inner and outer cloth diapers folded in a laundry basket

What Kind of Detergent Do You Need to Wash Cloth Diapers?

 In 2009 as we started washing over 15,000 dirty diapers per week at our busy NYC cloth diaper service, we ran into a pretty big problem: none of the detergents we tried were doing the trick. They were either not powerful enough or contained some icky ingredients that we were not comfortable using. We spent years working with a chemist to crack the code of cloth diaper washing. And in the end we were left with no choice but to develop our own Washing Powder. 🤓


Successful diaper washing comes down to two things - having the right tools and the right instructions. If you have those things right, it’s really as easy two loads of laundry a week!


Detergent is your most powerful tool. The one you choose really does matter. 


In this blog post, we’re getting down and into 


  • Understanding what’s in a dirty diaper so we know how to clean it
  • What to look for in a good cloth diaper detergent
  • Common questions about cloth diaper detergents
  • How to wash your cloth diapers


“Do I need a specific kind of detergent for washing cloth diapers?”


Dirty diapers are some of the most complex and heavily soiled items you’ll ever wash. Poopy diapers contain matter that is starchy, fatty AND colorful.


In order to figure out the best way to clean something you have to know exactly what’s in it. So we did the dirty work (literally!). One of our very first projects was breaking down baby poop to understand what makes it up. 


To oversimplify: fats, starches, urea/ammonia, and bacteria go into the diaper.. and they need to be thoroughly cleaned from the diaper before it can be reused. 


Fats and starches can be quite stubborn to remove. Fats, in particular, can form a greasy film on diaper fabrics, making it essential to have a detergent capable of breaking down and emulsifying those fats for thorough cleaning. Starches, on the other hand, can create a sticky residue when mixed with moisture, which can contribute to diaper rash and discomfort for the baby if not properly removed.


And then there's ammonia, the not-so-pleasant byproduct of urine/urea breakdown. It can wreak havoc on your baby's sensitive skin and leave an unpleasant odor (if you’ve heard of “the barnyard stink” this is it!) if it’s not thoroughly washed away. Check out this blog post for more on barnyard stink!


All that to say: The detergent you choose needs to be power clean, but it also needs to be gentle (on both your baby’s skin and our planet!).


We spent years searching for the best cloth diaper detergent and were frustrated when we couldn’t find it. So we took matters into our own hands and formulated our very own power-cleaning Washing Powder. Our unique detergent was specially created to tackle the dirtiest of dirty diapers.


Esembly washing powder on a table


Bold claims! Are you scientists or something? 


When we first launched our diaper laundering service in NYC in 2009 we made understanding laundry science our mission. We wanted to fully understand the chemistry behind cleaning textiles so that we could do it in the most efficient and eco-friendly manner. So we partnered with a PhD in biochemical engineering with a specialty in laundry formulation. Together we created a custom detergent to power clean those 15,000+ diapers we were washing each week. Needless to say, we had LOTS of dirties to test and perfect our formula over the years!


What makes your Washing Powder so magical? 


Want to know why our detergent is the best for cleaning cloth diapers?


No Nasty Junk


Our patented formula is mineral-based and free of SLS, SLES, LAS, phthalates, phosphates, fragrance, dye, and fabric softeners. In other words, we steer clear of all the synthetic toxic junk that we know you want to avoid for the sake of your baby’s skin and our planet.


Specially Formulated 


As we already discussed, dirty diapers contain some complex soil. Our detergent contains specific ingredients to target it all. A unique blend of ionic and anionic surfactants, anti-redeposition agents, chelating agents (aka water softeners), and alkalis. It power cleans diapers without causing harm to the environment or being too harsh for delicate baby skin




We all like things that smell nice, but when it comes to cleaning diapers, it’s important to avoid anything that will mask the scent of an unclean diaper coming out of the wash. If your diapers don’t smell fresh and neutral coming out of the laundry, then they are not clean. We need to know that and don't want a heavy dose of lavender to mask it. Not to mention, fragrance is not a “clean-rinsing” ingredient and should be avoided when washing diapers.


Clean Rinsing 


It is critically important that your cloth diaper detergent be clean rinsing. Clean rinsing simply means that at the end of the wash cycle, all of the ingredients from your detergent are thoroughly rinsed away and nothing is remaining on the fabric. There are 3 ingredients commonly found in detergents that are added specifically to NOT rinse out in the final rinse. These ingredients are fragrance, fabric softener and optical brighteners. These tiny molecules attach to the fabric fibers in order to do their job. Whether it be to smell good, feel soft, or reflect light for added brightness. Sounds fairly benign but what ends up happening is that those lingering ingredients give the ammonia and bacteria in the pee and poo something to bind to, making it harder and harder to wash out in future washes. Ensuring that your detergent is clean rinsing is the single best way to save yourself from build-up and ever having to “strip” your diapers. 

Esembly washing powder on top of a washing machine


Is your Washing Powder really patented?


It is! We applied for the patent in 2019 before we even launched Esembly. We knew what we had done was special. In all of our years of testing, we had yet to come across any detergent formula as effective at cleaning diapers as ours. Happily, the patent office agreed, and our patent was awarded in the summer of 2021. We are officially the ONLY laundry detergent ever to receive a patent for cleaning cloth diapers!

What about enzymes??


In the beginning, we were particularly interested in using enzymes because of their popularity in the cloth diapering world, but the chemist we were working with told us not to get our hopes up. We did extensive testing with protease, amylase, and lipase (both in combination and individually) and as our chemist had cautioned, we were NOT pleased with the results.


Enzymes are delicate and need to be handled with care in order to perform their job of breaking down lipids, starches and proteins, which means strict adherence to temperature parameters and pH when washing. If the enzymes are exposed to high pH or high temperatures, they won’t perform and are not effective.


We ran tests for approx 6 months comparing low-ph enzyme detergent formulas washed in warm water with high ph formulas washed in hot water and the latter won every time. 


Is the Washing Powder safe to use with septic systems and HE machines?


You bet! Our Washing Powder is biodegradable and safe for septic systems and HE machines. 


What if I have hard water?


Our Washing Powder was formulated for use in soft, normal and moderately hard water. If you have very hard water we’d recommend adding Borax or Calgon in addition to the detergent.

Why powder instead of liquid? Why not pods or sheets?


Liquid detergents are mostly water. Powder detergents are more concentrated so you can use far less and get the same cleaning power. A small bag of powder detergent will last longer than a giant, heavy jug of liquid. Which not only makes it easier to store, but cheaper and more eco-friendly to ship


As for pods… the truth is that pods and laundry sheets = more plastic, which is the LAST thing we want more of in our water systems, ecosystems, or in our families’ laundry! 

(Check out our friends at Blueland who have been doing an amazing job at getting the word out about the PVA or PVOH that is found in pods and sheets.)

Can I use Washing Powder on other household laundry or is it just for diapers?


Our Washing Powder was formulated to power clean dirty diapers. Just think what it can do for baby clothes covered in spit-up, stinky yoga pants you’ve been wearing for 4 days straight, smelly pet beds, sweaty sheets, kitchen cleaning rags, the list goes on! Once you’ve experienced the magic of Washing Powder, it’s hard to go back! And subscribing makes it easy to ensure you never run out 😉


What if I still don’t want to use the Washing Powder?


We do recommend using our Washing Powder for laundering cloth diapers, simply because we find it works the best! 


That said, there is no mandate! You are free to wash diapers with whatever detergent you’d like. If that’s the case, we encourage you to find a clean-rinsing formula that is powerful enough to clean heavily soiled diapers.


And even if you choose another detergent, we still recommend following our 2-wash routine as we’ll detail below.


Are there specific detergents or ingredients to avoid when cloth diapering?


Try to stay away from anything that is not clean-rinsing. Dreft, for example, is loaded with fragrance, greasy fabric softeners and optical brighters. The trifecta! 

Tide Free + Gentle on the other hand has optical brighters but doesn’t contain fabric softeners or fragrance. So while it’s not quite as perfect for cleaning cloth diapers as our Washing Powder, it’s better than Dreft.

We do advise against using a homemade detergent or Castille soap. Both leave a heavy, soapy residue on the diapers (which will cause a barnyard stink and buildup resulting in a rash). 

So How Do I Wash My Cloth Diapers? 

Esembly Inner and Outer Cloth Diapers in a laundry basket


For washing diapers, it’s essential to have a powerful detergent to pair with a great wash routine. Here is a quick overview of our recommended wash routine. (You can check out this post 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 talk about why we love these in this post)

*ALL Esembly textiles are designed to be washed and dried together. (yes, ALL!) They can withstand 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 our brightly colored Outers (aka diaper covers) with our Inners (aka cotton fitted diapers!))

Once the machine is properly loaded, you’ll run 2 wash cycles before moving everything to the dryer:

Cycle 1

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)

Cycle 2 

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.

We hope you’ve found this helpful! Just think of us as your friendly neighborhood cloth diaper experts – who have carefully considered each part of the cloth diapering experience to bring you products and education that will keep things easy peasy! Because while there is a science to all this, it’s not something you should have to navigate on your own or spend a bunch of precious time on. In case you didn’t know, our small but mighty team is almost entirely made of mamas with busy kids and families – so we KNOW how valuable streamlining things is 😅❤️ 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.👍



Want to learn more?

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!

Sign Up for Our Next Cloth 101 Class


Have Questions? Sign up for our next Cloth 101 Class!