How to wash cloth diapers


Cloth Diaper Care is Simple! Don’t be intimidated! Washing cloth diapers shouldn’t be scary: they are just very dirty laundry! They can be washed at home. Once you find your rhythm it’s not hard. TCO and its volunteers are here to help- whether you are a TCO package recipient or not. We really just want everyone who wants to, to be able to use cloth successfully.


Cloth diaper wash routines require only a few steps!


  • Store soiled diapers in a dry pail or a wetbag until wash day. Don’t soak diapers in a wet pail while waiting to wash-- this is hard on them and can breed bacteria.

  • Dispose of solid waste into the toilet (skip this step if exclusively breastfeeding). Read our blog post about preferred poop-removing methods here.

  • Run a shorter cycle with a small amount of your detergent to remove the heaviest soil.

  • Select your washer’s longest heavy duty cycle with the full recommended amount of detergent for heavily soiled laundry. No extra rinses are needed!

  • Finally, dry your diapers using your preferred method - you can choose to hang dry, but using the dryer is also fine!


Don’t have a washer? We can help you hand wash! Worried about detergent? Most mainstream detergents are great for cloth, so no need to buy a special, expensive detergent. Just be sure to avoid fabric softeners!


You can use any diaper cream with cloth diapers! If you choose a cream that is petroleum based (if it has petroleum, petrolatum, or mineral oil in its ingredients), avoid repelling issues by using a liner with synthetic fiber diapers. With natural fiber diapers, you can use any diaper cream - just wash on hot if you choose one that is petroleum based.


All diaper items (pocket shells, covers, prefolds, inserts, etc) need the same “wash routine” and can be washed together. You should unstuff pockets by removing the inserts before washing. The only items that need to be hand-washed separately with different care are wool and silk items. Read our page on wool care here.

Read on for more detailed washing instructions!

Choose a detergent

Choosing a detergent that will get your cloth diapers fully clean every time is one of the best ways to set yourself up for success! Most mainstream laundry detergents are fine for cloth diapers as long as you follow a few simple guidelines. You should avoid fabric softeners and any ingredients that act like fabric softener. Fragrance is fine in a detergent, although some families may choose to avoid it. It’s likely that your current laundry detergent is fine for cloth!

We do not recommend expensive boutique detergents marketed for cloth diapers - we want cloth diapering to be accessible and inexpensive! You should also avoid any soap-based laundry liquid or powder unless you wash with a washboard. If you have a high efficiency (HE) machine, make sure that your detergent is truly HE safe. True low-sudsing HE safe formulas will never suggest that you use less detergent in a HE machine.

Here are some common detergents that are great for cloth diapers:

Common scented/mainstream detergents:

  • Tide Original liquid, Tide Original powder, Tide Plus Bleach Alternative

  • Arm & Hammer Plus Oxi

  • Purex Dirt Lift and Purex with Clorox

  • Gain Liquid (all scents)

  • Dreft (all phases)

  • Persil

  • Kirkland Ultraclean Liquid

  • Foca, Roma, Blanca Nieves powders (not safe for HE machines)

Common Free and Clear/Sensitive Detergents (increase the main wash detergent amount. You may need double or 1.5 times the amount recommended by the detergent packaging).

  • Tide Free & Gentle

  • ALL Free & Clear (powder only)

  • Arm & Hammer Sensitive

  • Persil Sensitive

  • Kirkland Ultraclean Free & Clear

  • Country Save powder (not safe for HE machines)

Common Plant-Based/Natural Detergents (increase the main wash detergent amount. You may need double or 1.5 times the amount recommended by the detergent packaging. Use hot water for your main wash).

  • Seventh Generation Power Plus

  • Method

  • Sun

  • Planet 2x Ultra Liquid

  • Biokleen liquid and powder (not safe for HE machines)

  • Boulder liquid (not safe for HE machines)

This list does not include every option, but we hope it will help you choose something that will work. Be sure to avoid any detergent that says it contains fabric softener, and any laundry liquid or powder that is primarily soap-based. Specific detergents to avoid: the Tide “Simply” line of detergents, any detergent marketed as a “cold water” formula, and ALL brand liquid detergent.

Check out the Detergent Index from our friends at Fluff Love for more detailed detergent information.

Know your water hardness

All water contains some amount of minerals. When we talk about “hard water” we are generally talking about the amount of calcium and magnesium the water contains. These minerals can build up in your plumbing, appliances, and in absorbent fabrics such as cloth diapers. The amount of hardness in your water is measured in total hardness or general hardness, and depends on your water source and water treatment. Some homes in hard water areas have a water softening appliance installed, and some areas have naturally very soft water. We recommend testing your water to know the water hardness and avoid future issues. You may be able to get average hardness information from your water supplier, but keep in mind that it’s just an average. Your exact hardness could be more or less. For this reason, we include water hardness test strips in our TCO cloth diaper care packages (if you are a TCO recipient and did not receive a water hardness test, please email info@theclothoption.org and we will put one in the mail to you). Test both your hot and cold water (sometimes there’s variation between the two due to your hot water heater or a water softener not being connected to both temperatures). If you are not a TCO cloth diaper care package recipient, we suggest these affordable test strips found on Amazon.

Some of the issues caused by untreated hard water include rashes, repelling (diapers not absorbing liquids), and bad smells. These are all issues due to diapers not getting clean, and minerals trapping bacteria in the absorbent parts of your diapers. If you wash in untreated hard water for a long time, you may end up with these issues and need to strip and sanitize the diapers. That’s a lot of work that we hope to help you avoid!

Once you test your water, you may need to add a water softener based on the result. The most commonly used water softeners in the United States are Borax and Calgon. Soft water does not typically need additional softener - detergent alone is enough! Moderate water may need water softener in the main wash, especially if you use a plant-based or free and clear detergent. At a certain point, you will need water softener in both cycles. Once you have done your water hardness test, reach out to your TCO volunteer or contact us via email or our Facebook page. We are glad to help you figure out how much softener you should add.

Washing your cloth diapers

All cloth diaper wash routines have two basic steps: a shorter “prewash” cycle to get the surface soil off the diapers, and a “main wash” that gets everything fully clean. The exact cycles you should use will depend on your specific machine, but reading this will give you an idea of what cycles to choose. Reach out to a TCO volunteer or message our Facebook page if you need more detailed help.

First, what kind of washer do you have?

Washing in a standard washer (non-HE)

Many cloth diaper users love standard machines for their quicker wash times. Standard machines allow the user to select load size. They are top load machines, and usually have either a spiral or paddle style agitator column in the drum.

Prewash (first cycle, diapers only): Unless your child is exclusively breastfed, remove all poop into the toilet before washing. Run the diapers through your shortest complete cycle with a smaller amount of detergent (usually half the recommended amount), to remove the bulk of the soil and make sure that your main wash is with clean water. Allow the cycle to complete without interruption, and run through its final rinse and spin. If you can increase soil and spin levels on your washer, turn them to the highest setting. No extra rinses are needed. Do not use: “prewash” cycle, rinse and spin cycle, deep water or bulky wash cycles.

Main wash (second cycle): You may need to add other laundry to fill this cycle and get “stew” consistency with the recommended load size. “Stew consistency” is when the diapers are moving and rubbing together in the drum. The friction helps with proper agitation. Add your full amount of detergent. If you can increase soil and spin levels on your washer, turn them to the highest setting. Extra rinses are not necessary (and could cause issues). Detergent is designed to rinse clean with proper agitation!

Load size: For optimal agitation and cleaning, use a medium load size or larger if your washer has a spiral agitator. If your washer has a paddle agitator or an impeller plate, use a medium load size or smaller.

Washing in a high-efficiency washer (HE)

Many cloth users love high-efficiency washers for the water savings! High-efficiency washers are designed to clean with less water. The trade off for that is longer wash times. Be sure to use a HE-safe (lower sudsing) detergent. These detergents are designed to rinse out with less water in the machine. Detergents that tell you to use less in HE machines are not truly lower-sudsing.

Prewash (first cycle, diapers only): Unless your child is exclusively breastfed, remove all poop into the toilet before washing. Run the diapers through your “quick wash” or “normal/colors” cycle, with a smaller amount of detergent (usually half the recommended amount), to remove the bulk of the soil and make sure that your main wash is with clean water. Always use the “normal” cycle if your prewash is half or more full with diapers. Allow the cycle to complete without interruption, and run through its final rinse and spin. If you can increase soil and spin levels on your washer, turn them to the highest setting. No extra rinses are needed. Do not use: rinse and spin cycle, deep water or bulky wash cycles.

Main wash (second cycle): You may need to add other laundry to fill the drum this cycle. Do not check for stew consistency - that does not apply to HE machines since they are designed to clean with less water. Use your longest heavy duty, whites, or power wash cycle. If you have a “soak” or “stain clean” button, turn it on as long as it does not add extra rinses, since this setting will add more agitation. If you can increase soil and spin levels on your washer, turn them to the highest setting. Add your full amount of detergent. Extra rinses are not necessary (and could cause issues).

Do not add more water to the drum of your HE machine. This could void the warranty, damage the washer, and will not help it clean better. Your machine relies on the laundry rubbing together to get proper agitation. Detergent is designed to rinse clean with proper agitation.

Load size: For optimal agitation and cleaning, fill your front loader ⅔-¾ full of laundry before starting the cycle. It will be this full when the laundry is peeled off the drum and fluffed up. Don’t analyze how full the drum is once it starts going. If you have a HE top loader, most of them do best at half full of laundry. If you would like more specific help based on your washer, reach out to TCO volunteers via email or message our Facebook page!

How to dry your cloth diapers

Once you have completed your prewash and main wash, dry your diapers using your preferred laundry drying method. Using your dryer on any setting that you normally use for regular laundry is fine - a properly functioning dryer will not damage your diapers. If you choose to use the dryer, be sure to allow the diapers to cool completely before removing them, to avoid stressing the elastics.

You may prefer to hang your diapers to dry (drying in the sun can also be great for stains). Keep in mind that certain fibers such as cotton and hemp may not feel as soft when air dried. You can soften them by shaking them out, hitting them against something, or fluffing them in the dryer for a few minutes.

If you do hang dry items with elastics, try to hang them so that the elastic isn’t stretched. You can dry shells and AIO “hotdog style” to achieve this.

A note about “hybrid” machines

Some washers don’t exactly follow either HE or standard rules. These may be a HE top loader with an agitator, or a top loader with an (impeller) plate agitator that allows you to adjust load size. If your washer allows you to set load size but does not have a tall agitator, treat it like a standard with a paddle agitator (medium load size or smaller). If you have a HE top loader with an agitator, treat it like a regular HE top load. Most hybrid machines need HE detergent. Check your owner’s manual if you’re not sure.

What about stains?

Cloth diapers are heavily soiled “poop catchers.” Some amount of staining should be expected, and does not mean that they are not clean (if they smell bad when they are supposed to be clean, they are not clean!). Many stains will disappear if you “sun” the diapers - dry them in the sun. You can also use any laundry stain treatment according to the package instructions.

If you are a TCO recipient, don’t stress about stains. We will sanitize and stain treat the diapers when they are returned.

Other situations

Not everyone has a washing machine in your home. If this is your situation, there are many options! You can follow these washing steps at a laundromat if that’s how you normally wash your laundry. You can also hand wash your cloth diapers using a “camp washer” - bucket and plunger! Check out our blog post from a handwashing TCO volunteer!

Other useful blog posts:

  • Nighttime cloth diapering

  • Cloth diapering a newborn

  • Removing non-EBF poop before washing

  • Different cloth diaper styles


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