How To Wash Cloth Diapers, for Beginners

The obvious advantage when comparing cloth diapers versus disposable diapers is that you aren’t just tossing cloth diapers in the landfill, you’re washing them. And cloth diapers are not clothes. Clothes are thin and lightly soiled, cloth diapers are thick, multi-layered, and soaked in human waste every day — so you’re going to have to learn a bit more about laundry to keep them clean and stink-free.

Is it Safe to Wash Cloth Diapers in the Washing Machine?

Often the first worry new cloth diaper parents have is about putting their dirty diapers in the same washer they use for their clothes.

So, is it safe to wash cloth diapers in the washing machine? Yes! It’s perfectly safe and sanitary to wash your cloth diapers in your home washing machine. It WILL get them clean enough and your washer won’t be full of bacteria or waste, as long as you follow diaper wash best practices and create a solid wash routine. I will help you with both of those here, so keep reading.

Can You Hand-Wash Cloth Diapers?

Not everyone has a washer, or access to one often. If that’s you, you’re probably asking yourself if you can hand-wash cloth diapers or not.

Don’t worry, the answer is yes, you can definitely wash your cloth diapers by hand and get them clean, but of course it will take a bit of elbow grease.

I do recommend going through and building a wash routine. Though your “washer” may be tiny, you still need the right ratio of dirty diapers, water, and detergent.

Here are some step-by-step instructions on how to build a hand-wash cloth diaper routine:

What’s the Best Way to Wash Cloth Diapers?

Now that we’re confident it’s ok to wash diapers in your washing machine, or by hand, what’s the best way to wash your diapers? The best way to wash cloth diapers is to learn how to balance your load size (how many diapers you’re washing), your chosen detergent, and your unique water to get a perfect clean. And I’m going to show you how to do all that right here.

But first, let me acknowledge that I know I may sound crazy or that I’m overcomplicating things. After all, it seems simple right, dump the diapers in, pour some detergent in, and if you’re worried, add an extra glug just in case, right?

Sorry, no.

More detergent does not mean cleaner diapers. But it’s ok, we all start out there. Modern detergents and washing machines make it seem so simple while at the same time complicating things under the radar.

Dumping in a pile of cloth diapers and a couple of caps of detergent won’t do much but cause stinky diapers, and possibly rashes. But if you learn how to measure things out right, you’ll not only have sparkling clean diapers, but you’ll also find your regular laundry comes out cleaner too. In fact, softer towels without dryer sheets are often an unexpected side-effect!

It’s going to be a lot of info thrown at you right now. It’s ok!

About ten or eleven paragraphs down this page, I throw some crazy things out there like “load size”, and “washer capacity.” It’s going to sound complicated, maybe even overwhelming, but I promise it just takes a bit of focus now, for lots of reward over the years. And I’m going to break it down, so just keep reading.

It’s a lot like learning how diet X works; it’s a lot of learning up front, but if you stick with it, you’ll be fitting in those bikini bottoms in no time. Even better, doing laundry poorly isn’t nearly as enticing as cake, so you’ll never go back to stinky diapers or stiff towels if you just take a few minutes to focus on it now.

Here at Cloth Diapers for Beginners, it’s my mission to help teach beginners how to wash cloth diapers the right way, it does take a bit of upfront effort, but I’m here to make it as painless as possible, so you’re in the right place. You got this!

Here are the resources I have for you:

Ok, so I have two options for you to figure out this diaper laundry thing:

Option 1: Get the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Wash & Care Handbook

Get the step-by-step full of explanation version, that comes with all the wash and care information you need — not just washing, but everything from purchase to storage — all in one spot. Everything from A to B is covered in the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Wash and Care Handbook and explained fully.

You can learn more about that option, including having a look at the table of contents and reading the first chapter here.

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The Cloth Diapers for Beginners Wash & Care Handbook

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Option 2: Download the FREE Worksheet and Work through the Rest of This Post to Fill it Out

If you’re a “cross that bridge when I get to it” type, you can get the quick and dirty “I just want to work out my routine online and I’ll figure out the rest later as I go” version by continuing to read this page… you got this!

The Steps to Building a Perfect Wash Routine

There are a lot of factors that go into the perfect routine. What detergent you use, how often and how many diapers you’re washing, and how hard your water is. I like plans, so I’ve made one to help us work through it all.

Here’s our five-step plan for building your wash routine:

  1. Think about how often you want to wash your cloth diapers, and calculate how many diapers that will give you on wash day. Then figure out how large a load that is. This is the key, it can’t be skipped!
  2. Take a look at your washing machine and dig up either the cubic foot measurement or the weight limits for it. Then use that to find out if your diaper load is a small, medium, or large load for your washer (or if it’s too much for your washer and you need to wash in two loads).
  3. Choose a detergent you feel comfortable with and is safe for cloth diapers. And figure out how much of it you’ll need for your diaper load size.
  4. Test your water to see if it’s hard or soft as that will greatly impact your detergent levels.
  5. Put it all together into a wash routine that’s personalized, and unique to you–100% yours.

I’ll guide you through each step here, and try to make it as simple as I can in one article. But if you find you’re not understanding something, or it’s just not clicking for you, I do urge you to go back and reconsider option 1. I can just explain things so much better in a full book than I can in one online article, and it’s so much less overwhelming when you know the why behind things.

But if you’re confident you’re good with quick and dirty option 2, I will try my best for you right now.

In a bit, I’m going to tell you about the handy-dandy Wash Worksheet I’ve made for you to help you through this post… if you can’t wait to see it, click here to get it now. It will not only help organize everything in your mind, but it will give you a handy cheat-sheet to keep by the washer.

Step One: How Big is Your Load of Dirty Diapers on Wash Day?

Though wash routines you get from cloth diaper Facebook groups don’t seem to think so, washing three pocket diapers, and washing 30 fitted diapers are two completely different things.

That’s why the first step to creating your wash plan is figuring out how many diapers you’ll be washing on wash day.

Two things will affect this:

  1. How often you wash
  2. How many diapers baby goes through in an average day

If Baby is Here

If your baby is here and you’re using cloth diapers already, this will be pretty easy, just use your experience and add up how many you’ll have between washes. If you’re washing every two days, and baby is using about 6 diapers a day, you have about a dozen diapers at every laundry time, and you’ll already know what types you most often use, etc.

In this case, the hardest part will be nailing down how often you are wanting to wash. It’s a personal decision, but I urge you to be realistic and kind with yourself and give yourself lots of space if you have enough diapers for it.

At the same time, I recommend washing at least every 3-4 days to avoid bacteria and mildew growth that can potentially cause you some serious problems even with the best wash routine.

If Baby Isn’t Here

If your baby isn’t here, I have a nice, big and detailed article about how many diapers you can expect baby to use right here:

Use the information in that article to figure out how many you’ll have at laundry day, taking into account:

  1. How often you want to wash your diapers; be realistic
  2. How old baby will be when you start to use cloth
  3. How many diapers you can afford in your diaper budget

Once you know that, you’re ready to add them all up, so let’s do that now.

Now, How Heavy Is All That?

Once you know about how many diapers you’ll have to wash, there’s one more thing to do: figure out how much that will weigh when it’s all dirty.

I know, I know, sounds extreme, but your fancy 21st-century washing machine adds water according to the weight of the laundry load, and since diapers are washed soaking wet (either from waste or water used to rinse the waste off before wash day) they are HEAVY.

This is good, because it means your washer will add lots of water, which they need, but it also means measuring them by weight is extremely important when making sure we’re meeting our washer’s min. and max. capacity, and for calculating how much detergent you’ll need.

It’s OK, I Have Numbers For You!

Below, I have some average diaper weights that you can use to give you a rough estimate for this.

Disclaimer: These weights are just estimations for you to get a good idea of how much your load of diapers will weigh, along with some common household items just in case you’re washing your diapers with other laundry (you can read my post about washing diapers with other laundry here).  They are based off the helpful list of cloth diaper weights at, as well as information from The Spruce

Of course, every diaper will weigh a little more or less based on brand, age, etc. but this is to give you an average you can use to estimate things. One or two diapers either more or less won’t usually throw things off very much, but as you can see a handful of diapers more or less can change your load weight dramatically. 

ItemWeight (see note below)
o.5 lbs
Jeans1.6 lbs
Large bath (or beach) towel1.6 lbs
All-in-one’s (AIO)0.75 lbs
Prefolds, Flats & Flour Sack Towels (FST)*
*Covers won’t add much weight but it’s factored in as rounding up
0.6 lbs
Fitteds, Hybrid Fitteds & Overnight Fitteds*
*Covers won’t add much weight but it’s factored in as rounding up
1.4 lbs
Pockets & All-in-two’s (AI2)Use insert weights below based on the number of inserts, doublers, etc. you use per diaper and round up for the small weight of the pocket and AI2 covers. 
Inserts, Doublers & Boosters0.37 lbs

Note: Weights for clothing and other non-diaper laundry are dry weights, whereas weights for diapers are wet weights as, most of the time, that is how they will be when placed in the washing machine, and therefore how your HE machine will sense them to calculate the water needed for the load. 

So all you need to do here is add up all the weight from the diapers you expect to have dirty on wash day, and voila, a diaper laundry load weight.

Write All This Down!

You’ve done a lot of work so far, I don’t want to you to lose it, which is why I have a handy-dandy Wash Worksheet for you here:

The worksheet will help you keep all the information you’re gathering in one spot and organize it into something that makes more sense, AND it comes with a handy cheat-sheet wash routine you can use to keep your final wash plan right next to the washer, or with your diapers. This will help you never forget what to do when mom-brain kicks in. It also helps when Grandma or Aunt Betty come over and want to help with the laundry. Yikes!

Step Two: How Much Diaper Laundry Can Your Washing Machine Handle?

Washing machines come in all sizes, so a full or even partial load in one can be vastly different than another. 

Also, if there’s one thing I’ve learned while researching this topic, it’s that the labels “super capacity,” “large-capacity,” etc. mean absolutely nothing. 

Meaningful measurements for load sizes are done by weight. Your machine may or may not provide the weight allowance, but it will usually provide the cubic foot measurement of the drum, which can be converted to lbs of laundry. 

According to Samsung:

“-A small load of laundry is approximately 1 pound of laundry per cubic foot of the washer’s capacity or when the tub is 1/3 full.

-A medium load of laundry is approximately 2 pounds of laundry per cubic foot of the washer’s capacity or when the tub is 1/2 full.

-A large load of laundry is approximately 3 pounds of laundry per cubic foot of the washer’s capacity or when the tub is 3/4 full.

For instance, a washer with 4.0 cubic feet capacity would consider a 4-pound load small, an 8-pound load medium, and a 12 pound load large.”

Using these weights as a reference, we can see just how widely washer sizes can vary. Let’s take a look at these three examples:

Avalon Bay EcowashBosch High-Efficiency Compact Front-Loading WasherSamsung VRT Top Loader
A hand-crank, non-electric portable washer with a 5 lb capacity.An HE washer that has a 2.2 cubic feet capacity.A 4.5 cu. ft. capacity HE top-loader.
Five lbs of laundry would be an x-large load as that’s its maximum.
*Note it is of course not high efficiency.
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 AmazonClick here to see specifications on Best BuyClick here to see specifications on

To me, this table illustrates why it’s so important to know the size of your machine. 

While it might be a no-brainer that the small hand-crank washer needs less detergent for a full load, it may not be so clear to the owner of the Bosch and the owner of the Samsung that a “full load” of laundry would be very different for each of those machines. In fact, the Bosch holds less than half the amount of the Samsung in this comparison! 

It’s important to know the size of your machine so that you can create load sizes that optimize your diaper laundry and make sure that you’re not over-stuffing your maximum loads, or not putting enough diapers in for a minimum load.  

If you can, find out the max cubic feet size for your washer and record it on your wash worksheet, then use the calculation from Samsung above (written on the worksheet for you) to give you an approx. max. weight. 

If you can’t find the cubic foot size for your washer, you can measure it using this guide from Hunker.

If you’re using a small washer that just has the max. load weight in lbs, like the little hand-crank washer above, you’re ahead of the game. Write that down on the worksheet in the”large load” space and divide it by 2 and 3 to get your medium and small load sizes (or not, it’s unlikely you’ll need them for a tiny washer unless washing one or two diapers at a time).

Why Do You Need to Know This?

So it’s likely you’re thinking why on earth you need to know how much laundry your washer considers to be a small, medium, or large load. So I’m going to tell you both reasons right now:

  1. If you have a non-HE (High Efficiency) Washer, you’ll need to know how large the load of diapers your washing is and compare that to your washer load sizes so that you can choose the right size wash cycle.

    So for example, if you have a 3 Cu. ft washer and you’re washing 6 lbs of laundry, you’ll know that’s what your washer considers a medium load, and you can turn the load size dial to medium. If you’re washing 9 lbs in that same washer, you’ll need to turn it to large.
  2. Whether or not you have an HE washer, or a traditional machine, you want to ensure you’re meeting your washer’s minimum wash load, and not exceeding it’s maximum load.

    For example, in our 3 cu. ft. washer from above, if we only have 1 lb of diapers to wash (likely just one or two diapers) we will know that it’s not enough. Not putting enough diapers in the wash to meet your washer’s min. capacity can lead to detergent buildup because the ingredients in detergent (surfactants, specifically, but you don’t need to go that deep into the science) don’t have enough dirt to hold onto so they grip onto the surface of your diaper and stay there.

    Similarly, if you have too many dirty diapers in your washer, say 10 lbs of diapers in that 3 cu. ft washer (which would have a max. capacity of 9 lbs) your washer won’t be able to add enough water to wash everything away. Dirt and detergent will be left on your diapers.

What your washer size won’t impact (directly) is how much detergent you’re putting into your load of diapers. That is separate and based on how much dirty diapers you have to wash (i.e. step one). We’re going to figure that out now, so let’s keep going, you’re on a roll and the hardest parts are over!

Step Three: Choose a Cloth Diaper Detergent and Figure out How Much of it to Use

I know some cloth diaper Facebook groups and websites have insanely long lists of detergents that tell you if they’re good or bad, (or in the case of FLU even how much to use 😱🙅)

I have a full post outlining what to look for and what to avoid when picking a detergent for your cloth diapers right here:

You’ll notice it’s short. That’s because if you’re using the right amount, based on the actual science and measuring things, you don’t need a bunch of silly “rules” to try and explain away the wash problems you’re getting; but I digress.

If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to worry about ingredients even if it’s a short post, here’s the quick list of the best detergents to help you get going ASAP:

What Soaps/Detergents To Never Use with Cloth Diapers

Once again, I go into all the things to avoid when choosing a detergent in this article here, but there are some soaps that really need calling out as bad wherever possible as they are marketed toward cloth diapers despite being horrible for them and the culprit of many red and sore baby-bums. Here are 3 cloth diaper detergents to avoid at all costs:

“Safe” Detergents that Aren’t Really Good

Again, I don’t like to give lists, but there are some detergents that deserve naming as they are very popular in the CDfB community, and I want you to go in with your eyes open.

This detergent is fine, it’s perfectly suitable to use, BUT I do find that the instructions on the back of the bottle/box are confusing, the powder often doesn’t come with a scoop, and the ingredients are on the weak side making it sometimes challenging for folks with hard water. If you really want to use this detergent, go for it, just know you may need to spend some extra time working it out and adjusting your routine. Often the price is a draw for this one, but it usually requires more than other free & clear options.

I want to love this natural and lovely detergent, I really do, but I just can’t right now with it’s current formula. While it’s perfectly fine to use on cloth, it’s just not very strong. Like ALL Free and Clear, if you want to use it, go ahead, but know it will be more of a balancing act to get this one to work right, especially with hard water.

Do You Need to Use Powder Over Liquid (or Vice-Versa)?

No. Once again, you can ignore all the ridiculous rules in the cloth diaper Facebook groups about one type of detergent being better over another because of softeners, blah, blah, blah.

I hate that I have to bother with this at all, and will not give it much attention here, but suffice it to say, when you’re using a personalized wash routine like were going to create for you here, you don’t need to follow silly rules that make no sense anyway… a generic wash routine from a Facebook group based on nothing but a picture of your washer and detergent box will still give you problems with detergent buildup no matter if you follow their made-up, always-changing rules or not, ignore everything that has no sources behind it including this stilly “rule.”

Ok, So How Much Detergent Do You Need?

Ok, so once you’ve either picked a detergent from the list above or one that is free from all the things to avoid when choosing a detergent covered in this article here, it’s time to figure out how much to use.

This is separate from the washer size you calculated earlier. While your washer size will help you figure out how much laundry to wash in each load, the amount of soap you use completely depends on how much diaper laundry you have in that load.

To figure this out, you’re first going to look on the back of the bottle/box. With a few exceptions (I’m looking at you All Detergent) your detergent container will have three measurements on it. One for small loads, one for medium, and one for large. The wording they use may be all over the place, a small load can be called “regular” or “medium” even… don’t get hung-up on the wording, just notice there are three.

Record each of these on your worksheet, putting the smallest measurement in the small area, and so on.

Detergent makers don’t like to tell you how much laundry these measurements are good for, but they are all shooting for roughly the same load sizes. Here’s a couple of graphics by Tide (Canada) showing just how much laundry their three measurements cover:

You’ll see Tide considers an x-large load to be about 22 lbs! That’s insane, and it’s rare to find a washer with that capacity for the home.

I have been unable to find detergent information elsewhere for loads that large. Most sources site capacities for very large top-loading home washers as about 13-15 lbs.

Especially if you are using Tide, take note that their large load is supposed to clean way more than your machine can clean at one time! This is of course for regular laundry, and not heavily-soiled diapers, but still!

Step Four: Test Your Water to Tweak Your Amounts.

While the place to start figuring out how much detergent you will need is on the back of the bottle/box, it’s not the only factor in your final pour or scoop.

If you’ve been researching cloth diapers for a bit, you’ve probably heard a lot of talk about hard and soft water in the cloth diaper space before, and that’s for a good reason. Water hardness or softness is directly linked to how much detergent you need. 

Hard water is water that has high levels of calcium and magnesium minerals. Roughly 85 per cent of the United States has hard water. The more calcium and magnesium in your water, the harder it is. 

I won’t go too far down the rabbit-hole of why hard water matters in this post (you’ve read enough) but in a nutshell, it’s all about finding a balance so that everything can get rinsed away: soap, dirt, and minerals. If you have hard water, more soap is needed to wash the minerals away along with the dirt. If you have soft water, less soap is needed and more water can be used to make sure the soap is rinsed away.

If you really want to learn more about how hard water and soft water can cause problems with your diaper laundry, click here.

How Can You Find Out What Water You Have?

You can find out if you have hard water fairly easily. If you’re on a municipal water system, your city’s website or telephone service should have information about your water hardness/softness they can share with you. 

If your city isn’t easily accessible, or if you’re on a well system, testing for hard water is actually pretty quick and easy. Many spa and pool retailers will test your water for you for free or a very small fee. Or you just need to get yourself some water test strips. 

I found these ones on Amazon, which are very inexpensive, and are some of the easiest to read that I’ve found. 

We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.
07/23/2024 09:27 pm GMT

Test kits like this one are usually available at pool and spa retailers as well, though they may come in larger quantities, test for multiple things, and therefore cost more. Getting the most expensive test is not really needed for laundry purposes, you’re just looking for a result you can easily read that will give you a solid enough range to adjust your detergent level in the right direction.

To use them, you just dip them in the water and they change color according to how much mineral content hits them. By following the instructions on the package, you’ll get a good idea of what range your water falls into.  

You’ll see on your Wash Worksheet a bar under step two where you can record your test results. You can circle, or star, draw a dinosaur, or whatever your specific test kit puts your reading. In general, the center of the scale, or water that’s neither too soft or too hard, is usually about 125-180 ppm (parts per million).

As you’ll see on the sheet, if you have water that’s on the hard side, you’ll want to increase your detergent slightly, up to about 30% more. On the other side, if you have very soft water, you’ll want to decrease the amount , and the softer it is the less you’ll need. Again, I speak to the why of that in another post (you’ve read enough for now!). For very hard water at the left of center, you’re going to want to add up to 30% more detergent, and for soft water, you’re going to want to reduce it up to 30%. 

For water around the center (125-180 ppm) you’re going to leave things as it and use the recommended amount on the bottle for your load size.

Step Five: Putting it All Together

Ok, so now we have a lot of information on that worksheet. We have:

That was a lot of work, so pat yourself on the back! The hard work is done, now it’s time to take all that and make it into a wash plan!

On page 2 of your Wash Worksheet, you’ll see that the cycles you’re going to use depend a bit on your water hardness. Go back to your PPM number in Step 4 and choose the wash plan box that matches that ppm. It may be for soft/moderate water, hard water, or extremely hard water.

You’ll also notice it asks you to fill in the detergent amount. This is where you put everything you collected into use. Here’s how to do it:

That’s It

That’s it, you should have a perfectly balanced and unique wash routine for your diapers using your washer, your detergent, and your water. It’s all you!

How Do You Know if You Got it Right? 

Now that you know just how many factors affect how much detergent you need to use, you are likely thinking, “Whoa, what if I get something wrong? How do I know if I got it right?”

First off, it’s ok if you miscalculate, a little. 

I know we want everything to be perfect for our cloth diapering journey, but it’s also important not to think of this cloth diaper thing in absolutes. 

There may be times where the routine you land on doesn’t work and something happens, you get a dingy diaper, or worse, a stinky diaper. While it’s unlikely using this method that you’ll find yourself in a horribly bad situation, things can happen, but with your worksheet in hand, I’m also confident you’ll have a much better idea about what went wrong and be able to fix it with just a small adjustment. 

Encountering an issue after following a random recommendation online and not knowing what could have went wrong is very different than having an issue, looking at your sheet and being able to say, ‘Hmm, maybe I should be bumping up my detergent one line because maybe I went down too low for my water softness.’ 

Knowledge is power. 

What if This is All Too Much?

I get it. I’m asking you to consider a lot of things in this post, just for a simple wash routine you can count on. It’s a lot to add to a parent or guardian’s plate. It’s also a lot to jam into one post. 

If it’s too much for you, I have a Wash and Care Handbook that takes you through all of this information with much more explanation, and at a step-by-step pace. 

In that book, I also cover care information like drying, troubleshooting, stain-fighting, making diapers last longer, and much more.  If you’re needing more of a step-by-step approach, you’re totally not alone. After all, I wouldn’t have spent so much of my time making the handbook if I didn’t hear that people needed it! 

My goal with the book was to take the mystery, fear, and ridiculous rules out of cloth diaper washing. If you’re looking for more information about the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Wash & Care Handbook, you can learn more by clicking the link button below:

Either way, I hope all of this helps you in your cloth diaper journey!