Hard Water and Cloth Diaper Washing

Cloth Diaper Washing Water Hardness and pH

It’s likely your water is hard. You’ve heard that makes a difference in how you should wash your cloth diapers, but you aren’t sure why. I’ll unravel the knot of that problem for you.

If you can stay with me through this basic science lesson, I will offer you a way to get an older child to do the diaper laundry. All you need to do is understand basic pH, hard water, and how you can use your knowledge of these to keep your cloth diapers from building up stink.


Understand pH to Understand Hard Water

Understanding basic science helps us avoid dependence on mystery formulas of harsh chemicals that claim to have all of the answers to our cleaning problems. Most of our blog readers and store customers are actively trying to remove harmful chemicals from their homes. Once you get down to the core of what you are trying to do, it isn’t so difficult to find a simple, natural way to get the job done.

In our “Clean Cleaning” post, we broke down household cleaning into five ingredients you probably have on hand right now: boiling water, vinegar, baking soda, salt, and lemon. Which ingredients you use depends on the job that needs to be done. Always bring it back to the goal because all cleaning is not the same.

Understanding your basic cleaning goal does require a basic understanding of pH. In “Baby Diaper pH: An Intro,” we explained how alkaline (high pH, such as bleach and baking soda) and acid (low pH, such as vinegar and gastric acid) relate to the situation in your baby’s diapers. Between high and low is water, which neutral at pH7. Your baby’s skin is neutral (pH7) while yours is slightly acidic (pH 5.5). Your baby’s urine is slightly acidic (pH6), but the urea breaks down in the diaper and breaks down even further in the pail to create ammonia. You know that smell. It’s the wet, stinky diaper that greets you in the morning. It’s the whoosh of fetid air as you take the lid off the diaper pail come wash day. That is high pH.

The simple question here is: how do you wash away that ammonia and return your diapers to a non-irritating pH level close to that of your baby’s skin if you are dealing with hard water?


What Is Hard Water?

Most of us have hard water, and some of us have very hard water. Hardness refers to mineral content in the water (usually calcium and magnesium).

Rain picks up acidic elements (pollution and atmospheric gases) as it falls. Once fallen, the water picks up dissolved minerals as it runs through dirt and rock. If the rain falls on insoluble rock like granite or slate, the water doesn’t pick up minerals. More water soluble minerals in the ground mean more minerals in the water in that area. More minerals mean hard water.

These minerals are alkaline. Hard water is alkaline. That makes a difference in your cleaning.


How Hard Is Your Water?

A great swath down the center of North America through Canada and the U.S. has the hardest water; those on the coasts have less hard water. [See a chart of Water Hardness in Canadian Cities and a couple of North America maps from Bummis for comparison.]

We usually notice hardness as the minerals deposit on our glasses, in our pipes, or in a ring around our sink or toilet bowl. This mineral scale can cause build up that blocks pipes, which is one of the reasons people soften their water.

You might not notice that the minerals are also building up in your laundry. When you get build up in your cloth diapers, you will probably also get stink. The stink you notice, and that might be why you are reading now.

In the bynature.ca store, we sell water test strips for parents who are struggling and might need to know what type of water they are dealing with.


Why Does Water Hardness Matter to Laundry?

Hard water doesn’t react as much with soap. You probably notice that you don’t get suds. It isn’t just soap that hard water doesn’t react with, though. You might notice that you can’t cook beans either.

We get used to the quality of our local water over time. That’s why it’s a good idea to talk to your neighbors about water quality adjustments rather than talking to your online friends. Your neighbors are dealing with exactly the same issues you are.

I wondered if any of our customers had noticed a change in water quality after they moved, so we asked on Facebook this morning. One of our followers moved from an area with naturally soft water to a house with a water softener. She noticed that she can use more types of detergent now to get diapers clean. Just be aware when you move that your water will change. So, you adjust.

If you live on one of the areas with extremely hard water, you need to launder your clothes—and your cloth diapers—differently to get the same desired result of neutral pH diapers that won’t irritate your baby’s skin.


How You Can Adjust

If you are having trouble cleaning diapers with the water you have, you can either change your water or change how you deal with your water.

To change your water, install a water softener. These devices add softening salts to all of the water in your house or just to the hot water in your house. If you add just to the hot water, you get the benefit of better tasting cold water and better cleaning hot water. You won’t need to use as much detergent to get the same results.

To make do with the hard water you have, you can use laundry detergent specially formulated for your water type. Rockin’ Green Hard Rock is one example. That is a solution if you want to get your wash routine right from the beginning.

When you already have trouble that you need to address, break it down. If you have mineral build up in your diapers that is holding on to stink, you can use an occasional laundry treatment to bust the build up. RLR Laundry Treatment is very popular with cloth diapering parents, and Rockin Green Funk Rock does a similar job.

To back away from secret, proprietary formulas and take charge of your own wash, try washing soda. Washing soda is sodium carbonate, a soda salt of carbonic acid.

The mineral build up in your stinky diapers is alkaline. So, what do you do, add bleach? No, bleach won’t help. Add more soap? Well, adding more soap does give the soap a better chance to work, but it doesn’t address the chronic issue of mineral build up. You need to break down the alkaline build up with an acidic solution. Why not use vinegar since it’s acidic? This brings up a lot of issues (and voids some warranties), but I’ll say here that vinegar isn’t going to break down the mineral build up either.

Washing soda breaks down the mineral build up. Swimming pool formulas would break it down even faster, but that’s overkill. Fish tank ammonia remover is a toxic solution used by desperate parents who don’t understand the basic science of what they are doing. Start with the basic formula and see if that works to counter the hardness of your water and mineral build up on your diapers. If straight washing soda doesn’t work, try RLR Laundry Treatment.

Remember that falling rain at the beginning of the post picking up acidic atmospheric gases? The most significant of these is carbonic acid from atmospheric carbon dioxide. The falling rain was slightly acidic (low pH) until it picked up minerals from rocks (high pH). Those minerals are building up on your diapers and holding on to stick and dinginess. So, you bust that stinky build up without any magical mystery formulas. You use washing soda to add more carbonic acid to the water.


Once again, basic science has saved your cloth diapers.

Bonus: if you homeschool, you have an interesting chemistry lesson to teach about pH and hard water. To make it an intriguing challenge, have your older child wash the baby’s diapers as a school project! Here is the science. If you get rid of the stink, you pass.

Image © Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com.
Yes, he has underwear on his head. No, I’m not sure why.

17 thoughts on “Hard Water and Cloth Diaper Washing

  1. So, are you saying use washing soda to strip? Or instead of (or in addition to) detergent? I’ve heard it’s too caustic and will wear out fibres faster. Why is fish tank ammonia remover toxic? Seems like it must be gentle if it’s ok for fish?

    • Washing soda is used for striping in addition to (not instead of) detergent. Once you are done, though, I’m saying you should adjust your wash routine so you won’t have build up and won’t need to use the washing soda anymore. You’re right. It can wear your diapers more quickly—all the more reason to adjust your routine so you don’t need it. Whether it is too caustic depends on the diapers you use. If the manufacturer recommends against it, don’t use it.

      The fish tank ammonia remover is sodium methanal sulfoxylate (or a couple of other possibilities), not formulated for laundry. That is definitely not on the list of recommended laundry additives given by cloth diaper manufacturers. It isn’t gentle just because it’s used in fish tanks, and you have no guarantee that it will rinse out in normal washing. That could leave chemical residue on your diapers, against your baby’s skin. I’ll write more about this and other additives toward the end of our series. The basic idea, though, is that you already have the right additives that are formulated for your laundry. RLR says their formula is stronger than plain washing soda, so that is a better choice for a stronger stripper.

      • Ok, so how do you adjust your wash routine to avoid using the washing soda? I currently use Country Save, double the amount suggested for my washing machine with oxygen bleach and 2 TBSP of Washing Soda. I’m still getting a barn smell. I tried a dawn strip last night because I haven’t found any RLR yet and even though I put in a tablespoon in my top loading HE washer, I barely got any suds. I bought a water test kit, but the hard water test was missing and I have to have it reshipped to me. Given the evidence (and the build up of minerals on the rocks around my lucky bamboo plant) I’m going with a hard water issue.

        • Hard water seems likely. Barnyard smell might suggest the diapers aren’t getting clean enough within the layers.

          We generally like to find out a few more details to see if there might be something else going on. Is there any chance you are local to us and could come into the store? We would ask more questions. How many diapers are being washed per load? Are you adding water to the cycle (often suggested for HE machines) and if so, how much? What type of diapers are these? We need more information to effectively troubleshoot. You are best off to contact the manufacturer of the diapers directly, to see what they suggest first.

          We also don’t recommend adding dish soap to a machine, as it could void the washer’s warranty, but this sounds like an issue of needing to get the diapers deep, down clean. RLR could be the best option, but check with the manufacturer.

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  3. I was about to get rid of my son’s inserts, but then I heard about this rlr laundry treatment (and yes, the package looked pretty “retro”). I did a good soak overnight and when they were done, they were much fluffier and the urine smell was gone. This stuff is awesome! Great post=)

  4. So, lets say I’ve stripped with RLR and I’m in the process of working out a new wash routine to make washing with hard water as effective as possible. Is adding washing soda in addition to my detergent something I will have to do permanently as long as I have hard water? I see the comment above about adjusting the wash routine so i won’t have to always use washing soda…how do info that? I was using nellie’s when the problem started but I have since stripped and switched to the Laundry Tarts for now. I would love to stick with Nellies if I can since I bought a huge tub at Costco. Lol. But if I can only use it for clothes then so be it.

    • It’s best to check with the manufacturer of your diapers for the best answer here. They should be able to help you tweak your routine to get the best outcome. Also, checking with your local diaper store is a great option because they will know what has worked well for other locals, based on the water type in your region. Good luck!

  5. I recently moved from the city (where I never had a single washing issue) to a small town where I suspect our water is quite hard. At the same time of our move, I switched detergents (from classic RNG to Nellie’s – before i realized how hard the water was – because the big tub from Costco was more economical). My diapers became very dingy, stains are harder to treat and sunning used to work magic but doesn’t anymore :( They started to not smell clean after washing and DD got ammonia burn one night (that’s never happened before). So I read this blog post and gave my diapers a good strip with RLR and I bought some washing soda. Since I have started, I’ve noticed my diapers seem to be cleaner but continue to stay/become dingy. The inserts smell clean but the fleece on my covers and fleece liners have a smell I can’t quite put my finger on…Minerals maybe? It’s not barnyard or ammonia. Not sure why its just the fleece…
    Anyway, I was just wondering how much washing soda I should be using with each load? Also, referring to the above posts, how do I adjust my wash routine so that I don’t have to use washing soda anymore (or at least not with each load)? If I can’t change the water, what else is there to do?

    • I’m not sure what might be happening with the fleece smell only, if this is new to you. We also most definitely don’t want you dealing with ammonia burn. You are best to contact the manufacturer of the diapers directly, to see what they recommend here.

  6. So I’m a part time cloth diaperer…and I only OWN 11 diapers. SO on a given laundry day I may have 8-10 diapers being washed. If there are peed on clothes I might had another pant or shirt to it. But generally my load is small. My water is on the low end of moderately hard (It was 4.1 grains last time I checked). I do a rinse, followed by a hot wash with a full amount* of Country Save soap with the water level set to “medium” (because I don’t have many diapers) followed by a short wash (so 2 extra rinses essentially) on warm. AND I STILL can’t get all the stink out. Some diapers smell fine after a pee, some smell like ammonia. And my microfiber inserts stink out of the dryer (like the layers aren’t getting fully clean).

    Even if I had more diapers than I do, I still wouldn’t build up a big enough load in 2 days to wash on day 3. I hate to go more than that without washing.

    *I use the full amount recommended because the smaller amount didn’t seem to do the job. Can you help me troubleshoot?

    • We do offer troubleshooting advice for all of our customers, at any time during the life of their cloth diapering purchase! Please feel free to email our team at info [at] bynature.ca and a troubleshooting expert will contact you shortly. Thank you!

  7. I use chinese pre-folds which I have had for 4 years and 2 kids (2nd child is still using them). About a year ago (3 years after I bought them) they started to fall apart…..not the stitching but the actual fabric. I am so surprised. We bought these because we thought they would last us for at least two kids. When we got them and they were new the fabric was sturdy, its hard to believe that 3 years later the fabric is falling apart. It has tears in the top layer or two of the fabric. We started out with over 24 diapers, I am down to 8! I’m trying to figure out, is it the diaper….reviews rate chinese prefolds as a good diaper, not many people complain about them “falling apart”. Is it the washer machine? Is it the the detergent? We’ve used all kinds over the years (Charlie’s for 2 years, tide for half a year, Ecos natuaral for the rest of the time)….or could it possibly be the water? I think we’ve had hard water since we started diapering, and I didn’t even know it.
    I need to by new diapers for our son who is still in diapers and for a baby on the way. I want to make sure I don’t wear them out like my current prefolds.
    Any advice?

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  9. I lve in an area that has naturally slightly to moderately hard water and I also have a well. I was wondering if I should get a cloth diaper detergent specific for hard water or if maybe something like bumgenius, charlie banana,country save or tide original with a little calgon may work?

    • Shannon, the best way for us to help you find the right detergent for your area, your diapers, and your washing machine is to come in or call the store (bynature.ca), tell us when you bought your diapers from us, and let us troubleshoot with you.

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