What’s the Best Cloth Diaper Detergent?

It seems like every year or two someone is coming up with a new rule about what detergent you can or can’t use on your cloth diapers. In the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing a lot about how you can’t use free-and-clear detergents, though no one seems to say why. Back when I first started researching diapering (around the start of 2015) the big thing was that you had to use a soap specifically made for cloth diapers, everything else would make them fall to shreds. Those soaps caused a ton of problems, and now everyone agrees that at least one of them actually causes rashes outright (except of course the manufacturer who still pushes it).

Ugh! So then, what’s the best cloth diaper detergent? Based on my years of experience, research into ingredients, and helping other cloth diaper moms work out their issues with washing, I can confidently tell you that any commercial detergent will work, there are just three rules to follow: No detergents with added softeners, no soaps/soap nuts, and no regular detergent if you have an HE machine.

Let’s dive into each one of those so you understand why.

Added Fabric Softeners and Cloth Diaper Absorbency

Fabric softeners and dryer sheets are a sure way to create problems with your cloth diapers. Fabric softeners added to detergents are no exception.

The problem is the coating that fabric softeners leave behind on fabrics.

As Clorox explains on their website, ” The [fabric] softener active deposits on the fabric leaving a slightly greasy material that provides a better ‘feel’ after drying. Unfortunately, not all the softener is removed in the next wash. This is why the towels sometimes don’t seem as absorbent over time, as the fibers are coated with the active [deposits] and can’t pick up as much water. Worse, this leftover residue can attract and hold dirt and body oils which the detergent can’t remove.”

Though it’s not our main concern here, it’s worth noting that using fabric softener on anything baby related can also be dangerous. According to Consumer Reports, “Past tests have shown that even the best fabric softeners can build up over time, especially on fleece and flannel, which can reduce the flame resistance. Most products warn against use on flame-resistant clothes or kids’ sleepwear.”

How to Tell if a Detergent has Softener in It

Finding out if detergent has softener in it isn’t usually as hard as it seems.

Most detergents with added softeners like to advertise the heck out of them and will have, “With the added softness of Downey,” or something similar written on the bottle. The only exception to this would be some detergents marketed to babies. Some baby-marketed detergents will have softeners added and not mention a brand of fabric softener or anything. Most of the time, these detergents will have “softness”  or “soft to baby’s touch” as part of the sales copy on the front of the bottle.

In short, if a detergent is selling you on how soft it will make your clothes, it likely has softeners in it. Put that bottle down and pick up the one next to it that’s talking about its superior cleaning power or its no-additives or fragrances. 

Laundry Soaps, Soap Nuts, and Other Alternatives

Homemade laundry soap, soap nuts, “all-natural soap,” or “cloth diaper soap” are all hard-no’s when it comes to cloth diapers.

I know, I know, we love getting back to basics and saving money at the same time, the problem is they don’t work, period. 

Soap is largely made of ingredients like washing soda, borax (which both act as water softeners), and bar soap ingredients that include plant oils and animal fats. What it’s not made with is surfactants.

Surfactants and soap ingredients act very differently in water. You can read more about it all here, but in short, soap creates a film when mixed with dirt, and that film is left on clothes if not rinsed completely clear, which you need a lot of water to do. Most modern washing machines do not use a lot of water, that’s their selling point.

In hard water, soaps also form a scum that deposits on everything. 

Surfacants on the other hand do two things that soap doesn’t: 

  1. They reduce the surface tension of the water, letting it spread evenly over the clothing. This lets the water work over the whole surface of the fabric and makes dirt and soil easier to remove. 
  2. Surfactant molecules can also have either a positive or negative charge, with one end attracted to water and the other end attracted to dirt and grease. This lets detergents attach to dirt, and break it up to let the water wash it away.

    As I’ve written about before
    , a buildup of any kind on diapers is bad news, and soap scum/ film is the quickest way to bacteria, smells, and rashes.

Since the majority laundry products labeled “soap” don’t have surfactants, and most actually leave a greasy film on fabric, use real detergents on your diapers, always. 

HE Detergent vs. Regular Detergent and Suds

The difference between HE detergent and regular detergent goes beyond the amount you need to use. HE detergent is formulated to create less suds. As Tide explains on their website, too many suds in your machine can not only reduce your machine’s ability to wash detergent out of your laundry but can actually harm your washing machine itself, compounding the problem. 

Here’s a fancy video from the folks at Clean My Space where the difference between regular and HE detergent is all explained by a perky lady and a few mason jars.


Disclaimer: this video does start to feel like a commercial for Tide HE Turbo detergent, but I think the value of seeing the suds experiment outweighs the mini-pitch at the end. I’ll drop a link to Tide HE Turbo detergent below it just in case you’re sold and want to learn more though.  

If you click this link and make a purchase, I earn a commission at no additional cost to you.


The Bigger Problem: Buildup

As you may have noticed from reading all three of these cloth diaper detergent no-no’s the common denominator between them is buildup. Anything that leaves a residue on your diapers is going to become a problem when it begins to trap the bacteria deposited on it through your baby’s waste.

If you’ve used any of the products listed above on your diapers for any length of time, and you’re experiencing smells, or worse, rashes, you’ll need to remove the buildup as soon as possible, which means you’ll need to strip your diapers.

You can find more about when and how to strip your cloth diapers in this article.


Need More Help?
If cloth diaper information is becoming overwhelming, or if you’re having trouble with your cloth diapers that you can’t seem to work out, I am now offering Cloth Diaper Consultations. Click here for more information.

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