Making your cloth diapers soft has to be a good thing, right? Of course, but don’t be fooled into using chemical fabric softeners to do it or you will be in for a leaky, repelling surprise.
As we think through the reasons behind basic cloth diaper washing techniques, we want you to have the information you need to make decisions about your laundry. Sometimes additives sneak in under your radar based on the claimed results (“Whiter! Brighter! Softer! Self-folding!”). If you saw on the box a description of what products actually do—that is, how they work—you might not be so quick to add to your laundry.
I often think of the 1990 film Crazy People, in which an advertising exec leads a group of patients in a mental institution in writing honest advertisements. Volvo, for example, was “boxy but good.” For fabric softeners, we could say:
“Fabric softeners coat your clothes with chemical lubricants that conduct electricity so you don’t notice a build up of static cling!”
“Hydrophobic chemicals in fabric softeners reduce absorbency of your cloth diapers but feel smooth against your baby’s skin.”
“You may inhale toxic chemicals from this softener, leaving you with headaches and irritability, but at least the fabric won’t irritate your skin, much.”
It doesn’t sound so appealing that way.
First Rule of Fabric Softener for Cloth Diapers: Don’t Use It
Do not use chemical fabric softener with cloth diapers. Look at your detergent, and avoid a detergent with added softeners. It doesn’t matter whether these are silicone-based lubricants, polymer emulsions, clay, salt, acid, fragrance, or whatever. The point is, you don’t want to add any of this to your diapers. They will leave residues that will inhibit absorbency of cotton diapers, wool covers, and microfiber inserts; deteriorate the waterproof laminate layer on PUL covers; cause build up on your washing machine and dryer; and coat all of your cloth diapering accessories with a layer that will hold on to stink.
There are exceptions to the rule not to use fabric softeners. You can soften your diapers without the negative effects of chemical softeners. As with all of our other laundry advice, you need to know what problem you are solving before you can decide on a solution.
Vinegar can have a similar effect to chemical softeners in neutralizing the electric charge that you notice as static electricity. You will find some cloth diaper retailers who recommend baking soda in the rinse to soften cloth diapers. These might be fine with cotton and hemp, but they might not be fine with the rest of your diapers. Using either will void the warranty on some diapers. (More on vinegar and baking soda coming up.)
Wool dryer balls or hard dryer balls, like Nellie’s Dryer Balls, can soften fabrics mechanically rather than chemically—that is, by flexing the fibers as they tumble in the dryer. To the extent that they neutralize the electrical charge, they have a similar effect to chemical softeners designed to reduce static cling.
Dryer sheets without chemicals can also be cloth diaper safe. Maddocks Static Eliminator Reusable Dryer Sheets reduce static cling because of their weave. They only get a B in the Environmental Working Group database of household products, though, because they are made with polyester and nylon.
A few fabric softeners get a good grade in the Environmental Working Group database of household products. Keep in mind, though, that any gum or glycerin can coat diapers—even natural fiber fitted or flat diapers. A natural residue is still a residue. You don’t need any kind of gummy lubricants for your cloth diapers.
What Do You Customers Say?
We’ve been asking customers and Facebook followers what laundry additives they use and why. I was pleased to see that most of you already know that you shouldn’t be using fabric softeners with cloth diapers, and many of you understand why.
“I don’t use it for anything at all. Too many awful chemicals!” says Alyssa.
“I don’t even have fabric softener; seems like a waste of money,” wrote Michelle.
“Wool dryer balls all the way!” says Stephanie
Simple Guidelines to Fabric Softening
- Avoid exposure to toxic chemicals.
- Don’t coat fibers with chemical residue layer, which holds on to stink and inhibits absorbency.
- Don’t cover up issues with your laundry routine. Get wash right in the first place.
- Don’t add fragrances if you have skin or respiratory sensitivities.
- Soften simply and naturally with wool dryer balls.