Machine Washing Cloth Diapers Part 1: Factors to Consider

Doing laundry in a washer seems pretty brainless, right? Throw some laundry in, add some detergent, push a button… *poof* clean laundry! Well, not necessarily.

Cloth diapers present a much heavier degree of soil than standard laundry. While most laundry is forgiving to some extent, proper laundering is of utmost importance for cloth diapers. So what’s the magic formula for using your machine to wash diapers?

There are numerous factors that determine what your routine should look like, and I discuss some of those variables in the post about hand-washing diapers. With machines, it’s just all the more variables: front-loader vs top-loader, HE vs non-HE, size of your machine, agitator vs no agitator, and so forth.

There are some general rules of thumb, though, that can get you started towards successful laundering! And therefore, any of the following information should be considered as a guide to help point you in the right direction towards your perfect routine. If you want to get right to the process, read Part 2! Otherwise, let’s take some time to mention a couple important things…

First and foremost, you do not want to skimp on the quality of detergent with cloth diapers. To dumb it completely down, cheap detergents= cheap formula=improper clean=unclean diapers=stink/rash problems either immediately or after some time. Not all detergents, even some of the more popular or expensive brands, are formulated well enough to clean diapers. This isn’t to say those detergents suck entirely; their formula is just lacking key ingredients to make them effective at cleaning diapers. So when you meet an entire aisle of various detergents at the store, which do you settle on?wall of detergent.jpg

Fluff Love University, whether you love them or hate them, have done an awesome job at compiling a list of available detergents, charting information like price, HE or non HE, plant-based or synthetic, recommended or not, liquid or powder, as well as how much they recommend you use. You can find that list here if you have questions about a specific detergent. Otherwise, you want to select a quality detergent that is strong enough to get soiled diapers clean, affordable enough to fit your budget, compatible with your washer (HE machines specifically), and suitable for your baby’s skin (some babies have more sensitive skin than others). You almost can’t go wrong with plain ol’ Tide. For more sensitive babies, the most recommended brand talked about lately has been Persil Free and Clear. I personally use a more affordable detergent (Gain) for both standard laundry and for my diaper laundry prewash, but Tide for the main wash of diapers only. By opting to use Tide only for the main wash, we reduce how much of it we use by 20%, which is one way to help save in the long run (every penny counts). But it’s important to avoid homemade detergents, which are more susceptible to damaging your machine or creating detergent build-up problems, and it’s very important to avoid detergents with additives like fabric softener, which can cause your diapers (and towels) to repel moisture instead of absorb moisture. Fabric softener of any kind is a big no-no with diapers, even vinegar, which can damage PUL or elastics, void the warranty on your diapers or worse: possibly void your washer’s warranty. Vinegar is okay for the diapers once in a while, and I even recommend it when hand washing as a rinse aid for those who use substantially way too much detergent, but only in tiny amounts on rare occasions and at your own discretion. Vinegar should not go into your machine at all and should not be a regular part of laundering your diapers.

What about additives like bleach, oxiclean, or water softeners? Some people may be quick to think bleach is a good idea for getting diapers thoroughly clean regularly, but the fact is, bleach should only be used in instances where absolutely necessary, never as a regular or even occasional part of your regimen. It’s incredibly harsh on your diapers and will certainly wear them out very prematurely. Oxiclean, on the other hand, is fine to add to your wash of diapers if you’d like, but isn’t necessary. You will hear some people recommend Borax for it’s affordability to soften hard water and get diapers cleaner, but Borax can be hard on diapers when used regularly. Using Calgon instead is a better choice for any water softening needs. You should first test your water’s hardness level before deciding to just dump water softener in, though, but unless your water is treated, most people encounter some degree of hard water. You can test using one of those dipsticks for pools or hot tubs. In fact, you can sometimes pick a couple up for free at a pool store or online. Your neighbor with a pool might not mind parting with one, too. Test the water that comes out of the washer. If your water is over 180 ppm, definitely add some water softener. Some companies, like Tide, claim that you can just add more detergent to compensate for harder water. This may be true to a point, but if your water is over 180 ppm, you’re going to wind up saving money (and your sanity) by adding Calgon into your routine. If it’s between 120 and 180 and you’re using a detergent like Tide that is formulated to counter hard water, you can opt to use a little more than the recommended amount for your load size to compensate during your main wash. If your water is hard at all, which is most people, I recommend adding a touch of detergent to your prewash as well to make the prewash more effective at preparing the diapers for the main wash. If your water is soft, not only are water softeners or extra detergent unnecessary, they can be damaging to your machine! When in doubt, test! Then go from there.

Loading your machine properly is important for efficiently washing diapers. This can look different for each machine, and your manual may come with a load size recommendation which it worth checking out. Running on the general rule of thumb, though: virtually every machine functions optimally around 2/3 full without deliberately compressing or packing the laundry in. Don’t squish laundry into the machine like you would an over-full hamper when trying to justify putting off laundry another day (is it only me who regularly tests the limits of my hamper?)

front-loader-side-viewFor front loaders, since you’re talking about a sideways drum, this can mean filling your machine up to 80% without covering the first row of holes in the drum closest to the door. Once filled as mentioned, your arm should be able to reach above the load and touch the back of the drum. Your load should never exceed this amount. However, because front loaders work using gravity in conjunction to the clothes rubbing against themselves to achieve proper agitation, you can load your machine with less and still (in theory) get adequate agitation. I say in theory only because I have never used a front loader myself to confirm this; this is what I learned while researching how front loading washers worked.

top-loader-no-agitator-cloth-diapersFor top loaders, 2/3 full is recommended whether you have a center agitator or not. Your load should be no less than 1/2 full and no more than 3/4 full For those without an agitator, its all the more important you should aim for a load size of about 2/3-3/4 full because (unlike front loaders with the help of gravity and some top loaders with the help of agitators) top loaders without an agitator rely much more heavily on the laundry rubbing against each other to achieve proper agitation. Those with an agitator in their top loader can usually get away with smaller size loads. Personally, having an HE top loader with the center agitator, I found from experience that I can launder as few as 18 pocket diapers and flats (which fills my drum half way), but any less than that and I would come across spots where EBF stools would cling and not be properly agitated out (usually close to or in the elastics), thus requiring bulking the load and rewashing. 


So, no matter your machine, 2/3 full is generally optimal (which looks like 80% full in a front loader without crossing the first row of holes of the drum near the door). Got it? Good.

But what about the actual process? For that, you can read Part 2 here!

Thanks for reading! Have any questions? Did I forget to mention something important? Want to share your experience? Comment below, we all want to know!

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