Your Washing Machine and Cloth Diapers

Cloth diaper washing machine

When you are washing cloth diapers every few days, your washing machine is one of the important variables in the laundry routine. Whether you use top-loading or front-loading, HE or an old clunker, you can get your diapers clean with some adjustments.

Keep in mind, though: your washing machine is far less important than your washing process. Read that twice if you need to because I’m telling you that you can get your cloth diapers clean in any washing machine.

If you find that you aren’t getting clean diapers every wash, you have the option to change any part of your diapering equation: wash routine, machine, or the diapers themselves.

Your Wash Routine

The most important lesson in our series on cloth diaper washing is that you can get your cloth diaper washing routine right from the start. You don’t need to settle for inadequate washing then troubleshooting.

Keep in mind the WATCH Formula for laundry: Water, Agitation, Time, Chemicals, and Heat. You need all of these factors to clean your cloth diapers. If you reduce one, you will need to increase another. If your diapers just aren’t getting clean, you might need to increase one of the factors. If you use a high-efficiency machine with less water, you might need a fuller load (more agitation), a sanitary cycle (more heat), or a long cycle (more time).

Most stink is the result of residues. Many new washing machines need less soap. That’s great. It saves you money. But, don’t make the mistake of adding too little soap. If you do, you can have regular build up of organic materials in your diapers. Too much soap without adequate rinsing and you can have build up of soap residues. Some parents make regular stripping for either kind of residues a part of their routine, but you shouldn’t have to. Get your washing right from the start, and you won’t have to take this extra step.

Washing Machine Options

The manual that comes with your machine will give you a lot of information. If you have a new machine, you might find that the installer has information as well. If the manual and the installer can’t help, call the manufacturer of the machine. Ask for help from the experts. They know their product, and they should be able to help you find the right settings to clean your diapers. If they don’t know cloth diapers, at least you have put diapers on their radar. Maybe they will learn so those who come after you don’t have to find the answers on their own.

Top Loading Washing Machine

Many parents find top loading, non-efficient washing machines the easiest to get their cloth diapers clean. That is EASIEST. You need to make fewer tweaks to your process, but you shouldn’t stick with this machine only because of cloth diapers.

My favorite thing about a top-loading washer is the ability to add during the cycle—add detergent after a rinse, add dye when I want to dye clothes, or add more clothes because I have forgotten to check the whole house for dirty laundry.

One very good reason to have a top loader is: you can dump diapers from the pail directly into the washer without touching.

The agitator in the middle can be great to give you more agitation for your dirty diapers, but it can also wear the diapers more. Think of the WATCH formula. You need agitation or you need more water, heat, soap, or time.

With a top-loader, you also have the option to soak, which some front loaders don’t have.

Front Loading Washing Machine

A front-loading, non-HE washer may require that you use more rinsing (water) and less soap (chemicals). Using less soap is recommended for a front-loader because there is less rinsing, but that might not work for your diapers. Without enough rinsing, you end up with detergent residue in your diapers, which will cause stink.

HE (High Efficiency) Washing Machines

If it doesn’t make sense to you that you would buy a high-efficiency washing machine then do extra rinses, keep in mind that cleaning cloth diapers requires exactly what the HE machine cuts out: water and heat. Using a high efficiency, front-loading washing machine without adjustment to the settings will not use enough water to wash or rinse properly. You will end up with residue problems. Tweak your routine to get it right before that happens.

High efficiency machines can be either top loading or front loading. You might have more options for adding more water to your wash or rinse cycles in the top loading machine, but you can make either work.

High efficiency machines require less detergent—about 1/4 of the recommended amount unless you are using HE-formulated detergent. Whether or not this is enough to clean your diapers, you need to figure out. If this isn’t enough, you can add more detergent and more rinses so you don’t build up residue.

Over time, your high efficiency washing machine will use a lot less water. For most of your clothes or linens, you probably won’t notice a difference. Not using enough water to wash and rinse cloth diapers adequately can be a big problem, though.

If you can’t add more water because of sensors that will notice and drain the water, you can choose different settings that will give you the water you need. Short cycles can give you more water changes, so the diapers spend less time in dirty water. Bulky, bedding, or jeans settings can give you more water. Adding a wet towel to your diaper wash can also trick your machine into adding more water because the heaviness implies more laundry. You can also choose to add an extra rinse with the heavy soil setting or sometimes just an extra rinse setting. You shouldn’t need to rinse more than 2-3 times, though. If you find that you need more rinses, you would be better off adjusting the wash routine that comes before rinsing.

If your routine is out of balance and you don’t have the option of adding more water, you may need to adjust other WATCH factors, use super wash for more agitation or sanitary setting for extra heat.

High Capacity Washing Machine

Diapers should rub against one another without being so tightly packed that it is difficult for water or soap to reach every part of every diaper.

Having a high-capacity washer shouldn’t be an issue if you are washing diapers for more than one child or if you wait several days between washes, but, for frequent washing of one baby’s diapers, you might find that you have difficulty meeting the minimum load size. When you don’t have enough diapers in your load, you won’t get agitation of diaper on diaper, which is essential to the cleaning process. Without it, your diapers are just going for a swim, and that won’t get the dirt out.

If you aren’t getting a lot of agitation, you will definitely need to adjust heat (hotter wash) or time (longer wash), but it would be better if you can choose the setting for the smallest load.

What If the Problem Is Your Diapers?

If you keep having trouble cleaning your polyester or microfiber diapers in your front loading HE machine, you might want to consider changing to a top loading machine. That’s a big change just for a couple of years of diapers, though.

If you want a high-efficiency machine for the lifetime of savings on water and detergent, you might need to change your diapers. All-cotton prefold or flat diapers clean and rinse very easily because they have fewer layers for the limited water to move through. (Cotton cleans more easily than hemp, which is more absorbent so it doesn’t rinse as easily.) Using simpler diapers will also give you more energy-saving options for drying, including line drying and quicker machine drying.

What If the Problem Is Residue in the Washing Machine?

It was a revelation to me when Bummis posted an article about residue build up in washing machines, with instructions to clean the washer. It hadn’t occured to me before that the problem could be the machine itself, but it makes sense. If your wash routine isn’t working to clean your cloth diapers, you want to eliminate every possibility.

These instructions include a baking soda cleaning method and a vinegar cleaning method. Which washer washing routing you choose depends on the problem. Remember, as we keep saying, always understand your cleaning goal before you choose your cleaner. If you have detergent build up in your machine, use the baking soda method (alkaline). If you have mildew or mineral build up from hard water, use the vinegar method (acidic).

No matter which type of washing machine you use, even if you are washing by hand in a 5-gallon bucket, you can get your cloth diapers clean with attention to your wash routine. Just work on finding the right balance of Water, Agitation, Time, Chemicals, and Heat.

More on the WATCH formula and laundry science at Real Diaper Association.

Image © Susan Leggett |

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