All information and techniques are used at the reader's own risk. Always be aware of your diaper manufacturer's warranty information and washing instructions (they vary)!

That was my best attempt at being my own legal advice :) Now that that's out of the way, let's get down to business!

The Basic Wash Routine

The basic, accepted, laundry routine is to wash every other day using a cold rinse, then a hot wash with detergent, then an additional rinse. 

If you're lucky (like I used to be!), this is all the information you'll need! It's all I had when I cloth diapered my now 7 yr old, and I did just fine! But there's more to the picture for many, so here's a *little* more on the subject.


Water is one major workhorse of laundry - diapers need water to become clean! The basic concept is that water is a polar molecule that works to dissolve and dilute substances so they can be rinsed away. Front loading washers are great- they conserve energy and water, but the water-conservation feature may not be ideal for diapers.  If you have a front-loading washer and your diapers have lingering smells after they are clean, or immediately upon becoming urinated in, one of the first steps to solving the problem may be to find a way to additional water (see advanced laundry tips (coming soon!) – this will increase the dilution factor).  Extra rinse cycles may work for some, or you may need to reset your front-loader (FL) to accept additional water. If it’s not possible to cause your FL to add additional water, you may need to “trick” your washer, or manually add water (see advanced laundry (currently under development (will update with a link here once completed)).  Some families may need to rinse diapers/inserts prior to storing for wash day to reduce ammonia content. The SOONER you can rinse and wring the diapers after they come off your baby, the lower your ammonia load will be, so don't delay!


Detergent is the other workhorse of laundry. It is important to use “cloth diaper safe” detergent. Most agree that cloth diaper safe detergents are those that are free of enzymes and optical brighteners (think blue Tide - it's blue partly because of the optical brighteners in the formula). Cloth diaper safe detergent is NOT TO BE confused with “free” or “free and clear” detergents. Some sources (even a few manufacturers) will say that Tide can be used. Of the regular mainstream laundry detergents, Tide is the only one that is even remotely accepted. The issue is residues. Regular detergents have components the grab dirt, etc. and rinse.  They are better at “grabbing” than “rinsing”. When they don’t rinse well, they collect in the diaper along with everything they’ve grabbed. Over time this causes the diapers to stink, irritate baby’s skin because of what has been collected/"grabbed", or repel and leak. IF you choose to use mainstream detergent, you should use a 1/4 or less of the normal recommended amount. If you have any suds during a clean rinse, you may be headed for trouble...

Hard water can also cause problems for families washing cloth diapers. “Hard” water is common to many parts of the United States, and this type of water has “extra” minerals (usually calcium and magnesium) in the water.  When a detergent is added, the detergent is “used up” by binding to the minerals instead of working to clean the diapers.  They have water-softening agents added to assist with cleaning. Two diaper-safe detergents have developed different formulations to account for varying water conditions: Lulu’s In the Fluff, and Rockin’ Green

Bleach, vinegar, and other laundry additives

Vinegar: The concept behind vinegar is related to pH. Vinegar is an acidic substance, and urine (ammonia) is a basic substance. By adding vinegar, the intent is to neutralize pH, but there is MUCH more science behind “adding a little acid” (vinegar) to “neutralize a little base” (ammonia from urea from urine)....remember all the variables I mentioned above with water level, etc? How do you know just throwing a cup of vinegar in is the right amount? Unless you can run this equation, you probably should avoid vinegar ;)
\textrm{pH} = \textrm{pK}_{a}+ \log \frac{[\textrm{A}^-]}{[\textrm{HA}]}
Adding vinegar should be avoided in most cases, especially by those with hard water. It can make problems MUCH worse, and it can also decrease the life of elastic significantly with repeated use.

Bleach: Should be avoided for routine use. Some diaper manufacturers do not allow it per their warranties at all. Some allow an occasional bleaching (1/4 cup per load at the most) once per month. In my opinion, this is best left to inserts only, as bleach can cause tiny holes in PUL leading to leaks. Opinion alert!!! Even with our difficult water conditions, I've never found our covers to be the issue anyway! Some sources encourage monthly bleaching of microfiber inserts. If this is done, use a cup of bleach on inserts only, and rinse, rinse, rinse!

Other additives: generally not allowed or recommended per mfr., but oxygen bleach is sometimes used for stains, and products such as bio-kleen contain vegetative microbes to "chew through" organic waste. Opinion Alert!!! Stains are really cosmetic...a little sun goes a long way in reducing stains. I live in the Midwest, and have "overwintered" with stains that came out with either some chilly winter sun (I tried this last month - just make sure not to freeze your diapers...who knows what that would do to PUL!) or sunning late Spring!

A few last tips, thoughts, and opinions... 

I personally categorize "stinkies" differently from "ammonia". Although, yes, ammonia stinks, it's a different issue (chemically) to me. You might have both stinkies and ammonia, but ammonia is serious stuff, and we've dealt with ammonia burns requiring medical attention in this house. I take it very seriously now for this reason. Opinion Alert!!! I honestly don't love using bleach, but when it comes down to it, using bleach eliminates ammonia, which allows me to keep my babies in cloth diapers. Using a cup of bleach a month, to me, still has far less impact on the environment than me using disposables, which was my only other option for a healthy bum for a while, due to the ammonia issues I was having. What worked for me was rinsing diapers after use prior to storage, changing detergents, and doing HOT instead of cold rinses. This allowed me to VASTLY reduce my frequency of bleaching. I'm currently testing/reviewing an ammonia-treatment, but so far still having slightly inconsistent results. When I get to the bottom of that, I'll be posting a review!

As a side-note, I'm finding that I have had the most difficulty with ammonia the ammonia battle in our all-in-one diapers. When it shows up, it's in those first, and ammonia doesn't prefer one diaper brand over another of all the all-in-ones we own, but it hits those first. I'm speculating that since the PUL is attached, the water and/or detergent can't "attack" (or rinse?) from all directions as easily. My natural-fiber fitted, flat, and prefold diapers are the "best", and with occasional bleaching, the microfiber-stuffed pockets are fine too.

To reduce "stinkies", I'm a no-poo-in-the-pail kinda mama...I know some will toss breast-fed only poo diapers in the pail without rinsing, but in my experience, rinsing EBF poo isn't too much of an extra step. It also goes a long way to reduce stink and stain! DEFINITELY once solids are started, plop/rinse solids in the toilet. Standard residential washers are not equipped to deal with human waste. And did you know that even disposable diaper manufacturers recommend plopping solids in the toilet??? Read the fine print on the box - it's there :)

If you're struggling with knock-you-over ammonia smell in only your nighttime diapers, definitely rinse those immediately prior to storage for wash day. Although the "dry-pailing" is now the recommended method for diaper storage, you may want to create a small "wet pail" for overnight diapers only. An economic solution is just to buy a small Rubbermaid-type storage container, fill it with water, and add a very small amount of your diaper-safe detergent. On wash day, spin these wet-pailed diapers out in the washer, add the rest of your diapers, and you should be set to go! Wet-pailing is not generally the recommended diaper storage method for a few reasons: there have been cases of accidental drowning, and it can drastically reduce the life of PUL and elastic.

Diaper creams should not be used in cloth diapers without either a disposable or re-usable liner. If re-usable liners are used, they should be washed separately. Diaper creams can cause repelling and leaking! Yes, there are cloth-diaper "safe" creams out there...Opinion Alert!!!! I still recommend using a liner. The diaper-safe creams have a lower melting point than mainstream petroleum-based diaper creams. Theoretically they should wash easier, but your diaper-safe detergents are meant to clean pee and poo...not necessarily creams. Some do just fine using diaper-safe creams without a liner...but some don't, and begin to have repelling issues. Until we can reliably predict, the safe route would be to use a disposable or reusable liner! Don't let this keep you from using diaper-safe diaper creams - there are some awesome ones out there...I love CJ's! It has worked small miracles for our family, and I wish I had discovered it a long time ago!!

Scented products should also be avoided (dryer balls, etc.). They may smell nice at first but can cause stink with time. If you love scented laundry (I do!), keep your scented balls a different color, and set them aside for use with your regular laundry! A few diaper-safe detergents have scent options. They're designed to be clean-rinsing. I think you'll still find that most diaper manufacturers will not recommend scented detergent, however.

I hope this is helpful - I feel like I've been through the ringer (pun intended!) with diaper laundry. In my years of cloth-diapering, I've had a top-loader, a front-loader, city water, well water, hard water, regular water, and used at least seven different detergents. Hopefully some of this experience has been helpful to you in this post!



Meagan Riehl said...

Great post!

Jamie Flaniken said...

Thanks for sharing! This is a great post!

T.S. Clark said...

So do you think using Calgon is a good idea? Or RLR? If the calcium & magnesium are sucking up all the detergent in hard water washes, do you think it is best to add more detergent or add some Calgon/RLR?

(I have a repelling problem right now w/pockets -- I think it could be due to a tiny washer & hardwater combo (I NEVER see suds unless I add 3x the amount of detergent to the wash) -- but after 4 strips with Dawn (& hand-scrubbing twice), still repelling :( It is to the point now that I am making wool covers out of sweaters & looking for things to stuff them with (old receiving blankets) since I can't buy anymore diapers

Mamis and Papis said...

Sorry for the delay, I just now saw your comment T.S.! At this point I would do hot water only, and lots of it, with no detergent and see what you find in the wash. If you see any bubbles or suds that are remaining after about 2 seconds if you stop your washer's agitation, you likely have some build-up or residue. It could even be the Dawn causing the problem now. (think about what it looks like when Dawn dries around the top of the bottle - filmy, thick substance...your solution could have accidentally become part of the problem).

If you're using something diaper-safe like Lulu's or Rockin' Green, you won't see suds when using the recommended amount. They're not formulated to "suds".

Adding more detergent is rarely needed, but some will benefit from Calgon.

Hopefully you're well on your way to having this figured out!