How to Hand Wash Cloth Diapers [Step-by-Step]

By April Duffy •  Updated: 05/24/24 •  8 min read

Whether it’s because of a natural disaster cutting the power, a broken washer, or just lack of regular access to a washing machine, many parents wonder if they can handwash their cloth diapers either for a short time, or long-term.

So, can you hand wash cloth diapers? Yes, you absolutely can! Whether it be using a bathtub and your hands; the bucket and plunger method; or a dedicated washbasin and washing board like your great-grandmother did, handwashing cloth diapers is a perfectly good option.

How to Wash Cloth Diapers Without a Washing Machine: Three Methods

While handwashing for most of us is reserved for delicate items, your cloth diapers can’t be gently swooshed around and expected to get clean. As I’ve said many times, cloth diapers are the most dirty things you’ll ever wash.

Cloth diapers are made of many layers of fabric, partially wrapped in water-resistant PUL, and soaked in human waste — in order to successfully hand wash your cloth diapers clean, you’re going to need to use some muscle. How much muscle will depend on the method you choose to use. Here are three ways to handwash cloth diapers from the least amount of elbow grease needed to the most.

1. Laundry POD or DIY Bucket and Plunger Method

If you choose to handwash, the easiest method, by far, is to use a hand washing aid like a Laundry POD (Amazon Link) or a DIY bucket and plunger set up (info below). These “washers” still run on your arm muscles, but they will get your cloth diapers cleaner, with less dirty-diaper contact, and in much less time.

Unfortunatley, they do require a bit of investment, or some power tools to get going, so you’ll want to weigh the cost against how long you will be hand washing. If you expect to only hand wash for a few days, this method is likely not for you, but if you plan on handwashing a few weeks a year on holiday, or for your full cloth diapering journey, they are WELL worth it just in time savings alone.

How to DIY a Bucket and Plunger Washer

To make a bucket and plunger washer you’ll need:

Here’s a quick tutorial on how to make the DIY bucket and plunger washer:

2. Washbasin and Washing Board Method

If a DIY project is just not in the cards and a Laundry POD is not in the budget, the next best thing is a Washbasin and Washing Board combo.

You can actually purchase a one-piece washboard and basin on Amazon (link here) but I find these best for doing one diaper at a time. If you want to wash several diapers at a time, a separate washbasin, even a small one you find at the dollarstore will allow you to wash more at a time with a separate washboard.

To speed up the process, you can use more than one washbasin at the same time — one for the wash water, and one for the rinse water.

As for what washboard to get, there are many options, from the old-school wood and metal kind your grandma had to VERY inexpensive plastic ones like this one (Amazon links).

Using some dollarstore washbins and an inexpensive plastic washboard can keep your cost low but speed up the time it takes to wash your diapers dramatically over the next and last method.

3. Bathtub/Sink/Container Hand Washing Method

When all else fails, throw your diapers into the bathtub, sink, or other container you have at the ready, and get scrubbing.

Though it may take more time and elbow grease, you can easily wash your diapers with just your hands by squeezing, rubbing and scrubbing them together.

You can of course combine things to make it easier by using say a washing wand in the bathtub, or w washboard in the sink. Do whatever works for you, using whatever you have available, even if it’s just your two hands and a bathtub.

How to Hand Wash Cloth Diapers

Once you know what method you’re doing, it’s time to make a wash routine. Make no mistake, you still want to do all the things you would do if you were using a washer, like measure your water hardness (1 tablespoon of Tide in a 5-gallon bucket will murder your arms if you have 0 PPM water). You may even want to measure things out to create a Measure Method Cloth Diaper Wash Routine.

With that said, handwashing is much more forgiving than washing diaper in a modern, HE washing machine simply because YOU control how much water and agitation is happening. If you’ve used too much detergent it’s easily corrected because you will clearly see the suds and be able to rinse your diapers until all the suds are gone. You can even ignore the HE rule when choosing a cloth diaper detergent (though you should still avoid soap nuts and DIY detergents).

As for how much detergent to use, the same rules about weight that the Measure Method Routine uses can be used to help you here so that you’re not using too much and wearing out your arms trying to rinse it.

Depending on how many diapers you’re washing — this be a lot if using a bathtub, or about six if using a 5-gallon pail — balance that against what your detergent recommends and try to match the weight of your diapers to the amount of detergent.

Remember the measurements on the back of your detergent bottle are typically for 6lb loads of laundry for “small” loads, 11lbs of laundry for “medium” loads, and 21lbs of laundry for “large” or “heavy-duty” loads of laundry.

Of course, to make it confusing, what these load sizes are called changes from brand to brand. If there are only two measurements on the back of your particular box/bottle, assume they are for medium and large loads and go from there.

Tide for example is line 1 for small loads, line 3 for medium loads, and line 5 for large loads, even though the labels on the bottle are slightly different.

Unless you’re using a big bathtub, you’ll likely be starting by figuring out what the measurement is for the small load (line 1 for Tide), and then decreasing it from there by how much smaller your hand washing load is. You can figure out how much your diaper load weighs by either weighing it (wet weights) or working out the total weight using the chart in the how-to wash diapers for beginners post.

Again, hand washing routines are MUCH more forgiving than washer routines, so don’t spend too much time working on the math. Use this info as reference points and adjust as you go. If you add a tablespoon of detergent into your pail and you find it takes you 10 rinses to get all the suds out, reduce your detergent next time.

A Basic Hand Wash Diaper Laundry Routine

Here’s a starting point for what your hand washing routine should look like:

  1. Rinse you diapers thoroughly, squeezing out the excess water
  2. Add your detergent and agitate and scrub your diapers until they look clean and you feel confident you moved the soil in the inner layers. To do this agitate them with a rubber plunger or a washing wand Or scrub with your hands against a washing board or each other. The more you scrub, the cleaner they will be. If you find you’re having a hard time getting the soil off, and don’t see many suds, consider adding a touch more detergent and continue scrubbing.
  3. Drain the wash water, and squeeze out the diapers
  4. Agitate the diapers in clean water to rinse them, then drain and squeeze the water out
  5. Once again, agitate the diapers in clean water to rinse them, then drain and squeeze the water out. The water should be clear on this second rinse, but if not repeat until the water is clear and consider reducing your deterent next time.
  6. Hang to dry

Tips to Make Handwashing Cloth Diapers Easier

No matter what method you’re using, here are a few general tips to make handwashing your diapers 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.