Choosing the Right Detergent

There are two main types of detergents, “mainstream” and “clean-rinsing”.  The Real Diaper Manufactures Association recommends clean-rinsing detergents. Choosing a clean-rinsing detergent must be a full-time choice for all your laundry. If you are using shared laundry facilities you will need a mainstream detergent without optical brighteners.

* Look up your current detergent with the Detergent Determinator: to find out what additives it may have.

Clean-Rinsing vs. Mainstream Detergents

A clean-rinsing product will strip the gunk remaining in the machine from other products and that will land on your diapers.  The enzymes and stuff (residue in the machine) landing on your diapers can possibly result in a rash, of the burned-looking kind.  The clean rinsing product will also “spend itself” on the gunk and not really clean the diapers well.  This is why you must use the clean-rinsing detergent for all your laundry.  You will also need to do a cleaning cycle with your clean-rinsing detergent in an empty machine prior to first use to clean out the residues before you start washing diapers.

Examples of clean rinsing detergents:

  • Charlie’s Soap – Available in powder or liquid
  • Rockin’ Green Cloth Diaper Detergent – Classic, Soft and Hard Rock formulas available in powder only in a variety of scents
  • Nellie’s
  • 7th Generation Delicate Care
  • Country Save Powder
  • Allen’s Naturally liquid/powder
  • Mountain Green Baby Free & Clear
  • Sensi-Clean/Sport Wash

If you are using shared laundry facilities or do not wish to use clean rinsing products consider these better choices for mainstream detergents:

Enzyme containing detergents that do not have optical (UV) brighteners:

  • Tide Free powder
  • Cheer Free and Gentle
  • Bi-O-Kleen Premium Plus
  • Ecover Powder
  • Mrs. Meyer’s
  • 7th Generation liquid, Baby
  • 7th Generation Powder
  • 7th Generation Free and Clear
  • Target baby, powder
  • Sams Choice (Wal-mart store brand)
  • Sun Powder (Huish Brands)
  • Ecos Free and Clear Laundry Detergent

Usually the store brand is the least expensive and has the least additives.  Use the powder if possible.  Read labels carefully and avoid detergents with promises of softer, cleaner, whiter laundry.

Know your detergent ingredients:

Surfacants – Most detergents you find will have ingredients listed such as “contains anionic and nonionic surfactants”.  That is fine.  Surfacants, “surface active agents” are what makes it a detergent.  You need those.

Enzymes – Most mainstream detergents contain enzymes.  Enzymes are said to “digest” protein, or “attack organic matter” when activated by moisture.  This it is said that they “eat” babies skin and are activated when pee hits the diaper.  They don’t seem to fully rinse out even with multiple rinses.  Some babies are highly bothered by enzymes, yet some babies can tolerate even harsh Tide with no apparent side effects.  If you baby has rashes no matter how much you rinse, switch to a detergent without enzymes.  Enzymes do help clean, so if they work for you, go for it.

Fabric Softener – petroleum residue that coats the fabric and decreases absorbency and causes irritations.  Avoid.  Some are natural oil based and they also coat the fabric.  We suggest avoiding softeners.  Do not use dryer sheets.

Optical brighteners/UV enhancers – chemical dyes added that stick to the fabric and don’t rinse off, intended to bend light to make clothing appear brighter, even though they are not cleaner.  Causes residue buildup, are not readily biodegradable and may bind irreversibly to skin.  We suggest avoiding.

Whitening enzymes – avoid because they are associated with rashes.  These are different than just regular enzymes which are maybe avoid, maybe ok.  Don’t confuse the two.

Citrus oil – OK if no citrus allergies.  Can cause repelling of fleece and it can build up on other fabrics.  It’s not okay for synthetic covers.

Fragrances – usually petroleum based and they remain on the fabric.  Also risky because fragrances can make diapers smell clean that are not really clean.

Borax, borates – In small amounts it seems to be OK or even beneficial for killing bacteria in cotton, but avoid if using hemp (or other non %100 cotton fabrics) because for some reason it’s hard to wash out of hemp and can cause a blister rash.


With your detergent, no matter what kind you choose, you will also need a disinfectant, such as an additive free oxygen cleaner, a small amount of bleach, or maybe a generous amount of baking soda.

Oxygen bleach – look for additive free oxygen cleaners such as Sun Oxygen Cleaner, Clorox Oxygen Cleaner, OxiClean Baby, Oxo Brite, Oxy Boost or BioPac Non Clorine Bleach powder.

Bleach – You only need a teaspoon in a front loader or 2 tablespoons or so in a top loader.  Be sure to wash out the bleach residue by re-washing with your regular detergent at least twice.  If you have stinky diapers or diaper rash, it’s ok to try some bleach.

Baking Soda – Baking Soda has the power to neutralize odors, instead of just covering them up. Most unpleasant odors come from either strong acids (like our baby’s urine) or strong bases (fish oils – which we find in some of our mainstream diaper rash ointments). The Baking Soda deodorizes by bringing both acidic and basic odor molecules into a neutral state.  It is more effective to use baking soda in the wash and vinegar in the rinse.

A word on vinegar – Vinegar is acidic, pH 3, and often it’s pre-diluted with water to pH 5.  It does the opposite of what baking soda does: vinegar lowers the pH of your water.  A low pH is good for rinsing effectively; it breaks up detergent residues.  If using a high pH clean-rinsing laundry product such as Charlie’s Soap you may need vinegar in your rinse.  Vinegar is useful in stripping detergent build-up off polyester fleece stay-dry items, such as fleece liners.  If you do a vinegar rinse, we suggest a plain water rinse afterwards.  Never combine bleach and vinegar in the same dispenser.  They combine to form a deadly gas, so keep vinegar away from bleach always.

Please be cautious about using vinegar and/or baking soda, as they can together or individually cause problems with some diapering products. We recommend that you do not use either of these unless specifically suggested by the manufacturer of your diaper or diaper cover.

Hard Water

The hardness or softness of your water refers to minerals in your water.  If you have minerals in your water, usually calcium or magnesium, then you have hard water.  The more minerals dissolved in your water the harder the water.  Here in New Orleans we do have hard water.  The harder the water, the more detergent is needed.  Sometimes a lot more detergent is needed because hard water does not clean as effectively as soft.  The detergent is used up because it goes to work softening the water, so that’s why you need more detergent to do the job.   Vinegar rinsing usually helps in hard water.  CLR (the soap scum and rust cleaner) might help, or Calgon water softner.  Sometimes phosphates (TSP from a paint store) are used in moderate amounts to hold the minerals in suspension in the water so they don’t get deposited into the diapers.  Mineral build up from your water will tend to make your diapers feel stiffer than diapers washed in soft water.

You can find out if your water is hard or soft by:

  • using a water test strip
  • check the Rockin’ Green map
  • Contact your local water treatment facility

Front loaders vs. top loaders

Front loaders use less water and are more gentle so your diapers will last longer.  Front loaders also spin faster and will dry diapers faster.  Low water machines may require additional cycles to get diapers clean.  Top loaders use more water so they usually get diapers cleaner more quickly and easily.