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Published on May 18th, 2014 | by Jennifer Labit

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Cloth 101: Washing Cloth Diapers, A Look at the Last 10 Years

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I recently read a post in a forum from a cloth diapering mom complaining that her cloth diapers weren’t clean.  Her friend had told her to use a sprinkle of detergent when washing her cloth diapers.  She was frustrated because the amount of detergent she was using wasn’t working.  As I read the responses, I realized that many of the people writing had profiles that were relatively new and were probably unaware of the history of washing recommendations in the cloth diaper industry.  This post grew out of a desire to bring some clarity to that history.

The “tiny little bit of detergent” recommendation first occurred in the cloth diaper world about the time that pocket diapers were introduced to the market. Synthetics were relatively new to the cloth diaper market.  As consumers started reporting issues with rinsing detergent out of synthetic diapers, it became clear that there was an even bigger issue with the amount of detergent being used in regular wash.  The Wall Street Journal reported that many Americans tend use more detergent than is recommended by the manufacturer. They went further by identifying the large size of the cap as the likely source of the issue, and implying that the cap size is an intentional source of additional revenue for detergent manufacturers (a charge the detergent industry vehemently denied). This large cap size and the issue with detergent dosing was further complicated when detergent manufacturers made their detergents concentrated by removing water from the formula. These changes came at a time when laundry innovation in the lab produced a number of new non-rinseable ingredients being added to detergent formulations in an effort to keep a competitive edge in a market where there is little obvious differentiation. The size of the cap remained disproportionately larger than the amount of detergent needed for an average load of wash.  Smaller bottle, bigger wash load claim, same over-sized cap… you’re still using more than you need, and they’re selling more bottles of detergent.  Big win for detergent manufacturers, right?

Unfortunately, their big win became a problem for cloth diaper manufacturers. New parents were coming into the industry with absolutely no generational knowledge of cloth diapering. There were many opinions in the industry, but manufacturers didn’t have a way to give truly exact advice because the amount of detergent needed for a load of diapers varied by the detergent brand selected by the customer, their washing machine, and their water.  Front loaders were becoming more affordable and common in households. It was clear to many of us that non-rinsable detergent ingredients, dosing irregularities, unfamiliar machines, and poor rinsing practices were causing diaper rash, repelling, and odor issues.

Internally, detergent ingredients were researched.  We could see that non-rinsable chemicals seemed to be reacting with skin differently under dry and wet circumstances. We couldn’t find any testing showing that these chemicals were safe in moist fabric held against a newborn’s skin for long periods of time. Using this information along with customer service patterns and collaborating with other knowledgeable people in the industry, certain additives and surfactant types were identified as problematic. This is about the same time that this detergent chart was created by Sarah Gesaikowski (formerly of Pin Stripes and Polka Dots).

Some time later, in response to a request from retailers, a number of cloth diaper manufacturers collaborated on a set of unified washing instructions. The washing information in the industry had become increasingly chaotic.  We had seen everything from people telling their friends to use “one teaspoon” of detergent, all the way down to someone deciding that it was a good idea to sterilize their cloth diapers in the dishwasher.  Diapers were melting. There were rumors of housefires.  It was a mess.  Not all manufacturers participated, but many did. I led this conversation. It was challenging and heated at times. As I said earlier, laundry is an inexact science and the advice given up to that point lacked objectivity. In the end, all but one member of the group agreed on a standard set of washing instructions that was reliant on Sarah’s research.

This is where the story steps away from general industry perspective and re-enters the Cotton Babies world.  As awareness of cloth diapering has increased, more and more mainstream families began adopting our brands.  A new parent should be able to call us and ask for help with their diaper laundry.  The detergent environment continued to shift. Manufacturers drifted apart in their opinions. New people were involved in the conversation.  Knowledge and experience levels varied drastically, and we found information becoming rapidly obsolete.  Even “natural” detergent manufacturers continued to change their formulas.  There was even an industry attempt at a database to hold information about detergents, but even that project seemed to wane over time.

Cotton Babies had worked to support industry efforts and ensure that there was a good solid set of information that worked well for everyone.  In spite of our best efforts, “standard” washing instructions were ridiculously complicated, and we still found ourselves unable to give the same set of washing instructions effectively to two people in a row.

We had started offering a list of acceptable detergents to our customers.  Even within that list, we kept seeing variations in formulations that were affecting our product’s performance and baby’s bottoms.  In 2009, we finally decided to take control of the washing situation by making our own detergent that wasn’t going to change.  We weren’t alone. Other cloth diapers manufacturers were experiencing frustrations and came to a very similar end.  We chose a detergent manufacturer who cared about the environment, knew how to formulate a safe product, and was able to manufacture a  product for us in a controlled environment. We know what’s in it, we know how well it rinses, we know it’s safe for our components, safe for your baby, and we can do a better job helping you get your diapers clean.

Fast forward to today.  Our friend from the first paragraph just did what most of us do. She asked her friend for advice about washing her new cloth diapers. If I had to guess, a friend of her friend was using a concentrated mainstream detergent a few years back. That friend of a friend had told her friend to use a teaspoon. Her friend told our friend to use a “sprinkle”.  It didn’t work.  It’s a classic game of community telephone… nobody thought to ask someone who really knew… and here we are… with dirty diapers.

If you don’t use enough detergent in your washing machine, your diapers will not get clean. If you are using bumGenius detergent, always start with at least one of our right-sized  scoops (included in your bag of detergent).  Do your diapers still smell after washing with one scoop?  Wash again, and use two scoops.  And so on.  The amount of detergent needed is going to vary by washing machine, load size, and even water. You may find that it takes two (or even three scoops) in your washing environment.  Remember to rinse well.

Interestingly, I think we may have come full-circle as an industry.  Mainstream detergent changes seemed to have slowed down.  Innovation in enzymes peaked a few years ago, but that industry really hasn’t changed much recently either.  The washing information in the consumer world is completely chaotic again, and, just like we did eight years ago, we’re seeing strange, unsafe, washing recommendations popping up through community groups. It’s time for manufacturers to have another conversation about washing recommendations and, if agreement can be reached, work towards issuing another unified position on those recommendations.  It is possible that the general recommendations may not change, but I believe that customers deserve to know that conversations are happening.

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About the Author

Jenn is the founder of Cotton Babies & creator of bumGenius, Flip, and Econobum, worldwide leading cloth diaper brands. She has four children (Andrew, Oscar, Elsie and Louis) and holds an MBA from Washington University. When she's not working full time, she enjoys teaching business leaders how to implement sustainable economic & social change.



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