What’s the craziest way you’ve ever heard of to ruin your cloth diapers? How about putting them in the dishwasher or adding fish tank ammonia remover. You don’t need crazy solutions to get your cloth diapers clean.
We joke in the store with customers, asking them to please avoid reading online forums and following random advice they find for helping with odour issues. A so-called solution that we’ve had customers tell us about more than once is putting their diapers in the dishwasher. Before you resort to the dishwasher, please come and talk to us instead.
Avoid Laundry Crazy by Understanding Laundry Reality
One of the crazy town solutions that makes the rounds of cloth diapering forums at least every year or so is fish tank ammonia remover. This is a good example of tossing mysterious solutions at mysterious problems—until you decide to look at the evidence.
Let’s just back up here to the basic messages we have been focusing on for the past two months in our cloth diaper laundry posts.
- We want you to get cloth diaper washing right, or as close as possible to right, from the start so you don’t get the problems that cause chronic laundry issues.
- By understanding basic laundry science, we hope you won’t be tempted by wildly inappropriate solutions that don’t really address your issues. When you have issues, basic science helps you find solutions. Once you solve the problem, you adjust your wash routine to avoid the problem.
So, now let’s say that despite your best efforts you have cloth diapers that smell painfully and nose-burningly of ammonia. You know that you will need to adjust your laundry routine, but you have to get rid of the ammonia first. You need to start clean.
To breakdown the residue that holds on to the ammonia smell, use washing soda in addition to your regular detergent. If plain washing soda (sodium carbonate) doesn’t do the job, use RLR Laundry Treatment. The main ingredient is still washing soda, but this is a stronger formula than the washing soda you can buy in the grocery store.
Washing soda softens your water. The calcium and magnesium that have deposited in the fibers of your diapers and that are in your hard water waiting to deposit more are countered by the washing soda as it bonds with the minerals. Washing soda can also remove oily or greasy stains. If the problem is residue from oil-based detergents, washing soda can help you remove the oily residue.
Should you add RLR or extra washing soda regularly? No. You shouldn’t need to strip your diapers regularly. If you do, you have problems that you aren’t addressing with your regular laundry routine.
Will the washing soda hurt your diapers? That depends on your diapers. If you use bamboo rayon diapers, you might want to avoid sodium carbonate (washing soda) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Most manufacturers will tell you to avoid ingredients that will damage the specific materials of your diapers, so do pay attention to recommendations. Alkaline ingredients in detergent can be caustic, causing damage over time. The ammonia you smell after concentrated urine reacts with oxygen can also cause damage. So, let’s get it out! You don’t want to use extra washing soda for every load, but you do need enough to break down the residue that is holding on to smell in your diapers. And, you need to make sure it is all rinsed out. If not enough water or rinsing could be the reason for your build up in the first place, make sure that you rinse well so you will have no trace left of the detergent and washing soda. Don’t make the problem worse.
Why not just use the fish tank ammonia remover? What we hear is, “Seems like it must be gentle if it’s OK for fish.” Fish tank ammonia remover is sodium methanal sulfoxylate (or sodium hydroxymethane sulfinate or sodium formaldehyde bisulfate), 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. You already have the right additives that are formulated for your laundry. Don’t resort to mystery ingredients that you don’t understand.
Stop cloth diaper washing gimmicks before they start. Investigate the science of what is happening in your diapers, what you want to happen in your diapers, and how to bridge the gap between the two.
Goldilocks Laundry Solutions
So, if a little washing soda is good, a lot is better. Right? Not so fast. You know that isn’t true. Some washing soda in detergents is good. That does the job of cleaning. Extra washing soda for occasional stripping is a symptom of an unbalanced wash routine, but it still won’t hurt most diapers. It does not follow that all diapers should be washed with extra washing soda for every wash.
Not too much. Not too little. Just right.
Detergent. I hope you would be surprised how often we hear that a family has stinky diapers, and we find out that they are using only a Tablespoon of detergent for a whole load of diapers. If you add too little detergent, you will get a build up of organic materials in your diapers. That’s still residue, but it’s a residue of urine and feces. Nice, huh? If you add too much detergent, you will get a build up of detergent in your diapers. That residue holds smells. So, taking into account your washing machine, especially if it is a high-efficiency (HE) machine that needs less detergent, and your water quality, since hard water needs more detergent to clean well, you find the balance. Water quality, machine type, and diaper material are all important considerations when you decide how much detergent to use. Need help navigating through it all, come see us. If you don’t live nearby Orillia, write to us. We know cloth diapers very well, and we want you to succeed.
Water. Another issue we see, especially with HE machines, is not enough water to wash or rinse adequately. Too little water, your diapers can’t move around and the water doesn’t move through them, so you get residue. Too much water, your diapers don’t get enough agitation to help remove soil. Again, residue. Watch the wash cycle in your washing machine. Can you tell whether you have enough water? Can you adjust your water? Even with an HE machine, you can often choose a different setting to get more water to your diapers. Not too much. Not too little. You know the rest.
Heat. If you dry without heat, your diapers will dry eventually—probably. If you don’t live in extreme humidity. There isn’t much danger with too little drying heat. If you use too much heat in the dryer, though, you may find the thin layer of soft plastic that provides waterproofing to your diapers separates completely. It looks cool to see a clear balloon of plastic blow up off your diapers. Not so cool when you realize your diapers don’t work anymore. So, go ahead and try very little heat, but don’t try too much heat.
Sun. Beautiful, natural sun. Can’t have too much, right? Wrong! The extreme heat of direct sun is fine for your cotton prefolds, but you should take them out of the sun once they are dry. There is just no reason to break down the fibers in the heat once you have taken full advantage for drying. Polyester diapers with layers of laminate and elastic and snaps would be better off out of the sun. Dry them flat or on the line. Dry them inside or outside, but you don’t need that direct sun—unless you are really curious to see what cracked laminate looks like.
Bleach. If a little bit of oxygen bleach is good, is does not follow that a lot is better. Much as in the case of washing soda, you shouldn’t need it every time, and you don’t need a lot. If you use chlorine bleach (which we do not recommend), you can dissolve your wool or bamboo diapers. You can even break down the fibers of cotton if you leave it in bleach long enough. Just avoid chlorine bleach and go with oxygen bleach, but only when you need it.
Essential oil. A little essential oil smells nice, so a lot will smell nicer, right? Well, it might smell nicer until the oil builds up a residue on the diapers—leaving you with the stink magnet that you are trying to avoid. Clean diapers keep coming back to residue and stink. There is no particular reason to add smells, even nice smells, to your diapers just for the sake of fragrance.
Enzymes. Avoid them because of a rumor that they are no good very bad, or use more than could ever actually do any good? I choose neither. Enzymes break down organic materials. Different enzymes work on different materials. Using enzymes to start the work of cleaning your diapers is very helpful. So, add more to clean them even better? No. The same enzymes will keep eating through the waste on your diapers until there is no more waste to break down. Adding more doesn’t help. It just gives you more enzymes to rinse out. A little squirt or spray on the diaper before it goes in the dry pail is enough.
Does some of the advice in this post seem familiar? I hope so. I’ve tried to review the guidelines we’ve given you. I want you to hear the basics of laundry science until you no longer feel tempted by half-truths and all-out misunderstandings about diaper laundry. Once you understand the basics of pH, water quality, your machine, and your materials, you will be able to choose the detergent, the water temperature, the wash cycle, and the rinses to get your diapers clean. Once you really get those basics, it’s not so difficult. Good for you choosing cloth diapers. It really is worth it.
Next week I will wrap up our laundry series with a recap of each of the articles, all gathered up in one handy place so you can remember where to start when you need help.