The Best Wash Routine for Indian Cloth Diapers
BY MANIDIPA MANDAL
Welcome to The Nestery's series of blogs on cloth diapering.
To see the other parts of The Nestery's ongoing series on cloth diapering, go here - https://thenestery.in/blogs/journal/tagged/cloth-diapering
Today, with the monsoons upon us right on time for once, let’s talk dirty diaper laundry.
Yup, that’s one of the toughest nuts for cloth-diapering families to crack, so maybe we’ve come to it rather late in this series! But better late than never, eh? Besides, as you’ll soon see (hopefully!), it’s really not the bugbear we make it out to be in our imaginations.
So if you’re a parent just considering cloth diapering right now, and considering it with trepidation about all the messy washing up—listen up!
It's an easy, 4-step process in the day-to-day—and with a washing machine, all four bundled into one step:
- soak/rinse diapers in cold water
- wash in warm water, using plenty of water, with recommended quantity of a good detergent
- do a last rinse (or two!) in cold water
So that's it, really. But we do have a bunch of detailed tips on storing dirty dipes, selecting detergent and wash cycles, and troubleshooting water and other issues.
NB: If you are washing your new diapers for the first time, follow this prepping post for that.
Before you wash… how to store dirty diapers? (Should you soak them?!)
No, do NOT soak diapers in general, unless you are sure you will wash them in a few hours. Else you will have multiplying bacteria, a stinky bathroom and deteriorating cloth. Instead:
- Shake off/rinse off with a hygiene faucet any poop in the diaper, into the toilet (just like washing your bum!), and store the diaper in a dry bucket or large fabric diaper pail—the waterproof kind, like your diapers.
- You do not need to rinse out (only) wet diapers that aren’t soiled.
- Only cover the bucket if you have a problem with flies, say. A closed bucket prevents wet diapers drying out, increasing the breakdown of urine to ammonia (more stink, especially in hot weather), and can encourage growth of bacteria, mould and mildew.
- If you insist on soaking, use cold water only; hot water will tend to set any stains at this stage.
- Try not to store used diapers longer than a day or three in general; but note that some fibres suffer more than others from delayed wash routines—bamboo rayon, for example—so ideally aim for a daily wash.
NB: You don’t need to do a diaper-only wash if you have a limited stash; once you’ve cracked your laundry routine, feel free to mix diapers with other clothes or bed linens too.
Washing machine or handwash?
We strongly recommend that if you do have a washing machine, use it:
- This is better for your diapers—actually gentler than your hands.
- Needs less detergent, because there is more agitation, which is not just a cost saving, but also reduces risk of build-up of excess detergent, which affects absorbency.
- Saves water too, believe it or not.
- It saves you time and effort—both in short supply with a young child at home.
- They will dry much faster if spun out in a machine. This means you can manage with a smaller stash, so again, an economy.
Note: One situation where the water savings can be defeated is if your water supply is irregular or water pressure low; at that point, the machine’s efficiency can suffer, or you may be stuck mid-cycle until water supply resumes.
Choosing a detergent
Now here, most manufacturers of cloth diapers are fine with you using regular detergent like Tide, Ariel, Henko or what-have-you—unlike when I started my stash over 7 years ago, when everyone wanted you to stay away from conventional detergents and use only ‘diaper-friendly’ detergents.
There were good reasons for the caution against ‘regular detergent’ in some cases, though. Here’s what you don’t want in a regular detergent:
- Softeners: This is your No. 1 bugbear because they will cause diapers to repel instead of absorbing (which is why I don’t use them on burp cloths and bath towels either). They are way too common in ‘baby’ detergents. Read between the lines: avoid if the detergent promises any ‘softness’ or ‘cuddly’ clothing.
- Enzymes: With this one, we’re less worried about the diaper and more about the bum the diaper is on. Because any leftover soap not thoroughly rinsed can give your baby a rash, but enzymes even more so. However, if you suffer from stain and stink issues, this may be just what the Diaper Doctor ordered—they really are better at getting rid of, er, biological waste (including half-digested food, typical in a toddler diaper).
- Perfumes: Now, not every baby’s skin (or immune system) cares about this, but better safe than sorry, we say. Avoid perfumed detergents on especially the youngest babies until you are sure they can handle it. Why add an allergen to the mix for no good reason? (We promise perfume + not-clean-enough cloth = more miserable stench.)
So what about ‘alternative’ or eco-friendly detergents?
Honestly, you’ll need to do a bit of research here, because there’s many kinds of eco-friendly—some have a kinder-to-nature manufacturing process or base ingredient; others are minimally processed, like soapnuts; yet others are synthetic but formulated to be biodegradable, which can actually be kinder to aquatic life than many ‘natural’ detergents, which are really just soap made from natural oil and natural lye (caustic soda from ashes).
In terms of function, soapnuts are brilliant for hard water, we have found, and help soften natural fibres (these tend to stiffen up when sun-dried, which you absolutely should do). They can, however, leave white fabrics milky white rather than the dazzle you are used to from conventional soap and detergents.
Another thing to consider is fragrance, because most ‘natural’ or ‘herbal’ detergents include essential oils, and that can cause absorbency issues too, though ideally not enough stays in your diaper.
Here’s a few we and our friends have tried and liked (different strokes for different folks, people—don’t expect unanimity here!):
- Rustic Art regular detergent powder and the baby-friendly Little Laundry—note that they use essential oils, ergo perfume, and not all essential oils are baby-safe (they use lavender in Little Laundry); in terms of formulation, this is basically a naturally derived soap-based detergent, comparable in function to most mainstream brands.
- Rustic Art also has a bioezyme-based liquid detergent.
- Krya is one of the favourites with cloth-diapering parents and diaper manufacturers alike, its most natural variant being nothing but ground-up soapnut powder (there are fragrant versions too).
- If you prefer straightforward soapnuts of a superior quality, we like Daily Dump’s.
- There are now several soapnut-based liquids too, saving you the bother of changing soapnut pouches. We have tried Bubble Nut Wash (who also have a soapnut-derived soap bar that is good for handwashing stains) and EcoSwachh 3R (they also have a powder)
- We have also tried Azafran, which has one of the nicest smells (yes, it is fragrant) and claims to be biodegradable
PS: This is not an exhaustive list! If you’ve tried and liked other detergents for diaper laundry, please do write in and spread the word!
- CAUTION: Do not overstuff the machine; water and agitation is what cleans diapers. (But don’t put too few either—they need the friction!)
- Use the highest water setting, add a cold pre-rinse/soak cycle and an extra rinse after, if your machine allows. (If you have no soak cycle, just fill with cold water and leave the diapers in a top-loader for half an hour. If no extra rinse cycle, just run the machine on a "quick wash" cycle without detergent at the end. We don't want you spending all day sitting by the machine—you have better things to do.)
- If you’re using soapnuts, just knot up the bag (or the drawstring on it) and throw them in with the diaper load—they can stay right till the end!
- Use warm water with mainstream detergents, especially in cooler weather, if you have that option. It activates the detergent better.
- Use a normal amount of detergent—the myth of less detergent for cloth diapers is what leads to many a stripping (more on what that is later) marathon; that myth needs to die. (On the other hand, don’t use an excess because ‘dirty’, or you will end up with residue and again, need to strip!)
- Set the machine to a "heavy" or "intensive" program, maybe even the "sports" cycle (often longer).
- Choose "cotton" rather than "synthetics" (not enough heat and agitation for diapers) even.
- For all-cotton diapers, you can even use an allergy care cycle
- Do not use the "gentle" or "handwash" cycle or "baby clothes" programs—diapers depend on agitation to get clean!
- If you have only cold water, use a longer wash cycle.
- Bonus tip: You don’t need to put diaper covers and shells in the machine; just rinse with a pinch of detergent by hand—they typically don’t need much attention unless there was a very messy poop, and this way the elastic and waterproofing last longer, and you’re going to have dry covers to hand faster than a machine load will manage.
How do you know your load size is right?
To be certain you have the right size of load and enough water and agitation, check:
- In a front-loader, the diapers should fill up about half the machine’s drum volume before you add water.)
- For a top loader, you should be able to see stuff that started at the bottom cycling up to the top by mid-cycle and things shouldn’t be too floaty.
- Start by rinsing out the diapers in cool water.
- Initiate the manual equivalent of a soak cycle or pre-rinse by putting the diapers in a bucket with cold Swish around with a stick to help get as much debris and pee out as possible to start with.
- Soak for half hour now in warm water with regular amount of detergent for that size of laundry load.
- Now wash by plunging each diaper in and out of water 20-30 times forcefully; keep scrubbing the diapers against themselves in between.
- Rinse 2 or 3 times in plentiful clean water. Make sure you see no suds at all.
- Squeeze out water; do not wring!
Now, cloth diaper manufacturers differ in their opinions and instructions on how much detergent to use. However, here’s what we found works for most stashes:
- For synthetics (microfibre, microfleece, fleece, microsuede, bamboo rayon), start by using ¼ the amount of detergent you would use for regular laundry. Often that is enough, especially for a breastfed baby, as agitation (by your washing machine!) and water are what do most of the work in cleaning out the diaper.
- For natural fibres—that’s mainly cotton, hemp, linen (this last material is a rare bird; we haven’t seen any Indian manufacturers using it yet)—we recommend start with the recommended amount of detergent and then slowly ratchet it down to find your sweet spot. This is because natural fibres are easier to boil and fix any build-up in, and also may hold on to stains a bit more than the synthetics.
- First of all, most stains come out in the sun. So don’t panic as soon as you take your diaper load out of the washing machine. Dry in the sun and then check—this is particularly true of meconium stains and those from toddler poop.
- Not gone yet? Try a paste of detergent applied on the diaper and left for 10-30 minutes before your next laundry load.
- Next, try a regular detergent that include oxygen bleach—the name or description typically says it is intended to take off stains, thus Henko Stain Champion, Tide Ultra Stain Release, the Surf Excel with the ‘stain eraser’ symbol, etc. Unlike chlorine bleach, this stuff is gentler on diapers so you can happily put the pockets with PUL/TPU in.
- Then, if the sun’s not managed it in (say) three dries, wash with an oxygen bleach (not chlorine bleach)—you can buy these cheap at the chemist, but good brands with better quality assurance include Rin ALA, Oxiclean or Vanish Oxi Action.
We hope this helps caregivers on the fence about cloth diapering to convert to cloth diapering. Cloth diapering and cloth diaper maintenance may look daunting but it is totally doable!
Also watch out for our next part on troubleshooting cloth diaper laundry issues!
Manidipa Mandal is a seven-year-old parent still learning about parenting. She also likes to read and write about ecology, biology (especially gender), food and travel.