Ok, so let me say this right off the bat: My usual detergent for cloth diapers is the same as for the rest of our family’s laundry. All Free and Clear.
I’m sure some of you reading this gasped in abject horror, the rest are nodding sagely because that’s what you use too. There’s a ton of conflicting information about what detergents to use with cloth diapers out there. I’m a believer of using what works for you.
Nevertheless, if you’ve ever ordered diapers or diapering products from an online cloth diaper boutique, you have probably ended up receiving a free sample of bumGenius detergent at some point. Really, it’s inevitable. Whenever one falls out of a package I’m opening, I toss it in a little basket on my desk and go on to admiring whatever fluffy diaper I actually bought. The intention has always been to use them while traveling, but I’ve never actually traveled somewhere that didn’t already have All Free and Clear available, so the bumGenius detergent piled up until the cat whacked the basket with his tail and they scattered all over the place, prompting me to grab a pack and actually try it at home to see what the difference is.
The load of diapers I washed included, appropriately, a few bumGenius Elementals, two Flip covers, a couple of Swaddlebees Simplex OS, a number of Green Mountain Diaper organic workhorses, and a couple of Alva suedecloth pockets and bamboo/microfiber blend inserts. This is not a “brag list” of diapers we use, I promise it will be relevant later. I dumped the detergent and diapers into my non-HE top loader, set it to wash on hot with an extra rinse, and then left to see why my daughter was being oddly silent.
After drying I pulled out all the diapers. They smelled clean. They looked fairly clean. It seemed like the cotton workhorses held on to more stains than usual. But, overall, everything was clean, which is the point of laundry detergent, so what I can say is that it did its job just fine. But how did it hold up against my beloved All Free and Clear?
Frankly, if you have a lot of cotton diapers like I do, “cloth diaper detergents” are not really needed. The weave of cotton is more open and the fibers themselves are fairly smooth, so they wash quite well. Synthetic fibers like suedecloth and microfiber, however, are harder to clean. They have a tighter weave and look different. This image from Wikipedia shows the difference fairly well:
The top is what a microfiber fiber looks like very up close. It’s split into little “slices,” making it more absorbent. But all those little crevices also makes it much harder to get clean—and explains why “microfiber stink” is a very real thing. Many “cloth diaper detergents” are formulated with cleaners designed to really get in there and penetrate synthetic fabrics, since synthetics are more likely to be holding onto dirt and odors.
The bottom shows what a cotton fiber looks like. It’s one unsplit piece, so while absorbent, it is not as absorbent as a split synthetic fiber. This is great for airflow and ends up being easier to clean, since soap does not need to get into microscopic dirt-filled crevices. Most “regular” detergents work just fine on cotton products because of this, and the lack of tiny crevices for things to get stuck in means that buildup of detergent residue is almost a complete non-issue.
So my conclusion is that bumGenius Laundry Detergent, and all other similar cloth diaper detergents, work all right on synthetics. It cleaned all my diapers just fine, though I don’t personally think you need to worry about using cloth diaper detergents if, like me, much of your stash is made up of cotton materials. For the record, I believe that my cotton workhorses looked more stained than usual after washing with bumGenius detergent because it does not contain optical brighteners, which All Free and Clear does. Optical brighteners are not an essential ingredient in laundry detergent, and there is some concern that over time they can cause buildup in cloth diapers or cause rashes. Clearly if you discover you or your child are sensitive to optical brighteners, don’t use a detergent with them. And you don’t need to worry about buildup, really, with cotton diapers, but it may be a concern with synthetics.
However if you happen to not have a sample of bumGenius Laundry detergent on hand, or if you have tried it and would like more, it is available at most online cloth diaper retailers including its maker, Cotton Babies, as well as amazon.com.