How to wash cloth diapers
Scroll down for preparation instructions
The GMD 16 page How-To Wash Diapers Booklet is available when you add it to your cart: How To Wash Cloth Diapers Booklet. The Booklet is more detailed than this page is but this will give you a great start.
There are many ways to wash cloth diapers. If you ask 10 people how to wash diapers you will get 10 different answers. But no worries. You will come up with your own system that works best for you. Diaper laundry is the best laundry in the house. Nothing to iron, you don't need to worry about wrinkles, all the diaper laundry is together in one load so there's nothing to sort or hang up. You don't really need to even sort it at all if you don't want to. You can use them right out of the laundry basket. But it's fun to pile them with baby. It's very satisfying to accomplish something tangible in the day. The diapers are soft and lovely when they are done. I think it's much more fun to stack clean cloth diapers with baby than the alternative method of - carseat, drive, shop, pay, then add to the landfill. Diaper laundry is my favorite laundry.
Babies love to help with the laundry. It's fun!
Prep the diapers first. Scroll down for prepping information. Prepping means preparing - doing the initial wash cycles to prepare new diapers before using them.
There are many ways to wash diapers. Washers vary, detergents/soaps vary, and water conditions vary (hardness, acidity/alkalinity, etc.). Try different ways to find out what works for you.
Here's our favorite method: Run a cool or warm wash cycle with detergent first. Then hot wash with detergent on regular cycle. Extra rinse once or twice. That's it. Easy!
There is no one-best way and you need to come up with your own set-up and your favorite wash routine over time. It's really not complicated when you choose easy-to-wash cotton diapers. It can get complicated if you choose synthetic pocket diapers and it does get difficult with microfiber or bamboo charcoal inserts. Choose cotton for simplicity.
Here is the basic outline of all wash routines
Step 1. Somehow you need to get the pee and poop off the diapers so that your main wash is not full of soiled water.
Step 2. Run a main hot wash with detergent to clean the diapers.
Step 3. Somehow you need to rinse the diapers so the detergent is no longer in the diapers.
Step 4. Get the diapers dry somehow.
For a newborn baby's diapers, put the soiled diaper into a dry well-ventilated pail or basket or hanging wet bag. A pail liner is optional. A breastfed baby's soil is a bit like yogurt so you can decide if you want to dunk or spray off the diaper or not. If you spray or dunk off, you will have less staining, but some staining is not big deal and you can decide if you want to do that or not. When it's time to wash, and you use a pail liner, use the pail liner to transport the diapers to the machine. Use the pail liner like a glove as you turn it inside out putting the diapers into the machine. Throw the liner in the machine for the wash but take it out before the final rinse.
Small apartment with a washer? Try the No-Pail Method. Some people don't use a diaper pail at all, but instead simply put all diapers directly into the washer and now and then run short or rinse cycles occasionally so they have no odors, until the washer is full enough to run their regular diaper washing washes. This works well if you happen to have a changing area near the washing machine, and is truly odor free since the diapers get rinsed out frequently. Remember, if you have a small washer, don't buy as many diapers (2 dozen will be plenty, washing about 14 at a time and the rest for spares and use during wash time- but keep all of the diapers in the rotation for even wear and longevity). Just wash more frequently because you don't want to overload the small washing machine. There are so many ways to do this and set things up! I mention the no-pail method just to show you how many different ways there are to set things up and to get you thinking about your own physical set up and what will work for you in your situation.
Shared laundry facility? Buy a diaper sprayer and use it. This way the diapers are starting fairly cleaned off, then wash as usual doing two wash cycles on hot with detergent . Rinse well. An extra rinse at the end is always recommended. Mainstream fragrance-free detergents are recommended for shared laundry facilities because of what everyone else has used it the machines.
How do you get the pee and poo off the diapers? Spray or dunk the soiled ones. The Potty Pail is wonderful for spraying off the diapers before they go into your diaper pail. Learn more: We don't sell the Potty Pail but offer a link to their website because it is our favorite sprayer.
For mainstream synthetic detergents we strongly recommend fragrance-free options for baby's lung and brain health. Today's chemically encapsulated long-lasting fragrances should be avoided. Why? They do not help clean but they do cover up uncleanness odors and you need to know if the diapers are clean or not. Besides, the chemicals in "fragrance" are trade secrets thus they are not disclosed so you have no way to know if they are safe or not. Many people are fragrance-sensitive (that is, get migraines or have other negative health effects from laundry fragrances) and you don't yet know if your baby will be fragrance-sensitive or not, so fragrance-free is the safer choice.
Coconut-based natural detergent options are another option. Detergents vary and ingredients change so we don't offer a list of approved detergents but detergents are not all equal.
Read the directions on the Oxiclean or other oxygen bleach packaging and follow them if you use that.
Do some label reading. If the package states "brightens colors" or has whiteners or brighteners, or "optical or UV brighteners", you can decide if that is ok with you. It is difficult to avoid optical brighteners if you choose liquid.
Fabric softeners are designed to coat fabrics and we suggest avoiding them and don't even own them. Do not even own scent boosters so they aren't accidentally used on the diapers and also to avoid cross-contamination. Products designed to coat things cause buildup and possibly rashes and will make your covers leak and wick. Don't coat your diapers with stuff. They will not absorb as well and can cause rash. Stick with fragrance-free and dye-free whenever possible. We do not recommend homemade DIY detergent. They often cause problems (rashes), they don't have enough surfactants, are harsh with high pH caustic soda ash, washing soda, or borax causing premature fabric wear and and the dirt can redeposit on fabrics.
Do your own research on your laundry products. You can read more about my (Karen's) laundry opinions if you are interested. Choices are different for everyone.
Enzymes are good and help clean. If you are not ok with mainstream products, then there are many natural detergents available on the market today. For example, Azure Clean Washing Day Powder, Country Save, BioKleen Laundry Powder, Ecos, Ecover, Green Shield and others get good reviews. It's not always possible to avoid brighteners since so many products do contain optical brighteners. There are plenty of good choices readily available.
Gentle or natural products can work but don't expect instant magic when choosing gentle, more natural products. You might need to boost it with oxygen bleach or run an extra cycle.
BioKleen Bac Out (enzyme laundry additive) is wonderful for getting ammonia stink out. Use it in an initial cold cycle if you need extra deodorizing power in addition to your detergent. This is usually not needed for cotton items, but can really make the difference if you are using synthetics or anything not 100% cotton.
Another good product to try if you run into ammonia odors is Rockin' Green Funk Rock Ammonia Bouncer. It's a buffered acid product and it works well to remove ammonia issues if you run into that problem.
We have no affiliation with any laundry product but I share my thoughts and experiences here.
Occasional use of oxygen bleach cleaning products are good if needed when added to the hot cycle for extra disinfection but do not use it as a detergent. You can even use some chlorine bleach occasionally, diluted, in the machine (never in tub) but use it wise and don't overdo it so you don't ruin the fabrics. Never put bleach in a dirty machine. Run the clean cycle first. Occasional use of a little bleach is ok and it can fix issues if needed.
How do you know if your diapers are clean? Put your nose right up to a clean diaper and breathe in. If it doesn't smell like nothing at all, or smell "clean", it isn't. Wash it again. Don't cover up uncleanness with scents. Choose fragrance-free so you can figure out if it is clean or not. Be sure diapers are thoroughly rinsed to prevent irritations. If baby gets redness on his bottom, it may be time to disinfect your diapers, or you might need to use more detergent. It does take using enough detergent to get things clean. Look in the washing machine for suds during the final rinse to make sure they are rinsed. Try a swish test. A swish test means putting a clean diaper in a bowl of warm water and swishing and squeezing it for a few minutes. If you see lots of detergent come out of the fabric, fix that problem. Some is ok but a lot is not. Clean the machine then rewash in just water only to get the leftover detergent out. Detergent stuck in the diapers is high pH and it can cause a caustic burn on baby's bottom which appears like a sunburn everywhere wetness touched skin. So-called wetness sensitivity may be a high pH detergent burn from too much detergent stuck in the fabric. Rinse completely.
Vinegar can be added to the first or second rinse to help get the detergent rinse out easier. The vinegar is acidic and it breaks up the bubbles and the detergent rinses out easier. Vinegar can be helpful to bring the pH of the diapers down. Skin does prefer a lower pH environment to benefit the skin's natural protective bacteria. Many people do find less redness when using vinegar in the rinse. Try different ways to see what works for you and your water conditions. Vinegar is fine for regular diapers, but it is better not to use vinegar on the all-in-ones or the covers because it is an acid and might eventually damage the waterproofing or elastics.
Don't use fabric softener on any of the diapers or covers. It decreases the absorbency of the diapers. But if you must, look into Meyers for possible consideration.
Be very cautious and careful if you use bleach. Bleach greatly shortens the life of your diapers. But sometimes adding a tiny bit of diluted bleach occasionally is useful if you run into odor problems. I do use diluted bleach once in a while since my well water is not chlorinated. City water is chlorinated already. Overuse will damage things, but careful, occasional light and diluted use can be very helpful if needed. Be sure to rewash and dry again after bleach is used. When used wisely and occasionally, it can be a problem-solver.
Hard water? (that means your water has a lot of minerals in it - if you get soap scum easily in your bathtub then your water is hard), try adding some Calgon Water Softener or other softener or Charlies Soap Booster Hard Water Treatment which is potassium diphosphate if you prefer unscented products (but follow caution warning if on a septic system, and never use it in rinse cycle since it is very high pH). Add the softener to the water first and let it disperse in the water before you add the detergent. Calgon and other similar water softeners are ok for the diapers. Yes, you still need to rinse well even if you have hard water even if a school of thought says not to extra rinse with hard water. Detergent left in diapers will cause red bottoms so do get that out of the diapers to restore proper pH. We can't tell you how much to rinse and neither can anyone online. Only you can figure out what works in your water and wash situation from your own observations and experiences.
***Don't follow anyone's instructions blindly, including these.***
Online helps are information to help you learn but they are not rules. Minerals in the water such as iron can be problematic. Consult a water care specialist if needed. High pH water needs help too.
Link to more of my (Karen's) laundry thoughts.
If you experience so-called "detergent buildup" just run a few hot cycles with just water. This is called stripping your diapers. If you rinse properly and choose laundry products that don't coat your diapers (no dryer sheets, no fabric softener, no fragrance boosters) then you'll never need to strip.
Keep your washing machine clean. Run the clean cycle monthly. I like Active Washing Machine Cleaner because it works very well and it has no scent. The mainstream-fresh kind leaves behind fragrance and it is not as effective as Active in our home tests.
If you have not kept up with cleaning your machine regularly, run the clean cycle with Active Washing Machine Cleaner or a similar product a few times in a row to catch up. You would be amazed at how much gunk can build up in machines that are not properly maintained. Brown flecks on laundry is evidence of a very dirty machine and/or fabric softener has been used in the machine and built up in the outer drum. If you see flecks, run the clean cycle or a deep hot cycle quite a few times with the washing machine cleaner to fix the problem. Empty your filter if you have one regularly, too. Look up your machine's manual to find out what you are supposed to be doing to maintain it. Don't expect your diapers to get clean or rinse easily if your machine is full of 5 years of detergent residue. Clean your machine! It's important for all your laundry.
A clean machine helps keep baby's bottom rash-free.
For stubborn rash creams stuck on the diapers, hand scrub it out with bar soap or a drop of laundry detergent at your sink. We do not recommend Dawn. It is for dishes not diapers and has a smell that never goes away. Just read the ingredients in Dawn online and then you'll likely also decide not to put them near your baby's bottom. We do not recommend using dish detergent in your washing machine ever. You'll likely have oversudsing and the product is not designed for laundry use. It could break your washer. Dish products are not meant for laundry!
Use enough detergent! Not using enough detergent is a most common mistake. The dirtier the load, the more detergent is needed so don't skimp on detergent. Rinse out any diaper soil that you can first, wash often, use enough detergent to get things clean, and rinse completely. Clean your washer often. A zillion bubbles without adding detergent? Clean the machine to get the stuck gunk out of the machine. You can do this.
Polyester Diaper Covers
For longest life, wash warm. Hang to dry over a rack, not the hanging long way so you don't stretch out the elastics. Washing on hot may be ok. Follow tag instructions for the product. You can dry in the dryer but remove them when dry (after 15 minutes perhaps). Please do not use dryer balls if your laundry has snaps- dryer balls can damage snaps. Never pull or stretch a warm elastic. Allow them to cool first. Line drying in the sun is not good for covers but an occasional short time layed flat in the sun for a quick freshening can be ok, but don't overdo it.
Polyester diapers and microfiber inserts are hard to wash. Choose cotton for hassle-free washing and fewer rashes. When the diapers wash easily, they are cleaner and that means fewer rashes and less stink. Cotton diapers really are the best reusable diapering choice. Want stay-dry? You can add a stay-dry liner or doubler if you find that stay-dry is important to you. Usually it is not important to baby. Just change the diaper often, as you should anyhow. Stay-dry is usually not needed but it is still an option when choosing cotton diapers. Already have microfiber? Repurpose them as dust rags. For easiest washing, we recommend replacing microfiber inserts with cotton inserts or doubler or prefolds as inserts or flat birdseye diapers folded into rectangle.. Eliminating synthetic inserts including bamboo charcoal (which is microfiber renamed) from your diaper laundry makes sense. It really is true that synthetics are difficult to wash.
Wool is naturally water resistant because of the natural lanolin on it. As you use and wash wool, some of the lanolin wears off, so they need to be re-lanonlized. Don't worry, it's easy! View the video of how to lanolize here. And because you can re-lanolize, wool covers can last through many children! This is a good thing! To re-lanolize, dissolve 1/4 teaspoon of lanolin in hot water and add a little olive oil soap or other gentle surfactant to keep the lanolin from glopping. Fill the sink or container with warm sink water, then put the wool covers in. Keep the water warm so the lanolin stays melted and doesn't glop. Gently wash and rinse then roll in a towel to get out excess moisture. Be mindful of not stretching to twisting the wool so that it doesn't get out of shape. Set them out to dry in a dry place, turning over occasionally to help it dry.
How often to relanolize them? Once a month, or once every few months, but sometimes more often, usually less often. Wool wash containing lanolin will add some lanolin and will decrease the need for relanolizing. Olive oil soap or other gentle bar soap can be used instead of liquid wool washes. In many ways, wool is actually easier to care for than synthetics because you can keep re-using the cover over and over without washing it. On a toddler, I often go for several months between washings, with 4 wool covers in rotation if I don't let the wool get really wet often. I think wool is very easy, and I love they way wool stays fresh and doesn't stink like synthetics do if you don't wash them frequently. Wool is quite easy once the poops settle down and baby is older. But for explosive, liquidy, breastfeed poops, wool can be more work than synthetics. Hand wash out poop from wool.
View the how to wash wool VIDEOS .
Wool does not need to be washed often, because the lanolin is naturally antibacterial, so they don't get smelly, and air out to be fresh again. Wash wool in a product made specially for washing wool, such as Eucalan or olive oil soap. Washing by hand is best. Use room temperature water, not icy cold water; don't shock the wool. BE CAREFUL NOT TO SHRINK YOUR WOOL COVERS by agitating too harshly. Knit wools must always be hand washed, but the felted wool covers can be machine washed if you have a very gentle wool cycle if you choose, but we recommend handwashing. If you decide to machine wash, you can, but expect some shrinkage. Let them dry out of direct sunlight in a dry place. Never use a dryer. Don't put a fan directly on them either. A dryer will shrink your wool covers and ruin them.
How does wool work? See it demonstrated:
Go to the How to Wash Wool page.
See videos of how washing machines work to help you learn how to wash diapers in your own washer.
“Prep” your diapers of all kinds and other new cotton items including doublers and stay-dry doublers before using. In short, this means washing them several times on hot and drying them in between cycles before using. Please read the details below, which is for diapers, not covers. Covers should not be prepped with new diapers.
Inspect the diapers before you wash them. Make sure you received what you ordered before you wash them. Please check the diapers for defects before you wash them and contact us report any defects to us and we will take care of you.
Recommended but optional first load separation: If you have also purchased items that are fuzzy and might shed a lot, it is optional but it can be helpful to just once wash and dry them separately, or with your towels, to get those fuzzies off. It can be helpful to wash and dry “sheddy-things” once separately from your prefolds or Workhorse diapers before washing all your diapers, doublers and wipes together. “Sheddy-things” are terry (includes two-sided wipes), sherpa or other soft cotton items that will shed. Shedded fuzzies can get caught in the twill of the prefolds, making them appear pilly. Most people skip this step and just wash everything together and that is fine because any shedded fuzzies will eventually end up in the lint screen anyhow, but if you want to avoid shedding transfer like I do, you can do this one-time separate load.
1. For prefolds of all versions, doublers made of prefold fabric, Workhorse diapers, muslin and birdseye fabric, first, do one cold or warm cycle with just water. This first cycle with no detergent added will rinse out any residual stuff from the manufacturing process. It helps clean out residue in your machine, too. You do not need to dry after this first water-only cycle (it’s optional), but we recommended this initial water only cycle before you begin your prepping on hot. The initial water cycle is highly recommended and improves softness. Now you are ready to begin hot prepping cycles.
2. Wash hot regular cycle with detergent then dry on normal. Repeat. Repeat. (Yes, dry in between cycles.)
Drying is important for shrinkage and proper break-in and yes you do need to use detergent. Please do not use dryer balls if your diapers have snaps or flaps - dryer balls can damage snaps and pull on the sewn in doubler of the Workhorse Fitted diaper). Both white and unbleached items do need to be prepped (washed several times before first use). Don’t try to rush the prepping by using a sanitary or superheated cycle especially in the first 2 or 3 cycles. Whitened items should be ready to use after 3 or 4 cycles. Unbleached might or might not be ready to use yet. Check absorbency by putting some water on a dry diaper. If it soaks in right away, they are ready to use. If not, rewash. Check again. If still not absorbing, then check to see if your water is hot inside the machine and perhaps use more detergent next time. Make sure the water level is correct to get proper agitation. Don’t overdo detergent because there is no dirt in the load to use up detergent, but you still need detergent to break up the natural cotton oils. Unbleached cotton oils are sometimes quite stubborn so keep washing them until they absorb quickly. Correct water level for proper agitation (fabrics rubbing against each other in the machine) also helps to remove the oils. If you normally use a water softener additive, do continue to do what you normally do. Don’t fix something that is not broken. Apply what you already know from your regular laundry to your diapers, too.
Some pilling is normal. Diapers and doublers do need 4 (or more) hot washes before you use them on baby, no matter what kind or brand, white, unbleached, bamboo rayon or hemp. Don’t use oxygen bleaches or washing soda additives when prepping so your diapers don’t get rough and to minimize pilling. If they do get pilly, don’t worry, pills eventually wash off or you can pick them off manually. Too much oxygen cleaner or too high pH and too high of a wash temperature in initial washes can cause extra pilling but some pilling is normal. Beware of some sanitary cycles and steam cycles if they have temperatures over 150 degrees or so which damage fabrics – find out what the actual temperature is. Hot should be about 105-125 degrees. When diapers are new, clean your lint screen halfway through the dry cycle because they will shed a lot at first. We do not recommend boiling diapers.
My new prefold diapers are huge and flat. Yikes! They don’t look like the pictures.
They are big and flat at first but will shrink and get soft and quilty after a few washes and dryings. Some will “quilt” more than others and that is normal. Front load washers or any style washer that pushes the fibers together will shrink the cotton during prepping more than a washer style that pulls on the fibers the fibers will. A traditional top load machine pulls down along the agitator compared to a lift-drop-curl motion of a front load machine. The motion affects the initial shrinkage but the amount of cotton remains the same with any style machine so the absorbency is the same no matter how much they shrink or don't shrink. We do not treat the cotton with silicone or such chemicals so it really is real cotton, which is great. Prefolds are thus a very non-standard product from a grown plant, with many variations even from one diaper to the next. That is the nature of this kind of fabric.
Help! My unbleached diapers don’t absorb!
Prepping with many cycles in your washer is recommended. Unbleached cotton has its natural water-resistant coating (called cotton oils or cotton wax). This includes unbleached prefolds, organic cotton, Growing Greens fitted diapers, hemp doublers and diapers, unbleached doublers and diapers, anything with unbleached organic cotton or unbleached cotton or hemp, including stay-dry doublers. It takes quite a few washings and dryings for them to reach their full absorbency. Drying in between can help. See above section on prepping your new diapers. Be patient. Keep washing them. Use enough detergent. Make sure the diapers are agitating properly so they rub against each other correctly and the water lever is correct for the load size. Add some small towels if you need to fill up space to get proper agitation. The most common prepping problem is trying to prep a small amount of diapers alone. Many machines are just not effective with a very small load size, and dryers can't dry tiny loads either. Get the load size up to a size that will actually work. They will be absorbent soon enough and will continue to improve with use.
Spin cycle speed – When prepping diapers, for the first few cycles especially, use a medium spin speed, not high or ultra. The fabric will become stronger after shrinkage has occurred so don’t be overly rough on them in the first cycle or two. Some newer washing machines have such high speeds that they can damage or rip apart fabrics, so know your washer and what it does.
The 16 page paper How-To Booklet is available free with your order. The Booklet is more detailed than this page is but this will give you a great start.
Stains happen. Once in a while, if you can and you want to, a little sunshine is nice fade the stains. Support elastics as in this picture of size small Workhorse diapers because the sun can warm elastics. Don't pull on a warm elastics or they can lose elasticity. Likewise, allow diapers hot from the dryer to cool first. Some dryers have a cool down phase at the end of the cycle for this reason.