The New Diaper Primer

Chapter 5: Laundry


An inevitable and constant companion to cloth diaper use is laundry. Hopefully, you will have access to washer and dryer facilities in your house or apartment building. This is a frequent activity (two or three times per week, usually), so that treks to laundromats would become tiresome and quite inconvenient. We also discuss commercial diaper service. It may be available at some cost in metropolitan areas and may provide a virtually hassle-free alternative if the service provider has a good selection of adult diapers.

Below are some of the important features about laundry at home that all cloth users find essential.

Diaper Pails

Wet cloth diapers go into a diaper pail when you take them off. Some may advocate soaking; others are lazy and never soak! A useful diaper pail is a heavy-duty kitchen sized plastic trash container with good handles for dragging or carrying to the washing machine and a tight fitting lid to keep odor contained.

Soiled diapers (fecal/bowel incontinence) must be dealt with immediately as does the wearer. Rinsing as much fecal matter from the diapers as possible will be adequate. Dragging your diaper pail over to the shower will facilitate dropping the rinsed diapers into the pail right from the shower.

As wet diapers get added to the diaper pail, include some liquid all-purpose cleaning detergent such as "Pine Sol". We find a pine scent very effective in countering objectionable diaper pail odor.

There are two possible "drills":

The easier one calls for just dropping the wet diaper into the pail and squirting a little liquid cleaner over the top of the diaper. You may also hang one of those deodorant blocks (intended for hanging on the toilet bowel rim) on the rim of the bucket.

The second alternative calls for making a solution of cleaning detergent with about cup of white vinegar in half a bucket of cold water. Add the diapers one at a time, making sure that the later-worn diapers are introduced at the bottom of the diaper mass. At laundry time this solution is dumped into the washer with the diapers and spun out (turn the dial to "SPIN-DRY") before introducing the fresh water fill as usual to begin the wash cycle.

For those who wear cloth around the clock, using around six diapers for three changes, you will have to wash diapers every day or two. Many of you just beginning with cloth diapers will be wearing them only at night; so your need to wash diapers will probably extend to 4 to 5 days. That is about the limit of holding wet diapers without getting into serious bacteria build-up, ammonia generation and other nasty things that can harm your diapers and shorten their life, not to mention making them overly nasty to deal with in the washer. I mention this for those who might drop some diapers in the diaper pail, switch to disposables, and then forget the diapers in the diaper pail! You must launder what ever diapers are in the pail within five days. If you switch to disposable diapers for a period of time, the diaper pail needs to be empty and rinsed out with something like "Lysol" concentrated sanitizer cleaner before storage.

How big is a "load" of diapers?

Most machine manufacturers don't mention weight anymore as a guide to how much laundry constitutes a "load". If yours does, remember that's dry weight and diapers such as we recommend run about 16 oz (1 pound) each. Maytag, a major player in the washing machine industry, directs you to loosely load the machine to the top row of holes in the tub/basket. That rule has worked just fine. You only have to do this once to determine how many of your diapers make up a load for your machine. Take your DRY diapers and load them "loosely" into the machine until you get to the top holes, keeping count, of course, and putting in a true mix of light and heavy diapers to represent what you actually will be wearing.

Now, when you have a full, or nearly so, diaper pail, load the same number into the machine. If you had come up with 8 diapers (or towels, if you are in the towel experiment phase), then load only 8 wet diapers. You will most likely find that the level will be much lower than the top row of holes. That's because the wet diapers are heavier and pack in. It looks like you can put a couple more diapers in - but don't do it! An overloaded machine will not be able to do a good washing job. The diapers must have room to move around freely with the agitation. We need cloth diapers to be clean, that's C L E A N with capital letters! It will make us feel better from a hygienic standpoint, and it will help avoid other related problems such as odor and rash.

Some of you may have sophisticated machines with fancy pre-wash cycles and dispensers for various additives, but let me address the rest of us who have very basic, "plain vanilla" washing machines.

Washing diapers

After loading the machine, set it for maximum water level and a 5-minute wash. Allow it to fill and agitate. The pine liquid detergent cleaner you squirted on your diapers as they went into the diaper pail to control odor will now act as the washing detergent for this pre wash.

Hot water has not been an option for machines for many years, if yours has a hot setting you are in the minority. Studies show that hot water does little beyond wasting your energy dollars. Warm water allows modern detergents to do their work very effectively. For germs, the hot-water setting on the old machines was no where near hot enough or in contact with the wash load long enough to kill germs. Chlorine bleach and sunlight were (and still are) the primary germ killers.

After the dirty water has spun out from the "wash" cycle, the machine will spin then stop before starting what it "thinks" will be the rinse cycle. But you step in and interrupt just after the machine pauses. Reset the dial to 10 minutes (or "normal") and restart with refilling the tub. Now the warm water fills again, and you add the correct amount of your choice of detergent. Correct amount means no more than recommended; the package directions are already overly generous, intended to sell more detergent, of course. You can cut that down if you like, keeping an eye on the wash as you do so. There should be a minimal layer of soap suds on top of the water. A thick layer of white suds that hides all the water is a waste of detergent. No suds means you forgot to add detergent or there isn't enough of it. From articles on laundry detergent, we have concluded that name-brands are overrated, and detergent is, essentially, detergent. Ages ago we abandoned the pricey name brands and choose instead the cheapest store brand available for purchase in 20-lb. lots or the "5-gallon pail". It costs about one-quarter to one-third that of name-brand detergent.

Wash supplements

I advocate the use of borax when washing diapers. It may not be available in every supermarket since consumption fell off as parents trended away from cloth diapers. While borax is sold as a general laundry booster, virtually all the consumers buying it were washing diapers. "20 Mule Team Borax" is an old name that's been around forever and might be in some store near you. Borax works as a water treatment, softening the water which allows the detergent you are using to be more effective. Some might argue borax was for fecal stains, and that may well be. So if your diapers have fecal stains, the borax will be very beneficial, and if your diapers are only from urinary incontinence, the borax can be considered optional. But using borax, in my opinion, results in cleaner diapers, and that's the name of this game!

Another useful supplement is washing soda (instead of borax). About 1/3 cup added simultaneously with the detergent aids in cleaning and leaves a very fresh scent.

Use of bleach:

Set a timer to remind yourself to add bleach about 6 minutes into the wash cycle with 4 minutes left to go. I am talking about real chlorine bleach, not the bleach substitutes. The bleach is for germ killing, not whitening the wash load, so be sure you are buying real liquid chlorine bleach. Do not add bleach if you have soaked your diapers in a vinegar solution. The two substances are incompatible.

CAUTION when using chlorine bleach!

Chlorine bleach is nothing to play with! Be very careful of splashes and watch your eyes. Wearing glasses is great - at least for this purpose! If you don't wear glasses, consider wearing safety goggles while you are handling bleach. Spills or drips onto counter top or clothes can wreak havoc! A few drops of bleach will instantly create permanent white spots in those nice dark brown corduroy jeans you just got for $48. After you have added the bleach, store your measure separately and use it only for bleach, then wash your hands to remove any possible bleach residue from your skin.

Use about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of bleach for a diaper load. Use a large, two-cup measure so you can dilute that amount of bleach with tap water. Pour the 2-cup solution into the washing machine and immediately resume the agitation to spread and further dilute the bleach solution immediately into the entire wash load. Do not pour in the bleach, get distracted and leave the load sit idle! The still somewhat concentrated bleach can attack and ruin your expensive diapers.

To repeat, we don't really give a darn about whiteness in diapers, but we surely care about cleanliness. Chlorine bleach is a germ killer and a sanitizer which many of us find essential.

However, there are cautions about using bleach. Some diaper manufacturers recommend against that usage, especially if your diapers are contour with elastic fittings. If you do not use bleach, then follow the second procedure (above) for soaking diapers with the detergent-vinegar solution prior to washing. You may add another 3/4 cup of vinegar to the wash water if you wish for a fresh scent (yes!) when the diapers are dry.

Also note that bleach and laundry detergent do not work well together according to some research. Bleach decreases the effect of your detergent, and some recommend adding more detergent when you are bleaching. If you were a purist, you would allow the wash cycle to finish, go to the rinse cycle, add the bleach (making it a bleach cycle), then allow a second rinse which would rinse out the bleach. Sorry, but if you have a life that doesn't revolve around washing diapers, you will compromise. Six minutes is adequate wash time for any detergent to work without bleach. "Washing" will continue for the last 4 minutes after bleach is in there, even though the detergent may have lost some effectiveness due to the bleach.

Now you can forget the machine and let it finish the remaining 4 minutes of the wash cycle and spin out the wash water and go through the rinse and stop. Most do not double rinse; but some might swear by it.

For fabric softener, most diaper users do not use it. various diaper websites (devoted to cloth diapering, mostly for infants) claim that fabric softener is not recommended for diapers for two reasons; it can reduce the absorbency of the fabric, and it can shorten fabric life due to the way it works; the fibers loosen, leaving them more vulnerable to catching and unraveling and tearing. We will leave that research and decision up to yourself.

Washing waterproof pants

Yes, most recommend hand washing! But many who insist on a life other than diaper laundry use the automatic washer. Launder your waterproof pants with delicate laundry items such as dress shirts, wool socks, and lingerie or colorful items. Run this load on your perma-press or gentle cycle which provides less vigorous agitation. Use detergent only and absolutely no bleach. Hang waterproof pants to dry. Sunlight may be great for cloth diapers but it means death for most waterproofing materials such as vinyl. You can hang waterproof pants outdoors in the shade, but a safer alternative is hanging inside and preferably the basement or utility room where sunlight will never strike the pants.

Dryer heat is also bad for any pants. If you have absolutely no place to hang waterproof pants, run them through your dryer on the no-heat cycle which will blow dry them. Some have set up clotheslines in the bathtub and run a fan blowing on the water proof pants to dry them.

Drying diapers

Transfer your load of diapers to your dryer and experiment with the time until you get the diapers to come out almost dry. For an electric dryer, typically slower than gas, drying time may work best at 80 minutes. A normal laundry load dries in 50 to 55 minutes in comparison. Diapers are generally denser that other fabrics and prefolds have multiple layers which are much harder to dry than unlayered articles.

As a starting point, put your load of diapers in the dryer, and try it 10 minutes longer than you would use for a regular laundry load. Even if you are in the towel-experiment phase, most normal laundry loads are mixed, and towels will be combined with lighter fabrics calling for normal drying times. By contrast, an "all towel" load will need to be treated more like a diaper load.

If you opt for "bone dry", you are damaging the cotton fibers and will shorten the life of your costly diapers. Most prefolds will be noticeably damp in the center soaker strip, and these will get pinned on a drying line or rack in the basement. If you lack a place to hang diapers, you may have to dry them a bit more in the dryer, still trying not to "cook" them by going all the way to bone-dry.

For dryers with a sensor for the drying cycle, use the "cotton-regular-hot" setting. The "perma-press-medium" setting may also be used, though the diapers may be slightly damper. The cycle will automatically shut off when the sensor detects the air temperature in the dryer reaching a certain point determined by the manufacturer.

Fabric softener revisits us with "dryer tissues" that soften fabrics and eliminate static cling. The same general warning about fabric softeners added to the wash applies to these sheets added to the dryer. We'll leave it up to you; some use dryer sheets and enjoy the added scent and the softness imparted to diapers. But some manufacturers recommend against such tissues as injurious to the fabric.

Pay close attention to your lint filter. You should be cleaning it after every load under normal circumstances, but when you are drying diapers, you'll find more lint build-up on the screen / filter. Be sure to clean off that lint after every diaper load.

No washer-dryer

If you live in a multiple dwelling unit with a "public" washer dryer, the situation is similar to using a public laundromat. It's not going to be easy, and that inconvenience might keep you from using cloth diapers. If, however, you are using cloth diapers only at night and are using towels and find you have no problem with the bulky terry towel diapers, then using a public washer-dryer may not be a problem since all that shows are normal everyday towels. If using a public facility, washing the waterproof pants means hand-washing at home in the sink. Use only warm, not hot, water and liquid detergent. Dishwashing detergent is fine since it is relatively mild. Soak for a while to let detergent solution get into the leg and waist band elastics. Even pants constructed with encased elastics won't keep the wash water out of the elastics, it just takes a bit of time for the solution to work. Rinse your pants in clear warm water and shake off excess water and hang to dry, away from sunlight.

Diaper Service

This is the absolute best solution for those wanting to wear cloth diapers and who do not want to or cannot deal with washing diapers themselves. Several folks who participate in forums have only good things to say about diaper service. Marianne most recently wrote to suggest that diaper service should be mentioned in this Primer since it spares you all the hassle of dealing with wet or dirty diapers and keeps you supplied with clean fresh diapers. Here is a direct quote: "Just a little information, should you wish to use it. The service I use, Tidee Didee in Sacramento will rent you their diapers, sell you diapers and waterproof panties, or launder diapers that you purchase from any source. I find owning my own diapers and having Tidee Didee launder them is the best option, as I am able to choose the material and style that I like, and the long term cost is lower. My delivery person tells me that she has several adult customers on her route ranging in age from teenagers to seniors. While some own their diapers, most rent from the service.

The diapers are beautifully laundered with all stains removed in the process. In processing, a rash and odor control product is added, which really works. I have not faced diaper rash issues, and my diaper hamper never has an unpleasant odor.

While the service offers waterproof vinyl panties, I do not like the material. They are similar to an infant's plastic panty. I prefer Salk Sani-Pants, which are more sturdy and last for a very long time."

The biggest drawback will be finding a diaper service in your area. If you are so lucky, check it out! Service will vary with some offering only their diapers and others agreeable to launder your own diapers. All provide bags to collect the wet or soiled diapers and none requires you to soak or dunk the diapers; you remove them and toss directly into the diaper bag. Some may provide a diaper pail which holds the diaper bag/liner. Some may supply plastic pants and / or launder your plastic pants. The cost is generally comparable to disposable-diaper wear. Most likely, the cost would be higher than home-laundered diapers, but that premium you pay is the price of convenience.

Environmental Concerns

Let's touch just briefly on environmental concerns as they arise from time to time on the internet forums, and you'll find folks on every side, typical of any hot issue. It is generally felt there is no big environmental advantage of cloth vs. disposable diapers. The resources and energy used to manufacture disposable diapers is supposedly comparable to that used to raise cotton plants and wash and dry cloth diapers.

We feel that cloth holds an environmental advantage with the waste products (urine and feces) being properly treated through washing and sewerage treatment facilities as opposed to land filling disposable diapers. This enviro-advantage would be diminished if the used disposable diapers were disposed in a more sanitary manner, such as by composting or incineration. In addition, we further feel the production of cloth diapers is from a renewable resource (cotton plants) while the petroleum used to produce plastics for disposable diapers is a nonrenewable source.

However, disposal problems aside, folks can choose to wear disposable diapers or cloth diapers and either decision results in similar environmental impact.

Using a diaper service may be the most environmentally friendly option of all since they wash very large batches which would lead to economy of water use due to efficiency of scale.

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