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Washing Cloth Diapers

What to do with diapers when they're soiled, and how to keep them in good shape between children.

Wet Bags & Pail Liners

Size. One of the necessities of cloth diapering, a wet bag or pail liner is made from the same waterproof PUL or TPU that is used for the outside layer of your cloth diapers.  For the diaper bag a medium wet bag is the most popular choice and will hold about 5-6 AIO or Pocket diapers. For daycare or those that wash daily, a large wet bag or smaller hanging pail liner would be recommended. Standard size pail liners can either be hung on a doorknob or changing table, or placed in a 13-gallon size trash can.

Leaks & Odor. While the fabric is waterproof, if your diapers are dripping wet from having been rinsed and not wrung out (see below) then you may experience some leaks along the seams.  If you are placing you liner or bag inside of a pail, then there also can be condensated moisture buildup between the pail and the liner.  Sprinkle a little baking soda in your pail to help control the moisture & odor, and simply rinse out and add to your wash water.

An 'open pail' will allow airflow and therefore reduce bacteria growth, which will help to avoid odors. A 'closed pail', either zipped closed or with a snug lid, will have a much stronger odor than an open pail.  Sprinkling baking soda into your pail liner once or twice a day will help whether your pail is or closed. Some bags will have a small tab of microfiber sewn inside - this mysterious tab is for adding a few drops of essential oil to keep things smelling fresh. Purify, Terra Shield, Lavender, Tea Tree, & Lemon are good essential oil choices for the diaper pail.

Where Does the Poop Go?

No matter how long you have cloth diapered, often the first question that family & friends will ask is 'What do you do with the poop?!?' The short answer is that you flush it, the same way you should be if you're using disposables (but 99% of parents just toss it with the diaper).

Poop. After baby has a dirty diaper (and is safely entertained for a few minutes) it's time to flush the poop.  If you're using disposable liners you will lift out the poop & flush; if not, there are a few different ways to get the poo from the diaper to the toilet. During the newborn stage (before starting solid foods), your little one's poop is water soluble, meaning you don't have to rinse & flush unless you are very worried about staining. If baby has been on solids long enough, most of it should just plop out (ploppable poo is a cloth diapering milestone!) and you can choose whether to just toss the diaper in the pail at this point, or if you prefer to rinse off all the poop.

Diaper Sprayers. Unless you enjoy the 'dunk & swish' method of poop removal, a diaper sprayer is going to be your new best friend.  If you have issues with ammonia it is also recommended to rinse out wet-only diapers, especially naptime and overnight diapers. After the diaper is rinsed, squeeze out the excess water before placing it in your wet bag. There are accessories that make this a little cleaner for you, or you can have a dedicated pair of dish-washing gloves to keep your hands clean.

Things to Consider Before You Wash

When it comes to washing your cloth diapers, the routine is basic – 2 washes, 2 rinses, dry. But to hear cloth diapering gurus speak of laundering their diapers, things can get complicated in a hurry.

As it turns out, there are several factors that go into getting your diapers clean and fresh-smelling. If one of these is off-balance, then problems can arise. The factors include water, detergent, wash cycle length, temperature, and rubbing action (agitation).

Each factor listed is part of the equation that results in clean diapers. When any one factor is decreased, other factors must be increased to make up for the deficiency.

Water. The quality of your water is important when it comes to getting things clean in the laundry. After all, water is the main ingredient swirling around in there. If your water is hard, or even medium-hard, then a water softener is advised to improve end results. In addition, water softeners prolong the life of your washing machine and save you money on detergent since less detergent is required with softened water.

Considering water volume is crucial to cleaning cloth diapers, many families find that older top loading washing machines are the most effective, high quality front loaders rank second, and modern top loaders are a close third.

Detergent. The crucial part of the detergent, when it comes to getting things clean, is called the surfactant. Surfactants can be natural or synthetic, and their role is to loosen soil from fabric. Soaps such as castile soap, Ivory soap, and soap nuts are a type of surfactant. With high quality water, these soaps are able to do their job. Without high quality water, a scum in the wash water can result due to minerals in the water binding to the soap, which may lead to leaking, repelling, and dirty diapers. The detergent should contain an alkali (soluble salt such as baking soda, sodium bicarbonate, sodium hydroxide or potassium) to remove soil, as well as a non-ionic surfactant (ethers of fatty alcohols) to keep the loosened soil in the water instead of allowing it to redeposit on the diapers. A basic detergent, free of unnecessary ‘fillers,' is recommended. For example, ½ oz. is all the detergent necessary when using Allens, a well-known detergent for cloth diapers. Ironically, detergents such as most Free & Clear's and Dreft are not recommended due to what is added to them. Fillers can cause build-up of soap on diapers, which results in odor. Enzymes may also be present in the detergent. Different enzymes work on different substances, such as fats, starches or proteins. These enzymes - lipase, amylase, and protease – are effective at getting rid of odors. In rare cases, lipase can cause a skin reaction – but not for most people.

Wash Cycle Length. It is important for cloth diapers to have cycles that are long enough in order to allow the water and detergent to do their jobs, loosening soils from the fabric.

Temperature. Heat is crucial when washing cloth diapers. There is a 50% reduction in the effectiveness of detergent for every 10 degree drop in temperature below 110F.

Agitation. The mechanical action of fabrics rubbing against each other in the washing machine is important when it comes to loosening soil. When a machine is under-loaded or over-loaded, there may not be enough rubbing action to get the job done. Under-loaded washes will have too much water, giving your diapers a 'soupy' look in the washer. An over-loaded cycle will either not have enough water, or will have too many diapers in the drum of the machine (more of a thick 'chili' appearance). When the water level and number of diapers are appropriately matched, you'll have more of a 'stew'-like appearance - diapers move freely in the wash but are consistently rubbing against each other.

The Wash Cycle

First Wash or Pre-Rinse. The first step is to use warm water to release soil from diapers. Body fluids and solids are more soluble using warm water, so warm water is more effective than cold water. Hot water can set in stains, so it should be avoided. Using only water is fine, or a bit of detergent can be added to loosen soil. Some choose to do a pre-rinse, while others do a wash cycle.

As a side note - solids will loosen and go down the drain in this step. The diapers will look clean from solids after this step, though they are not yet truly clean. Knowing that this first wash/pre-rinse takes care of solid waste, it is not necessary to obsess over making sure all solids go in the toilet with each diaper change. A basic principle is, “whatever falls off is good enough.” After a diaper change, any rinsing, scraping and spraying that is done is not necessary, but due to personal preference.

The Main Wash. Keep the factors of effective washing in mind (water, detergent, wash cycle length, temperature, rubbing action). Use hot water and a high quality detergent for the main wash. It is recommended to use only half the amount of detergent recommended on the package, in order to avoid soap build-up on the diapers, which leads to odors.

Double Rinse. Two rinses are helpful in order to remove soil and detergent from your diapers. Warm water rinses will release more residues, as well as allow more water to be released during the spin cycle, resulting in a faster drying cycle.

Different Fabric Types

Cottons and polyesters wash differently due to their different fiber make-up. Polyester repels water initially because it is derived from oil. It can stubbornly hold on to oily stains which can lead to odors. Cotton naturally soaks in water, therefore washing and rinsing easily. Microfiber is a very absorbent blend of polyester and polyamides which can be prone to odors due to urine or bacteria remaining in the pockets of its structure. It is challenging for water to go through microfiber, especially when it is soaked with urine already.

Cottons release lint, which is no problem except when washing with diapers that contain microfleece (the soft stay-dry fabric which is a major component of many pocket style diapers). Lint causes microfleece to pill and develop a coarse texture. Though the microfleece functions the same, the buttery softness is a nice attribute to keep. Note that most cloth wipes are made of natural fibers, such as cotton. To avoid the pilling issue, it is recommended to simply wash natural fibers in a separate load from microfleece diapers, especially for the first few washes, so the majority of the lint can be released. After that point, most find it safe to combine the materials into one wash load.

PUL (polyurethane laminated fabric) is the waterproof component of many diapers. It is important to note that chlorine bleach should not be used with PUL. Even occasional chlorine bleaching using small amounts may cause the PUL to delaminate.

Hygienically Clean Diapers

When it is necessary to reach the level of cleanliness defined as “hygienic,” fabrics must be laundered at 140F/60C or they must be bleached. Bleaching cloth diapers, which is optional, should be done after the main wash and before the final rinses.

Oxygenated bleaches (such as OxiClean) are effective at removing stubborn organic stains and dirt without toxic materials like chlorine bleach. They are color safe and gentle enough for delicate fabrics. However, they do need more rubbing action (at least 10 minutes) and very hot water in order to be effective. Besides the health and environmental benefits of oxygenated bleach over chlorine bleach, another benefit of oxygenated bleach for cloth diapers is in avoiding an ammonia smell. Chlorine plus urine results in an ammonia smell.

Changing water out several times (pre-rinse, wash, double rinse) is beneficial in cleaning diapers hygienically due to the number of times the microbes are washed and rinsed away. Drying diapers on a heat setting in the dryer also helps to kill microbes (just as washing at 140F in the wash kills them), though line drying is easier on elastic and the electric bill, as well as naturally anti-microbial.