How to Wash Cloth Diapers

Washing cloth diapers requires extra TLC

Clean, colorful cloth diapers

Elizabeth Livermore / Getty Images

Using cloth diapers means you'll have some extra laundry to deal with, but for many families, the extra washing is worth it. Cloth diapers contribute significantly less trash to the landfill than their disposable counterparts.

The soft cotton and fleece diapers may also seem more comfortable (and cuter) than disposables. However, much like disposable diapers, cloth diapers may still cause diaper rash.

But the cuteness may soon subside once the laundry bag is full and there are smelly, soggy diapers to deal with. Some parents use a complicated system to wash their cloth diapers, involving custom wash cycles, different varieties of detergent, and even different wash methods on different days.

The method described here is pretty simple, but effective. It should limit how often you need to strip your cloth diapers and keep them from repelling moisture.

Know Your Water and Detergent

First, you need to know about your water. If you have hard water, some detergents might not be able to clean as well.

Second, choose a detergent that works well with cloth diapers. Most regular laundry detergents have additives that can build up on cloth or cause other problems, particularly if your diapers aren't rinsed well enough.

A basic detergent without optical brighteners or extra enzymes tends to work best. Some parents find that the enzyme additives can be a problem for a sensitive baby's skin.

Several cloth diaper companies make their own diaper soaps, plus there are some cloth-diaper-specific soaps, such as Rockin' Green. Eco-friendly detergents are usually a good choice, too, since they often have fewer additives. Ecos makes a great fragrance-free liquid detergent that works well on cloth diapers.

Prep Diapers for Washing

You don't have to make a big effort to clean up cloth diapers before you put them in your diaper pail or wet bag. Some parents swish them in the toilet or use a sprayer hooked onto the toilet water supply to spray off the mess. Diapers that are just wet can get tossed into the bag immediately.

If you're concerned about staining or about washing so much yuck in the same appliance that cleans your own clothes, you might consider diaper liners. These thin, porous strips sit in the diaper's "containment zone" and catch any solids.

Some diaper liners go in the trash, and others can be flushed. They are also helpful if you need to use a petroleum or zinc-based diaper cream as those products can damage cloth diapers. The beauty of cloth diapering is that you get to design your own system.

Staining, residual stinkiness, and diaper wear and tear can be reduced by how often you do laundry.

Going more than a couple of days can result in mildew stains, or more washes to get the diapers clean. It's best to do cloth diaper laundry every two or three days.

How to Handle Wash Day

The basic method is a cold water rinse followed by a very hot wash. There are many ways you can accomplish the cold/hot series, depending on your washing machine. Starting with cold water is important because it is effective at reducing staining. A hot water wash to finish is also important because the hot water does a better job of getting the diapers clean.

For step one, do a "speed wash" cycle using cold water, a small amount of detergent, and a scoop of OxiClean. Once that first wash is done, check that inserts have come out of any pocket diapers, and if there are any Velcro or Aplix closure diapers in the load, make sure that the fold-back tabs are still secured.

Then run a second wash using very hot water. Use a normal amount of detergent for your washer. You can also include a small scoop of baking soda to help boost the cleaning.

Rinse, Rinse, Rinse!

For the hot wash, use the maximum water setting for your machine, and set it to include an extra rinse. The more water you're putting through the diapers, the less chance of residues or repelling. It's hard to go wrong with more rinsing.

Other Washing Methods

If you can't set two different wash cycles, use a hot water wash and add a pre-wash or stain cycle along with an extra rinse. Pre-wash and stain cycle both mean you're getting cold water at the beginning.

On some machines, this method results in a little less rinsing, which is why the two-cycle method works better. Adding the pre-wash still works if you are short on time.

The exact washing routine isn't important. It's the basic strategy for getting diapers clean that is the most important part.

You may need to experiment a little with your washing machine to see which combination of cold water for stains, hot water for cleansing, and lots of rinsing will work best for your diapers. Always review the diaper manufacturer's instructions, too.

Use of Bleach and Vinegar

Some cloth diaper manufacturers recommend an occasional bleach session to keep diapers fresh. But for some cloth diapers, using bleach can void the warranty.

If you need to use bleach, use sparingly. Remember that it is a very harsh chemical and can damage fabrics if you use too much or too often.

Using vinegar isn't likely to void your diaper warranty, but don't let that fool you into thinking you can't use it too much. Vinegar is a powerful cleaning acid! It's great for softening fabrics and freshening diapers, but as with bleach, you should use the smallest effective amount to avoid damaging your diapers.

Consider Drying Options

The best way to dry cloth diapers is on a line, outside in the sun. This isn't because we're trying to get back to pioneer roots, but because the sun is your stain-fighting and bacteria-destroying friend.

Cloth diapers always smell fresher and have fewer stains if they get a good dose of sunshine.

If you can't dry your diapers outside, a clothesline in the house is also a good method. When you air-dry diapers, there's no additional wear on them as there can be in the dryer. The downside of air-drying, especially indoors, is that it takes a long time.

A faster method is to use the air-dry setting on the dryer or use low heat. High heat can be damaging to elastics, snaps, and waterproof linings. Again, it's a good idea to check the recommendations for your specific diapers because some manufacturers do recommend higher heat for drying.

Say No to Softeners

Though there's no real consensus on this one, cloth diapers are not always friends with fabric softeners or dryer sheets. They also often contain fragrances and chemicals that are potentially hazardous to your baby's health.

Fabric softeners can also create more work for you when you have to remove the residue, since they create more moisture in the fabric of your diapers. This could spell disaster at baby's next wet or dirty moment.

If you want to add something to the dryer to soften diaper inserts or reduce static, try dryer balls, which work wonders for softening fabrics. Felted wool dryer balls are also popular among cloth diapering parents.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Heather Corley
Heather Wootton Corley is a mother, freelance writer and certified Child Passenger Safety Technician-Instructor.