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.

Animal?

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?

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.

Mineral?

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 | Dreamstime.com

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