Here we hope to answer some of the most common questions about detergents for cloth diapers. This is part of a series of articles designed to help you find the best laundry system for your family. For specific recommendations and solutions to common laundry problems, please see our detergent recommendation page, and our laundry troubleshooting guide.
What is a detergent, and how is it different from soap?
Technically, soap is a type of detergent, which just means they are substances which can be added to water to help remove oil and organic matter which water, by itself, can not remove during the washing cycle. For the purposes of this conversation, however, and to reflect how the terms are used in popular speech, I want to make a distinction between traditionally made soaps, and the highly processed detergents which have a few significant differences.
Soap is traditionally made by mixing fat (animal or vegetable) with a highly alkaline substance such as lye or wood ash. This creates a potassium or sodium based salt, which are long hydrocarbon chains. They produce an emulsifying effect because they are hydrophilic (water loving) on one end of the chain, while being able to bond with oils and other organic compounds on the non polar end as well. The salts, when bonded with water, form little spheres of molecules, with the non-polar ends facing in, and they hydrophilic, ionic ends facing out. The oils and organic compounds are pulled into the middle of the spheres and trapped there. The non polar oils trapped in the ionic spheres are now repellent from each other, which helps hold them in suspension, ready to be rinsed away. Unfortunately, when these salts interact with hard water minerals, they create a filmy residue which can deposit on fibers as well as on the washing machine or wash basin. Soap scum and “ring around the collar” are problems related to using soaps with hard water.
Detergents, as we generally refer to them today, were developed when petrochemicals were introduced as an alternative to the fats used in soap making, which were in short supply during WWII. Today, they are still usually made in a lab, some from petrochemicals, some from oleochemicals (derived from plants or animals,) but all highly processed and manipulated to form the ideal hydrocarbon chain length for their purpose. Shorter chains are better for emulsifying. Like soaps, detergents use alkalis to provide positively charged ions for facilitating chemical reactions, but they also contain additional surfactants and oxidizers.
Surfactants are found in most detergents and some soaps as well. Surfactants break the surface tension of water, essentially making water “wetter,” or able to more easily penetrate fibers. Surfactants of all types, even the “safe” surfactants derived from such things as coconut oil, are highly irritating and can cause skin reaction. The presence of surfactants such as sodium laureth sulfate are what makes mainstream hair detergents (shampoo) so much more painful than natural soaps (which still sting, just not as much) if it happens to get in your eyes. On a side note, we recommend finding cleansing agents which are actually gentle, rather than relying on “no more tears” shampoos which contain pain killers in order to mask the body’s natural response to irritating substances. Oxidizers are the chemicals in surfactants which are responsible for creating the hydrophilic (water-loving) component of the surfactant. Because they are highly reactive, these oxidizers can also be used as a bleaching agents.
Soap residue and oils will coat fibers, reducing absorbency, and can be very hard to remove. Using soap or oils on diapers will void all diaper warranties.
Do I really need soap or detergents?
It is possible to clean diapers without a detergent, but it is far from easy. The simple reason is that oil and water don’t like to mix, and most organic compounds (like poop) have a lot of oils in them. Water cleans by allowing dirt and grime to be agitated off the fibers, suspended and then rinsed away. If only water is used, the only way to get rid of oils and organic compounds is to rub harder, or use heat to get it off. Boiling laundry is a long accepted way to convince the oil molecules to release their hold on fibers long enough to be rinsed off. Unfortunately, excessive heat will also damage fibers and make fabric brittle and frail over time. This method is still used with prefold diapers, but please do not try this with anything which uses elastic, hook and loop closures or plastic/nylon snaps. Scrubbing also has a long tradition in laundry. Intense scrubbing is generally used in conjunction with soap or detergent, but if those are hard to come by for any reason, people just scrub harder. In my travels, I have used sand, stone, concrete, and metal washboards to clean my clothes. They come out clean and soft. They are also much thinner than when they went in, and that is with soap to help out. The new washing balls operate on a similar principal. They increase the agitation of the water and beat the clothes as well. They will certainly make water more effective than otherwise, but they act very differently from detergents, which use a chemical rather than physical application to remove grime.
Can I just use what I’m using now?
In many cases, yes. There are definitely detergents which work better than others, however most detergents will get your diapers clean with minimal residue. The problems often occur when detergents have other additives. Bleach breaks down diaper fabric faster than a regular wash will, and chlorine produces dioxin, a known carcinogen, when it reacts with natural fibers. Fabric softeners coat fibers, which prevents absorbency, as well as increasing the fabric’s flammability. Fabric softeners have also been linked to greater incidences of allergies and respiratory ailments. Bluing agents and optic brighteners also coat the fabric and prevent absorbency. If your detergent is free from all of these elements, it should be safe to use with cloth diapers. Dryer sheets are essentially an alternative method of distribution of with fabric softener and pose the same risks. TIP- If you use dryer sheets with your other laundry, wiping the dryer out with white vinegar on a rag will help remove residue from the dryer so it doesn’t transfer to your diapers. Using fabric softeners or dryer sheets will ruin your diapers and voids all warranties.
Why would I want to use a diaper specific detergent?
Peace of mind. Just because a detergent is safe for use with cloth diapers does not mean it is the most effective. Many detergents do leave residue on diapers, including some of the more popular mainstream detergents occasionally recommended for diapers. I can usually tell which mainstream detergents have been used on diapers based on smell, even if it is supposedly a “scent free” detergent, based on that residue. Detergents specifically recommended for diapers (including those few specifically formulated for diapers) have been tested and proven to leave very little residue, are extremely effective on diaper stains, yet gentle enough that they can extend the life expectancy of your diapers. Using a diaper specific detergent may reduce the risk of mineral build up, ammonia residue, rash and early diaper disintegration. Please see our article on recommended detergents for specifics.
Will I need to use additives or laundry boosters?
Whether you need laundry aids will largely depend on your water. Detergents are soecifically formulated to work on their own under average water conditions. We do not recommend using laundry aids as a preventative measure. Wash as normal first, unless you already know your water causes laundry problems, and then adapt as needed. As with anything else in life, laundry aids come with trade offs. Common laundry aids include RLR, also known as soda ash or washing soda, enzymes, oxygen bleach, vinegar, baking soda and chlorine bleach. Hard water treatments, preformulated mixtures of several of these typical additives, may also be used.
Baking soda changes the pH of the water to a more alkaline state. This reduces surface tension and increases the water’s ability to get at the things you are trying to wash away. It also opens up the scales of natural fibers which allows the detergents to penetrate deeper into the fiber, but has the potential to clog porous synthetic fibers and prevent absorbency.
Enzymes are designed to break down proteins. This is fantastic for getting rid of poop stains and residue and does not harm either cellulose fibers (hemp, cotton, bamboo, linen) or synthetic fibers. It is very important to make sure enzymes are thoroughly washed out, however, since the nearest protein for enzymes to act on if they remain in a diaper is your baby’s sensitive skin.
Bleaching agents, including chlorine bleach and oxygen bleaches like hydrogen peroxide and washing soda (soda ash/RLR) and borax, are highly reactive and are used speed up chemical reactions. These oxidizing reactions break chemical bonds, making stains invisible (tho not necessarily removing the material causing the stain) and killing bacteria. They are also alkalis, which, like baking soda, will reduce surface tension and make water “wetter.” All bleaching agents wear out fabric, elastic and fasteners faster, and should only be used if you feel you have a serious reason for using them. Please be aware that washing soda is a common ingredient in hard water treatments, so we recommend avoiding the use of hard water treatments and additional washing soda simultaneously. Use one or the other to see what works for you.
If you choose to use chlorine bleach, there are a few things to remember. Chlorine bleach is much stronger and more caustic than any other laundry aid. It also produces dioxin, a known carcinogen, when used with any natural fiber. Never mix chlorine bleach with other chemicals such as vinegar, use only as directed and be careful not to breath the fumes from chlorine bleach.
If you must use a bleach, we suggest using an “oxygen based” bleach. It will still degrade diapers faster than normal, but it does not produce dioxin, as chlorine bleach does, and is not as caustic as chlorine bleach. Better yet, we recommend sunning diapers instead, even at -40 degree temperatures. Sunning diapers has a similar oxidizing effect, but with less wear and tear on your diapers.It really works!
Borax is an interesting mineral. When mixed with water, some of it will react to produce a little bit of hydrogen peroxide, but that’s not all it does. It is also an alkali, which, as stated earlier, can boost the effectiveness of detergents, and borax also works an excellent emulsifier.
Vinegar, unlike most laundry aids, is a mild acid. As such, it can help neutralize the alkaline nature of hard water deposits, ammonia and residue from detergent or surfactants. Vinegar can also help contract the scales in natural fibers, and works as a natural fabric softener and static reducer, without coating fibers like commercial fabric softeners. Vinegar should be used only in the rinse cycle, after the alkaline washing agents have done their job.