Washing Cloth Diapers in HARD Water

Washing Cloth Diapers in HARD Water

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Does anyone else remember that ad about hard water that ran on TV during The Price is Right some time in the mid 90s? You know the one. A couple well into retirement are sitting on their couch at home staring at a test strip that the woman is holding. They look shocked and confused. They say something along the lines of “How can that be?” and “At our age?”. You’re supposed to think it’s a pregnancy test, but then an announcer comes on and asks if you know if you have hard water. Remember that? No? Just me? Doesn’t matter. The point is that most people are surprised to learn that they have hard water. Anyone can have hard water. Yes, even you! It doesn’t matter if you are on city water, town water, well water, collected rain water, whatever, you could have hard water and not even know it. I’m going to explain how to find out if you have hard water and what that means for washing your cloth diapers. Yes, you can absolutely still cloth diaper with hard water, but you may need to take an extra step when you wash them to prevent build up. Here’s what you need to know. 

If you’re lucky enough to live in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, this post isn’t for you. If you live anywhere else in North America, you’re going to want to pay attention! That’s right, the majority of North America has hard water. What is hard water? Total hardness refers to the quantity of minerals (most often calcium) floating around in your tap water. Day to day this is a complete non issue. It rarely causes problems with your regular laundry, but when it comes to cloth diapers it can be problematic. The reason for this is that your cloth diapers are supposed to be absorbent. Those absorbent layers of material are a prime target for mineral build up. When left untreated, hard water deposits minerals into those absorbent layers. Once minerals are built up in the diapers, they may become less absorbent and there are now particles of minerals trapped that give urine something to get stuck on. When urine gets trapped in the absorbent materials of your diapers you end up with ammonia. Nobody wants ammonia. The good news is, there is something you can do to help prevent mineral build up when you have hard water!

Washing Cloth Diapers in HARD Water
Two examples of water hardness test kits.

First, you need to test your water. This is no where near as complicated as it sounds. Promise. You can buy a water hardness test kit online, at the hardware store, a pool supply store, even a pet store should carry them. It’s usually a strip (or 10) in a bottle with a colourful chart on the label of the bottle. All you have to do is run that test strip under your tap water, and then wait for the strip to change colour. Super easy, and super quick. Then you just hold the test strip against that colourful chart and voila! Now you know your water hardness. Need to know your water hardness RIGHT NOW and can’t wait to get to the hardware store? You can start by checking your city or town’s water supply information online. You might be able to find the average water hardness for your area there. Water hardness can be affected by the pipes that bring water to your house and even the pipes inside your house, so it’s still important to actually test your water, but checking for the average online is an excellent starting point.

Washing Cloth Diapers in HARD Water
Water hardness test result charts. You’re most interested in the total hardness in ppm.

Your water test strip turned into a lovely shade of burgundy, purple, blue, red, whatever the colour of choice for the brand of strip you bought. What does it all mean? The number that is most important to you is the “Total Hardness” measured in ppm (parts per million). If your water tests under 60ppm, you’re in luck! You do not have hard water! Congratulations. If your water tests above 60ppm, your water is somewhere between mildly hard and very hard. The distinction between mild, moderate, and very hard water is important. The next step depends on what detergent you’re using to wash your diapers. If you’re using a plant based or “free and clear” detergent, you’re going to need to add a water softener if your water tests above 60ppm. If you’re using a liquid detergent (even a mainstream liquid detergent), you’re going to need to add a water softener if your water tests above 60ppm. If you’re washing with Tide Original Powder or Persil Power Pearls (that’s their powder), then you don’t need to add a water softener unless your water tests above 180ppm. With most other detergents, you’re going to add a water softener even if your water is only mildly hard.

What’s a water softener and how much should you use? Great question! There are a few water softeners on the market, but the two that I recommend most often are Borax or Calgon. Borax works well up to around 250ppm at which point it’s just not a strong enough water softener. Calgon works well in all hard water, even water that is above 250ppm. It’s also a bit more gentle on the diapers than Borax, but it’s more expensive. If your water hardness is under 250ppm, you will use a 1/4 cup of water softener in the first wash cycle, and a 1/2 cup of water softener in the second wash cycle. If your water hardness is above 250ppm, you will use a 1/2 cup of water softener in both cycles. Your water softener goes right into the drum of the machine.

Washing Cloth Diapers in HARD Water

One other thing to keep in mind if you have hard water, is that additional rinses redeposit minerals back into the diapers. For this reason it is best to avoid any extra rinses. That includes using the “extra rinse” or “2nd rinse” option on your washing machine. Stick to just one rinse that is included as part of the wash cycle. If your the wash cycle you’re using includes a second rinse by default, be sure to turn that extra rinse off before starting the cycle.

What about built in water softeners? Yes, some homes have a built in water softening system that softens all the water going into the house. Those can be effective, but they often aren’t effective enough to soften the water for diaper laundering purposes. This is why it’s so important to test your water’s hardness. The same rules apply for using a water softener when you have an in home built in water softening system. If your water tests above 60ppm, you’re going to need a water softener added for diaper laundry (unless you are using Tide Original Powder or Persil Power Pearls, in which case you don’t need a water softener unless your water tests above 180ppm). If you do have a built in home water softening system, it’s a good idea to test your water hardness every month. Many of those systems work by adding salts to the water. Those salts do run out or wear out over time reducing their softening ability. Test often so you know when to replace those salts.

Don’t fear hard water when it comes to washing your diapers! It’s a really easy thing to adjust for once you know what your actual water hardness is! If you need some tips on setting up a great wash routine for your cloth diapers, check out my post on the fundamentals of washing cloth diapers.

Do you have hard water? What kind of water softener works best for you?


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50 Comments on “Washing Cloth Diapers in HARD Water

  1. We have very hard water living in Tallahassee, Florida. We just use Eco Sprout detergent and have had no build-up. 🙂

  2. Thank goodness for the simplicity of Tide! 🙂 Calgary has such hard water.

  3. This was very helpful! My water is pretty soft right now but I’m using plant based and using Calgon. We are moving early next year and I hope we don’t have hard water but I will come back and reference this 🙂

  4. Though i haven’t tested our water, i have been told my area has hard water. We use Calgon liquid with our washes. I have a couple boxes on hand of Borax. I am glad to know that is also an option.

  5. We have hard water and now I know why I have so many issues! I thought I just had to strip them. But I really need to soften the water. Who knew?! Thank you for this post!

  6. I’ve heard that hard water can be bad for cloth diapers. I love how in depth this article is! I finally understand WHY & that I may need to adjust my washing routine. Thabks!

  7. I actually had been researching how to wash my cloth recently, so it was great to find this pop up on my Facebook newsfeed. 🙂

  8. Thanks for the info! I always had a difficult time with my wash so this was very helpful

  9. Definitely thinking of testing our water here. This post is so helpful, thank you!

  10. Borax works best for me! And I’ve learned not to be scared of that extra rinse I need, because of borax 🙂

  11. I saw a map of our state and it has some of the hardest water in the US! I use Tide powder for my diapers, but never thought about using softners for the rest of our laundry. And thanks for the reminder of not adding the extra rinse to the diapers as to avoid buildup!

  12. Thank you for this great information. I had no idea that the hardness of your water could be such a factor in getting cloth diapers as clean as possible. Off to the hardware store for a test kit!

  13. Great info! Finally figured out a good wash routine after doing cloth for 2.5 years by switching to Tide and ditching the extra rinse!

    • Do you just use tide or do you add borax as well? I have hard water and I’m new to cloth diapering.

  14. Northern Ontario has hard water also. We use Tide powder with an in-home water softner! No issues yet!

  15. I have hard water here in San Antonio, TX. Thanks for letting me know to turn off the 2nd rinse as its just adding back instead of taking away. This will definitely help with the “stink” hopefully. I’ve used Calgon and had great success but will try the Borax as you stated because of the price difference.

  16. This is a good article. We moved recently and I’m sure we have hard water. I’ll need to get a test kit to find out for sure. I don’t want to start washing diapers before I know for sure if we have hard water or not.

  17. thank you again for helping us figure out a great washing routine! we have mildly hard water at times (woo, well water!) but use a plant based detergent. I was worried about softness beforehand – but our sensitive skin & clean diapers are greatful for your help

  18. This is one of the most detailed posts I’ve read on hard water and cloth diapers. Thank you!

  19. I definitely think that when I realized I had hard water, my wash routine became so much easier. I struggled with ammonia before adding water softener and removing the extra rinse and now I don’t! So this is great information to have available. Thanks for the tips!

  20. I had a hard Time with cloth diaper stink until I found out about hard water. Love this article!

  21. Thanks for the detergent and softener suggestions! Will be using Tide powder for everything now

  22. I have hard water and use borax already. Didn’t know about the extra rinses. Thanks for the information!

  23. Glad I live in the lower mainland. Only problem with having soft water is that it’s too easy to use too much detergent.

  24. Thanks for the tips! I’ve been using borax but not enough & not in the first cycle. This is helpful!

  25. I learned that we have soft water in Atlanta and I am so very thankful for that!! Makes everything much less complicated!

  26. I hand wash my diapers and have very hard water. I use vinigar as a natural fabric softener and I boil out my diapers so I don’t get build up and I know for sure I have killed any bacteria . It is more work then if I were to just wash them but it gives me a piece of mind knowing there are no harsh chemicals or ammonia against my little mans skin !

  27. I’ve never had to wash with hard water but I’ve learnt some great tips from this 🙂

  28. Awesome information on testing water and how to find out if you have hard water!

  29. This is so interesting! I’d be curious to hear an alternate article on those who cloth diaper using soft well water. It may be soft but I would think it would leave diapers an inserts with a rusty tinge. Thoughts?

  30. Wow. Great information. I’m going to have to buy a test kit and see how hard our water is. Thank you for the water softener products too. I had no idea!

  31. Great article! Very informative! Now I know what to do when visiting family down south!

  32. Washing cloth diapers here in California is a waste of time. The water here is so hard you have to add additives to dishwashers and washers. Have water filters which don’t work that well either and water softness are not allowed in our area.

  33. I have hard water at our house and mostly use Borax but when I can spare a few extra dollars, I use Calgon. I’m glad I found out about using water softeners for our diapers and avoided any trouble!

  34. Never actually heard the amounts of borax to use till I read this. I have used borax in my homemade soap but never thought about putting it in for the rinse cycle too (makes sense).

  35. We have been struggling with hard water ever since we moved to Cambridge, ON. I’m still trying to get it right! Trial and error. Thanks for all the great info!

  36. We had horribly hard, rusty water at our old house. It doesn’t seem bad here but I guess I should test it to make sure before little one is born!

  37. I think it’s time for me to test my water. Maybe this is why I have issues!

  38. Great post with very specific helpful information! Need to post this to share with new cloth diapering moms!

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