How Do I Clean Used Cloth Diapers?


You bought used cloth diapers, Awesome! Now what?

Well, first of all, congratulate yourself on choosing used. I bet your bank account is thanking you, and let ME thank you for your help in sustaining our environment.

Secondly, if you haven’t already you’ll want to check your diapers for any wear-and-tear that poses a problem, like stretched or rotten elastics and damaged PUL. If you need help with that, you can find my guide to buying used cloth diapers post here, which goes into detail about what to look for with instructions and videos to help you understand what you’re looking for.

Now that you have your fancy new-to-you diapers, you’ll need to sanitize them before you put them on your own baby for the first time.

Sanitizing and Disinfecting Used Diapers (the Bleach Soak)

Because you’re likely going to be putting your diapers on a very young baby, and because things like bacteria and yeast can not be killed by stripping diapers, your going to need to bleach your used diapers before you put them on baby.

You might be thinking, woah, bleach? I thought we were using cloth to get away from chemicals? And you’re right, bleaching cloth diapers is a harsh treatment and should never be done on a whim, but this is one of the few circumstances where it’s absolutely necessary.

Here’s how to bleach your used diapers to get them ready for your little one:

Ingredients: Use cold or lukewarm water and bleach with at least 5.25% sodium hypochlorite as the active ingredient.

Measurements: 
Average bathtub – 1/2 cup of bleach to water filled to the half-way point (from the top of the tub)

Other containers (including washer)- 1 Tbs of bleach to 1 gallon (about 4 litres) of water

Process: Soak diapers in the bleach solution for at least 30 minutes, but no longer than an hour. Rinse the diapers with hot water, followed by a regular (warm water) cycle in the washing machine, complete with detergent to completely break down the bleach.

If you still smell bleach on the diapers after washing, you can do an additional wash to be safe, but the bleach should be broken down and rinsed clean if used in the right proportions

Dry as normal.

Wait, Can I Use Oxygen Bleach to Sanitize Used Cloth Diapers?

I often get asked by parents concerned about the chemicals in traditional sodium hypochlorite bleach if oxygen bleach can be used to sanitize used cloth diapers. Unfortunately, the answer is no, Oxygen bleach can’t be used to sanitize used cloth diapers.

First of all I should, however, step back and say I can understand why some parents wish they could use oxy bleach; it’s a great product. As The spruce explains, “Oxygen-based or all-fabric bleach is a gentle bleaching agent that removes stains, whitens, and brightens laundry and is safe for use on almost all types of washable white and colored fabrics. Because of its chemical ingredients, it works more slowly than chlorine bleach, is less corrosive and damaging to fibers, and is more environmentally-friendly.”

Most of the oxy bleaches you will find at your local grocery or department store are made from sodium percarbonate. After a ton of searching, I couldn’t find any trusted source to claim one way or another if sodium percarbonate was effective as a sanitizer in low concentrations. Thankfully, when starting my research I also decided to go right to the source. I went to the oxi bleach makers themselves, Clorox, and did finally get an answer I can believe.

After all, if anyone would want to claim that their product could work for sanitization, it would be the company that makes and sells it.

Here’s that exchange:

Just to put it in writing in case you’re having a problem seeing that image on your device, the Clorox representative using an Oximagic email tag told me they do not offer a bleach that removes yeast at this time, and that includes both the Clorox Oxi Magic Powder and the Clorox Oxi Max Radient White.

So, in the end, you need to use traditional chlorine bleach to properly sanitize your cloth diapers.

Will the Bleach Ruin the Diapers?

No. If used in the proper amount the bleach will not ruin the diapers. Bleach also does not affect the color or even fade PUL (the laminated polyester material most diaper covers are made from).

It *may* fade colored fabrics other than PUL, like wool or colored cotton, but it should not damage them.

Do I Need to Strip My Used Diapers Too?

Aside from sanitizing your used diapers, you may need to strip them, but not always.

If you read the guide to buying used cloth diapers I mentioned above, you’ll remember I listed some questions to ask the seller/gifter of your used cloth diapers. If you were able to get the answers to those questions, three of them are going to determine if you need to strip your cloth diapers. Specifically:

  • What detergents and/or softeners have you used?
  • Have you used any diaper creams or ointments with them?
  • Do you have hard water?

If the previous owner used any fabric softeners, detergents with fabric softeners, homemade detergent or commercial laundry “soap,” dryer sheets, zinc diaper creams, or petroleum (Vaseline) on their diapers, you’ll need to strip them. Also, if they had hard water and didn’t know how to adjust their routine, (or if they didn’t understand that question at all but you know they live in an area with hard water) you may want to consider stripping as well.

On the other hand, if the seller/gifter seems really knowledgeable about cloth diaper care and can tell you that they definitely didn’t use any of the products listed above, and the diapers smell clean and feel soft, you can likely skip stripping (but not sanitizing).

What if I Don’t Know How the Diapers Were Cared For?

If the person who gave you the diapers didn’t give you much information about how they were cared for, you can investigate to see if there is any buildup on them that may need to be stripped off, by having a look at them before sanitizing. You’re going to look for:

  • Smell. Diapers should smell when clean, so if there’s a smell this indicates a problem and stripping is a good idea.
  • Stiffness. If the diapers have been used several times but feel stiff, this is likely a detergent buildup problem and the diapers will need to be stripped.
  • Water-repelling. Splash a few drops of water onto the diaper, if those drops bead up and don’t IMMEDIATELY sink into the fabric, that indicates a buildup or product problem and you’ll want to strip them.
  • Cloudy or sudsy residue. You can check for buildup by doing a swoosh test. This test is simple, you start by filling up a bowl with warm water and submerging one of the clean and dry diapers in it. After a few minutes swoosh the diaper around and squeeze it out a few times. If white film and/or bubbles (suds) gather along the sides of the bowl, or if the water looks grey and grungy, you’ll know there is a buildup problem and stripping is needed.

In the end, if you don’t know much about what the diapers have been through you may want to do a strip just to cover your bases. When done only occasionally, stripping is not harmful to your diapers.

For more information about stripping your diapers, including the instructions for various stripping products, you can check out my post about how and when to strip cloth diapers here.

Strip or Bleach First?

If you do opt to strip your used diapers, I recommend stripping them after bleaching as it will help you remove the bleach from the diapers, which many parents find worrisome. You can do it the other way around though if you like.

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