Washing cloth diapers is not rocket science. Honest. There is no secret potion needed, no magic sequence of steps, no need to chant or wash during the dark of the moon. No need to beat them on rocks or wash with a 10 step process. Really. Keep it Super Simple!
After 7 years of selling cloth diapers, I think I have heard every possible combination of steps or weird laundry ingredients. Cloth diapers are laundry. Washing them is super easy. People usually get into trouble with one of four things: bad water, bad detergent, stuff that does not belong on diapers, or the wrong amount of detergent.
Here is how to wash cloth diapers, the easy way. You might even have fun and you will save money.
1. Shake any solids into the toilet. If you have a breastfed baby you can just put the diaper in the diaper pail. If you want to use a flushable diaper liner or a diaper sprayer to remove solids, that will make your life even simpler. A little residue is fine, just get most of the mess off. No need to dunk or swish!
2. Place the diapers in a dry diaper pail. Soaking diapers will void most warranties, set in odors and break down the fabric faster. It is also a drowning hazard - even if you think your child can't get to the pail, there is always a risk. Even if you use your washer as a soaking pail (toddlers can and do drown in open washing machines, they learn to climb before you know it). Moving a pail full of diapers and nasty water is hard on your back. Finally, if that pail spills on your floor - ugh!
Wash at least every 3 days for best results. Washing only once a week is possible, but you are more likely to have odor, stain and mildew issues.
3. On wash day, put your diapers into the washer. I use a cloth diaper pail liner to make life easier. No touching dirty diapers and the pail stays nice and clean.
4. Run a cold rinse cycle. If your washer has a presoak cycle, you can soak for 10-15 minutes, then spin out the water.
5. Wash the diapers on hot with a small amount of cloth diaper safe detergent. If you are using a cloth diaper detergent, use the amount recommended. If you are using a mainstream detergent, use 1/4 - 1/2 the amount recommended. Do not overuse detergent. Do not use too little detergent. Too much detergent will cause buildup. You'll know it is too much if the rinse water is foamy on top. If you are not using enough detergent the diapers will not smell clean when they come out of the washer. If you have very hard water you might want to add Calgon water softener or use a detergent formulated for hard water. If you have very soft water, you might need less detergent.
If you have an HE or front loader washing machine, you will want to be very sparing with detergent or use an HE variety. Use the highest water level possible.
In a top loader, be sure to use enough water to cover the diapers. Don't use too much water or the diapers will not agitate against each other and get clean. If you wash too many diapers, there will not be enough room for them to move. About 24 diapers is a good size for washload in most styles.
6. If your baby has sensitive skin or you have hard water, a second rinse cycle will help remove detergent residue and prevent buildup. Some machines have a second rinse cycle, some you'll need to just reset it to rinse.
7. Drip dry any covers or diaper shells to lengthen their useful life. Inserts, prefolds, fitted diapers and all in ones can be tumble dried on low or air dried. A folding rack over your heater vent is perfect for drying diapers in winter.
You should now have a nice stack of clean diapers. If there are stains that bother you, set wet diapers out in the sun. Sunlight whitens stains and kills germs.
Do not use any additives. For instance, don't use:
* Chlorine bleach - it breaks down fabrics and ruins elastic. If you must bleach, be sure that it will not void your warranty (some brands are ok with occasional bleach, others are not). If your doctor recommends bleaching your diapers due to staph or yeast infection, use just 2 ounces per load and do it rarely.
* Borax or homemade detergents containing borax. They can crack the PUL and will wear out elastic. If you want to use them on prefolds, that is ok, but rarely necessary. If you are investing $400 in cloth diapers it makes sense to use a good detergent that will protect your investment.
* Baking soda will soften water, but the detergent is already doing that. Adding baking soda in the wash then vinegar in the rinse unnecessary and is an invitation to fabric wear and buildup issues.
* Tea tree oil in very small quantities may make your wash smell nicer, but in the tiny amounts used in laundry it is not proven to be effective in killing bacteria or fungi.
* Salt - will soften water but is not good for fabrics or your machine.
* Dawn or other dishwashing detergent. Dawn is fine for occasional stripping but it is not formulated for laundry. It will remove grease but is not very effective for cleaning fabric.
* Homemade detergent. While it works for some people, it is generally a very bad idea. Homemade detergents are not tested for pH levels - so you don't know how harsh they are. Most contain borax, which can ruin diapers if used in too high of a concentration. Most are bar soap based. Bar soaps of any kind are not good for diapers. The minerals in water can bind to the soap and create a scum that builds up on fabric. This is what causes bathtub rings - you don't want it on your diapers. Fels Naptha can cause respiratory irritation, skin irritation and other problems.
* Fabric softener. Fabric softeners are mostly made of oils, waxes, toxic chemicals and other things you don't want on your clothes or your skin anyway. Seriously, if you are worried about what touches your baby, read up on fabric softener. Ecover is a natural fabric softener that can be used occasionally on natural fibers. Never use any fabric softener on PUL or synthetic diaper materials (such as pocket diapers).