Let’s talk about Emma.
Emma, a first time mom (FTM), is both excited and nervous to try cloth diapers. Because she plans on staying home with her new baby she’ll be on a very tight budget and is relying on cloth diapers to save her a bundle of cash.
Unfortunately, when she mentions it to her partner and other loved ones, they reply with either disbelief or passive aggressive comments.
“Oh, you say that now, but once you see what comes out of that sweet baby…”
“Wow, good for you. I heard about them when my baby was born but [insert five judgy-sounding reasons why they made what they think is a better choice].”
Not having anyone on-board, or knowing anyone else who has cloth diapered their babies hurts a little, but Emma is one bad-a** mama, and she’s going to make it work. After doing a ton of research she lands on a few brands of inexpensive pocket diapers, and invests in her first stash. Once the box of diapers has been opened and squealed over (OMG THE PRINTS!), she realizes she needs to figure out how to wash them once and for all.
What detergent should she use? How much detergent should she use? What cycle should she use?
These are super important questions and barely any of the online diaper sites really answer them with a lot of detail. Except for one.
In her search, Emma quickly finds an absolutely huge list of detergents on the site Fluff Love University. It’s amazeballs! It has almost every detergent you can think of listed, it says whether it’s good or not, and even how much of each one to use in the prewash and wash cycle.
She’s all set!
Let me be clear, anyone promoting the use of cloth diapers and helping them out with their cloth journey is aces in my book. While there is disagreement on some topics in the cloth diaper community (the safety of zinc, how often you should strip diapers, China cheepies, and so on), in general intentions are good and tearing down someone for a recommendation, even when I’ve done the work and know without a doubt it’s wrong, is not going to help anyone.
With that said, I feel like I do need to address the Fluff Love University (FLU) issue because not doing so is also not helping anyone.
There are too many Emma’s asking me for help after they feel like they’re failing to ignore it any longer.
What is FLU?
Fluff Love University is a website, much like this one, dedicated to helping people cloth diaper.
Though it looks as though their about page hasn’t been updated since 2015, it does give a brief history of the two originators, says that it is made of up a group of cloth diapering mothers and fathers, and states that it’s a registered nonprofit organization in Texas.
As of the time of publication for this post, FLU’s last blog post was in April of 2018 (it’s currently July 2019) and says, “We are currently overhauling our entire website! You may notice some pages are being combined or removed based on user feedback and site traffic. Thanks for your patience.”
Without a doubt one of the most popular pages on Fluff Love University (FLU) is it’s detergent index.
It’s popular for a good reason, I know when I first started diapering I used it to double check the “safety” of my detergent. Thankfully, that’s all I did with it, but I was still super grateful that someone went through the trouble to list every single detergent imaginable, and I just hoped that they knew what they were talking about science wise (afterall there’s a little atom or whatever in their logo, right?).
The Detergent Index is a FANTASTIC idea, but it goes WAY too far.
What’s the Problem with the Fluff Love University Detergent Guide?
The problem with the FLU Detergent Index is that it makes specific recommendations on the amounts of detergent you should use, which are most often WAY too much.
What’s wrong with using too much detergent? So many things! The most troublesome is that your machine won’t have enough water in it to get all that detergent off of your diapers in the rinse cycle. This can lead to a build-up of detergent in your diapers, that just gets worse and worse over time. If the detergent can’t be washed out of your diapers, neither can the urine and bacteria that begins attaching to it. Quickly the diapers will begin to stink, and if left unchecked, baby’s bottom can start breaking out in rashes.
Even worse, the longer the detergent is left to build up, the harder it is to get the diapers clean.
The week before writing this post, I was trying to help a mom who bought used cloth diapers that had detergent build-up so bad, and they stunk so horribly, that it took three strips (one as a soak, following two through the washing machine) and multiple regular washes and rinses to remove the stink and residue.
As an example, let’s look at Purex Liquid Detergent, the detergent I am currently using with slightly soft water.
For this detergent, FLU states:
Use 1/2 cap prewash and 1 cap main wash. Contains optical brighteners. May be sudsy in soft water. If you have the large club size jug, use line 2 in the prewash and just over line 5 in the main wash.-Fluff Love University
Unfortunately, the picture of the detergent cap on the bottle only shows three lines, but the actual cap does have more lines on it. I called Purex to find out what they
Here’s what my cap looks like:
Following the FLU advice would have me putting about a ¼ of a cap in the prewash, and almost ¾ of a cap in the main wash. I can tell you from personal experience that anything over line 3, even in a load of bedwetting pants and diapers, and I have soap suds in the “extra rinse” and I have to use vinegar as a rinse to cut the soap. I have soft water, a large capacity washer, and never do small loads of laundry or have “lightly soiled” laundry.
If I were to follow the FLU soap recommendation for diapers, I would absolutely not be able to get the soap out of them without additional rinses.
The amazing thing is, FLU even states in their recommendation for this soap that it “May be sudsy in soft water.” Yes, because it’s too much soap! The fact that they say this is even more worrisome because a new cloth diaper mom seeing all those suds might then think it’s normal! Suds after thorough rinsing is not normal.
Why So Much Detergent?
I totally get it.
Fluff Love University’s domain was registered in October of 2014. At that time, there was still a lot of cloth diaper makers and sellers telling customers to wash their diapers in “all-natural” or cloth diaper specific detergents (which were weak soaps), and/or to use little amounts of detergent.
When I began researching cloth diapers in early 2015, I can remember reading more than one resource that recommended to use a tablespoon or two of detergent. This is below the first line of many
Are you kidding me!?!
So the fact that Fluff Love University went completely the other way, in some cases prescribing three-times the recommended amount of detergent, is understandable when you consider what they were up against.
The problem is, they weren’t considering all of the factors that make ANY detergent recommendation to everyone is IMPOSSIBLE.
Why Detergent Recommendations are Impossible
There are four factors that will affect how much detergent you will need, aside from your brand/type of detergent. They are:
Water Hardness: Most North American homes have hard water, in fact about 85 per cent of the United States has hard water. The difference between hard water and soft water is that hard water has high levels of calcium and magnesium minerals. The more calcium and magnesium in your water, the harder your water is.
With a high mineral concentrations in your water, unless you add water softeners to it, the calcium and magnesium will attach to the fabric in your laundry. This will create a residue that can dull the color of your laundry and lead to a build-up that will attract and harbor bacteria.
Detergent itself is often a water softener. This means that in hard water, most of the ingredients in detergent become attached to the minerals in the water and if there’s not enough of it, there’s none left to clean the diapers. This means that up to 30 per cent more detergent must be used and at a higher water temperature than usual to get satisfactory cleaning results for very hard water.
Washer Size: Washing machines come in a range of sizes, including:
- hand-operated machines, like this one
- apartment size washing machines, like this one
- front load washers, like this one
- commercial laundry machines that you find in laundromats, like this one
Even if you were washing the same amount of diapers in each of these machines, the amount of detergent needed would be different since each machine will use a different amount of water, and remember some water requires detergent to bind to the calcium and magnesium minerals in it to keep it off your clothes, and some doesn’t because it’s soft water.
Load Size: Just like the size of the washer drum will affect how much detergent you need, so will the load size. Washing 10 diapers usually requires less detergent than washing 25. If you have a large washing machine and decide to wash your diapers with other clothes (I’ve written a whole post about washing diapers with clothes here) this will also require a different amount of detergent than a full load of just diapers, because the soil level of clothes and diapers are different.
Soil Type: It’s true that any load of cloth diapers is going to be the dirtiest load of laundry you ever have to wash. Unlike regular laundry, which often is often just one layer, and only has surface stains, cloth diapers have layers upon layers, all of which quickly become soaked in urine only to sit there and stew for a day or two before washing.
It follows then that a load of 10 diapers during an illness (think diarrhea, diaper creams and medications) would require more detergent than 10 diapers during a bout of healthy constipation.
Overall, while the Fluff Love University Detergent Index is a great idea in theory, it sucks in practice.
I’ve lost count of those who post in the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Facebook group to share their frustration when they find that their stinky diapers are the result of detergent buildup after following FLU recommendations. It’s so common, that as soon as someone says they are following the recommendations, everyone posts to tell them to check for detergent buildup, and I have yet to see one who didn’t.
As soon as someone posts about possible detergent buildup, someone else will ask if they are following FLU.
It’s that big of a problem.
And that’s why I wrote this post, not to crap on the hard work of the folks of FLU, because I know their intentions are good, (and that would just be a shi**y thing for me to do in general) but to have a post I can share with those frustrated, defeated-feeling cloth diaper parents who post for help. I hope this post will explain what happened, let them know they’re not alone, and eventually help them remedy the situation.
On that last point, this post will be the first in a series of three to help these folks. You can find the second post, about how to test for and get rid of detergent buildup here.
If you already know you’ve had detergent buildup and gotten rid of it, you can skip to this post toward out how much detergent to use in your specific situation.
April DuffyApril is the founder of Cloth Diapers for Beginners and author of The Cloth Diaper Wash & Care Handbook. Since 2015, April has helped well over 75,000 parents and caregivers cloth diaper their children through this website, her book, her YouTube Channel, and the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Facebook Group.
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