Cloth Diaper Laundry Additives: Enzymes

When to use enzymes with cloth diapers

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.

Conflicting Information

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.

Image © Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com

Cloth Diaper Detergent Choices

Cloth Diaper Detergents

Your choices of detergent for washing cloth diapers range from conventional, off-the-shelf detergent to special cloth diaper formulas to DIY recipes. Before you decide, though, know your own specific situation. Take the mystery out of cloth diaper detergent choices.

What most parents really want to know first about washing cloth diapers is what detergent to use. This seems like a simple question, but it isn’t. I deliberately covered hard water, pH, washing machine, and residue before coming to the question of detergent because they all matter.

You probably won’t notice much difference when you wash your clothes with any basic laundry detergent. Use what you have. Use what you like. No problem.

Make more careful choices when laundering cloth diapers, though. Diapers have a much bigger job to do than clothes, bedding, and towels. With cloth diapers, issues like residue build up over time. When a diaper is washed 2-3 times a week for a 1-3 years, you will notice stink, wear, and leaks. The detergent you choose makes a big difference, especially if you are trying to get your diaper washing routine right from the start.

Simplest Choice
Allen's Naturally Laundry Detergent

If you want to skip all of the reasons for various choices, go straight to Allen’s Naturally. This is our top choice of detergents for cloth diapers.

Allen’s is formulated for sensitivities, so it contains no dyes, fragrance, or residues that can be irritating to the skin. It is biodegradable and contains no phosphates, so it is safe for septic systems. Works with hard water—even well water. Specially formulated for HE and standard washing machines.

Does it sound like a miracle? It isn’t, really. It’s just a very simple detergent that does the job. We like that.

Considerations

If you are willing to look at your situation to choose the best formula, these are a few of the issues you can consider.

Hard Water: Consider Formula

Most of us have hard water, water rich in minerals. These minerals can keep your detergent from working as well. Hard water can leave mineral build up in your diapers and in your washing machine, keeping either or both from working as they should.

Avoiding laundry additives can help not to aggravate stink issues when you have mineral build up. (More on that next week.) Choosing a hard-water formula can help to break the residue cycle. You can use stink busting laundry treatment, but you are better off choosing a detergent that works for your situation in the first place.

Choice: Rockin’ Green Hard Rock

Washing Machine: Consider Amount

The most important detergent choice relating to your washing machine is how much to use. If you have a high-efficiency (HE) machine, you need less detergent. The general rule is to use about half of the amount that you would use in a conventional washing machine. You get less heat and less water with an HE machine, so more detergent would not rinse out well. The problem, when washing cloth diapers, is that this might not be enough to get your diapers clean. You have options to tweak your routine to make an HE machine work well for cloth diapers.

Hearing that they need less detergent, some parents go to extremes and don’t use enough detergent to lift the soil from their cloth diapers. This can lead to the dreaded barnyard scented diapers, not from mineral or detergent residues but organic residues. Especially with polyester, microfiber, PUL, and other petroleum-based fabrics, you need to be sure to use enough detergent.

If you are having trouble rinsing detergent completely from your diapers, you might consider a liquid laundry detergent.

Choice: HE formula or half the amount of a non-HE formula. Liquid detergent.

Diaper Style: Consider Formula

If you use only cotton diapers, especially flats or prefolds, you can get away with a lot wider range of detergent choices. These diapers have fewer layers, so it is easier for water to carry detergent through every part of the diapers to clean them thoroughly.

If you use hemp or bamboo rayon diapers, you still have a lot of choices, but you need to avoid detergents that could leave residues because these fabrics are so absorbent that they are more difficult to rinse.

If you use polyester or PUL diapers, you need to be more careful use a detergent that will not cause leaking or build up. Many detergents formulated for cloth diapers will work well with pocket diapers, all-in-one diapers, and polyester covers.

Choice: Low-residue or no-residue formula. Most detergents formulated for cloth diapers will work.

Sensitivities: Consider Formula

If your baby has sensitive skin prone to rash, you should avoid laundry additives and laundry treatments. That can be a problem if you need to use washing soda to break up residues, so work to avoid residues in the first place. That brings us back to Allen’s Naturally, developed in 1979 by individuals suffering from multiple chemical sensitivities to be free of dyes, perfumes, and chemicals.

Choice: Allen’s Naturally

Cloth Diaper Detergent Lists

Most manufacturers will give you a list of laundry detergents they recommend. Some have worked with detergent manufacturers to create their own formula. If you use only one brand of diapers, go with their recommendations. They have a lot of experience in getting their diapers clean, and they want you to have a worry free experience.

If you use a variety of brands and styles, you may need to shift to detergent that is generally understood to work well with cloth diapers.

Bummis provides a comprehensive list of laundry detergents, along the reasons each is or is not appropriate for cloth diapers. Bummis is always my most trusted resource because one of the owners of Bummis was a biochemist before she was a cloth diaper manufacturer, and she is very careful about her recommendations.

Many customers are surprised to find Tide Free (Tide Nature) on the Bummis recommended list. If a customer is using Tide, and it’s working for them, at bynature.ca we won’t try to convince them to switch to a “cloth diaper safe” detergent, but we do tell them it may void some warranties. If you are comfortable with this, then, by all means, continue using what works for you. Tide Original Powder also works for many cloth diapering parents despite the additives.

DIY Detergent

You will find some manufacturers who tell you not to use homemade detergent on your diapers. Specifically, they want you to avoid common ingredients in homemade laundry detergent—natural soaps that will build up in your diapers. So, avoid those ingredients. That’s easy. If you are determined to make your own laundry detergent, follow this cloth diaper detergent recipe from Eco-friendly Family. No soaps, no residue, just basic clean without additives.

Next week I’ll talk about detergent additives. You will find lovers and haters for every cloth diaper laundry additive. We’ll give you the scoop so you can keep your choice evidence based.

Image © Norman Pogson | Dreamstime.com

5 Tips for Controlling Diaper Odors

As you get into your cloth diaper routine, you always look for ways to tweak and improve. One area everyone wants to improve is controlling diaper odors. These five tips are the main ways I cut down on cloth diaper odors.

1. Change diapers just before you go to bed if baby went to sleep hours ago and wets soon after falling asleep (to avoid the morning ammonia smell)

2. Leave the lid off the pail near a window or door and include a charcoal deodorizing disk in the pail lid.

3. Put a few drops of essential oil in the pail.
I like tea tree, but others seem to love lavender.

4. Adjust your washing routine. If you have chronically smelly washed cloth diapers, the problem might be detergent residue.

Then, the big one.

5. Use ENOUGH detergent.

Yes, cloth diaper manufacturers tell you to use a small amount of detergent, usually only 1-2 tablespoons. We find that many customers take these recommendations to the extreme and are not using enough detergent to actually get their diapers clean. They are so afraid of residue that they use as small amount as possible. You have to consider the size of your load and adjust these recommendations accordingly. If the diapers are coming out of the wash and they still have a bit of an odor, you may need to use more detergent.

Detergent Residue on Cloth Diapers

Nellie's natural laundry sodaDetergent residue is a film that can be left on your cloth diapers and on everything you wash. You probably don’t notice it, unless your cloth diapers start leaking or smelling. Usually, there is nothing wrong with the diapers. The solution is usually in changing your washing routine. Residues can also be caused by minerals from hard water, or even residues from creams or ointments used to treat diaper rash.


Leaking – Wicking and Repelling Diapers

Residue can cause leaking. Leaky diapers can mean that fabrics that are supposed to repel moisture absorb and spread it instead (wicking) or fabrics that are supposed to absorb moisture repel the moisture instead, leaving it beading up on the surface or squeezed out the sides of the diaper rather than absorbing through the fabric. PUL covers are vulnerable to wicking, and polyester fleece diapers are vulnerable to repelling. Hemp or unbleached cotton diapers can also repel moisture if they haven’t been prepped for use, rinsing oils and waxes.


Smelly Diapers

Residue can cause smells. The filmy layer of the residue can trap particles that hold odors and leave your diapers stinky. If your diapers smell more than they used to, detergent residue is a likely culprit.


The Detergent Residue Fix

Residue on cloth diapers can be fixed. Don’t go buy new diapers. You can remove the residue.

If you have a problem with the detergent you are using, stop using it – or stop using so much. Sometimes the problem can be caused by using more detergent than can easily be rinsed from the diapers. You may need less detergent or another rinse.

Rinsing, rinsing, and rinsing some more will usually solve the problem. The hotter the water you use, the less rinsing you need to do. This is the same technique you should use to rinse natural oils or the waxes used in knitting hemp and cotton when you prep hemp or unbleached cotton diapers for use.

Don’t use chlorine bleach, but you can use oxygen bleach if you find that rinsing alone isn’t solving the problem.

You may have heard of stripping cloth diapers. Cloth diaper manufacturers “do not recommend the use of laundry additives (including vinegar and baking soda),” but you will find a lot of cloth diaper users who use both vinegar (acidic) and soda (alkaline) to remove detergent residue. If rinsing with water alone does not remove the residue, you need to use something that will break it down or dissolve it.


Solution

The solution to residue is in the washing and care of your diapers. If the residue is caused by diaper cream and you need or want to continue using the cream, consider using a cloth diaper liner.

Choose a laundry detergent that is approved for cloth diapers. Major cloth diaper manufacturers issued cloth diaper washing instructions through the Real Diaper Industry Association. Find a detergent that fits their criteria.

Keep in mind, though, that most of the problems with detergent residues happen with PUL and polyester fleece diapers. Natural soaps contain oils that can leave residues. This is a much bigger problem for polyester and polyurethane materials than for natural fibers. You may also have difficulties with residue on natural fibers – cotton and hemp diapers or wool diaper covers – but the issues will be different and the optimal diaper detergents will be different.

Look at the washing recommendations for the diapers you use. If you use a big mix of diapers, use the industry recommended instructions. If you have unusually hard or soft water, keep this in mind when making your choice. When you find a washing routine that works, stick with it.


How do you know if your detergent is working?

Your cloth diapers will smell clean, they will absorb liquids readily (as opposed to repelling them) and your detergent will NOT be causing your baby to have diaper rash.

You don’t have to live with stinky, leaky diapers. The solution is easy.

The Secret to Avoiding Leaky Diapers

Leaking diapers! That’s bad news. If urine runs right off your diapers and out the legs, you may have a problem with detergent residue. This can happen with any diapers made with synthetic fabrics, which means most pocket diapers or polyester diaper covers.

Fuzzi Bunz reusable cloth pocket diapersThe secret to avoiding detergent residue is simple: wash diapers properly.

1. Use a high-efficiency, low-residue detergent without whiteners, brighteners, and certainly without fabric softeners. Make cloth-diaper friendly detergent choices. Country Save, for example, leaves less undissolved solids in washed fabrics. In Canada, try Nature Clean detergent.

2. Use more water. If you have a high-efficiency washing machine, you may not be using enough water to rinse the diapers well. Use an extra rinse or possibly a full wash cycle without soap after the soapy water has drained. You might also want to throw a wet towel in with the diapers at the beginning of the cycle, since a heavier load means more water. If you are trying to save water, though, avoid the need by following step #1.

3. Avoid diaper rash creams, which can create a similar build up. Or, if you need to use creams, use a cloth wipe or diaper liners between the diaper and the area of your baby’s skin covered in cream.

If you are careful to avoid anything that can build up on the fabric and become a barrier to absorption, your diapers will continue to absorb and keep your baby dry.