Are Stained Diapers Dirty?

I really feel compelled to address a very common misconception. I’ll start by stating what should be obvious:

The perfect laundry routine can yield stained diapers.

Why is this profound? Because so many people believe stained diapers are dirty diapers. They are not the same! A stain does not mean a diaper is dirty! Of course, a diaper can be dirty and stained, but just as well, it can be clean and stained.

Let’s look at what a stain is, just by definition. I like wiki’s wording here best as it’s more inclusive: a discoloration that can be clearly distinguished from the surface, material, or medium it is found upon. They are caused by the chemical or physical interaction of two dissimilar materials.

Those stains found in cloth diapers after they were already washed are protein-based enzymatic stains. They are considered among the harder-to-lift stains, but their presence doesn’t indicate residual body fluids. Rather, the molecular interaction of the bodily fluids (usually the stools in particular) with the fabric leaves a discoloration behind.

Think of it like tie dye! Of course, with tie dye, the point IS to stain the fabric, which you do by exposing it to dye that has been introduced to (usually) water which allows the dye to permeate the fabric and change the color of the fabric. My point is, once all the dye is rinsed out, you’re left with a colored article of clothing. Does that mean there is still dye in the shirt? No, but you can see the results of the dye having been there! The fabric did absorb components of the dye (color pigments) which changed the color of the fabric. Yet you can rinse and rinse and rinse and it generally stays the same color. Assuming you fully rinsed it, you won’t see dye rushing out, either.

Color pigments aren’t dirt.

When your baby soils their diaper, their stools can interact with the fabric and leave a discoloration behind because the color part of the molecules (chromophores) act like a dye. This is a molecular interaction within the fabric itself in which, even while stools are washed away and no longer there, some color pigment (chromophores) remains on the fabric. One wouldn’t look at a mustard stain on their pants and say “my pants are still dirty!”. They would say “oh no, my pants are stained!” The mustard is gone, but the discoloration left behind lingers in the fabric.

Now the thing about protein-based stains, which is pretty much the type of stains all bodily fluids are, is that they are best fought with enzymatic detergents. So do you need a detergent with enzymes to properly clean cloth diapers? Not necessarily. I’ve personally had success getting cloth diapers clean with an enzyme-free detergent and I’m far from alone. However, they are effective at reducing the likelihood of staining as they more effectively break down the protein-based molecules responsible for leaving discoloration behind into smaller pieces more easily removed by the surfactants in detergent. However, even the best enzymatic detergent can leave you a stained diaper, especially if you wash in warm or hot water. So then what do you do?

Don’t throw it in the dryer. Look, you aren’t going to forever ruin your cloth diapers and set a “permanent stain” by drying them in the dryer. The stain will eventually fade, regardless… albeit more slowly. However, heat does mess with the proteins in these particular stains that can make them extra difficult to remove, and you probably already washed them with warm or hot water already. Heat makes these stains far more stubborn and the dryer won’t help remove the stain. In fact, it will add to your challenge. Instead of drying in the dryer, take them straight from the washer and lay them in the sun! Window light is even suitable! Oxygen bleach (like Oxyclean) will work to help prevent stains, too, in the wash. But how?

Again, it’s a molecular thing. First of all, color is the absorption of light. That is how we perceive colors. So when a stain, or chromophores, are left behind from a substance in large enough amounts in the fabric, they will absorb that light and now we can see discoloration: the stain. In order to “bleach” out the stain, you need to oxidize the molecules responsible for the visibility of color. Sunlight excites electrons in the chromophore’s molecular structure, causing them to become more reactive and decompose quicker as they react to the oxygen in the air, which makes the chromophores break, thus it cannot absorb light, fading the stain. Oxygen bleach does this same thing but chemically rather than naturally. It activates when combined with water to break down the molecules responsible for seeing color.

The diaper was already clean before the chromophores were broken.

Stains are unappealing and look dirty, and yes it’s possible that a stained diaper is also dirty, too… but if a diaper has been properly washed, it can be both stained and clean.

On that note, a dirty diaper isn’t always stained… a diaper can be both unstained and dirty as well.

You hear a lot on BST pages and chats how some people refuse to buy “dirty” (they mean stained) diapers. The fact is, buying used, stain-free diapers won’t guarantee that you’ll get clean diapers, neither does buying stain diapers mean you’re getting dirty diapers. Anytime you purchase a used diaper off a BST, you should always wash the diaper before using it. If it’s stained, pretreat it with a stain lifter or oxygen bleach before washing, and lay it still damp in direct sunlight to fade the stain if it’s still there. Over time the stain will fade on it’s own, too.

So… in summary:

A cloth diaper stain isn’t poop residue, just color residue. Color can be caused by soil, but doesn’t indicate the presence of soil. Likewise, the lack of color doesn’t indicate the absense of soil, either, only the absense of chromophores (color).

What have you found most effective for removing stains?

Thank you for reading, God Bless!

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2 thoughts on “Are Stained Diapers Dirty?

Add yours

  1. Thank you for sharing! The sun always amazes me! I love learning new things and I didn’t know why stains happened, so thanks for teaching me something new!


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