How Much Detergent Should You Use to Clean Your Cloth Diapers?

Do you ever wonder if I have an agenda behind what I do? Do you ever wonder if I tweak information to reflect my own views? Well this post should convince you that I do not AT ALL. I love numbers and rely on them heavily.

So my math mind just can’t wrap it’s head around the fact that you wash your regular clothes in 1/2 cup of detergent, but in order to wash SOILED DIAPERS (you know, those things laced with urine and remnants of feces?), you use that SAME detergent, but yet only a quarter of that amount. Sorry folks, that math doesn’t add up for me and probably never will.

But I wanted to see if the statistics disagreed with me. So I looked at the 1,900+ responses to the Washing Diapers Survey (that is STILL open for responses, by the way) and pulled everyone who rated their overall satisfaction with their washing routine as VERY high. I looked at all respondents, but then it occurred to me….cloth diaper detergents would recommend an amount with cloth diapers in mind, but the store brand detergents do not normally have cloth diaper recommendations. So I divided up the statistics a bit. Cloth Diaper detergents like Rockin’ Green, Lulu’s, and a few others are in one category, while detergents like Tide, All, and Gain are in another category. So here is what I found out:

So here is what we can conclude. As expected, most Cloth Diaper detergent users put in the recommended amount, with a few brave souls who actually put in less and even fewer brave souls who put in more. OK, that makes sense.

But the next data is what trips me up. Over HALF of store brand detergent users use LESS than the recommended detergent amount for their diapers and are totally satisfied with their routine (you guys are REALLY puncturing a hole in my theory!). However, a good number do use the recommended amount.

Isn’t this interesting? You guys have me re-thinking my routine…even though I like mine.

So how do you know if you are using too much/too little/just the right amount?

Sadly the difference isn’t so easy that Goldilocks could tell you what’s too little, too much, or just right. Too much or too little detergent actually has fairly similar symptoms. And here is why. Too much detergent causes buildup since there are layers and layers of it and there just isn’t enough water to get rid of those layers. So the diapers repel urine or they stink because they react with the buildup. But too little detergent causes the bacteria that is in an unclean diaper to bond with the detergent has a reaction that repels and smells.

So below is my guide that is FILLED with contradictions. But here is my little piece of advice: it takes some tweaking. Don’t give up, and remember I am happy to help you. And never forget this wonderful piece of advice someone on Diaper Swappers gave me:

“A Complicated Washing Routine is a Simple One Not Yet Figured Out.”

If you have BUBBLES…chances are you are using TOO MUCH. Now this isn’t a 100% accurate way to tell, since there are low sudsing detergent. But if you DO see some bubbles, chances are you need to decrease detergent.

If your diapers STINK ON IMPACT (like ammonia or animal)….chances are you are using TOO LITTLE. What happens is bacteria develops on the diaper because it isn’t getting clean enough. Then that forms a nice layer with the detergent and an odd little chemical reaction happens when pee hits it.

…..but you could also be using TOO MUCH. This happens when the detergent gets grumpy and defiant and decides that it wants to stay put and bind to its new BFF, bacteria.

Either way, strip the diapers, then give it one good wash. If you are using a cloth diaper detergent, do the required amount, if you are using a non cloth diaper detergent, try about 1/4 amount (but let me be honest here, I am going against my instincts here because my diapers didn’t get fully cleaned until I used Tide up to the level 1 scoop….yes, I use Tide…*insert horror music here*).

If your diapers REPEL…..then you are using TOO MUCH. This is because there is a layer of detergent that is not letting pee through. Don’t test this by pouring water or flicking water on the diaper…stay dry  topped diapers don’t absorb quickly enough for this. Instead, put water on it, then quickly lay something on it, like the bottom of a Tupperware container. If everything pours out the sides, then it is repelling, if it sinks right in, it’s not repelling. Strip the diapers with a little bit of Dawn (front loaders, don’t do more than ONE drop…trust me on that one).

….but you could also be using TOO LITTLE. Again, the detergent buildup could happen because the bacteria is not letting the detergent into the diapers. There needs to be more detergent around to break up that bacteria huddle. Strip first, then wash with some more detergent.

If your diapers smell like BARN ANIMAL right out of the dryer….you are using TOO LITTLE. That’s because it’s not getting clean enough. Strip the diapers with hot water (but beware, you could void some diaper warranties by using hot water), and adjust the amount of detergent.

Another possibility is that you may need to use a better detergent. Remember that every water type+machine type is different, that’s why there isn’t a perfect solution for everyone. But you can use the statistics posted on detergents here to at least give you better odds at finding what works best for you.

I hope this helps. Feel free to comment here with questions or suggestions. I know there are MANY conflicting pieces of advice on washing diapers. I am trying to base my information on survey results, but I also need to give some kudos to some great sites:

Diaper Swappers BEAST of a Thread - I can say with pride, patheticness (new word), and nerdiness (new word) that I spent a Friday night reading 100+ pages of this thread. It’s a great basic guide to washing diapers.

Pinstripes and Polka Dots

Diaper Jungle

And let me repeat my mantra:

“A Complicated Washing Routine is a Simple One Not Yet Figured Out.”

Tara Porter

Tara Porter began using cloth diapers in 2011 when she felt that using disposable diapers was costing too much money. The problem was, a lot of the highly recommended diapers weren’t working for her baby. What she finally discovered was that her baby was skinny and a heavy wetter, and that diapers worked differently for those baby types. Because of her professional work with survey design and statistics, she designed Padded Tush Stats as a way to determine how different cloth diapers worked on different babies.

Tara moved on to other career endeavors in 2014 but can still be found online blogging about health and fitness at Fit Baby Steps.
  • http://debtfreedowds.wordpress.com Rachel

    I found this super helpful! I think I am not using enough detergent! Explains so much. Thank you thank you thank you!!

  • http://mommawords.com Janice

    My Facebook guess was wrong but I feel your passion/struggle with this post. I really think that your wash routine changes with the age of your baby and the type of “output” they have. Our toddler twin pee has given me a run for my money with that dreaded Ammonia smell “on impact”. I believe that the stats could be organized by age of baby also. This might help some of those moms worried about how much to use for EBF babies and moms of toddlers who have that strong ammonia pee. In my experience, once they are older I needed to use more detergent than what previously worked for us. I can’t wait to share my new washing routine once I’ve verified it’s effectiveness over time! :-)

  • http://www.makingitworkblog.com Carolyn

    WOW, what a great idea to look in to! I have SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT IT!

    First, the diaper swappers link isn’t working (but if it’s one of the threads I am thinking of, it’s SO LONG but SO WORTH IT!) Also, I’ve read on different websites before that it’s not really necessary to use as much laundry (or dish!) soap as they say, so maybe if diapers only need Tide to line 1, perhaps clothes could be done with half of that! (I actually started doing our clothes with the same amount of detergent I use on our diapers, because I figure if it gets the poop and pee out, it should be fine for the stuff I wear to the grocery store!)

    Also, I love the picture you made for the beginning of the post ;) And I think the previous commenter has a good post – maybe your next sneak peek should have to do with the age of the baby and how much/what type of detergent is used! OR compare how much detergent is used versus what kind of water they have (since hard water usually does need more detergent, and soft water usually does need less!)

    Great article, as always! I love what you’re doing with all the detergent info! Keep it coming! :)

  • Trisha W.

    Regarding diaper stripping, I can also add DO NOT use a whole packet of RLR for stripping diapers in an HE FL washer. It took over 20 rinse cycles to get the water to be ‘bubble-free’.

    I think Janice has a good comment about the ages of the diaper wearer. When I had my 3 y.o. son’s night time pockets in with my baby’s diapers it was very hard to figure out what the problem(s) was(were). The 3 y.o.’s MF inserts were totally barnyard, but the baby’s prefolds were developing ammonia stink. I have now removed MF from the rotation and started using flats once my baby outgrew her infant prefolds. Things are much better now. From time to time the flats do have a light smell, but I haven’t been able to figure out if it’s just the smell of cloth or if there’s a teeny bit of stink. Just keep washing, washing, washing….

    Oh, and regarding regular detergent amounts on laundry. Manufacturers are just messed up. For several years we used a variety of HE friendly detergents in our HE FL washer (for clothing). The instructions generally said to use more detergent for HE machines. That went against everything I’d been told about HE machines. One manufacturer said it was because the detergent was concentrated. I’m thinking if it’s concentrated that less detergent should be needed for both HE and traditional machines. Yet, the little cup’s lines were the same whether for a concentrated detergent or not.

  • Antje

    Ok, I am not so much debunking, as I had threatened before. But more putting forth a theory: Could it be that people have success washing diapers with less detergent, because their routine includes extra rinses and a hot wash cycle? How many people wash their regular clothes (even if they are fairly dirty) on hot?

    I forgot what the exact temperature is, but the safest way to get rid of bacteria is heat. Also, UV rays contribute to breaking down ammonia. So, go sun the heck out of your diapers, girls!

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  • Msav

    That’s a good point about sunning! Once I started sunning my diaps the stink went away. This is paired with two rinses after a wash in my he front loader. But- sunning has done wonders to stains and stinks.

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  • Angela

    Any chance of some help/suggestions for my ammonia barn yard stink problem?

    • http://www.makingitworkblog.com/ Carolyn Russell

      Of course! (Though you might get more help if you post the question either on the Facebook page or in the forums! Otherwise, I’ll do my best!)

  • Olivia L

    I started using Tide (to the 1 line) on your recommendation, and my diapers thank you! I kept wanting to use less detergent as per all the recommendations online, but they still smelled. Using more has worked for us, though I always do an extra rinse.

  • Stephanie

    Oh my gosh…thank you so much for this post! I laughed out loud when I got to the “barnyard animal” paragraph because that is exactly what I am going through today! I literally started to cry when I opened the dryer and realized the diapers still smelled (this is only my second day in). I’m definitely going to try adding more detergent and hope that helps! Thanks! :)

  • Danielle Coolbaugh

    I realize this post is oldish but I wanted to point something out here. I use the recommended detergent amount on my detergent bottle but I have hard water.

    When I lived in my old apartment, I used half the detergent for the diapers AND my laundry. Nobody is really suggesting that you need less for your diapers than your dirty clothes. I’ve been cloth diapering for 8 years and the common belief is that we are using too much detergent on EVERYTHING, not just the diapers. People have found that if you use less than the recommended amount for your laundry, they still come out perfectly clean.

    Here’s a link to one of many articles that discuss it. http://lifehacker.com/5493813/less-detergent-washes-as-well-saves-you-a-lot-of-money

    • http://www.makingitworkblog.com/ Carolyn Russell

      That’s an interesting point and I’m glad you brought it up. I have seen those articles, too, but never thought about them in terms of cloth diaper laundry. For my own routine I started low and increased the amount of detergent until the sink problems disappeared, but I know I tend to overboard on the amount of detergent I use on clothes (which AREN’T saturated in bodily fluids!) ;)