One of the questions I hear a lot about cloth diapers is “Wait, don’t you have to use “special” laundry detergent?” I’ve even heard the need for special laundry detergent listed as a reason why using cloth diapers really doesn’t save money, with the assumption that these special detergents are more expensive than regular. I’d like to give an example of how the math actually works out in laundry detergent choice, and then explain why it matters which detergent you use.
Compare the “special” detergent with regular detergent and you’ll find it’s not more expensive. Example: a 90 load bag of Charlie’s soap costs $14. Price per load: 15.5 cents per load. A 5 gallon bucket does 1280 loads, and costs 143.99. Price per load: 11.2 cents per load.
A 120-load box of Tide original costs 22.99 from the P&G website. Price per load: 19.1 cents.
Let’s put this in perspective. If you did 7 loads of laundry a week (pretty realistic for a family of 4 including a baby, I’d say), using the bulk Charlie’s soap you’d be spending 78.4 cents per week on detergent, or $3.13 per month, or $40.77 per year.
Using Tide, you would spend $1.34 per week, or $5.35 per month, or $69.68 per year. So even if you don’t even use diapers, by using the “special” detergent over Tide, you are saving nearly $30 per year!
So besides the obvious cost savings, why is it important to use a residue-free detergent on your cloth diapers?
Regular detergents have a lot of additives in them. There are scents, colorings, fabric softeners, optical brighteners, and sometimes enzymes. Let’s go through the list and see why each of these things are bad for cloth diapers.
Scents: Most regular laundry detergents are heavily scented. Besides the fact that your baby may be sensitive to these scents, especially if your family has a history of asthma or allergies, heavily scented detergent means that the detergent smell can mask the smell of the diapers, making you think they are clean when they’re not. Remember, when you take clean wet diapers out of the washer they should smell like clean wet towels. A bad smell is a sign that the diapers either have some bacteria or waste matter still in them that didn’t get washed out, or that they have residue in them that is holding on to smells. Either way, this is an important sign that you don’t want to miss!
Colorings: This one isn’t such a big deal, unless your baby is sensitive to the colors used.
Fabric Softeners: Fabric softeners make fabrics feel softer by leaving a waxy coating on the fibers so that they slide over your skin more easily, making the fabric feel softer. But for absorbent diapers, a waxy coating is exactly what you DON’T need! It will cause your diapers to repel moisture and hold onto smells, causing leaks and stinkiness.
Optical Brighteners: This is a tough one, because the ingredients of the detergent won’t list “optical brighteners.” But anything that says “now whiter whites!” or anything like that has optical brighteners in it. These brighteners leave a coating on the fabric that is tinted blue, so it makes your whites look whiter by making them slightly blue. Again, anything that leaves a coating on fabric is something you want to avoid.
Enzymes: Some detergents have enzymes in them to help with cleaning and stain-removing power. While not a bad idea, some babies are very sensitive to enzymes and can get bad rashes from enzyme residue left in diapers. To be safe, avoid detergents with enzymes.
One more rule of thumb with cloth diaper detergents, and that is that some fabrics are more forgiving than others. Cotton, especially cotton flats or prefolds, is pretty easygoing. You can get away with using some regular detergents on them and not have a problem. Hemp is denser than cotton, and picks up residue more easily, so you have to be more careful with hemp. Anything polyester – suedecloth, fleece, or microfiber – is the pickiest. In a mixed bunch of diapers, if you switch from residue-free detergent to regular detergent, your polyester will be the first to have problems.
This is why you’ll hear some people say “Well I use [Tide, All, etc] and have no problems with my diapers.” Chances are, they are using cotton. But when it comes down to it, why spend more money for something that’s not as good for your diapers? Choose residue-free detergent instead and you’ll spend less money and worry less about your diapers.