You’ve heard that enzymes are bad for cloth diaper washing, yet parents use them safely. Why? We will tell you what enzymes do, and when are they useful.
There is a lot of conflicting information about enzymes and cloth diapers, and parents find it confusing. Manufacturers know their products, so we look to them for laundering advice. Some say, “absolutely use enzymes,” while others say, “absolutely not.” You will even find that using a detergent with enzymes invalidates one manufacturer’s warranty when that same manufacturer sells an enzyme (microbe) spray for pre-wash treatment to be used on every diaper, cover, and insert. No wonder we are confused.
What Enzymes Do
Enzymes are proteins that catalyze chemical processes, processes like metabolism, which breaks down foods in our digestive system to produce energy. In laundry, enzymes break down soils and bacteria that cause stains and odors. Break down, digest, munch, or catalyze—all of those words give you the right idea. We don’t have to understand the science on the micro level to understand that enzymes help remove soils from laundry.
There are many thousands of named enzymes and many thousands more waiting to be named. Only a few of them are used in laundry. Among those I found listed in detergents are:
- amylase (breaks down carbohydrates, like starch)
- cellulase (breaks down cellulose, like bamboo, cotton, mud, or grass stains; used to prevent pilling)
- lipase (breaks down fats, like grease stains)
- mannanase (breaks down simple sugars)
- pectinase (breaks down pectin from plants)
- protease (breaks down proteins, like wool, silk, blood, or poop stains)
Some detergents and laundry additives will list ingredients for you, so you can figure out which enzymes they are using for which specific purposes.
For dirty socks, sweaty t-shirts, or dirty diapers, it is particularly important to break down the organic matter that causes stains and odors. For most of your wash, breaking down soils really doesn’t matter that much because the mechanical and chemical processes of laundry release soils on their own.
The Claims & Rumors about Enzymes
The general consensus is that using enzymes on cloth diapers is bad for diapers, bad for babies, and bad for the environment. All wrong, though I think I understand how the absolutes of this consensus got started.
Bad for diapers. A sliver of truth. The claim is that enzymes break down fibers on a diaper, but that is only true for some fibers. Cellulase is added to anti-pilling detergent formulas, and it does break down the tiny fibers that are raised above cotton fabrics. That is one enzyme. Avoid it. Different enzymes break down different materials. They don’t all mysteriously attack all diapers.
Bad for babies. No. This is the controversy, since no one wants to do anything that causes harm to babies, so manufacturers and diaper washing parents avoid anything that might cause harm. Enzymes are blamed for harm that they aren’t capable of causing, though. More on this below.
Bad for the environment. Also, untrue. Enzymes are naturally occurring and biodegradable. When I see someone say, “I don’t want to use those harsh chemicals or nasty cleaning agents” about enzymes, I don’t know where to start. Actually, adding enzymes to detergents lowers the overall environmental impact of the detergent and allows you to get the same cleaning power without using as much heat. Remember the WATCH formula of Water, Agitation, Time, Chemicals, and Heat? When you adjust one factor, you can reduce the others. Enzymes catalyze the reaction with soils so you can reduce heat as a factor, so you lower the environmental impact of your washing even more.
I also see certain statements repeated and passed from person to person.
“React differently in different situations on different babies.” That says nothing while implying that enzymes are unpredictable. They aren’t. Once you know how they work, you can predict them. All this says is that the function of enzymes is a mystery to some who give cloth diaper laundry advice.
“Activated by water.” I think I can see where the idea of “activated by water” came from. Enzymes in powdered detergents are coated with inorganic salts and sugars, then cellulose fibers, then waxy materials. (Waxy materials! I see residue.) The resulting granules prevent damage in the box of laundry detergent. The enzymes aren’t free to begin breaking down soils until the heat and water break down their coating. They aren’t so much activated by water as released when the water breaks down their coating.
“Activated by water” was then turned into “OMG! If enzymes are left in my cloth diapers after the wash, they will become activated when my baby pees and eat my baby’s skin.” I’ve seen many websites, both those of manufacturers and those offering independent cloth diaper advice, assure parents that baby pee activates enzymes. Some go on to say that these activated enzymes will attack the healthy, delicate skin of babies. “OMG! OMG! Horrible, terrible, very bad blistering bleeding rashes.” The problem with that logic, though, is that the protein digesting enzyme, protease, doesn’t break down living cells. Protease is one of the enzymes created by the human pancreas to break down proteins into amino acids during digestion. It doesn’t break down your whole digestive system—it just breaks down the food you eat.
So, let’s back up. First, if your wash routine is leaving any kind of residue, you need to change your wash routine.Try another rinse. Second, this enzyme doesn’t eat (digest, attack, or harm) our living tissue. In a beautifully myth-busting article, Mona of Soap Nuts points out that such enzymes are used in spa treatments to get rid of dead skin cells.
There are three misunderstandings here: 1) it’s usual that enzymes are left in residue on diapers (wrong! residue is the result of a wash routine that needs adjustment), 2) that a baby peeing on enzyme residue left in a cloth diaper will activate the enzymes (wrong! the granules from detergent wouldn’t make it through the wash), and 3) that those enzymes will eat away at the skin of the baby (wrong! they don’t break down living cells). These are slips of logic that we should not perpetuate.
Sometimes—I would venture to say, usually—cloth diaper expertise passed from parent to parent is a good thing. Other times, rumors snowball out of control and become absolute truth despite the lack of evidence.
Our goal with this diaper laundry series on EcoBabySteps is to dispel rumors and mysteries by looking at the evidence and the reasons behind all of the (sometimes conflicting) information you have heard about your cloth diaper laundry.
When Enzymes Work
Enzymes in liquid pre-wash spray work without any other help. They begin to break down organic materials that leave stain and odor. Enzymes in liquid detergent begin their work as soon as they meet soil in your wash. Enzymes in powdered detergent begin their work as soon as their protective coating is dissolved. Because you’ve already begun to break down the poop, stains, stink, and nastiness that you are trying to wash out, you can lower the other WATCH formula factors to get the same results with your laundry. If you are using enzymes with cloth diapers, you probably need the extra boost of cleaning power, though, so you might not want to lower the other factors.
A little is all you need. Enzymes continue to work after a chemical reaction is complete until there are no more reactions available. Just understand that more isn’t better.
When Enzymes Don’t Work
Enzymes won’t work in high pH. In cloth diaper wash, that means you waste the enzymes if you use baking soda or bleach. Enzymes also won’t work in high heat, which is usually fine, since you don’t need super hot water to get the same cleaning power. (I’m curious about this, since one source of enzymes is micro-organisms that live in hot springs.)
What About Sensitivities
It is possible some people are sensitive to detergents with enzymes; it is possible they are sensitive to some other ingredient in those detergents. Studies have looked at whether diapers washed with enzymes cause more skin rash. One study of 360 babies showed that those who wore diapers washed with biological detergent containing enzymes were no more likely than the test group to get rashes. (Granted, the neutrality of that study was disputed because authors have ties to manufacturers of products that use enzymes.)
Does that mean your baby won’t get a rash? No. Should you stop using enzymes if you think they are causing a problem? Yes. Does that necessarily mean enzymes are the culprit? No, but stopping doesn’t hurt.
Why the Conflicting Information
Whenever I hear a rumor run rampant about cloth diapers or some other aspect of parenting (if I even recognize it as a rumor), I wonder where it came from. I think there is too much to figure out. It’s difficult to dig down to the evidence in every case, so we tend to believe what we hear often enough. Plus, even if we dig, it’s tough to understand the science.
Rather than figuring out what each laundry additive does or explaining the situations when it might be helpful, it’s easier to protect a product warranty by recommending against. In the case of enzymes, I think it has been easier to lump them together with residue-causing laundry additives and dismiss them
Will Enzymes Damage the Diapers?
Wool and silk, probably, since they are proteins. Bamboo rayon, don’t know, but rayon is a more fragile fiber than most, so I wouldn’t want to find out. You can reduce your rayon diapers to mush through your chemical experiments if you aren’t careful. PUL, don’t know. Polyester, highly unlikely. Polyester is chemically inert. There is nothing for the enzymes to catalyze. Cotton, unlikely, though some detergents with enzymes that promise to keep fabrics looking new (anti-pilling formulas) do so by munching away at the little fibers that work their way loose from the main threads. Do all enzymes do that, no, cellulase does that.
My final answer about damage to diapers: I don’t know. I think that’s a great question to answer with research, though.
So, to Use Enzymes or Not to Use Enzymes
I’ve heard many times, “Enzymes don’t make sense to me, so I don’t use them.” I hope they make more sense now. I hope you see the situations in which it would make sense to use enzymes when you are washing cloth diapers.
I used Biokleen Bac Out Stain and Odor Eliminator on my babies’ diapers. I had no trouble. I even found out the hard way that it would not cause harm when ingested (when my toddler took a gulp of Bac Out, and I called the company in a panic to find out the ingredients).
If you don’t have stains or odor, don’t bother. If you do have stains or odor, use enzyme spray directly on the soiled area of the diaper and let sit for at least 10 minutes before you wash. I just sprayed on the diaper before putting it in the pail. I didn’t add Bac Out to the wash.
If you still have stains and odor after pre-treating, you might want to try a detergent with enzymes, keeping in mind that this will invalidate the warranty on some (PUL) diapers. It won’t harm the diapers, but as long as the manufacturers think it will and you want to keep the diapers under warranty, you may want to avoid enzymes. If you are willing to use a detergent with enzymes, you might be surprised to hear that many parents who have trouble with other detergents on cloth diapers use regular, original Tide, which does have enzymes (among the many dozens of Tide products, you will find different enzymes). Tide Original also has brighteners, which are a cloth diaper no-no because they leave a residue by design. You could try Tide Free without brighteners to get a similar effect. You experiment and use what works.
If your child is very sensitive or SOMETHING is causing a rash, cut out all of the extras and use Allen’s Naturally laundry liquid. Add extra rinses. Change your wash routine.
But, the answer is not that cloth diapers are bad or cause rashes or that enzymes are bad or cause rashes. The answer might not even be as simple as direct cause and effect, so just choose the simplest options that work for you.
Using enzymes as an additive is one more tool in your cloth diaper laundry toolkit. Use enzyme products when you have stains and stink.