Why is Cloth Diaper Laundry So Difficult?

By April Duffy •  Updated: 03/22/24 •  12 min read


If there’s one thing that can confuse anyone from a first-time-parent to a been-there-done-that mom of five, it’s cloth diaper laundry! Why is it so *#$% difficult?

Are Cloth Diapers Hard to Clean?

Your first impression might be that it’s the diapers.

But are cloth diapers hard to clean? Cloth Diapers are harder to clean than most regular laundry, just because of how they are constructed, which I’ll explain in a moment. But while they are harder to clean, that doesn’t mean they are very hard to clean or that cleaning them is going to be difficult for you.

In fact, after you learn how to wash your cloth diapers properly and do it once or twice, it will usually be just as easy as a regular load of laundry.

Sure, washing cloth diapers is harder. After all, the dirtiest thing in most people’s laundry hamper is a blouse or pair of pants with a bit of food spilled on them. This single-layer fabric with a bit of ketchup or whatever on it is different than the multi-layered, tightly-sewn, cloth diaper that’s wrapped in a water-resistant PUL and then thoroughly soaked in human waste. Cloth diapers are made different, and more heavily-soiled, but they are still easily cleaned with some good detergent and enough water.

So Then Why Is Cloth Diaper Laundry So Hard?

So if the actual washing is easy when done right, why does cloth diaper laundry seem so hard and why do so many folks on the cloth diaper forums and groups seem to be struggling with it? Why is it so hard to get right?

There are seven reasons why nappy laundry can sometimes look and feel like it’s impossible, or become impossible with the wrong information.

I’m going to lay each of those obstacles out for you here, along with how to conquer them, but first want you to know you’re NOT alone. I’d estimate that 99.8% of parents who choose to cloth diaper their little ones in 2021 will ask themselves why cloth diaper laundry is so hard. I know I certainly did back in 2015 when I first began my cloth journey, and I’ve heard frustration from literally tens of thousands of parents since then.

Let’s get dive into what’s making it all so hard.

1) Modern Washing Machines Are TOO Efficient

Disposable diapers didn’t come on to the market until about the 1960’s according to Wikipedia. At that time, the average home had a washing machine looked like this:

1960’s Twin Tub Washing Machine.

Needless to say, they were not high efficiency (HE) and they used a lot of elbow grease and water.

Today, washing machines are made to use the least amount of water and electricity possible. This is a good thing for the planet, but not so great when it comes to washing something as dirty and multi-layered as cloth diapers.

To effectively clean something as dirty as a used diaper in a modern HE washing machine that uses less water and less power, you need to understand how to use it well.

This is made difficult by the next point:

2. No Standard Sizing for Washing Machines

Just as quickly as the technology of washing machines has improved, so has the variety. Washing machines come in all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of wash cycles and fancy buttons that give users a million different options on how it will wash whatever they put into it.

This means that nothing is standard.

One washing machine can be the same size as another but wash a different amount of laundry. Take a look at these two washers:

Bosch High-Efficiency Compact Front-Loading WasherSamsung VRT Top Loader
An HE washer that has a 2.2 cubic feet capacity. A 4.5 cu. ft. capacity HE top-loader.
A large load would be about 6.6 lbs. A large load can be up to 13.5 lbs. 
Click here to see specifications on Best BuyClick here to see specifications on Samsung.com

If you saw them in an apartment laundry room, would you think one can wash twice as much as the other? Likely not, but that’s the case.

Even worse, these machines often don’t advertise how much they can wash, instead just labeling everything, “large-capacity,” or “super-large capacity,” which is meaningless.

If we don’t know how much laundry our washer can hold, the chances of us overstuffing it are high, which means our laundry will get even less water than it needs in our low-water-using washer.

Also, if one washer can be double the size of another washer, would the soap it needs for a “large load” also be different? YUP!

That’s where the next point complicates things further:

3. Horrible Information and Transparency from Laundry Detergent Makers

Have a look at the back of your detergent, go ahead I’ll wait…

Notice there’s zero explanation about how much laundry “line 1” can wash? How much is a “regular load”?

If you don’t know that, how can you possibly know how much to use?

Have a look at the ingredients list next, go on…

If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere an ingredients list is required, do you have a clue what any of those ingredients are?

Don’t feel bad, even weirdos like me who look at detergent labels all day won’t even know what every ingredient is because it’s impossible.

Every detergent brand creates its own compounds and doesn’t explain what they are very well, if at all. Even if you can find a list of ingredients on the bottle or online, you then have to search each ingredient because it has some unique variation in its name.

Keeping everyone even more in the dark, brands often include different ingredients in different countries, and the ingredients change each time there’s a “new improved formula”.

If we don’t know how much to use or what’s in our detergent, how are we supposed to wash our clothes and diapers correctly? As the next point examines, no one is teaching us!

4. No One Teaches Laundry 101

Generations ago, we were closer to our grandparents, parents, and communities as a whole. When you were growing up, and especially when you had a baby, your “village” would help you, offering you practical tips, advice and teaching.

Heck, in North America there was even home economic classes in high-school teaching you things like cooking and cleaning.

Today, most of us (though not all) don’t get that one-on-one teaching. We’re left holding our washer manuals and a box of detergent, which as we established above are largely useless.

5. Moms Today are Worriers

It may be because of that lack of support and the incredible amount of pressure put on moms today that we all flood to the cloth diaper groups and websites and over-fill our cups with information that inevitably overwhelms us and makes us worry about every step of the process.

It feels like two or three times a week I hear in the Cloth Diapers for Beginners from moms who haven’t even purchased a diaper yet, or had their baby yet, and they are already feeling defeated, thinking they will never be able to do this cloth diaper thing.

They’ve read posts from those who are using cloth diapers and hit a snag, thinking that those problems are common. They ignore the thousands in the group who aren’t posting because everything is fine.

They are so worried to make a mistake they focus only on the things that could, maybe, go wrong and convince themselves they will fail; all before they’ve even seen a cloth nappy in-person in some cases.

To make matters worse, every small molehill of a problem is made into Mount Everest on the cloth diaper groups because no one can agree how to solve things. This all stems from the next point:

6. Cloth Diaper and Other Websites Giving Contradictory Advice

Every cloth diaper website has an opinion about everything. Unfortunately, they are almost entirely opinion.

Take for example the question of “should I use powder or liquid detergent for cloth diapers?”

Here are some of the many answers you’ll get online:

And even these answers are less polarized than those you’ll get in forums and Facebook groups.

If every time someone has a minor question about cloth diapers they get 42 different opinions that contradict one another, and they don’t know how to consider each piece of advice critically, it’s no wonder they get overwhelmed with a complex topic like cloth diaper laundry.

Of course, it’s not just when they have a question this opinionated nonsense seeps in, as I’ll talk about in the next point:

7. The Social Internet Turns Every Best Practice into a Strict Rule

When I began my cloth diaper journey in 2015 there was some talk about how you should tuck the extra fabric between the rise snaps up. The thinking was it would hide more of the fabric and possibly avoid a wicking issue. It was just a little tip, nothing life or death.

Cut to 2021 and if you post a picture of your baby in a diaper where the fold is clearly tucked down and moms will pile on top of themselves to tell you you’re doing it wrong.

This happens with SO MANY cloth diaper tips. Moms, eager to share their superior cloth diaper knowledge will turn every best practice into a serious life-or-death rule that must be shared with everyone as such.

The result is 50,000 random, arbitrary “rules” about cloth diaper laundry that make the whole thing seem like rocket science. P

We all need to take a breath.

How to Simplify Cloth Diaper Laundry

Measure, Measure, Measure

With washing machines of varying sizes, using as little water as possible, and detergents with mysterious load sizes, measuring things is critical to making sure your load of diaper laundry gets cleaned properly.

And getting your diapers properly clean is something to worry about since, unlike regular laundry, where that ketchup spot may just stain that blouse, an unclean diaper can mean strong smells, painful rashes, and even doctor visits.

But again, it’s not that hard; at least if you know how to decode those washing machienes and detergent botles and measure things.

That’s why I spent years creating the Measure Method for cloth diaper laundry, which you can learn about here.

It is a bit of work to measure everything out, but it will make things so much easier in the long run, not only because you’ll avoid wash problems, but also because you’ll know how to deal with any problem that may arise. You’ll have that knowledge you should have gotten from your village.

Do REAL Research

I quit smoking 16 years ago after several attempts. On a similar note, I’m currently on a keto/ Intermittent fasting journey and having better success with losing weight than I ever have in the past during my many attempts.

What made both of these very difficult things easier? KNOWLEGE.

When I quit smoking I read Allen Carr’s Stop Smoking Now book that took me by the hand and explained why smoking was stupid.

When I started Keto and IF I stopped binging Netflix (and M&M’s) and watched conference lectures on YouTube from scientists talking about insulin and microbiome research.

I didn’t jump onto a Facebook group and say, “Hey, I need to lose weight, how should I get started?”

I know, moms have ZERO time; we’re on the same page there. But sometimes, digging into a proper resource and learning, especially on topics with varying opinions, like cloth diaper laundry, can SAVE you time.

Researching how to do cloth diaper laundry properly can save you days, weeks, even months of struggles troubleshooting smells, rashes, and other laundry-related problems.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some cloth diaper questions you’ll have that are absolutely perfect for cloth diaper groups because they hinge on personal experiences (I outline some here) but get yourself grounded in a solid base of information first.

But taking the time to read real resources, like the Measure Method resource I have for you here, will save you time and effort in the long run.

Read/Listen Critically

Whether you use my Measure Method resource, or any of the other hundreds of cloth diaper resources available to you on the internet, read them critically!

As we talked about above, most of the resources online about cloth diaper laundry contradict each other and are based on opinion. So how do you know what’s good information? Look for sources. Look for links to research, detergent websites, and expert opinions (not other blogs!).

Reading things with a critical eye, always asking yourself, “Where did they come up with that idea?” will serve you very well in this crazy-overwhelming world of cloth diaper laundry information.

Consider Getting the Book

While reading lots of resources with a critical eye is good, if you have trouble reading critically, or just don’t want to have to wade through tons of opinion and arbitrary rules, I do have something to offer you that will truly simplify cloth diaper laundry for you: The Cloth Diapers for Beginners Wash & Care Handbook.

The handbook, which is more like a workbook, covers everything cloth diaper laundry, as well as most of the wash and care topics you’ll ever need, like wool care, rashes, storage, etc., etc.

The book is really my attempt to simplify everything we’ve talked about here in this article, as well as even simplify my Measure Method for cloth diaper laundry, into a step-by-step process, that will build your knowledge of cloth diaper laundry and your confidence in cloth diapers at the same time.

Because the truth is, you can do this, and it can be simple.

I urge you to learn more about the book here, or check out the how to wash cloth diapers page of the website here, which I hope will make your cloth diaper journey easier.

April Duffy

April 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.