What’s the Best Cloth Diaper Detergent? (Guidelines & Recommendations!)

By April Duffy •  Updated: 07/14/24 •  10 min read

It seems like every year or two someone on the internet 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.

An example is Purex Baby Soft (you can take a look at it here on Amazon.com if you’re wondering which one I’m talking about.) Though it doesn’t explicitly say it has softeners in it, but does market itself as “baby soft.” Sure enough, Disodium Diaminostilbene Disulfonate is an ingredient, which is a fabric softener. This means Purex Baby Soft is not a good detergent for cloth diapers (though many other Purex detergents are just fine).

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. 

Surfactants 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 fewer 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.

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.

Too Much or Too Little Detergent Can Also Cause Buildup

Another way that detergent can cause buildup, even if you’re using a good kind, is by using the wrong amount.

Using too much detergent can keep it from being able to be rinsed away, letting it build up on your diapers over time. Too little detergent can lead to mineral buildup if you have hard water, or soil buildup if you don’t.

To help you calculate how much detergent to use, no matter which one you choose, I have a full cloth diaper washing 101 tutorial here for you. There you’ll learn the Measure Method for washing cloth diapers step-by-step and find a wash worksheet to help you along the way.

What are the Best Cloth Diaper Detergents?

It’s one of the things that drive me bonkers; 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, YIKES!).

These lists are often created by folks that mean well, but aren’t really taking the time to research every ingredient in every detergent. And I know that because they can’t! It’s literally impossible!

Every detergent maker comes up with their own compounds and doesn’t explain what they are very well, if at all. Often you can’t even find the ingredients on the bottle and have to go searching online for a still-vague list. This list is often different by country, and changes each time there’s a “new improved formula”. Even if you can find that list, you then have to search each ingredient because it has some unique variation in it’s name… and none of those groups are doing any of that work.

But as much as I HATE these lists, I do have a couple of brands/specific detergents that I am in constant contact with and have researched to the 10th degree that I can either recommend or tell you to stay away from.

Here are the detergents I CAN safely recommend as the best for some specific needs:

Best Cleaning Power for Diapers
Tide Laundry Detergent Liquid, Original Scent (HE Compatible)

Tide original is the gold standard for cloth diapers. It's the detergent you can trust to consistently get diapers clean no matter what your water conditions or needs. The scent is strong (too strong for many, like myself), but so is the power!

We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.
07/23/2024 07:42 pm GMT
Best Plant-Based Clean for Diapers
Tide Purclean Plant-Based Laundry Detergent, Honey Lavender Scent

Tide PurClean is plant-based and free of optical brighteners and other additives, but still powerful like Tide to get diapers clean. It does tend to sud heavily in soft water, so do make sure you're adjusting amounts down as needed (as per your CDfB personalized routine).

We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.
07/23/2024 08:47 pm GMT
Best Free & Clear Detergent for Diapers
Seventh Generation Concentrated Laundry Detergent, Free & Clear Unscented, (Pack of 2)

Seventh Generation is great for those that are very conscious about what's in their detergent. Their free & clear detergent is not only free of fragrances, dyes, and artificial brighteners, but it's also still very strong and suitable for folks with even hard water. A great option for those with sensitivities.

We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.
07/23/2024 07:47 pm GMT

UPDATE March 4, 2023: Up until today I recommended ARM & HAMMER Sensitive Skin Free and Clear Detergent as our pick for Best Value Detergent for Diapers. I can no longer recommend this detergent as it has recently been banned for containing 1,4-Dioxane and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified 1,4-Dioxane as a probable human carcinogen. More information can be found here.

What Detergents To NEVER Buy for your Diapers

Once again, I hate lists, but there are some soaps that really need calling out as bad wherever possible as they are marketed toward cloth diapers despite being the worst for diapers and the culprit of many red and sore baby bums:

Are there any”Safe” Detergents that Aren’t Really Good?

Again, I don’t like to give lists, but there are some detergents that are very prevalent in the CDfB community, and known to have some issues. I want you going in with your eyes open and so if you’re going to choose one of these you should be aware of their failings:

Unlike some of the other diaper groups, I won’t go so far as to say this one isn’t cloth safe for some half-researched reason. This detergent is fine and perfectly safe 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 really want to love this detergent, I really do, but I just can’t love 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, do so, but know it will be more of a balancing act to get this one to work well, especially with hard water.

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.