A Complete Guide to Washing Cloth Diapers (that you can trust!)
Raise your hand if you’ve ever washed over 15,000 dirty cloth diapers in a week.
Yep, it’s true. And it’s what gives us a unique edge in sharing the easiest and most effective way to get your cloth diapers clean at home! If you’ve been researching cloth diapers and/or how to properly clean them, you know that there is a lot of information out there in regard to the best approach.
Washing tens of thousands of dirty diapers each week is how we got our start! In 2009, before Esembly was even a glimmer in our eye, our 3 co-founders launched and ran a busy cloth diaper service in NYC. And suffice it to say that when one is literally staring at that many dirty diapers every week, one must quickly figure out how to get the job done RIGHT, and FAST.
Did we scour the internet and dig into every blog and forum to familiarize ourselves with the different washing techniques? You bet we did. Did we get completely and totally overwhelmed by that and decide instead to hire a laundry scientist with a PhD in Biochemical Engineering and a Masters in Environmental Studies to work with us to create a miracle laundering routine? You bet we did 😂. Not only was the sheer volume of information online completely overwhelming and often contradictory, but the more we researched, and the more we tested, we started to realize that it had all gotten WAY too complicated.
Is there only one “right” way to wash diapers? No, of course not. But there is a science to washing diapers, one that we’ve been studying since 2009. And the truth is that while it is more complex than some think, it's also a lot simpler than others make it out to be.
At Esembly, our goal is to keep things as simple and easy as possible, ensuring that those diapers always come out of the wash clean and are cared for so that they’ll live a long and productive life - even perhaps for multiple babies!
So what’s the secret? Try washing the Esembly Way! In this blog post, we’ll break it all down for you in a simple and easy “Q & A” format, and even include some of the “why” behind the science for anyone who loves to nerd out (like we do 🤓)
Let’s start with…
“Do I need to wash my new cloth diapers before I use them?”
Short Answer: Yes
Long Answer: New diapers made of natural fibers (cotton, hemp, bamboo, etc) are all loaded with natural plant oils that need to be washed out prior to use in order for the diaper to be absorbent. Most of these diapers require anywhere from 4-8 hot, heavy duty washes before you can put them on your baby. What new parent has time for that?! At Esembly, we’re all about making life easier for you - so once our organic cotton comes off the loom, we wash it 5 times before it gets cut and sewn into diapers. This removes about 90% of the cotton oils. So when your new diapers arrive on your doorstep, all you have to do is run them through a Heavy Duty wash cycle with hot water and 1-2 scoops of Washing Powder to make sure the remaining natural oils in the cotton have been removed (along with any shipping grime they may have picked up along their journey).
If you’re using another brand of cloth diapers you may need to wash your diapers several times to ensure they are ready to go. It depends on the brand, but usually, they’ll have this information on their website or packaging.
“How often should I wash my cloth diapers?”
Simple answer: You’ll want to wash your cloth diapers using our simple instructions (we’ll get more into this below) every 2-3 days.
A bit more: You may be tempted to “buy enough cloth diapers so you only have to do your washing once a week”, but unfortunately, this approach causes more issues than it’s worth. To start, too many days between washes is a surefire way to invite ammonia to set up shop in your diapers. And trust us, it’s a stubborn guest! You can read more about this issue and how to treat it here: How to Tackle Ammonia Build-Up in Cloth Diapers
Additionally, leaving the diapers for too many days between washes can lead to issues with mold or mildew growth (more guests we’re sure you’d rather not host in your diaper pail!). We talk more about mold/mildew and how to treat them here: Eliminating Mold and Mildew from Cloth Diapers
“How should I store my cloth diapers between washes?”
We highly recommend our Pail Pouch. It can be used on its own hanging on a hook or doorknob, or, if you prefer a diaper pail, the Diaper Dekor Plus paired with our Pail Pouch as a liner is a great combo.
Whatever you choose, it’s important to remember:
- No Plastic! Do not ever store your dirty diapers in plastic bags (ziplocks, grocery bags, garbage bags, etc.) Plastic does not allow for any air circulation and is a surefire way to grow mold.
- Do not overstuff the bag or pail with diapers. Cramming too many diapers into a pail or bag is another common reason we see mold growth and one that can be easily avoided! Even the perfect bag or pail can be problematic when overstuffed.
Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s get into the fun stuff 😉🤓🧺
“How should I wash my cloth diapers?” (aka: Washing cloth diapers the Esembly way!)
Here is a quick overview of our recommended wash routine. Keep scrolling to dig deeper into why each step is so important!
Every 2 - 3 days, load your washing machine ½ - ⅔ full with all* of your cloth diapers, wipes, and accessories. (+ your 4 Agitator balls! We'll talk about these below as well)
*I want to stress that ALL Esembly textiles (Cloth Diaper Inserts (Inners), Outers, Wipe-Ups, Diaper Bags, etc) are designed to be washed and dried together. We come from an industrial laundry background and put our chosen materials through the wringer before approving them. All of our textiles can withstand the hot water, heavy duty cycles and a tumble in a hot dryer. Additionally, all of our materials are colorfast so they will not bleed when washed together (meaning YES it is perfectly okay to put your forest green Outer in with your Inners!)
Once the machine is properly loaded, you’ll run 2 wash cycles before moving everything to the dryer:
Run a “normal” cycle with warm water and 1 scoop of Washing Powder sprinkled on top (or measure for a “normal” load if using another detergent)
Run a “heavy duty” cycle with hot water and 2 scoops of Washing Powder sprinkled on top (or measure for a “heavy duty” load if using another detergent)
Cycle: Timed Dry
If you have a gas dryer, we recommend Med-High Heat, for 55-65 minutes.
If you have an electric dryer (which tends to not get as hot as gas), you can use High Heat, for 65-75 minutes.
“How do I wash poopy cloth diapers?”
We know, we know - what about the poop?! Rest assured, while your baby is on a milk-only diet (breastmilk or formula), ALL soiled diapers (both the pee AND poopy ones) can simply get tossed right into your Pail Pouch. No pretreatment necessary. And it might sound crazy, but trust us - as long as you’re washing per the instructions above, your machine can easily handle all of the waste, leaving you with diapers AND a washer that are both sparkling clean ✨
Once your baby starts solid foods and you notice a change in the consistency of the poop, you'll want to start removing it from the diaper before laundering. Our Tossers or Stay-Dry Liners are recommended at this stage; they’re arguably the easiest and cleanest way to remove the poop from the diaper while protecting the cotton.
”What about rinsing, spraying or soaking?”
Nope, Nah, and NEVER!
We never recommend soaking in anything - not even plain water - because it weakens the natural fibers of the cotton, causing them to break easily. In other words, you’ll end up with diapers full of holes and tears. 😱
Rinsing or spraying can also lead to similar issues caused by soaking, especially if the wet diapers are then left sitting in a bag or pail. These practices can also lead to odor buildup, mold, and premature degradation of the natural fibers. (rips, tears, fraying, etc)
As mentioned, removing the bulk of the solid matter using our Tossers or Stay-Dry Liners helps make poop clean-ups a breeze – but if you ever do forget the liner (or prefer not to use one, or maybe your baby is extra squirmy and the poo manages to miss it!) don't stress. Just shake off as much of the solid matter as you can from the diaper (if it's extra sticky, a wipe or some toilet paper might be helpful in peeling some of it off), and then drop the diaper right into your pail for laundering - without any rinsing or spraying.
“How do I get stains out of my cloth diapers?”
While the vast majority of babies do not stain their diapers, some of them (about 25%) like their diaper art. If you are the parent of one of these diaper artists, don’t fret. There are 2 really simple ways to get rid of cloth diaper stains.
1. Sun them! We know it sounds crazy but laying your slightly samp diapers in the sunshine will zap those diaper stains within a few hours! And if it’s too cold to leave them outside, set them next to a sunny window or even on the dashboard of your car!
2. No access to sunshine? Use a bit of chorine bleach! Just add 3-4 ounces of original Clorox (or similar chlorine bleach) to the bleach compartment of your washer during the 2nd cycle and the stains will be gone. (never poured undiluted directly onto your diapers or into the load) Concerned about using bleach? We get it. But it’s only a very little bit. Think of it like taking your diapers for a swim at the public pool. Oh! And remember, all of our textiles are colorfast so no need to separate your laundry for this step.
"Can you please tell me more about the science behind washing diapers?"
Wash Cycles & Temps
We recommend warm water (about ~120 F) with the first wash cycle, which serves to lift the top layers of soil and ammonia from the diapers and then flush it all away, preparing the diapers to be deep cleaned in the heavy second wash cycle with hot water. (no hotter than 140 F)
Why not cold or ultra hot?
You’ll want to avoid extreme temperatures when washing.
We do not recommend washing diapers in cold water. Similar to the pores on your skin, chilly water causes the natural fabric fibers in your diapers to constrict and close up, locking in the soil and making it more challenging for the detergent to lift and wash away. (if your machine does cold rinses only, that’s totally fine).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, ultra hot settings/cycles (like Sanitize, Allergiene, Baby Wear, etc.) should also never be used when washing your diapers; these simply run too hot and will very likely damage cause holes in your cotton and damage to your elastic and waterproof covers.
Fortunately, sticking with basic wash cycles like Normal and Heavy Duty (which most machines have) works perfectly for cleaning diapers! 🤓 If your machine does not have “Normal” or “Heavy Duty” cycles, try to choose a cycle that is about 45 minutes for cycle 1, and 1½ hours for cycle 2.
We recommend our PATENTED Washing Powder simply because we find it works best! We worked alongside that biochemical engineer we mentioned earlier to specially formulate a detergent to power clean diapers while remaining gentle on baby skin and the planet (no easy feat, I promise you!). Our detergent is so good in fact that we were recently awarded a patent for it and it is now officially the only detergent to ever hold a patent for cleaning diapers!
That said, there is no mandate, and you are free to wash diapers with whatever detergent you’d like. But, we encourage you to find a formula that is free of fragrance, fabric softeners, optical brighteners and powerful enough to clean heavily soiled fabric. As mentioned, you can follow your detergent's instructions for measuring a normal load (1st wash cycle) and a heavy-duty load (2nd wash cycle).
Sidenote: This seems like as good a time as any to caution you from using dryer sheets with your diapers. The sheets coat the fabric with a greasy, stinky residue that will make them more difficult to clean in future washes.
Mechanical Action is often the overlooked component in laundry. Everyone focuses on water temps and detergent. But the bumping and pounding of the diapers into one another during the cycle is what helps to squeeze and squish all the funk out of the cotton so the detergent and water can wash it away. Below are 2 ways to ensure your diapers are getting their boogie on in your machine.
Load size is VERY important when cleaning cloth diapers. This helps to ensure that you get plenty of that essential “swooshing” action in the machine, as well as enough of that critical mechanical action where the diapers bump and press into each other helpful to force the soil to the surface to be cleaned away. We recommend keeping the washer barrel between ½ and ⅔ full. No more, no less.
If your load size is consistently too large, you’ll want to wash more frequently.
If your diaper load is too small, go ahead and throw in some household laundry to beef it up. Yep, you read that right! You CAN include other household laundry in with your diapers. Spit up cloths, baby clothes, your pajamas, towels, etc. Just make sure that whatever you throw in won't bleed color and can withstand the hot water temps (no silk blouses or red socks, please!).
Our little secret to getting the cleanest diapers around is our Agitators. 4 spikey little silicone balls that help deep clean and remove stains.
As your washer spins, the Agitators pound into the fabric, forcing soil and stains to the surface, making it easy for the Washing Powder to carry them away.
Bonus: Agitators also pack a punch in the dryer! After you’ve done your washing, add your Agitators to the dryer to lift and separate the fabric allowing hot air to flow more efficiently, helping dry your laundry quickly. The bumps and spikes on the balls massage the fabric so it comes out softer and fluffier. (a win-win if you ask us!)
Other Factors to Consider
If you have hard water, it’s very important to avoid any extra exposure to the water (meaning no rinsing, soaking, or extra rinses during the wash cycle). We also recommend softening your hard water either with a household water softener or by adding Borax or Calgon to every wash cycle.
“Hard water” simply means your water has a high mineral content. Why are those minerals a problem?
For one, they float around in the water and trick the detergent into thinking they are soil that’s meant to be cleaned. So instead of the detergent attacking the pee and poop in your diapers, it gets distracted by the minerals.
Secondly, the minerals remain on the surface of your cloth diapers after the final rinse giving the ammonia and bacteria in future pees and poops something to bind to making it harder to wash out next time you launder.
And lastly, the excess minerals in untreated hard water can cause premature degradation of your cotton cloth diapers leading to holes and fraying of the fabric.
(We talk more about hard water on our How It Works page)
“What about washing cloth diapers using portable or communal machines?”
If you have the option, we would recommend going with a standard machine over a portable washer. The standard machine will offer better mechanical action, a larger drum size, and better temperature control, all of which are really important for deep cleaning heavily soiled fabric like diapers.
If you live somewhere that uses shared facilities, this is perfectly fine for your cloth diapers! The good news is that even with the added cost of running the washer twice each time, you'll still end up saving more money with cloth diapers vs disposables. Most of our team is in NYC and washed their diapers in communal machines :)
Cloth Diapering really CAN be as easy as a few extra loads of laundry a week
We hope you’ve found this helpful! Whether you're just starting out with cloth diapers or looking to streamline your routine, remember that it doesn't have to be a complicated process. With the right products and the right instruction, laundering your cloth diapers can be as easy as a couple of loads of laundry a week. We pride ourselves on overthinking (and over-testing!) just about everything when it comes to cloth diapers, so you don’t have to! You’ve got babies, and kids, and pets, and all the rest to worry about. 😉
Want to Learn More Laundering Cloth Diapers?Dig deeper with one of our many detailed posts we've created about the most common questions and challenges related to laundering cloth diapers.
- BANISHING THE BARNYARD SMELL: HOW TO TACKLE AMMONIA BUILD-UP IN CLOTH DIAPERS
- CLOTH DIAPER LONGEVITY: 7 EXPERT TIPS FOR PROLONGING THE LIFE OF YOUR ESEMBLY ORGANIC COTTON DIAPERS
- ELIMINATING MOLD AND MILDEW FROM CLOTH DIAPERS: EXPERT TIPS AND TRICKS
Want to Learn More About Cloth Diapering?
Our co-founders host a free, virtual, Cloth Diapering 101 class every month to help cloth-curious parents get all the tools and information they need! You’ll learn:
- How to use the Esembly diapers and accessories
- How to easily and effectively launder your Esembly diapers
- The impact that your choice has on the planet, your wallet, and your day-to-day.
You'll leave with the confidence to Live Less Disposably and a 20% discount code to use on your first order. 🥳 We hope to see you there!