Troubleshoot your Cloth Diaper wash routine

Posted by Anne Apostolides on

Diaper Laundry Troubleshooting

     So you finally started cloth diapering. You have your diapers, your wash routine, and things seem to be going well for the first few weeks, but after some time, you start experiencing issues such as your diapers having a strong odor, stubborn rashes, or leaking/absorbency issues. This can be both frustrating and discouraging, but fixing these problems is easy. Diaper laundry can go wrong for a variety of reasons. Many people will recommend a variety of methods to deep clean or “strip” diapers. (There will be more information on stripping in another post soon!)
     Stripping is sometimes exactly what you need to do, but before you chose this option, you should first troubleshoot your current wash and care routine to see if there are any factors you can tweak. Sometimes small changes can greatly improve the cleaning power of your wash routine. It's also important to understand that diapers that are properly washed and cared for should NOT have to be regularly stripped. If you find that you are caught in the cycle of stripping and issues showing up again later, then I highly suggest you look over the following list of troubleshooting topics before trying your next strip!
Before you decide to strip, consider the following...
  1. Your washing load size
  2. Your detergent type and amount
  3. Your selected cycle options for your washing machine
  4. Your water condition
  5. Your washing schedule

Your Wash Routine and You

     It seems like the subject of washing cloth diapers is the most debated topic within the cloth community. Everyone has opinions, stories, and “science” to share, but cloth diaper laundry is no different from your regular laundry. It is just very, very , VERY dirty laundry! The important thing to remember is a wash routine should be simple. To effectively clean your diapers you want to use a short agitating cycle for your pre-wash and a long, heavy duty cycle for your main wash. Both cycles are important! The purpose of the pre-wash is to loosen as much debris off the cloth fibers as possible. The main wash does the bulk of the actual removal and cleaning of the debris as well as making sure all traces of detergent have been washed away from your diapers.
(You can find out more about general cloth diaper washing by clicking HERE)

1. Your washing load size

     When trying to correct a problem, I find it best to start by making sure you are properly loading your washing machine. You could be using effective wash settings with adequate amounts of detergent and still be running into issues if you have too many or too few items in your washing load.
What happens when there are too few items in your wash?
     When you do not have enough items in your washing machine during the cycle, your dirty diapers will not rub against each other enough, which means the debris will not be loosened and properly removed. This can also affect how well your detergent suds up.
What happens if there are too many items in your wash?
     When you have too many items in your washing machine, your diapers may not have enough room to rub against each other properly, which will prevent the debris from being loosened and removed. Too many diapers in a wash can also prevent detergent and debris from being fully rinse from your diapers.
How do I know what size load to wash?
FRONT LOADING WASHING MACHINE- If you have a front loading washing machine, you want to fill the drum of your washer half way to two-thirds full. Most front-loading machines have an internal sensor that detects how large your load is, but you still want to have enough items in the washer to fill half way to ensure your load is still of adequate size. If you do not have enough items to fill your washer halfway, you can add other small clothing items to the load. Wash cloths and baby clothes are all perfect sized items to add to your load if you need more items. If you are over-filling your machine, you will need to break your washing up into smaller loads.
TOP LOADING WASHING MACHINE- If you have a top loading machine, you need to check out your water to clothing ratio. When your machine is mid-cycle, you should be able to see your items move around in the machine. The items from the top should slowly cycle down to the bottom and new things should come to the top. If your items look like they are swimming or floating in the machine, you may not have enough items. If your items don't look like they are moving during the agitation, you may have too many items in your wash load. If your load size is too small, add in a few small items to increase the size of your load. If you have too many items in your load size, you can try to increase the selected load size on your machine, if this is not possible or you are already using the largest load size option, you will want to break your washing up into smaller loads.

2. Your detergent type and amount

     The next thing to check when trouble shooting your cloth diaper laundry is your detergent type and amount. You want to use a strong detergent that does not have any fabric softeners added to it. It is not recommended to use “home made” or “DIY” detergents, as these mixtures are not strong enough to properly clean poop and pee off of clothing.
What happens if I use too much detergent?
If you are adding too much detergent to your washing, it will create more suds than you need to properly clean your clothes. These extra soap bubbles can make your cloth diapers slippery, which will inhibit how well your diapers rub together to get clean. Your washing machine also may have a hard time rinsing away the excess detergent suds. This excess can stay on your diapers, and cause all kinds of issues. Using too much detergent over time can also leave residue inside your washing machine, which can compromise the efficacy if its cleaning ability too.
What happens if I don't use enough detergent?
     Quite simply, if you do not use enough detergent in your wash, there will not be enough surfactants or enzymes to effectively loosen and remove dirt and oil from your dirty clothing.
How do I know how much detergent to use?
Since all detergents are different, it is always best to follow the instructions given on the bottle. This means if you use detergent in your pre-wash, you should use the bottles suggested “line 1” and for your main wash you should use the bottles suggest amount for a “heavily soiled” load of laundry. This is usually the top line available on the measuring cup.
     If you find that you have been using too much detergent, you will want to do a “hot water strip”. This is very simple and you want to start with diapers that are already clean. Put the clean diapers into your machine and run a HOT wash cycle with NO DETERGENT. If you have been using too much detergent, you will see suds form during this water-only cycle. This is all the residue that has been sitting in your diaper fibers, causing all your stink, rash, and leak issues! You will also want to clean your washing machine as well. If you have excess detergent residue in your washing machine, this can be released into your washing loads and continue to cause you problems. CLICK HERE to read more about how to clean your washing machine and the importance of maintaining your machine.
     If you have not been using enough detergent in your washing, you will need to wash your diapers using the corrected amount of detergent. If you are following the recommended detergent amount for your detergent type you can consider adding a small amount of detergent to your pre wash. If you are using the recommended amount of detergent for both cycles, then you may have hard water. Hard water will reduce how well your detergent can clean. You can increase your detergent amounts to combat this, but do not use too much, as this will cause the same issues as over-using detergent. The effects of hard water will be discussed further into this post.

3. Your selected cycle options for your washing machine

     The next thing to check in your routine is what settings you are choosing for each cycle.
PRE-WASH: Your pre-wash should be a short wash setting that offers some agitation. If you have the options of express, casual, or quick wash, these are usually good choices! Avoid using rinse or rinse and spin settings, as these will not offer much agitation and will reduce how much debris is loosened in this cycle. Some washers may have a soak option that you can add to a long wash setting, but using this setting for diapers can prove to be ineffective. Most soak settings will not fully drain and rinse before starting the main wash cycle, so you may end up with dirty water being mixed into your main cycle.
MAIN WASH: Your main washing cycle should be long and provide a lot of agitation. If you have settings for soil level and spin level, set these to MAX and choose a long wash cycle. Heavy duty and whitest whites are both good options. Your main wash cycle should agitate for about 40 minutes or so to ensure that your diapers have enough time to get clean. If you do not have a cycle that runs for long enough, you may need to reset your cycle timer before it ends to add the extra time.
     Most machines offer you the choice of cold, warm, or hot water. It is possible to use cold water, but if you are having issues, using a warmer water temperature may help. Effective cleaning happens when cloth fibers swell, allowing for water to clear away dirt and bacteria. And according to science (regular, shmegular science, not “cloth diaper science”) heat causes things to EXPAND, so, if you want to maximize how much your clothing fibers open up, using warm or hot water over cold water will get you better results. This is why it is easier to remove stains using hot water than with cold water. Also according to regular, shmegular science, when a solvent (a substance that is being dissolved) is placed inside a cold liquid will take longer for it to dissolve than a solvent placed into a warmer liquid. In relation to diaper laundry, your detergent may dissolve better when you use warm or hot water. This is especially true if you are using a powdered detergent.
Is it possible to wash with only cold water?
     YES! You can effectively wash diapers using cold water. Clean laundry depends on water amount, detergent amount, water temperature, time and agitation. If you wish to reduce or lower one factor, you will need to increase another. To wash with cold water, you may need to increase the length of your wash cycles to ensure diapers have enough time exposed to detergent and water with enough agitation to get clean. Another thing to consider would be a detergent specially formulated to be used with cold water. These types of detergents will correctly dissolve and suds up in cold water. You have find varieties of “cold wash” detergent in both liquid and powder forms.

4.Your water condition

     The only other things the cloth community loves more than debating wash routines, is suggesting water softeners to literally everyone. A water softener added to your wash routine can be a HUGE positive. BUT ONLY IF YOU HAVE HARD WATER! The purpose of water conditioners or water softeners is to target any heavy minerals that may be present in your water. The amount of these heavy minerals depends on your geographical location. Before you start dumping capfuls of Calgon into your next wash cycle, check your water hardness level. If you try to soften water that is not hard, your water will become TOO soft, which will give you a whole NEW set of problems to have to deal with. So, just don't do that. Be kind to yourself.
     The hardness level of your water is measured by the number of hard mineral grains per gallon (gpg) or the concentration of minerals in parts per million(ppm).
Water condition scale
Soft: 0-3.5 gpg, 0-60 ppm
Moderate: 3.6-7 gpg, 61-120 ppm
Hard: 7.1- 10.5 gpg, 121-180 ppm
Very Hard: 10.5 gpg, 180 ppm
     You can find diagrams that map out basic water hardness levels by location, but the exact level of your water may still be different depending on if your home uses well water, an aquaphor, or city water. To best determine your water's composition, you can get your water tested at a local hardware or pool service store. You can also test your water at home using water test kits. These kits contain test strips that will change colors to indicate the content of your water.
What happens if water is too hard?
     If water is too hard, the detergent 's cleaning ability is reduced. If you are using soap flakes or a detergent made with soap, the soap will react with the hard minerals and solidify into un-used clots. The concentration of these minerals can cling to clothing fibers, which creates places where detergent residue and bacteria can hide. Mineral build-up can reduce how absorbent your diapers are and the presences of detergent residue and bacteria can cause stink and rash issues.
     If you test your water and have determined that you do have hard water, you can add a water softener to both your pre-wash and your main wash to help your detergents ability to create suds. If your water is so hard that it affects your detergent, you may find that using water softener in your regular laundry also improves its cleanliness. You can also combat hard water by using powdered detergents, such as TIDE Original, which includes softeners as part of its ingredients. TIDE Original can be used with water up to 180ppm or 10.5 gpg without the need for additional softeners. If you have been washing for a prolonged period of time with untreated hard water, you may need to do a mineral strip on your diapers. (This will be discussed in detail in another post) If you have been washing for a prolonged period of time in water that is too soft, you may need to perform a hot water strip (as described in the previous section).
What happens if water is too soft?
Subsequently, if your water is too soft, detergent may over suds, causing too many bubbles to be present in your laundry, similar to what happens when you use too much detergent. Water that is too soft may not be able to rinse all of the suds away during the machine cycle. These excess suds can then stay on your diapers and cause additional issues. So again, please, please, PLEASE check your water condition for hardness level before you start adding a softener.

5. Your washing schedule

     The last factor of your wash routine to consider when troubleshooting your wash routine is how often you are washing your diapers. Diapers that sit dirty for an extended period of time can be harder to get clean, which makes them more prone to stink and other issues. A general suggestion for diapering is to wash every 2-3 days. This makes it so you don't need a large number of diapers to make it between wash days and keeps diapers from sitting dirty for too long. If you currently wash weekly or a more spread out timeline, you may want to shorten the times between washes. If you are not able to wash your diapers more than once in a week, consider rinsing each diaper in clean water before placing it into your laundry hamper to await washing. You can do this with a garden hose, in a utility sink, swishing in a flushed toilet bowl or by using a diaper sprayer/bidet. After you have rinsed the dirty diaper, be sure to lightly wring (Do not twist your diapers!!) or allow your diaper to drip dry before placing it into your laundry hamper. Diaper laundry can slow down a lot when your little one starts getting closer to potty learning, so even if your wash schedule used to be every third day, it may change to weekly because you have less diapers to wash at a time, so rinsing your diaper before placing it in your laundry hamper can also be a good option for this situation.
     Over complicating your washing routine can create unnecessary stress. And cloth diapering should not be stressful. It is just another load of laundry. And laundry doesn't scare us, right? RIGHT!Take the time to adjust your wash routine with minor changes before making any major ones. If you are still having issues with your cloth diapers, you may have other more serious issues to consider such as mineral and detergent build up, which can be fixed with stripping. Or you may have a problem with yeast, which requires additional steps to kill off all yeast spores that are in your cloth. These topics will be covered in future posts. If you find that you are in need of one-on-one help with your laundry routine, please feel free to contact me directly through the website, Facebook, Instagram or by sending an e-mail to


  • @brittany – could it be you need to clean your washer? I know it’s new, but maybe it’s worth a shot.

    Cass on

  • Can anyone help me? I have followed all of this and I’m still seeing suds in my washer. I’m using no detergent in my quick wash and only 1 tbsp in my main heavy duty Hot wash. I’ve tried Both liquid And powdered gain, liquid and powered Tide and rockin green with the same amount. And I’ve also tried the whites setting and the bulky setting with the same outcome. I keep having to continuously run cycles until it’s all out! (Now onto hour 8 of todays diaper washing adventure and STILL seeing suds) Could I possibly need even less detergent? That thought just seems crazy to me! I’m washing every 3 days about 20 diapers on average and the washer is a brand new front loader, it uses hardly any water and does not have an option to add more. I do not have this problem with our clothing even when using the same detergent and I use more than a tbsp for that, I follow the instructions on the container. I know the diapers are clean there is no smell or stains when the main wash is done, I just keep seeing white suds on the PUL of the covers. They have been stripped of all soaps and this still occurred on the first wash day after doing that, I did many many many hot wash cycles with no detergent until I gave up and HAND Rinsed them In the sink and then did a final hot wash cycle And they were finally clear! Now we are back to suds after one wash with only 1 tbsp of detergent.

    Brittany on

  • This is probably THE BEST diaper washing troubleshooting blog I have ever read! Thank you Anna!

    Suzanne Jardine on

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published