How to Ruin Your Cloth Diapers

Don't ruin your cloth diapers

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.

Image © Luis Viegas |

Cloth Diaper Washing: Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?

Woman outside with laundry

Let’s play a game. Is your cloth diaper animal, vegetable, or mineral? Did you know that each requires a different approach to cloth diaper laundry?

Have you ever heard of the old parlor game, Animal Vegetable Mineral? It was actually based on the taxonomy of the natural world created by 18th-century Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. These three natural kingdoms give us a useful way to think about how to get different cloth diapering materials clean.

Different materials need different treatment to keep them functioning well for diapering.


Wool! Wool, the hair of sheep, is commonly used for diaper covers. Occasionally, the hair of other animals is used. Cashmere, the hair of Cashmere goats, makes a beautifully soft and silky diaper cover for a lucky baby.

Wool is used as the outer layer in diapering, the diaper cover or soaker. Wool works by absorbing moisture into its core, but tightly knit, woven, or felted wool fibers also make a whole fabric that will repel moisture. The structure of each hair itself, with overlapping scales, keeps the outside of the fiber from feeling wet, so wool is an ideal fiber for diaper covers.

Wool is sheared from the animal, giving the animal a haircut. The fibers are combed, spun into yarn, then woven or knit. With wool, you can also skip the yarn and fabric making by felting the fibers together. During the felting process, the scales on one fiber open then close onto other fibers, creating one strong fabric of connected fibers. Felted after a fabric is knit or woven is called fulling. The longer, smoother, and thinner the hair, the softer the fabric you can make from it. Merino wool is well known as a fine, silky wool.

Washing wool takes a bit more time than washing other cloth diapering materials. Most wool covers need to be washed by hand to prevent them from shrinking and felting. Some wool covers can be washed on gentle in the washer, though always check with the manufacturer to be sure. With a small basin full of room-temperature water and a small amount of wool wash, leave your wool covers to soak then swish around gently. Wool wash is usually comparable to a gentle shampoo with added lanolin (the grease from sheep’s hair) to keep the fibers soft. Gently squeeze the wool in the water to release any dirt. Unlike laundry detergents, though, you don’t need to rinse out wool wash. You also don’t need to add extra lanolin if you use a basic wool wash like Eucalan (Made in Canada!). Just gently squeeze out the water—never twist or wring—and lay the wool out flat.

Tips: Use wool wash with lanolin. Because wool is hair, it needs a little conditioning to stay soft and pliable. Wool can stretch when wet and shrink when heated. To avoid shrinking and stiffening, air dry, and to avoid stretching out your wool soaker or wool cover on the line, dry flat.

It takes only 5 minutes to wash a wool cover. It’s a little extra work, but the luxury of a soft, absorbent wool diaper cover is worth it when you are looking for natural, renewable fibers for your baby.


Vegetable fibers don’t mean carrots and peas but cotton, hemp, and bamboo—even rayon made from wood pulp—since all fibers from plants would be classified as coming from the vegetable kingdom.

Cotton grows in the field, in a protective pod that opens up, showing its fluffy mass of long fibers. Cotton is already a staple fiber that can be spun into yarn then knit or woven.

Cotton absorbs moisture, but still feels wet to the touch. Parents find that helpful when potty training, since the child is more aware of the wetness.

Because cotton is hydrophilic (loves water), it holds on to rinse water in the wash as well. You need to rinse cotton well to keep it from holding on to the detergent chemicals. Because cotton is resistant to alkali exposure, and detergents are usually alkaline, cotton diapers are a great choice for the heavy, industrial washing diapers get at a diaper service. Cotton even resists damage from that ammonia smell you get in the morning, so cotton is a great nighttime diaper. Cotton cleans very well and easily.

Tips: Excessive heat, microorganisms and mildew, and acids can weaken or damage cotton fibers. No diaper should be left wet for long periods of time, and a dry pail will keep your cotton diapers stronger longer. Whether you dry the diapers in the sun or in the dryer, remove when dry to prevent damage.

Cotton is the most common cloth diaper material because it works so well and is so easy to care for.

Curious about what organic cotton is and why you might want to choose it for diapers?

Hemp is also a popular cloth diaper material—usually mixed with cotton to give it softness. Hemp grows easily in the field. Fibers for clothing are made from the fibrous material around the stem of the plant. After softening, the fibers are spun into yarn then knit or woven into fabric.

Though hemp is less soft than cotton or bamboo rayon, the toughness of hemp makes it a long-lasting diaper—if you can get it clean every time. If you don’t clean the fibers well, they can become weak and damaged—and stinky.

Hemp has a diapering reputation for being super absorbent. While the diaper is on the baby, we love this. Once it’s time to wash the diaper, though, this super absorbency (hydrophilia) makes hemp more difficult to clean and rinse thoroughly. Hemp can be a culprit in the annoying barnyard or ammonia smells diapers can get when they aren’t cleaned thoroughly.

Tips: To get your hemp diapers clean then to rinse all detergent completely, you will need more water. Remember the WATCH laundry formula of Water Action Time Action and Heat? You may also find that you need to add more action, time, agitation, or heat to get hemp diapers clean and smelling fresh every time.

Bamboo grows as a stalk in the field. The softer inner material of the stalk is used to make textiles. The cellulose is broken down, dried, then used to create a long fiber. Because the fiber is smooth and round, it feels very soft to the touch. Softness is the main reason parents and babies love the feel of bamboo rayon for cloth diapers.

Tips: Like cotton and hemp, bamboo is an absorbent, hydrophilic fiber. The key to getting bamboo rayon to work well for your diapers long term is thorough cleaning and rinsing. Avoid caustic chemicals like baking soda when using bamboo rayon diapers. Some suggest you avoid washing soda as well, but this is the major ingredient in most laundry detergents. Lower pH works better to clean bamboo rayon. Always check with the manufacturer for recommendations of safe detergents for your bamboo diapers.

More information about hemp and bamboo rayon for cloth diapers.


Yes, mineral materials are used in cloth diapers. From polyester to microfiber, from the laminate on PUL to plastic snaps and elastic, you will find a lot of materials in cloth diapers made from mineral sources. All polymers are made from petroleum and natural gas.

Tips: The fibers and materials made from oil and gas love oils (oliophilic), including the oils in human waste. So, you need to be sure that you use enough detergent (also made from petroleum) to part the fiber from the waste then water to rinse the waste away. Sometimes parents use less detergent so it is easier to rinse or because they have HE machines, but you need to use the recommended amount of detergent to get your diapers clean.

Each of these cloth diaper materials has characteristics that some parents love, but all of them need a little bit of attention to get the cleaning right from the start and avoid the troubles and stink caused by residues.

Wool covers? Avoid detergent and use wool wash with lanolin to keep the fibers conditioned.
Super moisture-loving diapers? Use plenty of water and probably two rinses.
Bamboo rayon diapers? Avoid high alkaline detergents to get as close as you can to a pH neutral wash.
Microfiber inserts? Use enough detergent to get them clean then enough water to rinse them well. Don’t skimp!

Image © Bidouze Stéphane |

Cloth Diaper Washing: Wet Pail or Dry Pail?

Diaper Pail

Before you wash your cloth diapers, where will you store them? You can use a wet pail, which means leaving the diapers to soak in water, or a dry pail, which means not adding water.

Which will work better for your diapers? We will walk you through the pros and cons of your diaper pail choices.

The short answer: there isn’t a lot of difference in choosing wet or dry pail. Starting with a dry pail is simple, and many families don’t find the need to try a wet pail

Wet Pail
A wet diaper pail is a hard pail filled with water. The diapers soak in the water until you wash them. You can also add stain and odor eliminators.


  • Pre-soaking diapers means fewer stains
  • Less need for pre-rinse once diapers are in the washing machine


  • Some manufacturers recommend against using a wet pail for pocket diapers or PUL covers
  • Drowning risk for young children or pets
  • Heavier to carry to the washing machine (though it shouldn’t be too heavy to carry)
  • Top-loading machine is essential if you plan to pour the diaper pail into the washer.

Dry Pail
A dry diaper pail can be either a hard pail with a liner or a hanging pail (just the wet bag or liner). A dry pail isn’t exactly dry, since you fill it with wet diapers, but “dry” refers to not adding more water. You can also add stain and odor eliminators to a dry pail, though be careful not to let oils or treatments sit directly on diapers unless you know that is safe (as in the case of enzyme spray).


  • Lighter pail
  • Easier to transfer from pail to front-loading washing machine
  • No drowning hazard


  • More likely to get stains as mess sits on fabric for a day or more
  • Need diaper pail liner (though that’s not much of a con)
  • Tougher to control odor with a hanging dry pail

I used both. I put dirty diapers in a wet pail (which I stored in the bathtub, away from curious little hands), put wet diapers in a dry pail next to the changing table, and never put covers anywhere near the pail.

Which pail type you choose depends on the needs of your family. There isn’t an obvious choice for everyone, though a lot of families choose the dry pail for simplicity. Start simple with a dry pail, and move on to wet pail if you find that you have odor that is difficult to bear or control.


  • With both types of pails, your diapers are less likely to stain and your pail will be somewhat more fresh if you dump solids in the toilet before putting the diaper in the pail.
  • Any plastic bucket will work for a dry pail, though you may want to get one with a lid to control odors.
  • For a wet pail, either choose a locking pail or store pail out of reach of small children.
  • To avoid mildew, wash more frequently. Don’t leave diapers sitting for more than two days.
  • Be careful about anything you add to your diaper pail.

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.


  • 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 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 |

Cloth Diaper Detergent Additives to Avoid, Usually

Cloth diaper detergent additives to avoid

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.

The No-Nos


  • 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.

Fabric Softener

  • 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.

Stain Guard

  • 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.

The Naturals

Natural Oils

  • 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.

Baking Soda

  • 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.

Oxygen Bleach

  • 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.

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