Washing Cloth Diapers: A Look At The Last Ten Years

I recently read a post in a forum from a cloth diapering mom complaining that her cloth diapers weren’t clean.  Her friend had told her to use a sprinkle of detergent when washing her cloth diapers.  She was frustrated because the amount of detergent she was using wasn’t working.  As I read the responses, I realized that many of the people writing had profiles that were relatively new and were probably unaware of the history of washing recommendations in the cloth diaper industry.  This post grew out of a desire to bring some clarity to that history.

The “tiny little bit of detergent” recommendation first occurred in the cloth diaper world about the time that pocket diapers were introduced to the market. Synthetics were relatively new to the cloth diaper market.  As consumers started reporting issues with rinsing detergent out of synthetic diapers, it became clear that there was an even bigger issue with the amount of detergent being used in regular wash.  The Wall Street Journal reported that many Americans tend use more detergent than is recommended by the manufacturer. They went further by identifying the large size of the cap as the likely source of the issue, and implying that the cap size is an intentional source of additional revenue for detergent manufacturers (a charge the detergent industry vehemently denied). This large cap size and the issue with detergent dosing was further complicated when detergent manufacturers made their detergents concentrated by removing water from the formula. These changes came at a time when laundry innovation in the lab produced a number of new non-rinseable ingredients being added to detergent formulations in an effort to keep a competitive edge in a market where there is little obvious differentiation. The size of the cap remained disproportionately larger than the amount of detergent needed for an average load of wash.  Smaller bottle, bigger wash load claim, same over-sized cap… you’re still using more than you need, and they’re selling more bottles of detergent.  Big win for detergent manufacturers, right?

Unfortunately, their big win became a problem for cloth diaper manufacturers. New parents were coming into the industry with absolutely no generational knowledge of cloth diapering. There were many opinions in the industry, but manufacturers didn’t have a way to give truly exact advice because the amount of detergent needed for a load of diapers varied by the detergent brand selected by the customer, their washing machine, and their water.  Front loaders were becoming more affordable and common in households. It was clear to many of us that non-rinsable detergent ingredients, dosing irregularities, unfamiliar machines, and poor rinsing practices were causing diaper rash, repelling, and odor issues.

Internally, detergent ingredients were researched.  We could see that non-rinsable chemicals seemed to be reacting with skin differently under dry and wet circumstances. We couldn’t find any testing showing that these chemicals were safe in moist fabric held against a newborn’s skin for long periods of time. Using this information along with customer service patterns and collaborating with other knowledgeable people in the industry, certain additives and surfactant types were identified as problematic. This is about the same time that this detergent chart was created by Sarah Gesaikowski (formerly of Pin Stripes and Polka Dots).

Some time later, in response to a request from retailers, a number of cloth diaper manufacturers collaborated on a set of unified washing instructions. The washing information in the industry had become increasingly chaotic.  We had seen everything from people telling their friends to use “one teaspoon” of detergent, all the way down to someone deciding that it was a good idea to sterilize their cloth diapers in the dishwasher.  Diapers were melting. There were rumors of housefires.  It was a mess.  Not all manufacturers participated, but many did. I led this conversation. It was challenging and heated at times. As I said earlier, laundry is an inexact science and the advice given up to that point lacked objectivity. In the end, all but one member of the group agreed on a standard set of washing instructions that was reliant on Sarah’s research.

This is where the story steps away from general industry perspective and re-enters the Cotton Babies world.  As awareness of cloth diapering has increased, more and more mainstream families began adopting our brands.  A new parent should be able to call us and ask for help with their diaper laundry.  The detergent environment continued to shift. Manufacturers drifted apart in their opinions. New people were involved in the conversation.  Knowledge and experience levels varied drastically, and we found information becoming rapidly obsolete.  Even “natural” detergent manufacturers continued to change their formulas.  There was even an industry attempt at a database to hold information about detergents, but even that project seemed to wane over time.

Cotton Babies had worked to support industry efforts and ensure that there was a good solid set of information that worked well for everyone.  In spite of our best efforts, “standard” washing instructions were ridiculously complicated, and we still found ourselves unable to give the same set of washing instructions effectively to two people in a row.

We had started offering a list of acceptable detergents to our customers.  Even within that list, we kept seeing variations in formulations that were affecting our product’s performance and baby’s bottoms.  In 2009, we finally decided to take control of the washing situation by making our own detergent that wasn’t going to change.  We weren’t alone. Other cloth diapers manufacturers were experiencing frustrations and came to a very similar end.  We chose a detergent manufacturer who cared about the environment, knew how to formulate a safe product, and was able to manufacture a  product for us in a controlled environment. We know what’s in it, we know how well it rinses, we know it’s safe for our components, safe for your baby, and we can do a better job helping you get your diapers clean.

Fast forward to today.  Our friend from the first paragraph just did what most of us do. She asked her friend for advice about washing her new cloth diapers. If I had to guess, a friend of her friend was using a concentrated mainstream detergent a few years back. That friend of a friend had told her friend to use a teaspoon. Her friend told our friend to use a “sprinkle”.  It didn’t work.  It’s a classic game of community telephone… nobody thought to ask someone who really knew… and here we are… with dirty diapers.

If you don’t use enough detergent in your washing machine, your diapers will not get clean. If you are using bumGenius detergent, always start with at least one of our right-sized  scoops (included in your bag of detergent).  Do your diapers still smell after washing with one scoop?  Wash again, and use two scoops.  And so on.  The amount of detergent needed is going to vary by washing machine, load size, and even water. You may find that it takes two (or even three scoops) in your washing environment.  Remember to rinse well.

Interestingly, I think we may have come full-circle as an industry.  Mainstream detergent changes seemed to have slowed down.  Innovation in enzymes peaked a few years ago, but that industry really hasn’t changed much recently either.  The washing information in the consumer world is completely chaotic again, and, just like we did eight years ago, we’re seeing strange, unsafe, washing recommendations popping up through community groups. It’s time for manufacturers to have another conversation about washing recommendations and, if agreement can be reached, work towards issuing another unified position on those recommendations.  It is possible that the general recommendations may not change, but I believe that customers deserve to know that conversations are happening.

Jenn is the Founder and CEO of Cotton Babies. She holds an Executive MBA from Washington University. She was awarded Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Emerging Category for the Central Midwest Region in 2011. Among many other awards, she recently received a 2017 YWCA Leader of Distinction Award for Entrepreneurship. Jenn holds many patents on various inventions in a number of different countries and is listed as one of 50 Missourians You Should Know. She is particularly fascinated by languages, chickens, and children (she has four) when she’s not reading economics journals.

Do you have thoughts to add?

11 thoughts on “Washing Cloth Diapers: A Look At The Last Ten Years

  1. Thank you for this valuable information as well as the history behind all the MISinformation out there. I recently blogged about the reasons so many cloth diapering moms are confused… just look at all the different manufacturers’ recommendations out there! (In my opinion, the only one that is egregiously wrong is SoftBums.)

    I agree that there are many combinations of a cloth diaper laundry routine that will work, depending on the detergent, the water hardness, and the type of water. At first there may be a bit of trial and error.

  2. Very good for every one to read. Same goes for dishwashers. An honest retailer once said you only need a tsp. of dishwasher detergent in your dishes, the rest is for the company to make more money. While its good to listen to what the company recommends, there isn’t harm to test various amounts, and find what works. As stated in your (jenns) write up. Especially when everything makes a difference in cloth diapering. Not every baby is the same and not everyone’s water, washers, level of soiled diapers, and amount of diapers in the wash are the same.
    Thanks Jenn for the post!

  3. This is the main reason I have recommended to all my friends who are starting out in cloth to simply use cotton flats or prefolds and covers (simple PUL if they are afraid to use wool). They are cheap, versatile, simple to wash, truly one size and hard to destroy (unlike so many others now). I have been cloth diapering for 12 years (almost straight, with five kids) in many different kinds of water, situations (shared and private living space, machine and handwash, dryer and no dryer), and locations throughout the world. I am a scientist (biology/chemistry) who cares very much about the facts, but I also have experience to lean on now, too. I am so sad about the huge number of cloth diapering attempts that have gone wrong due to bad laundry advice, especially the “never use bleach” line.

  4. Oh, how I remember the melted diapers! And the holes in the pattern of the dishwasher… I never tried this myself, as I didn’t have a dishwasher eight or nine years ago when this was the current thing, but I remember the pictures.

    And boiling diapers! Pockets melting to the bottom of pot, elastic ruined. I always wondered who actually owes a stock pot big enough to boil diapers.

    I’m afraid that a lot of the cloth diapering mamas that have been around the past decade are either leaving their diapering years, or have become so fed up with the politics of the biggest cloth community that they will no longer be around to share their knowledge with the newbies. That makes me sad, but that’s a different post.

    Of all of the (I would venture to say) hundreds of mamas that I have helped with their cloth diaper wash routine, the large majority of them were still following the old advice and using barely any detergent at all. Or, they were washing in baking soda and vinegar and expecting that alone to be enough to clean their dirty diapers.

    I would love to see more conversations with the big manufactures on the best way to wash. It would be great if the big names came out and said what I, and others, have been screaming for years – use enough detergent! Do an extra rinse! If all else fails, bleach IS OKAY.

  5. We started cloth diapers about 4 1/2 years ago. And so far all 6 of our kids have been in cloth (4 at a time, twice). We tried different kinds of diapers, but in an effort to simplify my wash routine, we switched to flats and PUL wraps and dappi covers.
    We have used homemade detergent (with fels naphtha), regular Era, and Purex Free and Clear (due to skin issues). We are still using cloth (baby has to due to allergies). After half a decade of washing diapers in two houses, I have come to the conclusion that no wash routine will consistently work. The water changes from time to time (amount of chlorine, stuff in water changes from season to season, drought, flood, etc.). I think this may be something that is missing in the discussions. Just when I find a routine that works, it seems we need to fix it. Different kids skin handle detergents differently (even the twins). All that to say, use common sense. If they didn’t get clean, use a bit more until they do. Use enough water to get them clean and rinse well. Keep it simple. If you feel lik you need a degree in rocket science just to use diapers that mothers have been using for thousands of years, then you’ve got it too complicated.
    Find what works, stick with it and then change only when needed, not because someone told you too. And don’t expect to find the magic routine and never ever need to change it. It’s a part of life–change happens. 🙂
    Just my opinion and experience over a thousand + diapers and 6 kids.

  6. I’m so glad this conversation came up! I belong to a few cloth diapering groups online & have asked several times what people are using to wash? I found that the majority of people in the groups are using tide original powder, the amounts & methods however, vary greatly!! I use 4.0s stuffed with hemp inserts & cotton/bamboo fitteds for overnight and now wash them all together in tide too. I have found that tide makes a TON of suds!! I know most manufactures add sudsing agents to their detergents because society thinks that bubbles clean & forget that it is SOAP that actually does the work which makes it very difficult to gauge proper detergent amounts. All together I have about 20 diapers, I always put the water on the maximum setting, do a rinse cycle, wash in hot with a heaping tablespoon of detergent (sometimes twice if they’re really icky) then do 2-3 cycles on warm with no detergent. This works for us, I have not had any problems yet, thankfully, with rashes, stink or buildup. Whatever happens, I do think the most important step is rinsing!!

  7. I had a problem when I first started CDing in 2012. Everyone kept saying I was using too much!! Turns out, I needed to use more scoops because of how hard our water was. I got that information straight from you. I hope more moms read this.

  8. Jen, this blog post was just passed onto me and I wanted to offer a comment. This is an excellent summary of the history we saw in the cloth diaper washing saga. You summarily covered all the key elements and how they were changing. Very nicely done. Curiously enough, I still remember a good detergent manufacturer back in the day giving me the advice that people should reduce their detergent amount until they didn’t like the results and then bump it back up a bit. Same bit of advice you are giving but his perspective was from people still using too much detergent. Now you are having to give advice from the side of the equation where people are using too little. I always felt that giving people information to understand their laundry helped them make personal decisions as to what would work for them. Rules are often too general. How true this can be in other areas of life as well. Best to you from the land beyond cloth diapering.

    • Sarah, I just wanted to say thank you for adding your voice to this. We miss having you in the cloth diaper community. Hope all is well for you and your family in the “land beyond”.