How Cloth Diapers Work

Cloth diapers are becoming more and more popular.  There are a lot of good reasons for this.  It’s a great way to save money- you don’t have to buy disposable diapers over and over and over and over and over and over and… well, you get the point.  They can also be better for baby’s skin, with none of the harsh chemicals found in disposable diapers.  And of course, they’re better for the environment.  Using cloth can keep thousands of diapers out of landfills.

You wouldn’t think there’s much science to diapering, particularly cloth diapering.  You just put the diaper on baby, baby pees and/or poops, and then you exchange it for a clean diaper.  Nothing to it, right?

Turns out, there’s a little bit of information that might help prevent headaches for those new to cloth diapering.

Cloth diapers work by absorbing liquid.  They do this best when there is nothing else bound to the fiber.  What else would bind to the diaper fibers, you might ask?  Lots of things.  First off, brand new diapers will have oils bound to the fibers.  These must be washed off before using for the first time.  In addition, some detergent additives can stick to the fibers and decrease absorbency.  For this reason, many cloth diaper companies recommend additive-free, natural detergents.  Since of lot of moms have tried a lot of detergents, it’s easy to find lots of great recommendations.

There’s a fine science to washing cloth diapers to both prevent detergent deposits and still get the diaper clean.  It’s a delicate balance that depends on water conditions, detergent used, and what type of diaper you’re using.   Super-hard water may require water softener to remove minerals that can decrease absorbency.  There are also special formulations of detergents for those with hard water.  Soft water can present its own problems, by not rinsing soap away as efficiently as normal water.  Again, there are detergents that are designed for use in soft water.

Let’s say that even with a very careful washing routine, your diapers start to leak a bit, or leave a rash.  This could be due to build up, of ammonia (from urine), minerals, or detergent.  This is when a strip can come in handy.  Stripping, in cloth diaper lingo, means removing all the ammonia, minerals, detergent and other crap from the diaper, leaving it clean, fresh, and super absorbent.  There are as many ways to strip cloth diapers as there are people who use cloth diapers.  Here are a few popular suggestions:

1.) Rinse.  Rinse.  Rinse.  Rinse your (clean) diapers until there are no bubbles left in the machine.  You don’t need to dry between rinses.  For HE machines, adding a wet towel to the washer can “trick” the machine into thinking the load is bigger, thus adding more water.

2.) Wash clean diapers with a little bit (about a teaspoon or so) of original BLUE Dawn dish soap.  The Dawn helps remove all the gunk clogging up the diaper.  Then rinse, rinse, rinse until all the bubbles are gone.

3.) RLR Laundry treatment.  RLR is a laundry treatment that is beneficial for those with hard water.  It pulls the minerals out of solution and holds on to them, preventing them from re-depositing on the diapers.  You can use it when you begin a regular wash routine of your diapers in addition to your detergent.  After the diapers have been washed, rinse, rinse, rinse again.

The basic principle to successful cloth diapering is to have clean diapers.  This means no build-up from urine, hard-water, or detergent.  Taking proper care of your cloth diapers can help them last longer, and keep you and your little one happy.


4 responses to “How Cloth Diapers Work

  1. a long ime ago when my son was a baby,I also used cloth diapers.I rinse
    and rinse over and over. May the woeld of motherhood all go back to cloth diapers. heirs to saving the world we live in!!!!

  2. Cloth Diaper Guru

    I’m excited to have stumbled upon your blog! I’m another “science mom”, who just started a blog all about our experiences with cloth diapering!

  3. As a fellow cloth-diapering mom, I agree that there is a very FINE science to washing your diapers. It’s not difficult, but sometimes it involves a little trial and error. For instance, when my first son started on solid foods, I suddenly encountered an enormous smell issue. I spent days stripping the diapers and using very little detergent. But nothing worked. Finally, I discovered that it wasn’t a stripping that they needed. It was MORE detergent. It wasn’t ammonia I was smelling, it was poop. I knew it wasn’t ammonia. I knew it was poop. I just didn’t know that there was such a thing as not enough detergent.

    I know this sounds ridiculous. How could someone not know that they need more detergent? But at the time, there was NO information on-line about stinky diapers other than how to strip them. Since then, I’ve seen a multitude of posts and questions in forums about non-ammonia smelling diapers. So hopefully I can save someone a lot of trouble here by adding that “sometimes, you need MORE detergent”.

    Meanwhile, I’ve never had to strip my diapers. Hopefully I didn’t just jinx myself.

    The other little bit of “science” that is every cloth diapering mama’s best friend is THE SUN!!!!! It will take ANY stain out of your diapers. Even if your son eats nothing but blackberries for 4 days and has black poos that completely stain your diaper and/or inserts. The sun will take those stains out. It’s amazing.

    Oh – and if you haven’t entered the wonderful world of wool covers – there’s another piece of science that will astound you.

    Happy diapering!

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