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.