Updated on November 15, 2015
How To Choose A Cloth Diaper Detergent
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There are a lot of detergent options out there. A LOT. It can be downright overwhelming choosing one for your clothing let alone choosing one for your cloth diapers. But guess what? It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. In fact, finding a detergent that is safe to use on your cloth diapers could be as easy as grabbing whatever’s in your laundry room already. Really. Just ten years ago people washed cloth diapers the way they’d wash any of the dirtiest laundry produced in the house. Then suddenly the rules changed. “Cloth diaper safe” became the name of the game and everyone was scrambling to pick a detergent without any fragrance, brighteners, enzymes, or dyes. While those dedicated “cloth diaper safe” detergents can work, it takes a very specific set of circumstances for them to be truly effective on cloth diapers. You need the right washing machine, the right water softness, the right amount of detergent, and sometimes even the right kind of pee (weird, I know). Remember that with cloth diapers you are washing away biological waste. That’s urine and feces, folks. It’s absolutely the most heavily soiled laundry you will ever need to wash, so why don’t you treat it as such? The good news is that the tides are turning in the cloth diaper industry. More and more diaper companies are recommending that their customers wash with the detergent that works best for their family. Here are some things to avoid and some things to consider to help you choose the right detergent for your diapers.
I’ve already outlined the fundamentals of washing cloth diapers, but now it’s time to talk about choosing a detergent for cloth diapers. Before I get into what you want in a detergent, let me tell you what you don’t want in a detergent. The first thing I want to warn you about are incomplete detergents. This is when a detergent contains sodium metasilicate but does not contain an acid to balance the ph. When left unbuffered, sodium metasilicate can result in chemical burns to the child’s skin. These burns can be severe and leave scarring. Detergents that contain unbuffered sodium metasilicate include Charlie’s Soap, Claudia’s Choice, Norwex Ultra Power Plus, and Shaklee. Another ingredient you want to avoid in a cloth diaper detergent is sodium cocoate. Sodium cocoate is a coconut oil based surfactant and it can build up on your diapers leading to stink problems and may lead to repelling. Detergents containing sodium cocoate include Nellie’s Washing Soda, all variations of All liquid, Ecos, Ecos Free & Clear, Honest Company, and a handful of others. Always check the ingredients label if you’re not sure.
Detergent “pods” are a relatively new option in the realm of laundry detergent. They can be more convenient and less messy than regular liquid or powder detergents, but I would not recommend using them on your cloth diapers. The issue is that they become incredibly expensive to use on diapers. If the pods are a regular full strength mainstream option (like Tide Pods or Gain Flings), you’d use one in the first wash cycle and three in the second wash cycle. If the pods are a “free” version, then you’d use two in the first wash cycle and five to six in the second wash cycle. That’s just incredibly cost prohibitive, so I don’t recommend using “pod” style detergent for your diapers.
What detergents do work well for cloth diapers? Pretty well any mainstream detergent without built in fabric softener. I’ll let that sink in a bit. Fragrance, enzymes, brighteners, and dyes are all okay. Really. The odds are pretty good that whatever detergent you’re already using for your own clothing is perfectly safe to use on your diapers. Something to consider when choosing a detergent is what actually matters to you and your family. Do you just want a mainstream full strength detergent that’s easy to find and isn’t going to break the bank? Does your family have skin sensitivities or prefer fragrance free detergent? Would you prefer to go with a more natural plant based detergent? The good news is that there are detergents that fit all of those criteria (and more)!
In the realm of mainstream and easy to find detergents, Tide Original powder is king. It works exceptionally well, even in hard water, and it’s really easy to find. Most grocery stores carry it and it’s even available at Costco. A big benefit to Tide is that unless your water tests over 180ppm for total hardness, you can skip the water softener. Although Tide does tend to be a bit on the pricey side, the savings from not spending money on Calgon or Borax offset that cost. Of course no one detergent works for every family, so if Tide is just not your thing, that’s totally fine! Gain is a great option, especially in soft water. If you have an HE washing machine, you’ll need to stick to liquid Gain, but it’s a very effective detergent. If you’re needing something mainstream but more budget conscious, Sunlight is a great choice and Arm & Hammer with Oxi works well!
If a fragrance free or sensitive detergent is preferred, there are lots of effective options to choose from. Remember that with “free” detergents, you’ll need to use 1.5-2x the recommended amount for a heavily soiled load and you’ll need to add a water softener if your water is at all hard (over 60ppm). Tide Free & Gentle is a good choice, as is Kirkland Ultra Free & Clear, Purex Free & Clear, and Sunlight Sensitive Skin.
If you’re looking for a more natural plant based option, there are some that can work on cloth diapers. The key here is to use enough and to always run the second wash cycle with hot water. You’ll also want to add a water softener if your water tests above 60ppm for total hardness. My favourite plant based options are from Seventh Generation. The Natural 4x Concentrated (Geranium/Vanilla), Ultra Power Plus (Fresh Scent), and the regular Seventh Generation (Eucalyptus/Lavender, sometimes labeled as 2x) are all excellent plant based options. If you want to go plant based and must also be completely unscented, Seventh Generation Natural 4x Concentrated free & clear or Planet 2x Ultra are both good choices.
The detergents I’ve included are just my top picks, but there are many other detergents that can and do work well to thoroughly clean cloth diapers without additional wear and tear. It is important to note that not every cloth diaper company has embraced the move towards mainstream detergents. There was a time when using anything other than traditionally “cloth diaper safe” options would void your warranty, but thankfully that’s not always the case anymore. Using the detergent that works best for your family will not void your warranty with Funky Fluff, Cotton Babies (BumGenius/Flips/Econobums), or Grovia. If the warranty is something that really matters to you*, check with your cloth diaper manufacturer to see what their recommendations are.
What’s your favourite cloth diaper detergent?
I happen to believe that the health of my baby's skin is far more important than a $25 warranty, but if you are concerned with warranties you should discuss detergents with your diaper manufacturer.