Everything You Need to Know About Washing Cloth Diapers

Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Reviewed by Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAPWritten by Neve Spicer Updated on August 20th, 2021

Just like every parenting decision you will make, choosing cloth or disposable diapers is a personal choice. There are many reasons to choose cloth diapers, from saving money to cutting down on environmental waste to the adorable patterns. Chances are you’ve been doing your research and have finally arrived at the decision to cloth diaper.

Here’s where we come in. It’s time to learn how to wash cloth diapers, and don’t worry, it’s not as hard as you think.

Getting started with cloth diapers

While cloth diapers do cost more money upfront, the investment pays off as the months (and years!) go by. Cloth diapers do need to be changed more promptly because they don’t draw away wetness like disposable diapers, and you will use more water due to the extra laundry. Making the choice to use cloth diapers will depend on your schedule, how committed you are, and even how many other children you have or plan to have.

Cloth diapers reduce your carbon footprint, leak less than disposables, and are great for sensitive skin because there are no ingredients or chemicals- just fabric!1Shanon, A., Feldman, W., James, W., & Dulberg, C. (1990). Diapers: what do parents choose and why?.
Canadian Family Physician, 36,, 1705.

If you make the initial investment of buying 24-30 cloth diapers, you can use them for however long your child is in diapers, and even sell them after or use them for subsequent children. However, you must take good care of them and learn how to properly rinse, wash, and dry your cloth diapers.

There is a learning curve with washing cloth diapers, but many parents find it is worth the effort. Like every aspect of caring for your baby, you will soon find a rhythm that works for you. There are many methods for washing cloth diapers, but we found this one to be the most straightforward and effective for busy moms and dads.

Related: Best Cloth Diapers 2021 (Ultimate Guide & Top Picks)

Diaper sprayer or dunk and swish?

Rinsing the diapers with warm water right after they are soiled can make the washing process much easier.2Jacobson, B., Loeffler, G., & Blaesi, L. (2004). Diapering your baby. Family; no. 8.501.Consumer series. Family; no. 8.501.

You can use a diaper sprayer over the toilet, or simply dunk them in if you’re feeling brave. You can purchase a diaper sprayer on Amazon for around $30 and while they are not necessary, many moms swear by them.

Washing out diaper waste is not necessary if you have a breastfed baby who is not yet on solids. Once your child is on solids, you can also empty out and flush the waste immediately. Disposable diaper liners are helpful if you would rather not pre-rinse. The liners go inside the diaper and can be thrown out or flushed.

After rinsing, diapers can be stored in a diaper pail. This prevents further contact with the soiled diapers and the potential spread of infection.3Safety steps are necessary when dealing with dirty diapers

Waterproof cloth liners help make your pail easy to empty and can be thrown into the wash along with the diapers. Make sure to always carry a wet bag when you’re out so that you can store dirty diapers in your diaper bag without making a mess. A reusable wet bag is waterproof, washable, and can hold several dirty diapers for when you’re out of the house.

Washing cloth diapers

Simplicity is key when it comes to taking care of cloth diapers. They are safe to be washed in your washing machine unless the company specifies otherwise. There are misconceptions that cloth diapers need to be hand washed or that putting them in your washing machine is unsanitary, but that’s not the case.

You are going to want to start with a cold-water rinse followed by a hot water wash.4Diapers: Disposable or Cloth?

The cold water helps to reduce stains. This can be a quick cycle with either no detergent or a small amount, or if you prefer, you can leave the diapers soaking in the cold water to lift stubborn stains.

Follow it up with a wash with very hot water and a regular amount of detergent (but not too much). This gets the diapers clean and bacteria-free which is especially important when dealing with dirty diapers. Make sure to use the maximum amount of water for your washing machine and an extra rinse cycle.

If you have a front-loading washer or one with a sensor for water levels, you may want to throw in a towel or two to trick your washer into adding more water to the load. You can also add a scoop of baking soda to keep the diapers looking and smelling fresh.5How to wash cloth diapers

If the diapers still smell, you need to wash or rinse them again. Properly washed diapers will not smell dirty. When in doubt, rinse, rinse, rinse!

Keep in mind that diaper covers don’t need to be washed as often as the diapers. Throw them in any time there’s a blow out or if they begin to smell. You may be able to wash them with your diapers, or they may have different washing instructions, especially if they are wool.

Editor’s Note:

It is a good idea to wash soiled diapers separately from other laundry. This prevents contact with the rest of the family’s laundry, and avoids the use of detergents and fabric softeners that could cause skin sensitivity in infants.6Diapering Your Baby

Gonna soak up the sun

The absolute best way to dry your diapers is on a clothesline in the sun. The sun is your best bet at killing any remaining bacteria and getting out those pesky stains. A nice soak in the sun even leaves them smelling better and is environmentally friendly, which is likely one of the reasons you chose cloth , diapers in the first place. However, this isn’t possible for many people, due to living arrangements or weather. It also takes longer than throwing them in the dryer.

If you can air dry inside, that’s another good option, although it will take longer. The fastest method, of course, is throwing them in the dryer on low heat. Be careful not to use high heat, which can damage your diapers. Some diapers will have specific drying instructions so be sure to follow them if so. Attach any Velcro tabs so that your diapers do not stick together.

Related: How to Use Cloth Diapers

Choosing the right detergent

Hard water contains minerals such as calcium and magnesium that prevent soap from making suds and cleaning well. This can leave behind residue, particularly on diapers. Most detergents have additives that help them make suds, but many of the more natural detergents recommended for cloth diapering do not. A DIY test for finding out your water type is to fill up a clear bottle with water from your faucet. Add pure liquid soap (not detergent) and shake for ten seconds. If you have soft water, there will be a lot of suds at the top, and clear water at the bottom. If you have hard water, you will have cloudy water without a lot of suds.

What is buildup and how do I avoid it?

More common if your water is hard, buildup occurs when mineral deposits and residue begin to cause a barrier on the fabric. Buildup causes diapers to leak and smell and stops them from performing as they should. Sometimes using too much detergent can cause a soapy buildup that prevents the cloth diapers from getting clean. Try using less detergent or an additional rinse, especially if you see suds after a wash cycle. If you suspect your diapers have buildup on them, you can run several hot cycles without detergent or use RLR Laundry Treatment to strip them. When buildup becomes noticeable, or if someone uses diaper cream by accident, you can also take a toothbrush and Dawn dish soap to gently remove the residue.

Will I damage the cloth diapers?

First things first: read any and all tags and instructions as most companies specify their recommendations, and some will even void warranties for using certain products. Disinfectants, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets can cause more trouble than they’re worth when it comes to cloth diapers. Bleach and vinegar can both be too harsh when used often, and borax, fabric softener, and dryer sheets should be avoided due to residue. Many parents recommend using reusable dryer balls when drying cloth diapers.

You also need to choose diaper creams and ointments carefully because some will stain the diapers. You can use disposable diapers for the duration of a bad diaper rash or yeast infection, which may also expedite its resolution. Avoiding these products will help lengthen the life of your cloth diapers and truly make them worth the money.

How do I remove stains on cloth diapers?

If you’re avoiding your arsenal of stain-fighting ingredients, it can be hard to know how to get out those stubborn cloth diaper stains. And they will happen! Make sure to wash with cold water first, as hot water can lock in stains. Your first step when removing stains should always be laying the diaper out in the sun after washing. Leave them out all day in full sun and wet them again if necessary. Adding lemon juice before sunning can help loosen stains, but make sure to wash before use. Other mom-recommended products include Buncha Farmers All-Natural Stain Removers and OxiClean. While some experts will tell you to avoid OxiClean, many parents use it with no issues, and it works nicely if you have hard water.

How often should I wash cloth diapers?

One of the biggest questions when learning how to use cloth diapers is how often they need to be washed. You will need to wash diapers every couple of days, three at the most, or they may begin to mildew. Staining, smell, and wear and tear will also be reduced by how often you wash. Every other day is a good rule of thumb. Your baby will begin to go through less diapers as they get older, but you don’t want to slack on how often you throw them in the wash. It’s best to wash cloth diapers separate from your other laundry. Diapers will not get as clean and may start to pill if you overload the washer.

Wrapping Up

As parents, we know that you will be much more likely to stick with cloth diapers if you find a detergent and washing process that work for you. While it may be tempting to commit to the greenest, most expensive laundry detergent or an arduous washing and drying process, aim to help your future self. Cloth diapers can seem intimidating, but they don’t have to be. We know many moms that found a wash routine that worked for their families, and ultimately saved money and helped the environment. Go ahead, go check out those cute patterns.

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Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Reviewed by Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAPWritten by Neve Spicer Updated on August 20th, 2021

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