Hard Water and Cloth Diaper Washing

Cloth Diaper Washing Water Hardness and pH

It’s likely your water is hard. You’ve heard that makes a difference in how you should wash your cloth diapers, but you aren’t sure why. I’ll unravel the knot of that problem for you.

If you can stay with me through this basic science lesson, I will offer you a way to get an older child to do the diaper laundry. All you need to do is understand basic pH, hard water, and how you can use your knowledge of these to keep your cloth diapers from building up stink.

Understand pH to Understand Hard Water

Understanding basic science helps us avoid dependence on mystery formulas of harsh chemicals that claim to have all of the answers to our cleaning problems. Most of our blog readers and store customers are actively trying to remove harmful chemicals from their homes. Once you get down to the core of what you are trying to do, it isn’t so difficult to find a simple, natural way to get the job done.

In our “Clean Cleaning” post, we broke down household cleaning into five ingredients you probably have on hand right now: boiling water, vinegar, baking soda, salt, and lemon. Which ingredients you use depends on the job that needs to be done. Always bring it back to the goal because all cleaning is not the same.

Understanding your basic cleaning goal does require a basic understanding of pH. In “Baby Diaper pH: An Intro,” we explained how alkaline (high pH, such as bleach and baking soda) and acid (low pH, such as vinegar and gastric acid) relate to the situation in your baby’s diapers. Between high and low is water, which neutral at pH7. Your baby’s skin is neutral (pH7) while yours is slightly acidic (pH 5.5). Your baby’s urine is slightly acidic (pH6), but the urea breaks down in the diaper and breaks down even further in the pail to create ammonia. You know that smell. It’s the wet, stinky diaper that greets you in the morning. It’s the whoosh of fetid air as you take the lid off the diaper pail come wash day. That is high pH.

The simple question here is: how do you wash away that ammonia and return your diapers to a non-irritating pH level close to that of your baby’s skin if you are dealing with hard water?

What Is Hard Water?

Most of us have hard water, and some of us have very hard water. Hardness refers to mineral content in the water (usually calcium and magnesium).

Rain picks up acidic elements (pollution and atmospheric gases) as it falls. Once fallen, the water picks up dissolved minerals as it runs through dirt and rock. If the rain falls on insoluble rock like granite or slate, the water doesn’t pick up minerals. More water soluble minerals in the ground mean more minerals in the water in that area. More minerals mean hard water.

These minerals are alkaline. Hard water is alkaline. That makes a difference in your cleaning.

How Hard Is Your Water?

A great swath down the center of North America through Canada and the U.S. has the hardest water; those on the coasts have less hard water. [See a chart of Water Hardness in Canadian Cities and a couple of North America maps from Bummis for comparison.]

We usually notice hardness as the minerals deposit on our glasses, in our pipes, or in a ring around our sink or toilet bowl. This mineral scale can cause build up that blocks pipes, which is one of the reasons people soften their water.

You might not notice that the minerals are also building up in your laundry. When you get build up in your cloth diapers, you will probably also get stink. The stink you notice, and that might be why you are reading now.

In the bynature.ca store, we sell water test strips for parents who are struggling and might need to know what type of water they are dealing with.

Why Does Water Hardness Matter to Laundry?

Hard water doesn’t react as much with soap. You probably notice that you don’t get suds. It isn’t just soap that hard water doesn’t react with, though. You might notice that you can’t cook beans either.

We get used to the quality of our local water over time. That’s why it’s a good idea to talk to your neighbors about water quality adjustments rather than talking to your online friends. Your neighbors are dealing with exactly the same issues you are.

I wondered if any of our customers had noticed a change in water quality after they moved, so we asked on Facebook this morning. One of our followers moved from an area with naturally soft water to a house with a water softener. She noticed that she can use more types of detergent now to get diapers clean. Just be aware when you move that your water will change. So, you adjust.

If you live on one of the areas with extremely hard water, you need to launder your clothes—and your cloth diapers—differently to get the same desired result of neutral pH diapers that won’t irritate your baby’s skin.

How You Can Adjust

If you are having trouble cleaning diapers with the water you have, you can either change your water or change how you deal with your water.

To change your water, install a water softener. These devices add softening salts to all of the water in your house or just to the hot water in your house. If you add just to the hot water, you get the benefit of better tasting cold water and better cleaning hot water. You won’t need to use as much detergent to get the same results.

To make do with the hard water you have, you can use laundry detergent specially formulated for your water type. Rockin’ Green Hard Rock is one example. That is a solution if you want to get your wash routine right from the beginning.

When you already have trouble that you need to address, break it down. If you have mineral build up in your diapers that is holding on to stink, you can use an occasional laundry treatment to bust the build up. RLR Laundry Treatment is very popular with cloth diapering parents, and Rockin Green Funk Rock does a similar job.

To back away from secret, proprietary formulas and take charge of your own wash, try washing soda. Washing soda is sodium carbonate, a soda salt of carbonic acid.

The mineral build up in your stinky diapers is alkaline. So, what do you do, add bleach? No, bleach won’t help. Add more soap? Well, adding more soap does give the soap a better chance to work, but it doesn’t address the chronic issue of mineral build up. You need to break down the alkaline build up with an acidic solution. Why not use vinegar since it’s acidic? This brings up a lot of issues (and voids some warranties), but I’ll say here that vinegar isn’t going to break down the mineral build up either.

Washing soda breaks down the mineral build up. Swimming pool formulas would break it down even faster, but that’s overkill. Fish tank ammonia remover is a toxic solution used by desperate parents who don’t understand the basic science of what they are doing. Start with the basic formula and see if that works to counter the hardness of your water and mineral build up on your diapers. If straight washing soda doesn’t work, try RLR Laundry Treatment.

Remember that falling rain at the beginning of the post picking up acidic atmospheric gases? The most significant of these is carbonic acid from atmospheric carbon dioxide. The falling rain was slightly acidic (low pH) until it picked up minerals from rocks (high pH). Those minerals are building up on your diapers and holding on to stick and dinginess. So, you bust that stinky build up without any magical mystery formulas. You use washing soda to add more carbonic acid to the water.

Once again, basic science has saved your cloth diapers.

Bonus: if you homeschool, you have an interesting chemistry lesson to teach about pH and hard water. To make it an intriguing challenge, have your older child wash the baby’s diapers as a school project! Here is the science. If you get rid of the stink, you pass.

Image © Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com.
Yes, he has underwear on his head. No, I’m not sure why.