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cleaning cloth diapersCleaning Cloth Diapers

Don't be nervous about cleaning cloth diapers.  It's pretty simple to keep your diapers looking and smelling their best!  I'll walk you through the steps of how to wash cloth diapers, tell you what products to avoid, and fill you in on some great tips to help your diapers look better and last longer.  I'll tell you how you can know that your diapers are really clean, and how to get tough on cloth diaper stains without using harsh chemicals.

Check out my Cloth Diaper Journal for more great tips, like how to unstuff pocket diapers with minimal poo handling.   Looking for the right cloth diapers for your family?  My Cloth Diaper Primer helps you find the best cloth diaper option for your family.  I'll give you a guided tour through the complicated world of cloth diapering and put all the lingo into simple terms.  

I use BumGenius 3.0 One Size Fits All Pocket Diapers, so most of the information you find here is from my experience with these great pocket diapers.  Full disclosure: I am not an affiliate nor do I recieve any discounts, perks or payments of any kind for my review of these diapers or the cleaning products that I mention.  

Most of the information will work with other types of diapers as well, but be sure to follow your diaper's washing instructions.  Use your best judgement in selecting a laundering process that suits your washer, water quality, and type of diaper.

washing cloth diapers

Washing Cloth Diapers

For Top loading machines and any cloth diapers*  (except wool)

  • Unstuff/unfold diapers before washing.  
  • Add 1/2 cup of a very basic Detergent to your washer. Note: I use Sun Detergent powder
  • Run the load on a regular cold cycle.
  • Run it through again on a hot wash without adding any more detergent.  
  • Hang diaper covers to dry
  • Lay out any stained diapers or liners in a sunny spot to remove stains
  • Dry inserts on a medium setting.

For High Efficiency Front Loading Machines

  • Unstuff/unfold diapers before washing.  
  • Run the load on a short cold cycle/cold rinse with no detergent.
  • Run again on a long hot cycle and rinse using 1/2 of the recommended amount of a very basic Detergent.
  • Without adding any more detergent, run it through another hot wash and rinse.
  • Hang diaper covers to dry.
  • Dry inserts on a medium setting.
  • Hang any stained diapers or liners in a sunny spot to remove stains. (See photo below)
*Follow manufacturers recommendations when caring for and cleaning cloth diapers.
cleaning cloth diapers

How do you know if your diapers are really clean?  Hold a clean and dry cloth diaper right against your nose and breathe in deeply.  If you smell nothing, then your diapers are clean.  If you smell even a faint scent of detergent, then you need to add in another rinse cycle until you can't smell anything.   Detergent scent indicated residue, which will cause bacteria growth when the diaper is soiled (making it smell even worse).  The detergent residue can also coat the fibers of the diaper preventing absorption and causing leakage.

A note about staining: At first, I was really creeped out by the thought of a stain on my diapers.  But then I realized that a stain does not indicate germiness.  I know that my diapers are clean by doing the sniff test.  A stain is essentially just dye or the colorant that is left behind, and organic stains are the worst offenders.  I'm constantly fighting stains from fruit dribbles on my older kids t-shirts.  Poo (even breast milk poo) stains cloth diapers and inserts.   My BumGenius diaper covers almost always come completely clean, but the inserts will stain without fail.   Just lay any stained diapers or inserts out in the sun to dry.  Sun bleaching is effective (see below), and won't harm your diapers.  I will probably hit the inserts with a Biz soak at some point when they are all looking dingy.  But for now, I know that they're clean and the stained inserts never touch her fanny anyway.  

washing cloth diapers

Cleaning Cloth Diaper Stains

Hang or lay out to dry in the sun.
Spot treat oil marks from Diaper Rash Creams with Ivory or Dawn and rinse out thoroughly. Occasional Oxygen bleach (like Oxy-Clean) added into the hot wash cycle works well.
Biz* is my all time favorite for getting stains out in a pre-soak, or adding to a wash.  

*Note: Detergents and cleaners with enzymes do amazing things on organic stains, but they should be avoided for newborns and/or babies with very sensitive skin.  

Products to avoid

Don't use detergents that have scents or softeners when cleaning cloth diapers.  The more basic the detergent, the better.  You just want the ionic and non-ionic surfactants (basic detergent) and nothing fancier than that.  The perfumes/scents and softeners can coat the fibers of the diaper over time and prevent it from being as absorbent, resulting in leaks.  Oils also break down the elastic and PUL (the waterproof fabric).  

Check your detergent label...here are some repeat offenders to avoid when cleaning cloth diapers:
  •  Read the label of any 'Free and Clear' laundry detergents...they may have added ingredients that can cause build up.  
  • Zinc Oxide diaper cremes (like Balmex and Desitin).  
  • Laundry Soaps- stick with detergents.  Soaps can leave residue and are often made with oils. (Note: Charlie's Soap is a popular choice for cleaning cloth diapers, but it's not really soap...it's detergent.)
  • Bleach, including color safe bleaches- too harsh on most fabrics.  Stick with occasional baking soda or oxygen bleach products (like Oxy-clean).  Occasional bleaching for inserts or cotton diapers may work for you if you rinse really well.
  • Fabric Softeners
  • Optical Brighteners
  • Enzymes * (see note above)
  • Fragrance
If you feel that you've got a problem with build up (if your diapers smell funky or start to leak), then you'll need to strip them of the build up to regain the absorbancy.  Need to tackle some build up?   This artical shows you an easy method of deep cleaning cloth diapers called "Stripping Cloth Diapers".  I usually need to strip them every 4-6 weeks, but it's a very easy process that only adds a couple of extra steps when cleaning cloth diapers.  

Tips to make your Diapers Last Longer

Since most cloth diapers are so costly,  it pays to do your best to make them last.  The elastic and PUL (waterproof fabric) can wear out from exposure to too much detergent and/or oils, as well as  from the heat and aggitation of the dryer.  So proper laundering in a basic detergent is one of the best choices you can make when cleaning cloth diapers.  

I have opted to dry my inserts in the dryer, but hang-dry the covers.  I like to wash at night, and hang the covers up to dry.  This way the covers have a chance to dry by the next morning.   I put out any stained inserts and covers the next morning to bleach out in the sun.

The velcro or snaps are also prone to suffer major wear and tear over time. The snaps can pop off from rough handling or excessive use.  The velcro loses it's sticking power when fuzz builds up in the 'teeth' side, or just from too much use.   Keep this in mind when using and cleaning cloth diapers.  This is what I do to get extra long wear from my velcro and snaps:

Don't fasten diapers closed after stuffing them.  Just leave the laundry tabs closed, as they are when they come out of the wash.  This way, the only time the velcro is used is when you're putting the diaper on or taking it off.  This cuts the velcro use in half, which should prolong the life of the diapers.  If your sticky teeth are clean, but stop sticking well, you may run them through a regular dryer cycle (as warm as the manufacturer recommends for the diaper you use).  The heat of the dryer can help the teeth pull back into shape so it sticks again.

Don't unsnap adjustable diaper covers and inserts during laundering.  There should be no noticable difference in the wash results except for the occasional lint or fuzz ball.  This also saves  a lot of time, and will prolong the life of the diapers and snaps a lot!