Selecting the right cloth diaper detergent can go a long way to making your cloth diapering experience a piece of cake. So, if there's anywhere you should spend some time doing research, it's in the area of detergents, washing routines, and hard water. Don't listen to just any old advice, but spend some time to understand how detergents work, and why washing routines can be anything but routine!
Our goal with this article is to provide you with more information about cloth diaper detergents, as well as links to some more detailed articles you can refer to for more information if you want a deeper understanding.Washing cloth diapers can seem daunting because there is a ton of conflicting information out there on the internet about the best way to wash cloth diapers, and more cloth diaper detergent brands than you can imagine!
Cloth diapers are designed to absorb urine. It's important that they are clean, because residues from detergent or other laundry products can reduce absorbency or even cause diapers to repel, and urine residues will cause stinky diapers! Clean diapers should not smell. If your diapers are not absorbing or have a smell that will knock you over, this is an indicator that you need to adjust your wash routine. If you have a good wash routine, you should never need to strip your cloth diapers.
When selecting a cloth diaper detergent, you should always choose one that is free of:
Most cloth diaper manufacturers also recommend avoiding detergents that contain:
A Note About Enzymes
About half of commercial laundry detergents are free of enzymes, and they are seldom added to boutique cloth diaper detergents.
Enzyme sensitivities are a sensitive subject! Many cloth diaper websites recommend against detergents containing enzymes because they are bad for sensitive skin. I have read countless forum posts and blog articles written by mothers claim that detergents with enzymes have irritated their babies skin, and if your baby has sensitive skin, you may simply wish to choose a detergent without enzymes to avoid any potential issues.
However, according to a detailed and well-researched post on EcoNuts website, any adverse effects of enzymes on the skin are simply a myth. The article does go on to say that detergents containing enzymes can actually be hard on your diaper fabrics, and especially wool. The article suggests that "to prolong the life of your fabrics and clothes, you should choose an enzyme-free detergent and instead utilize enzyme stain removers where needed." You can read more here.
A Note About Optical Brighteners
Optical Brighteners (OBAs) or Fluorescent Whitening Agents (FWAs) are added to products, such as laundry soaps, detergents, or cleaning agents. Their purpose, as described in this article, is to "adsorb to fabrics or materials during the washing or cleaning process. When illuminated by ultraviolet light they fluoresce and make products and fabrics appear brighter."
According to detergent manufacturer Seventh Generation, "they don't have anything to do with getting things clean -- they're only added to detergents to make us think our laundry is brighter and whiter than it really is."
There are some suggestions that optical brighteners may be harmful to the environment or your baby's skin, but I found little evidence from government or research sites other than environmental organizations to substantiate this. Nor could I find anything that would support that optical brighteners reduce the absorbency of your fabrics. Tide, and many other detergents that contain optical brighteners, work very well for many cloth diapering families.
That said, many families choose not to take risks with unnecessary ingredients. If you wish to avoid optical brighteners, most boutique detergent manufacturers (i.e., cloth diaper detergent makers) avoid them. There are also some commercially available brands: the US Military requires that all army combat uniforms be laundered with detergents free from optical brighteners, and they suggest the following detergents to be suitable: Bold powder, Cheer Liquid, Cheer powder, All powder, Surf powder, and Woolite.
You should also avoid soap-based detergents. Soaps are created from
natural ingredients that can react with the minerals that are found in
your water and cause films or residues to occur in your fabric.
You can read more about the reaction between soaps and hard water here.
There is no single perfect cloth diaper detergent that will work for everyone.
There are two main considerations that you will need to think about when selecting a laundry detergent for your cloth diapers:
If you have soft water, almost any line of cloth diaper friendly detergents will work. Some of the most widely recommended detergents for cloth diapers are:
All of the detergents above have been extensively tested on cloth diapers. Our favorite is Nellies, which my sisters and I (who all have very different water types) have used with good success. You can read more about our experience and why we love it our full review of Nellies Laundry Soda.
That doesn't mean that you can't use a commercial detergent. While these detergents aren't completely free of all of the "should be avoided" products, many families report success with Tide and other popular supermarket detergent brands.
If you have hard water (and the majority of North American households do!), you will most likely need to boost your cloth diaper wash routine to get your diapers clean. You may need to increase the dose of your detergent, add a water softening agent to make your detergent more effective, or select a different detergent (such as Tide or another mainstream offering). After a lot of research into detergents, water softening additives, and dosages, we suggest that you take the time to read our full our article on hard water and cloth diapers to find a cloth diaper wash routine and detergent that works.
Shopping for detergents can be a frustrating experience at the best of times! But it can be even worse when you're shopping for cloth diaper detergent!
It may take some trial and error to find the perfect detergent because detergent effectiveness will depend on:
Not all cloth diaper detergents will work for all cloth diapers, so you may need to experiment to find one that works for you.
Please keep in mind that using the right amount of detergent is important to avoid issues later on!
You may have heard that you should use only a minuscule amount of detergent to wash cloth diapers. According to a detailed article on cloth diaper laundering by Wazoodle, a large US-based manufacturer of cloth diaper textiles, "The practice of low detergent dosing is something that has been created in the [cloth diaper] industry by people who don't understand how water, detergent and textiles interact in the wash. There is no good reason for low doses; it is simply a wrong practice."
For best results, you should start with the detergent manufacturer's dosage recommendation, and then adjust down for very soft water or up for hard water.
NOTE: If you choose to use a supermarket brand of detergent, keep in mind that most supermarket detergent manufacturers have moved to 2x and 3x concentrated formulas, which mean that the amount of detergent required has been reduced. Make sure to look at the dose recommendation on the package and fill your scoop or cup to the appropriate line!
If you don't use enough detergent, you will end up with urine residues - this causes stinky diapers. To much detergent will lead to detergent residues, which can reduce absorbency. If either happens you will need to remove this build-up to get your diapers back to normal. Read more about this process in our article on stripping cloth diapers.
While it can be hard to find a great cloth diaper detergent in your supermarket, the brands identified above are carried by many online cloth diaper retailers. Some of the brands are also available from Amazon and Costco. If you have a local specialty baby store, you'll probably find that they will carry one or more brands of cloth diaper detergent as well. Local stores are a great place to buy cloth diaper detergents, because they have usually been tested by other local families who have similar water conditions to you. If it works for them, it will likely work for you too!
Bleach is used to kill bacteria and viruses, but isn't necessary for most cloth diaper routines. Cloth diapers usually need only be rinsed clean with detergent, not deeply sanitized with bleach. However, if your baby has had a virus or bacterial infection, it's always best to consult with your pediatrician to find out if your cloth diapers will need further disinfection.
Keep in mind that many cloth diaper manufacturer warranties are void if you use bleach products, since they have been known to damage the fabrics (especially PUL, which can delaminate). Even if manufacturers do approve of chlorine bleach, it is generally only needed as a remedial step for diapers that need to be disinfected, and not part of a regular washing routine.
If you are concerned about your diaper warranty, please look into the information provided by your diaper manufacturer. Here are a few links to some of the big brands:
If you are interested in a brand that isn't on this list, I used the Google search "[brand name] bleach recommendation".
There are 2 types of bleach available today:
Diaper Wreckers shows the impact of chlorine vs. oxygen bleach on a bamboo insert.
There are also alternative disinfectants that can be used for many infections, including sunlight, grapefruit seed extract, and vinegar. I plan to write a more detailed article on bleach and alternatives in the future!
I encourage you to dig deeper into the topic of cloth diaper detergents if you still have questions. Here are a few of the articles I found helpful:
Author's Note to the Critics: I don't claim to be a laundry expert, but I have scoured countless blog and forum posts, websites, and even scientific articles in an attempt to bring together reliable information about cloth diaper detergents. My goal with this page is to help those that are getting started to find trustworthy information that will help them select an effective detergent when they start out so that they can avoid issues later on. If you do see any material in this article that you feel is incorrect or misleading, please contact me directly with information you feel will help me make the appropriate updates to this article.
Choosing the right cloth diaper detergent for you does take a bit of homework. Take the time to understand how detergents work and how to get the right dose. I hope that the information in this article will help you select a detergent and dose that will work for you, so you can avoid the infamous stinky, smelly diaper problems!
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