Cloth Diaper Laundry: Do You Use Baking Soda and Vinegar?

Using baking soda and vinegar to wash cloth diapers

Understanding basic laundry science helps you get your cloth diaper washing right from the start. Understanding the basics of all of your household cleaning lets you use the simplest cleaners that do the job. We broke down household cleaning into five ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen.

When we apply that same idea of getting down to basic ingredients to cloth diapers, though, we don’t always end up with a solution that works for the diapers we have. When pushing the pH of baby diapers back to neutral (newborn skin and water pH 7), it is tempting to use baking soda (pH 9) or vinegar (pH 2) because we have them right there.

To clean grease from kitchen tiles or mold from walls, vinegar is a big help. Vinegar can help you break down mineral build up in your washing machine. But, if your problem is detergent build up in the washing machine, you should use baking soda. If you don’t know the difference and you use the wrong cleaner, it won’t help. They aren’t interchangeable.

You probably won’t hurt your tiles or walls by using the wrong cleaner, but your cloth diapers are different. They are made of material that is easier to damage. Use caution when you add baking soda or vinegar to your cloth diaper wash because they can have negative effects on some materials commonly used in cloth diapers. When they are safe to use, make sure you are using the right natural cleaning ingredient for the right job.

Sometimes I think manufacturers might be extra cautious with warranties that forbid specific additives because they want to simplify things for you, which is understandable. I wouldn’t want to encourage you to use additives restricted in warranties because I might not have all of the facts. What if I said, “Yes, of course baking soda is fine with your diapers,” then you use it on your bamboo rayon diapers and find that they start to disintegrate. Always look for the wash recommendations from the manufacturer of your cloth diapers. Listen to the manufacturer first. They know the cloth diapers, and they want you to succeed in using them.

Baking Soda

  • What it is: sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), mined from evaporated mineral springs. pH 9 (alkaline)
  • What it does: react with acids; absorbs odor as the microscopically porous molecules trap particles causing the odor. You may notice bubbling in hot water, as it releases carbon dioxide (CO2), leaving sodium carbonate (Na2CO3, washing soda) and water.
  • When to avoid it: when washing bamboo rayon, since it breaks down the fibers. It doesn’t just cause minor damage, it tries to return these extruded fibers to their pre-fiber goo state. IMPORTANT: DO NO USE WITH BAMBOO RAYON.
  • When to use it: in your dry pail as an odor absorbing pre-treatment. Not generally a problem as an ingredient in detergent, unless you are using rayon diapers.

Vinegar

  • What it is: solution of acetic acid (CH3CO2H). pH 2 (acidic)
  • What it does: dissolves mineral deposits (such as those left by hard water). Can be used as a natural antimicrobial (if you need to re-wash musty diapers left wet in the washer overnight)
  • When to avoid it: with PUL diapers and covers. Use sparingly with any product that has elastic.
  • When to use it: in wash to counter mineral build up in diapers and in final rinse as a natural fabric softener. Vinegar has many uses in laundry.

Asking Our Customers
As we go through week after week of cloth diaper laundry advice, we are answering questions that we hear in the store and online daily at bynature.ca. One of our goals is to figure out where are customers are starting from. We don’t want to tell you what you already know. You may have noticed more cloth diaper laundry surveys than usual on our Facebook page. This is what we learned from you about baking soda and vinegar.

What Our Customers Say about Using Baking Soda on Cloth Diapers

I’m pleased to see that many of you are reading the wash instructions from manufacturers, and you know when baking soda is not recommended for your diapers.

Many of you use baking soda to deal with diaper pail stink or in the first rinse for general diaper stink. For some, baking soda was the solution to desperate stink situations.

Customers mentioned hard water in answer to both our baking soda and vinegar questions. Hard water causes some build up issues. How do you know if your have detergent build up or mineral build up in your diapers? Baking soda can help with the detergent build up (then, once the build up is gone, add more water and rinsing to your regular routine to prevent it happening again); it isn’t going to help with mineral build up, though, and it isn’t going to soften your hard water.

What Our Customers Say about using Vinegar on Cloth Diapers

It really surprised me to see so many people say they avoid vinegar because of hard water. I think we’ve run into one of those rumors about cloth diapers that isn’t actually based on the science.

Vinegar is not counterproductive in hard water. On the contrary, vinegar breaks down minerals. Vinegar will soften your water. Vinegar is commonly used as a natural fabric softener because it breaks down minerals.

If you have mineral build up in your diapers, bust that residue first. Then, go ahead and use vinegar. If you have a regular issue with this, you need to work on adjusting the basics of your wash routine because vinegar is not causing the problem of stink.

It’s true that some manufacturers recommend against vinegar—probably for the sake of simplicity, though likely because a lot of undiluted vinegar could break down soft plastics like PUL and elastic. Follow their advice IF you are using those materials. If you are washing all cotton prefolds or wool soakers, vinegar is your friend. Always remember when you are washing—or even before that when you are planning which cloth diapers to use—that not all cloth diapers are the same. Simpler materials require simpler cleaning.

Despite the bad advice about vinegar and hard water, I see that many people have had success with vinegar. Some use vinegar in every wash as a fabric softener, and some use it a couple of times a month.

As with all of the additives you can use when washing cloth diapers, it helps to know your diapers, your water, and your machine and choose your routine and ingredients based on your specific situation.

Image © Frannyanne | Dreamstime.com

Cloth Diapering Without Stuff

Mother holding baby

If you are serious about cutting down on stuff, it is simple to cloth diaper your child without all of the extras and accessories because the simplest diapers do the job beautifully.


Diaper-free without Stuff

If you are very serious about cutting down on stuff, go without diapers altogether. Elimination communication is a beautiful way to respond to your baby’s needs. Most diaper-free babies do wear cloth diapers occasionally, but they aren’t generally going through a dozen a day. If you are willing and able to focus on your baby enough to catch cues, you won’t need more than a few cloth diapers.


Wake Up to Marketing

Even if you decide to go full steam ahead for cloth diapers, you don’t need a stash, one of every brand, one of every color, or all of the accessories. And, you don’t need to believe the biggest ad campaigns that plant specific brand names in your mind as The Diaper to Own.

A week ago on Jian Ghomeshi’s Q on CBC, I listened to his interview with Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed. I knew I was going to be writing about cloth diapers today, so I was very excited to tell you about this interview and this book. Martin Lindstrom is a marketer who wants to helps us as consumers understand how market research leads to subtle tricks that persuade us to buy. The stories he tells as he outs his own industry will shock you, and they should. He tries to make the process of persuasion transparent for us.

Applying this to cloth diaper marketing, step back from your non-conscious reactions diaper brands’ ads, posts, and carefully shaped personas to prioritize your actual needs over what diaper brands tell you your needs are. Sure, you want a free diaper, but do you really need to buy five new diapers to get it? Sure, you like prints, but do you really need one of each? Sure, you want “eco-diapers,” but are single-use diapers inside reusable, plastic-laminated polyester covers really your idea of “eco”? Bring your reactions into consciousness to make your decisions deliberate and transparent.


Be Conscious of Your Actual Needs

The not-so-secret secret to parenting without stuff is letting your specific needs guide your buying rather than letting yourself be swept away on a wave of marketing. The five points of Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative are Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, and Reimagine. Even if we do find ourselves in need of a solution to some parenting issue, we don’t necessarily need to buy new. We can make, repair, borrow, and buy used to meet the need. We think we need diapers, but we can reimagine that need by learning more about elimination communication. There are far more answers available to us than the conventional.

Start by asking yourself what you need then give yourself some time for creative thought. How might you meet that need without buying a single-use problem solver and spending your hard-earned cash?


How Many Diapers Do You Really Need?

I’ve told the story before of my friend who has never bought a diaper. Her second child is approaching two years old. She has always used cloth diapers, but she is just open to accepting hand-me-downs. All of her diapers are passed on to her from others. I’ve seen some of my children’s old diapers in her stash, so I know those diapers are circulating around the city doing diaper duty for baby after baby. If you have a community of like-minded parents, it will be a lot easier to cut down on buying the stuff of parenting.

If you are collecting or even buying, what do you really need? Plenty of my friends used nothing more than 18 prefold diapers, a couple of wool soakers, and a bucket to hold them until wash day. You could cut up ragged towels (sew around the edge, so you don’t have strings that could hurt your baby) and knit a soaker. Don’t sew or knit? Look for used diapers. Can’t find any? Buy a few simple diapers. Start very simple then only expand your diaper stuff when you find that what you have isn’t quite working yet.

If I were starting over, even after years of using and making so many diapers, I would use flat diapers and wool covers. That’s all.


Bonus!

Your bonus for breastfeeding without stuff, babywearing without stuff, and cloth diapering without stuff is saving a lot of money.

A cloth diapering advocate local to me posted a photo last week of a huge pile of boxes of disposable diapers at a big box store. They were on sale—reduced some ridiculous amount. She said, “Even if you buy these diapers at this reduced cost, it will cost you more to diaper your baby than if you use cloth diapers.” If you use prefolds rather than diapers that tout useless innovations to solve problems you don’t have, you will save hundreds of dollars a year. Be vigilant!

You’ve probably already read a dozen messages today asking you to buy stuff this week. It’s the biggest sales week of the year. Saturday, I’ll share a few ideas for giving without stuff.

Image © Jason Stitt | Dreamstime.com