When it comes to vinegar, just like so many other washing topics, the opinions on whether or not it’s safe for cloth diapers are mixed and usually contradict each other.
Fed up with the mystery, I decided to look into the chemistry of using vinegar in cloth diaper laundry for myself, and what I discovered was pretty cool. Yes, vinegar is safe for cloth diaper laundry and is actually beneficial in a number of ways.
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What is White Vinegar?
Plain old white vinegar is the type usually used around the home and with laundry, so we’ll start with it. A good place to begin when trying to figure out how it works on laundry is to nail down what it is.
According to healthline.com, standard white vinegar, which is sometimes called distilled or spirit vinegar, is a clear solution typically consisting of 4–7% acetic acid and 93–96% water, though types with higher acetic acid content are available for agricultural or cleaning purposes. It’s most commonly made via the fermentation of grain alcohol.
Healthline goes on to say that because white vinegar has antimicrobial properties, it’s a useful disinfectant and cleaner for a myriad of surfaces and appliances and even lists laundry stain removal as one of its uses.
What About Apple Cider Vinegar for Cloth Diapers?
Apple cider vinegar, which is made from fermented apple juice [source] has quite the reputation for being a gentle and trusted natural health product, and as such I’ve had a few moms tell me that they have used apple cider vinegar with their cloth diaper laundry and it’s worked out.
If apple cider vinegar works for you, fill ‘yer boots I say! The last thing I want to do is poo-poo anything that’s working for someone and doesn’t do any real harm. With that said, using vinegar with a dark color and a strong scent, like apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, or malt vinegar, instead of plain white vinegar, can have some drawbacks including:
- Stains. If poured right on the fabric, darker vinegars can stain fabrics, though this is usually easy to fix with some sun.
- Smells. Since you’ll be using quite a bit to get the benefits needed (recommendations are below), the stronger smell of apple cider vinegar, and other fancy vinegars, can be left behind on the fabric.
- Higher price. Apple cider vinegar is quite expensive when compared to regular white vinegar, and other kinds of vinegar are even pricier.
What Does Acetic Acid Do to Laundry?
No matter what vinegar you choose, the effects on your laundry are the same as they are all related to the vinegar’s acidity. As it turns out, adding a very mild acid to your laundry is beneficial in a number of ways, including:
Neutralizes and Removes Detergent
Remembering way back to high school chemistry class, all substances are either acidic, or basic (alkali), or somewhere in between. The measurement for acidity and alkalinity is known as the pH value.
Here is a pH scale showing some common things found at home, with the acidic items on the left, and the basic items on the right.
Looking at this scale you’ll see vinegar has a pH of about two, which is very acidic. This makes sense since it is an acid—acetic acid.
What you can also see on this scale is that detergents and soaps, or soapy water as it’s referred to on the scale, are basic substances, with a pH of about 12.
Also from high school chemistry class, you might remember that acidic substances neutralize alkali substances, and vice-versa. They cancel each other out when mixed in equal amounts of pH and volume.
If I haven’t lost you yet, and I know I’ve likely lost some of you because this is a site about diapers, not chemistry 101, but if you’re still with me, you’ll be realizing now that vinegar, or acidic acid, can neutralize detergent. This makes it an effective strip for detergent build-up on clothing.
A Side Note About Vinegar and Detergent
During my initial online research, which included surveying other cloth diaper related websites to find things to research, I read a claim that vinegar helps detergents to function more effectively by lowering the pH. As we just saw from discussing the acid/base science behind this, this claim doesn’t make sense as detergents are high pH, so lowering their pH makes them ineffective.
I think this illustrates well why you should be careful with cloth diaper advice that just makes claims with no sources or references. If you were to follow this advice, you might be putting vinegar in your main wash, which would in effect neutralize your detergent. The result would be dirty diapers that would then get a build-up of bacteria. Build-up like this would eventually lead to smells, leaks and/or rashes and require stripping. You can read more about build-up and stripping cloth diapers in a post I wrote about it here. My point is that unless a cloth diaper website tells you why they are giving the advice they are, showing you evidence, be careful and double-check the information elsewhere.
Removes Hard-Water Scale
Acidic acid can also dissolve another substance found in some washing machines, hard water minerals.
If you’ve been cloth diapering or researching cloth diapering, for any length of time, you’ll have heard about hard water and mineral build-up on fabrics a lot. I outline some of the issues associated with mineral build-up on cloth diapers in my post about stripping cloth diapers, but the gist is that hard water must be softened either with softeners like Calgon or Borax or with additional detergent. If it’s not softened in this way, the detergent you do put in there will be working to clean your water instead of your diapers. The result will be diapers that are left with a mix of waste and hard water particles. This is of course going to cause a lot of problems.
Because hard water minerals can cause this kind of build-up on diapers, thinking about deposits in the rinse cycle and not just the wash cycle is a good thing.
Hard water, is formed when water runs through deposits of limestone and chalk which are largely made up of calcium and magnesium carbonates [source].
So the troublesome ingredients in hard water are magnesium carbonates and calcium carbonate, which is also known as limescale [source].
Well, it just so happens that vinegar is great at dissolving these two things.
To take a deep dive into the science of this without getting too wordy, you can see from this simple experiment what vinegar does to calcium carbonate:
To have a look at what vinegar does to magnesium, check out this video:
If eggshells and magnesium strips are a little too different from your hard water problems to convince you, all you have to do is test it on your hard water deposits to see its magic. Here’s what it can do for a faucet with hard water deposits:
Side Note About Vinegar and Hard Water
Again, through my initial round of research for this article, I read on another cloth diaper site that vinegar can somehow “mix with trace minerals in your water supply, causing your diapers to smell acrid once urinated upon.” I didn’t come across any mention of this in any of my in-depth research into both vinegar and hard water, and urine and hard water (which I get into below). I also haven’t encountered this in my own use of vinegar with hard water on diapers, but since it’s out there, I wanted to give you a heads-up about it.
If you have encountered this, or know why someone might make this claim looking at it from a reaction standpoint, please let me know in the comments, I’m eager to learn more.
Prevents Colors From Bleeding
According to Heinz, and some other second-hand sources, vinegar can also set some colors and keep them from running in the wash. I’ve not tested this out or found other reliable sources so I can’t vouch for this personally. If you’ve tried this, please leave a comment though, I’d love to hear some first-hand experiences good or bad.
Some Other Claims
I also came across claims online that vinegar deters the setting-in of laundry stains, cuts down on lint and pet hair attaching to the surface of clothes, and reduces static cling. I don’t mention those things elsewhere in the post because I couldn’t validate them through any science or authoritative sources.
That said, I could always be wrong, so if you know why these things would be true, or have personal experience with them, once again I’m all ears and would love to hear it in the comments below.
What Does Acetic Acid Do to Cloth Diaper Laundry?
While all the above benefits for all laundry are great, the super-amazing thing about using vinegar on cloth diaper laundry is what it does to urine and the ammonia urine produces.
According to WebMD, urine is, “mainly made of water, salt, and chemicals called urea and uric acid.”
Interestingly enough, the liver converts ammonia in our bodies into urea and uric acid to be let out safely.
The National Kidney Foundation adds to this that urea in urine will change back to ammonia when exposed to bacteria. Specifically, their website states, “Urine contains a compound known as urea. When bacteria act on this compound in your urine, it will change urea to ammonia.”
There are many reasons bacteria can come into contact with that urea, including infections, dehydration, etc. [source] or just plain sitting in a warm diaper pail for a long time with feces and other nasty business.
What’s the effect of vinegar on uric acid, urea, ammonia. Well, let’s bust out our pH scale once again:
As you’ll see urine is mostly an acid (uric acid) at first, it sits at about a six on the pH scale. As it breaks down and bacteria acts on it, ammonia is produced. Ammonia is way over on the alkali side of the scale.
Just like with detergent, pairing acetic acid and ammonia neutralizes them both.
According to study.com, “The neutralization reaction between acetic acid and ammonia yields salt water made up of ammonium acetate and water”
Anything that neutralizes the ammonia in diapers will save not only your nose but also your baby’s bottom in the long run. Ammonia build-up can often cause painful rashes if left unchecked.
An anecdote: A few days after putting together this post, my daughter prepared for me a particularly vile, very ammonia-scented bedwetting pant (you can read a full post on all of the causes of ammonia smell here, but suffice it to say this is normal for her and not washing related).
I’ve tried vinegar as a rinse before and loved it, but I wanted to put my money where my mouth is on the safety of vinegar on diapers so I got out my cleaning vinegar and gave it a good spray directly on the wet diaper.
Instantly the smell changed from ammonia to nasty pee smell, we’re talking a dirty club bathroom smell that overtook the whole room. This was gross, but kind of awesome because it proved to me that vinegar reverses the ammonia process!
After about 30 minutes, wherein I left the house to putter in the backyard I came back and gave the laundry basket a good sniff, and, no smell. I had left the house so it’s not that I had just gotten used to club bathroom scent, it was gone! I am still blown away by my little test!
Will Vinegar Kill Yeast?
Another cause of painful rashes on baby’s bottom can be yeast.
There is a lot of information online about using vinegar, especially apple cider vinegar to kill yeast growth, especially with vaginal yeast infections.
At the top of this post, I mentioned white vinegar has antimicrobial properties, which is true. Unfortunately, while vinegar is great for surfaces like your kitchen counter, it isn’t strong enough for tough germs.
When it comes to yeast infections on your diapers, I don’t mince words; a yeast infection is an infection and should be diagnosed by a pediatrician. Once diagnosed, diapers should be disinfected with bleach, which is a recognized disinfectant and proven to work against yeast by many cloth diaper moms over the years.
Using Vinegar and Bleach on Cloth Diapers Together
There are definitely some times when vinegar is great for your cloth diapers, and there are also some times when you’ll need to bleach your cloth diapers to sanitize them; however, you should never use these two products at the same time.
Never mix vinegar and bleach.
Mixing vinegar with bleach releases toxic chlorine and chloramine vapors [source]. When mixed with water, the gas creates hydrochloric and hypochlorous acids.
The gas is bad for you and your baby, and it’s worse for your diapers.
Using Vinegar And Baking Soda On Cloth Diapers
Though I’ve hinted a few times in this post about finding bad information on other cloth diaper sites, I don’t believe in tearing people down to build myself up, and I do believe the people behinds these websites have good intentions. That said, when some of the advice offered out there takes no account for basic grade-school science basics, I do get a bit bitter!
Believe it or not, some of the highest visited cloth diaper websites out there recommend combining baking soda and vinegar to clean cloth diapers. Some of these even give directions for stripping cloth diapers with vinegar and baking soda!
When you combine baking soda and vinegar you get a bubbly, frothy solution that is awesome for paper-mache volcanoes, but not so much for cleaning.
Taking another look at our pH chart, you’ll notice vinegar and baking soda are at opposite ends.
What happens when you combine a base and an acid? They neutralize each other.
While both vinegar and baking soda are great cleansers on their own, combining the alkali baking soda and acidic vinegar produces a dilute sodium acetate solution, which is a fancy way of saying water with a small amount sodium salt, albeit with some cool bubble action at the beginning from carbon dioxide [source].
So soaking diapers in vinegar and baking soda is the same as soaking them in water with a teeny tiny bit of salt. This will not strip them or get them clean — at all.
For information about how to actually strip your cloth diapers, check out my post about how (and when) to strip cloth diapers.
When and How Much Vinegar Should I Use?
Vinegar should be added to your laundry in the rinse cycle. Adding it to the pre-rinse and/or wash cycle would neutralize your detergent before it could get your laundry clean, whereas adding it to the rinse cycle will allow it to prevent any detergent or hard water build-up after they’re clean. Since fabric softener is a no-no for cloth diapers, this is a nice substitute.
Most resources on using vinegar for laundry recommend about ½- 1 cup of white vinegar per load of laundry depending on load size.
“White Vinegar is the perfect solution for breaking down the uric acid and irritating soap residue in all your baby’s clothing, blankets, and sheets. To keep them soft and clean, add one cup of Heinz® White Vinegar to each wash load during the rinse cycle. And for the rest of the family’s clothes, the same formula will do the trick.”– Heinz
If the goal is softening fabric and neutralizing urine, this amount seems to be perfect for soft water in my own testing. I would recommend using a bit more if you have hard water as hard water tends to have a higher pH.
What About Stronger Cleaning Vinegars?
Stronger cleaning kinds of vinegar are great, up to a certain point.
Here in Canada, we have pretty good access to 10% cleaning vinegar. Allen’s cleaning vinegar is a personal favorite of mine available at many grocery stores and Canadian Tire. I use it daily and it’s great.
In the US it’s a little bit tougher. Heinz makes a 6% vinegar, but the price difference between it and the usual 5% stuff may not justify the extra per cent. Apart from that, I was only able to find 30% industrial strength types, but the pH on these would be so high that I’d caution against using them without further research.
I personally find the 10 per cent about as strong as I’d want to go, so I’d feel uneasy recommending anything stronger.
Vinegar, especially white vinegar, is not only safe for cloth diapers but there are a ton of reasons to use it in your cloth diaper care routine. When used in the rinse cycle it:
- Neutralizes and removes detergent build-up
- Removes hard-water scale
- Neutralizes ammonia from urine
Vinegar should not be used:
- As a disinfectant for yeast
- As a cloth diaper strip
- Alongside bleach
- With baking soda
To use vinegar on your cloth diapers, add about ½-1 cup of white vinegar (with a strength of between 5 and 10 per cent) depending on load size, in each load of diapers.
For more answers to frequently asked cloth diaper questions, check out the Cloth Diapers for Beginners list of answered FAQ’s here.