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Laundry Science 101: How to Wash Cloth Diapers {And How Not To}

The following post is from Katie of Kitchen Stewardship:

How to Wash Cloth Diapers {And How Not To} at
source: SimplyLA

I totally wrecked a half dozen of my cloth diapers, just by washing them.

Mostly the more expensive, nicer ones of the 25 cloth diapers I reviewed.

It was tragic.

The silver lining, as with all stupid mistakes I make, is that I get to share it with the world so you don’t experience the same leaky drama as our household has been through.

It all started when I got a sample from a small Etsy seller of a laundry detergent that was sort of similar to the basic homemade laundry soap: homemade soap, baking soda, borax, washing soda, and lavender essential oil.

I try to be a faithful reviewer and give every product its fair shake so I can fully explain the pros and cons, so I used it exclusively to wash my cloth diapers for at least a few weeks last September.

Near the end of the month, my blood pressure started being eternally high because it seemed like a number of diapers were suddenly causing wet-pants syndrome (and the related “wet-side-of-Mommy’s-shirt” syndrome) even before two hours! It took me a while to piece it all together:

1. That it wasn’t all the diapers, but only certain covers. Remember, I had 25 covers and even more inserts to juggle.

2. That the urine was clearly going directly through the front of the cover. I finally confirmed this by putting water on a clean, dry cover and watching it soak right through. Frustration level = high!

3. That it was odd so many had died at the same time…

5. …and also that the diapers that I was losing weren’t all the same age. Some had been in use about 8-9 months, others only 3-4 months. The older ones would have been through the dryer near the beginning of our cloth journey, but I had been exclusively air drying for 5 months or so.

What gives?

I finally realized that the only change that all the diapers would have experienced in common was the detergent I used to wash them.

Is this a common problem?

Laundry Science 101 for Cloth Diapers
source: Kitchen Stewardship

I started sending questioning emails to some of the companies that had sent me the diapers that were affected, asking if they had ever heard of this problem with homemade detergent before.

Catherine at the Willow Store offered her knowledge. She is well versed in “laundry science” – which is a real thing, although it’s almost more of an art form!

She explained that to get any laundry clean, you have to hit the nail on the head with:

  1. water temperature
  2. which cycle to use
  3. how big the load should be
  4. how many times to rinse
  5. and most importantly, finding the right detergent for your water

I can’t even begin to touch Catherine’s knowledge, so just check out her “how to do laundry” page. If you’re wondering, I personally do both a pre-rinse and a second rinse.

Water, in particular, is different in each community, really, so when cloth diaper enthusiasts say, “This works perfectly for me!” it rarely extrapolates to other communities.

For example, getting all the soap out is a big deal with washing cloth diapers. If you don’t, you have “build-up” and that causes stink and leaks, two things most parents have plenty of already. If you wonder whether you have soapy buildup, swish the insert or cover in warm water.  If you see no suds, you’re good. If suds come off into the water, it needs another rinse.

Catherine was surprised I was losing the waterproof barrier on my covers, because most covers should last at least 2-3 years, and the Velcro usually goes first, within the first year. Using a hot dryer decreases the life of the elastic, so if you dry the covers, you can expect to lose the legs before other parts go kaput.

She talked through some potential issues with homemade detergent:

  1. large particles “scratch” and rip PUL
  2. creating buildup on the inserts
  3. simply not being right for your water (and the seller can’t even guess as to why, whereas a bigger company like Rockin’ Green has done so much testing and really understands water differences)

She said for me to pull the PUL sort of inside out, and get a visual as much as possible to see if there were visible imperfections, like tiny holes, or if the waterproof part was fully separated from the PUL in two distinct layers.

Neither seemed to be the case for me, so while I gained a lot of information, I still didn’t have covers that held in anything worth a darn.

Stripping Cloth Diapers

How to Strip Cloth Diapers when They're Stinky
source: Kitchen Stewardship

I also talked to Sarah at Softbums, who coached me in the process of how to strip my cloth diapers.

She warned me first of all not to ever use actual “soap” – for example, Fels Naptha is no good, especially with synthetics. It creates too much buildup and kills the absorbency (of the inserts).

Whether the actual “soap” in the ingredients list of this product had an impact on my covers, we’ll never know.

In case there was a build-up issue, and because the diaper inserts really were starting to get a deep, heavy stench as soon as they were wet (a sure sign it’s time to strip!), Sarah instructed me to strip my cloth diapers using these steps:

  1. Turn the water heater up to 140F or higher.
  2. Wash everything 3 times on HOT, using 1 Tbs. Dawn blue dish detergent OR Purex free and clear (Purex as a company, according to Sarah, has good intentions and is fairly eco-friendly. It was weird for me to buy regular commercially branded detergent to wash my cloth diapers, after so many years of trying to save the earth by avoiding them.).
  3. Then run the wash cycle 2 more times with no detergent in there.
  4. Pull the covers out and dry them on high for 10 minutes, then pull to hang dry. (The idea behind drying the covers on hot, which Catherine also recommended, is to potentially “re-seal” the PUL in case there were little pinprick holes in the covers.)
  5. Wash the inserts two more times, once with detergent, and once without.

A “full load” for this process is no more than 24 diapers.

I told Sarah I had tried boiling the diapers in my big canning pot to get the stench out, and she explained that boiling them to strip doesn’t work for buildup or smell…that’s only when they’re new to prep them for absorbency.

I try the stripping process.

It took me a long time to get around to stripping the diapers, knowing that I’d need a whole weekend to get through the process. I had to make sure all the diapers were available, so we put John in disposables for a number of days.

Turning up the water heater is a big deal – expect to burn your hands a few times before you remember you can’t use it all the way too hot.

Ultimately, the diaper stripping process did wondrous things for the stinky insert syndrome.

It did not, unfortunately, cure the leaky cover syndrome.

I do think it helped somehow because I didn’t totally throw in the towel.

But this issue really threw me. If I have to pitch 6-8 of my favorite diapers, including one of my overnights, do I bother investing more money in cloth, when John is now 20 months and potentially near the end of his time in diapers?

I give myself (and my husband) the grace of taking a Sabbath from the cloth on Sundays, which is really quite nice. Lately, thinking about the potential for leaks and not being able to decide what to do about it really makes it harder and harder to go back to cloth diapers on Monday.

Please, learn from my mistakes! Never use real soap on your cloth diapers, be wary of homemade detergents, and strip those stinky things before your husband threatens to toss you and the diaper pail out on the street!

More information on how to strip cloth diapers & laundry science:

Have you ever had a near-death experience for your cloth diapering days?

Katie Kimball has been “green” since 5th grade when she read 50 Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth. She remains slightly disappointed that she didn’t actually save the whole thing back then, but now that she has 3 kiddos counting on her, she keeps plugging away hopefully. Katie blogs at Kitchen Stewardship about real food and natural living and is the author of Healthy Snacks to Go and other eBooks, available for Kindle.