What is in your laundry detergent? Even if you read the ingredients, you might not know what the ingredients are or what they do. Plus, if you are washing cloth diapers, you probably have in mind a list of additives to avoid because they void warranties.
In the spirit of asking WHY we should avoid every little thing rather than just giving you mysteriously vague rules to follow, we’re getting into the details of detergent additives today. We hope this will help you choose which detergent to use for cloth diapers and understand why you might even choose a separate detergent for the rest of your laundry.
- What it is: organic chemicals such as amino triazine, coumarin, and stilbene (that’s organic in the chemical sense not the agricultural sense)
- What it does: gives the appearance of a whiter fabric. Think of these as little light reflectors that sit above the surface of the fabric fooling your eyes into thinking the real yellows of the fabric are more blue.
- When to avoid it: always! You don’t want to use anything in your cloth diaper laundry that leaves a coating on the fabric.
- When to use it: never an appropriate additive for use with cloth diapers and not necessary with your other laundry.
- What it is: chemical compounds
- What it does: a very small amount of color fools your eye into not seeing the underlying color of your laundry.
- When to avoid it: always! Can leave a coating or, in some cases, be an allergen or irritant.
- When to use it: never an appropriate additive for use with cloth diapers an not necessary with your other laundry.
- What it is: chemical compounds that act as cationic surfactants
- What it does: positive charge aligns on the surface of the fabric to create a lubricating coating, which feels soft to the touch and prevents build up of static electricity.
- When to avoid it: always! For cloth diapers, do not use detergents with added fabric softeners. Even more than most of the other additives listed here, this will leave a repelling coating on your diapers that prevents fabrics from working as intended.
- When to use it: Never. You can soften your cloth diapers without chemical softeners.
- What it is: chemical compounds vary
- What it does: coats the fabric surface to repel stains during wear. Works in a similar way to fabric softener.
- When to avoid it: always! Avoid anything designed to leave a coating because it will cause leaking and repelling.
- When to use it: Never. The key to avoiding or removing stains from diapers is in how you treat the diapers after a diaper change. Use enzymes, warm pre-rinse, or sunning for natural stain removal.
- What it is: artificial fragrances are chemical compounds that mimic natural scents; natural fragrances are usually extracted oils
- What it does: smells nice, sometimes masking an underlying unpleasant scent in laundry that isn’t quite clean
- When to avoid it: avoid artificial fragrances always. Avoid them not just in your laundry but throughout your home. Many of these chemical compounds are known allergens, irritants, and toxins.
- When to use it: if you want a nice smell in addition to clean, use essential oils, BUT even these oils can coat the fibers of your cloth diapers and cause residue build up. Essential oils can be removed (washed out) of fibers easily, but you might want to avoid them for laundry.
- What it is: might be listed as “natural extract” on a detergent ingredient list. Fats or oils in natural soap can come from many different plant and animal sources, such as olive oil, milk, or soy. Saponification, the process of making natural soap, is a chemical reaction between lye (caustic) and fats or oils. Most laundry detergents are derived from petro-chemicals (oil and gas, primarily), but there are natural laundry soaps. Notice the difference in the use of the words “detergent” and “soap.”
- What it does: could be a component of natural soap, an added scent, a natural fabric softener, or natural stain guard. Usually a natural replacement for one of the other additives listed here.
- When to avoid it: in most cases, the oils in natural soaps will cause residue build up over time. I prefer to avoid petro-chemical products, but you need to understand the consequences of using natural products.
- When to use it: some parents find no problem with natural soaps or soap nuts. If you want to go all natural and you have no problems, that’s perfect. If you do have build up but you don’t mind busting the build up with an occasion wash with RLR Laundry Treatment, that works. Ultimately, though, we’re trying to help you create a wash routine that works without leaving any kind of build up on your cloth diapers.
Free and Clear
- What it is: microbiocidal or microbiostatic agents. Quaternary ammonium chloride and alcohol are two examples often used in detergents
- What it does: kill (microbiocidal) or inhibit (microstatic) the growth of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, which could cause odor, staining, or allergies.
- When to avoid it: if your fleece or PUL pocket diapers are leaking or repelling, this could be the culprit. These agents might be reacting with your water.
- When to use it: many parents find no problem with free and clear detergents, but use with caution. Look for signs of leaking, and discontinue if it happens.
- What it is: living enzyme cultures, most often in laundry detergent you will find protease (breaks down proteins) and amylase (breaks down carbohydrates)
- What it does: breaks down (eats, digests, processes) organic materials that cause stains and odors
- When to avoid it: when the warranty on your cloth diapers prohibits use of enzymes (maybe) or your child experiences redness or sensitivity (if you trace it back to enzymes). Most children will not have problems with diapers when enzymes are used in the cleaning. Studies suggest that it is not even possible for enzymes to cause rash and redness, since they do not attack living cells. It is common among cloth diaper people to recommend against the use of enzymes, but we find them a very useful, low-environmental impact addition to washing heavily soiled laundry such as cloth diapers, socks, and T-shirts.
- When to use it: pre-soak or low-temperature wash. See our detailed post about enzymes in cloth diaper laundry from earlier this week.
The Basic Cleaners
- What it is: sodium borate, mined from evaporated lakes or produced synthetically
- What it does: softens water; converts water to hydrogen peroxide. Works better in hotter water.
- When to avoid it: because borax is caustic, it could cause some breakdown in soft plastics and latex. You might want to avoid it on covers that have soft plastics (PUL) or elastic and on diapers with elastic. If you have trouble rinsing your laundry completely because of an HE washer or a detergent that leaves a residue, don’t use borax. It can be a skin irritant if left in residue. In general, though, borax used properly and rinsed completely is just one of the basic ingredients of laundry detergent. Keep it away from children and pets; don’t breathe it in; don’t use it around food.
- When to use it: use freely with prefolds. Many homemade laundry detergents use borax as an ingredient. Unless you have trouble rinsing out detergent, it is safe.
- What it is: sodium bicarbonate, mined from evaporated mineral springs
- What it does: in baking, it acts as leavening agent by reacting with acidic ingredients to release carbon dioxide; in laundry, it is used as a softener and odor absorber.
- 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: sprinkle 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.
- What it is: sodium percarbonate (or hydrogen peroxide, when liquid)
- What it does: breaks the chemical bonds of color, such as stains that you are trying to remove from diapers.
- When to avoid it: low temperatures, since it only works at higher temperatures. In general, you don’t need to avoid oxygen bleach or hydrogen peroxide. This is a safe alternative to chlorine bleach. If you notice excessive breakdown of fibers or if you are washing primarily PUL, you might want to use it only sparingly.
- When to use it: generally safe for health and environment as an additive in laundry detergent or as an additional treatment for laundry.
Which laundry detergent additives you avoid often depends on your water, your washing machine, and the type of fabrics you are washing. We hope that understanding detergent ingredients will help you pick a detergent that will work for you from the start.