Do I Need to Disinfect My Cloth Diapers?

Short answers:

  1. no
  2. probably not
  3. not unless they are infected

With the previous post saying NO to chlorine bleach and with the chlorine bleach publicist (see update to NO chlorine bleach post) mentioning the need to disinfect cloth diapers and asserting that hydrogen peroxide will not disinfect, I want to answer this question we get often enough that it is one of our frequently asked questions.

Shouldn’t we disinfect our cloth diapers? No, not unless they are infected.

Let’s start by going back to bleach. The problems with chlorine bleach happen before, during, and after you use it in your wash—before in the process manufacturer, during as it breaks down fibers, and after as it can mix with organic matter to create organochlorines.

Alternatives to chlorine bleach depend on your purpose.

The Idea That White Equals Clean

Are you trying to whiten? Western cultures obviously have a preoccupation equating whitenness with cleanliness. Without getting into the deep cultural issues this brings up, let’s stick with cloth diapers. Use the sun. Sunlight (ultraviolet light) will whiten your cloth diapers. You can help the sun along by adding lemon juice.

Whitening diapers is easy without bleach, but if you really want white diapers, try these eco-friendly alternatives to bleach from The Good Human.

Are You Trying to Disinfect?

The word “disinfectant” has positive connotations in our culture because people think of this as slightly beyond clean, but why would you need to disinfect unless unless something is first infected? Most bacteria inside of us isn’t infection, it’s normal.

When you have a dirty diaper, you just need to wash away whatever was on it. A diaper doesn’t need to be DISinfected unless it was INFECTED. A diaper can be infected if your child has had a bacterial infection.

So, how do you know if you have an infection? Diarrhea is often an indicator. If your doctor told you your child has had an infection, you’ve got the evidence you need.

If you are trying to disinfect cloth diapers because your child has had a virus, try hydrogen peroxide or oxy bleach.

Hydrogen peroxide solutions do in fact disinfect
 and have been used in hospitals for decades. In fact they do such a good job, that their use has been curtailed in recent years. The characteristic fizzing that shows the peroxide is doing its job has been shown to damage the edges of wounds, slowing healing. Simple saline is replacing peroxide in many cases now.

I also found a lot of anecdotal evidence of hospitals using grapeseed extract (GSE) based cleansers to clean equipment—again, that’s not medicinally or internally but as a cleanser. I didn’t find any hospitals’ own documentation, but I’m interested to find out more. If I do, I’ll post.

The natural, normal flora of the human gut and the human stool is not something you want to kill. You and your child are full of bacteria, bacteria that is overwhelmingly beneficial.

When this natural flora comes out in cloth diapers, you definitely want to clean them. Washing in hot water and detergent will clean cloth diapers sufficiently.

If you need to disinfect, sunlight—ultraviolet light—will disinfect. So will peroxide bleach. With neither of those do you need to worry about bacteria becoming resistant to anti-bacterials or anti-microbials.

The final short answer: if you need to disinfect your diapers, use light (ultraviolet light of the sun), heat (very hot dryer), and hydrogen-peroxide-based bleach.

Read on

Easy-to-understand article on human flora.

More technical, but with lots of pictures.

Explains well the difference between anti-bacterials/anti-microbials/anti-fungals and disinfectants—and the issues with overuse of the former.

Nice overview of various disinfectants.

In this answer from an “Ask a Scientist” website (copublished by the Department of Energy), the scientist specifically describes peroxide bleach as “very effective against many microbes.”

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