Skip to Content

How to Wash Cloth Diapers: Everything You Need to Know to Succeed

Chances are, if you have found us and are reading this post, you have a) chosen to cloth diaper, or b) are considering cloth diapers as an option for your family. Either way, welcome!

Laundry-related questions are among the most common diapering questions that get asked when someone is thinking about cloth diapering.

The funny thing is, people seem to forget that before the advent of disposable diapers, cloth diapers were all that were available. So, washing cloth diapers isn’t an entirely new concept. It is, in fact, the way things were always done years ago.

That being said, how exactly do you wash cloth diapers? Well, the answer may seem like a simple one – water, detergent, start button. But there is actually a little more to it than simply tossing them in and starting a load.

But don’t worry. That doesn’t mean it is a complicated process either. It’s just one that requires learning a little bit more about your washing machine, water supply, and the detergents you use. I’ll be throwing a lot of information at you, and it may seem complicated at first, but trust me – if I can do it, you definitely can.

Just stick with me. I promise you won’t regret it.

So lets get started with all you need to know on how to wash cloth diapers.

HE washing machine in a laundry room

First Things First

Before we get into the nitty gritty of detergents, washing machines, hard and soft water, and drying routines, lets talk about the few universal equalizers that everyone has to do to wash cloth diapers.

Once your baby has used her diaper and you go to change her, you’ll want to make sure you take these few simple steps for each diaper before tossing them in your diaper pail for laundry day.

First, you’ll want to remove any excess waste from the diaper. This means, if your baby has pooped in his diaper, you need to remove as much of feces from the diaper as possible. I know, ewww, right?

But, like that children’s book says, everybody poops. And let this tidbit sink in for a minute – even with disposable diapers, you are are supposed to dispose of the solid waste in the toilet, not simply wrap it up in the diaper and toss it in the trash.

Don’t believe me? Just google ‘how to dispose of a dirty diaper.’

Human waste is not supposed to end up in landfills and presents a health hazard when it does. So, the step you hope to avoid with disposable diapers is, in all actuality, a step you really shouldn’t be skipping at all.

Anyway, back to what I was saying . . . Once your baby has pooped, you’ll want to dispose of the waste into the toilet before tossing the diaper into your pail. A diaper sprayer becomes your best friend here. I break that process down in this post.

Once you have removed the waste from the diaper, you will want to remove any inserts from your diaper before tossing them into your diaper pail. Once that is done, your diapers can go into your pail until wash day.

How to Wash Cloth Diapers

So, now its been a few days and you have a few diapers to wash. Now what? There are a few universal truths here as well, but a lot your wsh routine depends on a few key factors.

  1. What type of washing machine do you have?
  2. What type of water do you have?
  3. What type of detergent do you use?

Your Washing Machine

Believe it or not, the type of washing machine you have affects how you wash cloth diapers. HE machines function differently than standard machines, so your wash cylce will vary based on that alone, not to mention factoring in the right detergent for your HE vs standard machine.

Standard Machine Washing

If you have a standard (non-HE) washing machine with an agitator, you’ll enjoy the benefit of shorter wash times for your diaper laundry routine. You also have a wider variety of detergents available to you since you aren’t restricted to the low-sudsing detergents required by most HE machines.

While you can have successful laundry routines with both types of machines, I tended to prefer the results I got from washing in my standard machine over my HE washer. The biggest draw for me was the agitator itself. It helped to create the necessary friction needed to get the diapers cleaner in less time.

All that said, it still comes down to making sure you have the right ratios – water to detergent to the number of diapers. What that looks like for each person varies on the size of your machine, number of diapers, and the type of detergent you are using. Diapers that are washed properly will never smell, repel liquid, or cause rashes for your baby.

High Efficiency (HE) Machine

Because HE machines don’t have agitators, they rely on friction from the clothing rubbing together. This means that, just like with standard machines, it all comes down to ratios here as well. Making sure you have the right amount of diapers to water to detergent.

Because HE machines require low sudsing detergents, you will be a bit more limited on what you can use for your diapers. We’ll talk more in a bit about what detergents to avoid using with your cloth diapers.

There are many benefits to HE machines, from lower water usage to less energy use. However, when it comes to cloth diapering, you’ll find that your wash cycle will be longer because the length of time is what allows them to clean effectively. I recommend starting your load at night before going to bed, so they are ready to dry in the morning.

The trick to making your HE loads most effective is to make sure your machine is filled with enough laundry. Most front loading machines need to be roughly 2/3 to 3/4 full for a proper wash. This means you may find yourself adding a few other items in with your diaper laundry from time to time – baby clothes, wash cloths, or hand towels – to ensure you have the right fill.

standard and hybrid washing machines

What Type of Water do You Have?

The next contributing factor to how you wash cloth diapers many not be one that instantly comes to mind. But the type of water you have does play a part in your laundry routine. Chances are, you will either have hard water or soft water. But how do you know? A simple water test can answer that question for you. You can pick up a water hardness testing kit here for less than $15.

Once you have tested, you’ll find your water typically falls under one of the two categories mentioned above.

Hard Water

The majority of homes have hard water, so chances are, unless you have a water softener, you will have hard water. Hard water is, simply put, water that has a high mineral content. Typically, these minerals are calcium, magnesium, and a few other trace amounts of minerals. The higher the calcium and magnesium content, the harder your water becomes.

In general, hard water is safe to drink and wash with, but over time it can lead to issues for your laundry, especially your diapers.

The mineral deposits that can sometimes build up on your faucets and or appliances can also build up in fabrics over time, including your cloth diapers. These build ups can affect the functionality of your diapers. This can result in stinky (ammonia smelling) diapers, or repelling liquid causing leaks.

So what can be done to combat hard water? Once again (and not to sound like a broken record), it all comes down to ratios and a good wash routine. You want to make sure you are always using the proper amount of detergent and not going overboard. You’ll find that powdered detergents typically contain more built in softeners, so those are recommended over liquid detergents.

You will also want to consider using a softener to boost your wash. Many boosters are designed to combat hard water to prevent build-up in your clothes. Two great softeners to use when you wash cloth diapers are Calgon and Borax. And avoid doing extra rinses with hard water

Soft Water

So, what if you have soft water? Or have a water softening system in your home? How does this effect how you wash cloth diapers? Well, there are some things to watch out for here as well.

Soft water can cause your detergent to generate more suds. This can become problematic if you have an HE machine, or other sud-sensitive washer.

You will still want to do a water hardness test at the washing machine to make sure your softener system is effectively softening your water there. If not, you will still want to use small amounts of Calgon or Borax to combat the insufficiency.

If your water is softening properly, you can continue with a normal wash routine without needing an added softener. BUT, ONCE AGAIN, you want to ensure you are maintaining the proper detergent to water to diapers ratio to avoid over-sudsing, which can sometimes be disastrous.

But don’t let this scare you. If you have soft water and haven’t had sudsing issues in the past, chances are, if you maintain the routine you have in place, you won’t have any issues with your diaper laundry. Just follow the recommended detergent amounts based on load size.

water hardness testers

What Type of Detergent Do You Use?

Choosing the right laundry detergent to wash cloth diapers in is very important. There are specific things you want to look for, based on the two things mentioned above – machine and water – and certain things you want to avoid having in your detergent.

Things to Avoid

Lets start with what to avoid with choosing a laundry detergent.

Too Much Detergent

First, I want to address a mistake that 90% of the world probably makes. Using too much detergent. I know that our minds will sometimes try to convince us that what we really need is more detergent to get things cleaner. I mean, it makes sense, right? Wrong. Have you heard the old adage “less is more?” This is most definitely the case when you wash cloth diapers.

You don’t need to fill that detergent cup/scoop all the way to the top. In fact, the best way to get the right amount of detergent into your load is to follow the instructions on the bottle. And if those are unclear, I have found that most detergent companies are more than happy to answer any of your questions if you give them a call.

Fabric Softeners

Next You want to stay away from any detergents that have an added fabric softener in them. The fabric softening agent will build up in your diapers over time and create a barrier that will repel liquid instead of absorbing it. So any sort of fabric softener (or dryer sheet, for that matter) is a no-no.

Known to Cause Redness or Rashes

There are also specific detergents that are “designed for cloth diapers” that you should avoid using to wash cloth diapers in. These soaps have been known to cause redness or rashes with continuous use, and no one wants that for your baby: Charlie’s Soap Laundry Powder, Rockin’ Green, and Soap Nuts.

Not Enough Power

You also want to avoid certain detergents because they just aren’t strong enough. Some detergents just don’t have what is needed to adequately clean and removing human waste from multiple layers of cloth diapers. It is what it is. These detergents are great for regular loads of laundry, but when you wash cloth diapers, you need something with a little more power than some of these detergents can provide.

But instead of trying to list them all, I will refer you to an already compiled list of detergents to avoid. This is actually a very extensive list of detergents that you can use, or should avoid using. But I have a caveat that comes before this recommendation. The FLU site appears to be inactive at this time, having not been updated since 2018, so I refer you to this list with extreme hesitation and caution.

This site has done the legwork on figuring out what detergents to avoid. HOWEVER, I do not recommend following their suggestions on the amount of detergent to use. In my experience, they recommend using way too much laundry detergent to wash cloth diapers in – more than is necessary – and this has resulted in soap build-up in many a diaper, resulting in unnecessary stripping, or having to add vinegar to the rinse cycle. Remember the first thing I told you to avoid.

So, again, I caution you to not follow their “dosing” instructions because there are too many factors to consider when figuring out how much detergent to use. It’s not a one-size-fits-all formula. So please, keep this in mind when you check the index.

Other Factors for Choosing a Detergent

We talked about the types of washing machines and water you have earlier. These two factors directly influence the type of laundry detergent you can use.

HE Machines

If you have an HE machine, you are going to want to find a low-sudsing detergent to use when you wash cloth diapers. Because they use less water, you want to avoid anything with a high suds amount because it will not be adequately rinsed away. Too many suds and not enough water isn’t a good combination when you are trying to avoid soapy build up. If you have an HE machine, you want to make sure you have a detergent designed to be used in that machine when you wash cloth diapers.

This does present some limitations in your detergent choices. But it doesn’t make it impossible. For example, I had lots of success with Purex, Tide, Seventh Gen, and Persil (hey, I like to experiment) when I would wash cloth diapers in it in my HE machine, so you don’t have to go on a massive hunt to find some elusive laundry detergent that is obscure and unheard of.

Hard Water

When it comes to washing in hard water, I tend to lean more towards the powdered detergents. More often than not, they have the built-in softener I mentioned earlier. Should you only use powder detergents with hard water? No. But keep in mind what we talked about before – you will need to add a softener to your load – Castile or Borax – to prevent build-up.

But when it comes to washing in hard water, I have to give a gold metal to Tide powder. It really did the trick for me when we lived in an area with extremely hard water. Does that mean its the perfect answer for everyone? Again, no. It really does come down to personal choice and what you find works best for your machine, water, and load size.

liquid and powder detergent used to wash cloth diapers.

Okay, But How do You Actually Wash Cloth Diapers?

I know what you are thinking. Man, this is a lot to process. And yes, it is. But it is all important and will help you be as successful as possible in your cloth diapering journey.

So, just stick with me a little longer. I promise you won’t regret it.

Before you put your diapers in the wash, you want to make sure you remove as much solid waste as possible from the diapers. I recommend investing in a diaper sprayer for your bathroom. It works like a bidet and is designed to spray off any excess waste from your diapers, so you can flush it away.

You don’t have to have a sprayer. Some choose to shake off any extra waste, or do what is called the dunk and swish method (which is exactly what it sounds like), or use a tool of some sort to scrape off the poop. Gross, I know, but everyone poops, so (insert shrug here). After that, your diapers can go into a pail or wet bag until wash day.

When it comes down to actually washing your diapers, you want to be sure to do two things – a pre-wash and a regular wash.


Before you wash your cloth diapers, you will want to do a pre-wash to remove any remaining waste you didn’t spray, dump, or knock away from your diapers. Your pre-wash is a shorter wash cycle with minimal detergent. Many people recommend using cold water for your pre-wash to avoid any poop stains from setting into your diapers.

You can generally use the shortest wash cycle on your machine for the pre-wash, as it isn’t designed to be the main cleaning wash, just a prepper for when you wash cloth diapers.

Main Cycle

The thinking used to be that you had to wash your diapers using hot water to really get them clean. And while there isn’t anything wrong with washing in hot water, it isn’t a requirement to get your diapers clean. If it is your preferred temperature setting, continue using it. If you prefer washing in cold, you can continue to do so.

When you wash cloth diapers, you want to use one of your longer settings. It isn’t necessary to use the sanitizing setting or anything like that. You can just choose one of your longer settings and go with it.

Add in the recommended amount of detergent, based on the instructions on the bottle and start your load. Avoid using too much detergent because it won’t benefit you in any way, and may do more harm than good.

hands putting cloth diapers into a washing machine.

Rinse Cycle

Again, your rinse cycle doesn’t have to be a specific temperature, so whatever you choose to set your machine to is fine. The hard work has been done because your machine has already done the washing. So, temp isn’t really important.

If you used the proper amount of detergent, you shouldn’t need to add a second rinse, though some do.

A second rinse should be avoided if you have hard water because it will just deposit more minerals from the water into your diapers and you don’t want that at all. So, no second rinses if you have hard water, even if you added a softener to the wash. The softener won’t be present in the rinse cycle, so you will essentially be undoing all the work it did in the wash cycle.

Drying Cloth Diapers

Now that you have washed your diapers, the next step is drying them.

Generally, there are two camps when it comes to drying cloth diapers. Those who choose to dry them in a dryer, and those who choose to line dry them. Then there are the rest of us who do a hybrid system.

In all honesty, your inserts, pre-folds, doublers, and flats are fine to dry in a machine. Just remember, these materials are designed to trap a fair amount of liquid in them, so they may take longer to dry than normal laundry. Personally, I used a low heat setting, and therefore recommend it because it is all I have experience with, but I have not heard anything that would suggest not using a high heat setting.

When it comes to your PUL – shells, covers, pockets, etc., you will find more division. Most PUL is designed to handle the heat of a dryer. However, it is the elastic that raises concerns for people. Too much exposure to heat means that, over time, the elastic banding for the legs could use its elasticity. I personally hung all my covers and pockets up to dry for this reason.

diapers hanging on a clothesline to dry

Wrapping Up

Oh boy, was that a lot of information to throw at you on how to wash cloth diapers. If you have made it this far, you are a real trooper. I know it feels like a lot of information, but once you figure out the big three – machine, water, and detergent – washing your diapers should be a breeze. And if we’re being honest, everything seems more complicated than it is when you first get started.

Don’t worry, if you don’t get it right the first time you try, you won’t ruin your diapers. You just have to go back and tweak your process a little to figure out what techniques work best for you and your situation.

And if you have any additional questions on how to wash cloth diapers, be sure to post them below. We are always happy to answer any questions you may have.