I’m going to guess that you’re interested in using cloth diapers not just because of the money savings, but because you appreciate living an eco-friendly and chemical-free lifestyle too. I feel that way, and it’s why I started this site. With this mindset, it’s natural to wonder if there are some DIY cloth diaper detergent recipes you can make at home to save even MORE money, and avoid putting chemicals on your baby’s skin at all.
So, can you use homemade detergent for cloth diapers? No. Unfortunately, you can not make a DIY cloth diaper detergent at home. You CAN make a homemade cloth diaper soap, but soaps, whether homemade or commercially packaged, will not get your diapers clean and actually leave a film that will build-up on your diapers, leading to smells and rashes.
The Problem with Using a DIY Soap for Cloth Diapers (and Why You Can’t Make a Detergent)
It’s easiest to explain why soaps, whether homemade or commercially packaged, just don’t work well on laundry by comparing soaps to detergents, which work very differently.
While soap is limited in its use, detergents can be formulated to include other ingredients for all sorts of cleaning purposes. Perhaps the most common and versatile of these ingredients are surfactants (surface active agents) (Source). Surfactants are the most important ingredient in our discussion of getting cloth diapers clean.
The surfactants in detergent are created synthetically (either from petroleum or from natural plant oils) and are formulated to trap soil and suspend it in the water, allowing it to easily rinse away, carrying the soil with it. This is why you can’t make a detergent at home; to do all that you’d need a lot of equipment and have to do a lot of sciency stuff most of us, myself included, don’t understand.
But you can make soap. The only cleaning ingredient in all homemade laundry detergent recipes is soap. Other ingredients often included like washing soda, borax, etc. are just water softening additives, but I’ll talk more about them later.
While soap has surfactants too, kinda, they’re naturally formulated, oil-based, and function very differently.
Instead of trapping soil and suspending it in water, soaps “clean” by wrapping soil molecules in themselves, creating a bubble around it.
To rinse that bubble away, you need A LOT of water and agitation. That’s easy to do with a nonporous surface that you can scrub like your hands, but cloth diaper fabrics with all kinds of porous textures need a ridiculous amount of effort and water. Back when it was great-grandma at her washboard with buckets and buckets of water, this worked, but modern washing machines are made to use as little water as possible, and as little energy as possible.
Without proper water and agitation, soap creates a film when mixed with dirt that’s just left on the diapers.
The problems are compounded in hard water, where soaps also envelop minerals to form a scum that deposits on everything too.
This is why soap, even the best soaps, are absolute cloth diapering nightmares; though you may not realize it at first, which is why you’ll find blog posts with their “detergent recipe” on so many mom blogs.
What Happens if You DO Use a Homemade Laundry Soap to Wash Cloth Diapers Anyway?
Back when I began my own cloth diapering journey and was learning everything I could to one day create this website, the vibe in the community was that cloth diapers were delicate and you had to avoid chemicals like strong detergents lest they fall apart immediately.
This was of course silly, and it’s now pretty accepted that as long as your diapers are well made, well stored, and you steer clear of high heat your diapers will last you quite a while, possibly through many children.
But back then, using natural soaps and using very little soap was the advice on the mom blogs. There was pushback though, as more and more cloth diaper parents realized their diapers weren’t getting clean, at all.
Here’s the typical scenario that I witnessed hundreds of times, and what I now know to be the causes behind it:
Phase One: This is Working Great!
Ninety percent of the time, we use WAY too much detergent in our laundry. We just aren’t taught how to measure detergent or load size, and detergent makers don’t make it easy. So, understandably, we throw a full cap in, use an extra glug if things look dirty, and top it off with some fabric softener (a BIG no-no for cloth diapers) when things get stiff and rough to the touch.
Because of this, often the first few weeks to the first few months of using a homemade laundry “detergent” goes great!
During this honeymoon period, you’re actually rinsing away all of the extra real detergent built up on your laundry and inside your washing machine. It’s able to do this thanks to its fantastic surfactants left in all that buildup, which will still work. That long-built-up detergent is finally released and it cleans your laundry in the process.
Even better, your laundry is cleaner than it’s been for a while because all that extra detergent was holding onto dirt and bacteria too. Your clothes feel softer, you no longer need that fabric softener, and you feel great about your decision to go natural and save the planet in the process.
Phase Two: This is Fine, Let’s Just Add this Other Thing.
Once the detergent is rinsed completely away, and this will happen sooner or slower depending on your water hardness, things start to go less well. Suddenly your diapers and clothes don’t feel as clean as they did. Smells start to appear.
Usually, some other excuse will be found. Your hard water means that you just need to add some Borax or Calgon. Or maybe your washer is getting musty so you have to give it a deep clean every week or so now.
You don’t know what, but something is off.
Phase Three: Let’s Do a Cloth Diaper Strip / Reality Hits
After the smells really start to kick in, or worse, your baby develops a rash, you hit the cloth diaper communities, and eventually when the smells are found to be “barnyard smells” you’re told that a cloth diaper strip might be the trick.
If you’re new to the cloth diaper community and have no idea what a cloth diaper strip is, think of it as an emergency deep-clean. You can read more about how and when to strip cloth diapers here.
The strip will produce, dark, nasty, smelly water. And it’s then that it hits you; the homemade laundry “detergent” was not working!
I Did it to my Cloth Diapers Too!
And in case you think I’m being dismissive, just know, I did it too. I purchased some cloth diaper-friendly “detergent” that was just a bunch of washing soda and soap too. And when my diapers started to smell, I stripped them too.
Thankfully, I learned my lesson and then did the research, so you don’t have to.
Bad, Worse, and Ugly of DIY Cloth Diaper Detergent Recipie Ingredients
Homemade laundry soap concoctions are most commonly some combination of water softeners like Borax, washing soda, or Calgon, mixed with some kind of soap (often grated or melted), with maybe some baking soda or oxi-boosters thrown in for fun.
Since water softeners and additives like baking soda and Oxi-Clean are not cleansers, the only cleaning agent in the mix is soap.
But soap is simply that SOAP. It is not intended for washing clothes in the washing machine for all the reasons we discussed above.
The Additional Problem with Washing Soda, Borax, and Calgon
Probably the most frustrating thing for me when looking at these DIY laundry “detergent” recipes, now that I know a bit about the science of laundry, is how they use one of the three brands of water softeners, Washing Soda, Borax, and Calgon, to hide the fact that their “detergent” is JUST soap.
These water softeners make things so much worse.
I have a large post about how hard water and soft water affect laundry, which you can read here, but for now, we just need to understand that most water contains calcium and magnesium particles. The more of these present, the harder your water is.
Water softeners remove those particles by exchanging them for sodium (salt) or potassium particles.
It’s a fact that soap and detergent both lather and bubble more in soft water than in hard water, so the softer the water the more bubbles will be made. The more bubbles, the more water you need to rinse it away! This is why HE detergent exists; it suds less (Source).
We already didn’t have enough water in our low-water-using HE washing machine, but now we REALLY don’t have enough because we dumped in some water softeners too!
What About Soap Nuts?
Since I’ve thrown a monkey-wrench into your plan to use a DIY detergent recipe, you may be thinking about the soap nuts ad you saw a few weeks ago. Sadly, no soap nuts are not suitable for cloth diapers either. You can read the full research behind why soap nuts aren’t ok for cloth diapers here.
Do I Need a Special Cloth Diaper Detergent?
I get that I just threw a lot of information at you and you may be wondering if you need a special cloth diaper detergent. No, you don’t! To be honest, many of the detergents specifically designed for use in cloth diapers are just soaps, or worse. Sometimes some contain chemicals that might cause skin irritation.
Most of the time, if a detergent is claiming to be specially formulated for diapers, it’s best to steer clear and look at that plain-old detergent you’ve been using for years to see if it’s suitable or look for a more natural commercial detergent.
The Best Commercial Detergents for Cloth Diapers
When I use the term “commercial detergent” I do so meaning a detergent that you can get readily and easily at your local stores, which is made for all laundry. I do not mean detergent made for commercial laundromats.
There are many plant-based detergents, hypoallergenic detergents, optical brightener-free detergents, and free-and-clear detergents out there that are great options for cloth diapers.
There are a few things to avoid when choosing a commercial detergent for your cloth diapers though. I have a full list of what they are, as well as some specific recommendations for you in this post here.
Ready to Create your Cloth Diaper Wash Routine?
When you’ve landed on a detergent, the next step will be to create a wash routine that takes into account what detergent you’ve chosen, your water hardness, your diapers, and your washing machine so that you get clean diapers from day one!