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How to Wash Cloth Diapers in Hard Well Water

Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.


Cleaning Cloth Diapers

There's been a resurgence in cloth diapering in the 21st century. We're choosing cloth diapers over disposables for several reasons, including reducing personal expense and being more environmentally sustainable.

My kid's grandmothers think I'm a bit nuts for not using "paper diapers", and while I get where they're coming from with concerns about making extra work for myself, it's important to me to reduce the amount of trash my household generates.

As a parent who uses cloth diapers for my baby, I know how important it is that the diapers come out of the laundry clean. I can't have them smelling like, well, baby pee and poop. And I don't want the fabric stained if I can avoid it. However, I live in the country and have well water, which is very full of minerals - which is referred to as "hard water". Mine is like, off-the-test-strip hard. This means that soap and detergent don't work as well in my water to clean anything, including soiled cloth diapers.

To deal with the water hardness and still get my diapers clean, I do a few things differently than someone with naturally soft or treated water needs to do.

If you use cloth diapers and also have hard water or untreated well water, these tips will help you get your diapers truly clean and avoid soap or detergent build-up!

Why Hard Water Is an Issue

The reason hard water makes doing laundry difficult is because the particles that make water hard, usually magnesium, calcium, and possibly iron, bind with the detergent or soap molecules. When this happens, the detergent or soap isn't cleaning the things it's supposed to be cleaning, and it also creates build-up or soap scum. Hard water makes cleaning products less effective.

Having iron in your hard water is another problem because it oxidizes when exposed to chlorine bleach, which can then make things you tried to wash look dingy, dirty, or even slightly rust-colored.

How do you know if you have hard water?

You can purchase inexpensive water test kits for home use that will tell you your water hardness level.

Other clues that your water is hard are having stains on your glassware after washing, your whites turning dingy in the laundry, your clothing coming out of the laundry stiff and rough, and yellowish or orange stains in your sinks, toilet, tub, and shower.

Hard water makes cleaning products, like soap and detergent, less effective.

Line drying diapers in the sun also helps with stain removal.

Line drying diapers in the sun also helps with stain removal.

How to Wash Different Types of Diaper Fabrics

Before we talk about cleaning diapers in hard water, we should hit on the topic of some of the different types of fabrics and fiber that today's cloth diapers are made from.

There are both natural and synthetic fiber cloth diapers and diaper inserts (the absorbent pads that actually soak up all the liquid in the diaper) available on the market. With all the different types of material that cloth diapers and inserts are made from, there are also things to consider when it comes to washing them.

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Microfiber: Microfiber inserts are super absorbent and lots of people prefer them for diapering where they won't be directly against baby's skin. However, microfiber shouldn't be washed with cotton because it can compromise the absorbency.

Hemp: A durable fabric, hemp needs to be washed and dried a couple times before use to build its absorbency.

Bamboo: We love this fabric for diapers because it's so absorbent, but it shouldn't be bleached (nothing should be bleached in hard water, but we'll talk about that later).

Untreated/unbleached cotton: Natural cotton shouldn't be washed with detergents containing dyes or fabric softeners because they can remain in the fibers, and drying with heat can shrink the fabric considerably.

How to Soften Hard Water for Washing Diapers

You will need to add something to your washing machine to remove some of the hardness from your water. This works by binding to the magnesium and calcium so they can't interfere with your detergent.

Borax: Sodium borate is a naturally occurring salt (not the edible kind) that is alkaline.

Washing soda: Sodium carbonate is even more alkaline than Borax and is also an effective detergent booster.

Salt treatment: Though not ideal due to poor dissolution, you could add regular salt directly to your washer load. A more expensive solution is to install a home water treatment system that uses salt to soften water.

Oxiclean: This product is sold as a detergent booster/additive, and its main active ingredients are actually washing soda and baking soda. I like the "baby" version of Oxiclean because it claims to be a little gentler, so I can also use it with baby's clothing. It softens water and helps lift stains.

Borax and Oxiclean are my go-to products for softening my hard water and cleaning my cloth diapers.

Borax and Oxiclean are my go-to products for softening my hard water and cleaning my cloth diapers.

Rules for Doing Diaper Laundry in Hard Water

  • Do soften your wash water, which means adding something to reduce hardness
  • Do use "oxygen bleach" products, such as Oxiclean, for stains
  • Do wash with a mild detergent, which actually performs better in hard water than soap does
  • Do use multiple wash cycles
  • Do not use laundry soap (not even the homemade kind that I personally love - it will build up residue on your diapers and compromise absorbency)
  • Do not use the extra or "deep" rinse setting on your washer (because that water won't be softened)
  • Do not use chlorine bleach in hard water, or on cloth diapers in general as it is not generally recommended by manufacturers

Steps to Washing Cloth Diapers

This is my process for washing my cloth diapers in my hard well water. These steps work great for me, and I use a combination of bamboo, microfiber, and unbleached cotton inserts for my pocket diapers. I also use cotton prefold diapers and covers, which I also wash this way. Using this method, I've avoided major stains with my breastfed baby, and haven't had issues with lingering ammonia smell or loss of fabric absorbency due to detergent residue.

  1. Speed wash or prewash cycle (whichever your machine has) in cold water with your choice of water softener. I use Borax*. This rinses away the majority of the urine and poo.
  2. "Heavy" cycle with warm water, Borax, Oxiclean, and basic detergent (free of dyes and fabric softeners). This is the actual washing and stain-removing step.
  3. Final speed wash or rinse cycle in cold water with water softener, again. This final step ensures the diapers are really rinsed clean. If you have lingering stains, add more Oxiclean to this step. It's important to still use a water softener in this final step so that you don't deposit hard water sediment on your diapers.

*If your baby is eating solids, your first step will be to remove the poo from your diapers in whatever way you see fit.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rachel Koski Nielsen

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