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How To Clean Cloth Diapers: A Beginner's Guide From Someone Who's Been There

Anita Vandyke, MD
Doctor & zero-waste advocate
By Anita Vandyke, MD
Doctor & zero-waste advocate
Anita Vandyke is a qualified rocket scientist, medical doctor, and, most importantly, mother to Vivian. She was born in Guangzhou, China, raised in Australia, and currently splits her time between Sydney and San Francisco. She has a Bachelor of Engineering in Aeronautical Space and received her Doctor of Medicine from The University of Notre Dame Sydney. She is the author of A Zero Waste: In Thirty Days and A Zero Waste Family: In Thirty Days.
Image by Bo Bo / Stocksy
December 27, 2020

My baby girl has opened up a whole new world to me. She has made me softer (literally and metaphorically!) and also gentler. Looking at her exploring the world makes me want to work even harder to make it a better place so that she can experience the joys of life without hardship.

Having a baby has also made me much more realistic about how I apply zero-waste principles to my life. It's reminded me that there are things we can do every day and some things that might be just a bit too hard due to lack of sleep or time. And that's OK.

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Using cloth diapers is one simple planet-friendly switch that I have been able to stick with.

I started testing cloth diapers after learning that single-use, disposable ones take over 400 years to break down in landfills, leaching methane gas and contributing to the greenhouse effect in the process. Reusable diapers are the more planet-friendly (and affordable) option and I've found them to be relatively easy to use—and clean.

Here's the down-and-dirty explanation of how I've been washing them:

A step-by-step guide to washing cloth diapers:

1.

Install a bidet attachment to your toilet, and use that for the initial rinse.

This is a lifesaver. You can buy a simple bidet attachment from the hardware store for around $30 and install it yourself. It will act as a handy hose so you can easily spray off the mess from dirty cloth diapers directly into the toilet before putting the diaper in the laundry basket. This brings us to Step 2...

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2.

Use a dedicated "diaper basket."

We had a separate basket for all the dirty-diaper-related items. This included soiled diapers and wet cloths, which I used in lieu of disposable baby wipes. (To make those, I simply soaked cotton cloths in a wide-brimmed jar of water, wrung them out, and used them whenever I needed to wipe my baby's bottom. I also kept a reusable silicone pouch with premoistened wet cloths on hand for when we were out and about.)

Separating these items from the rest of our washing prevented any cross-contamination, and it was a visual reminder that these items needed a separate hot wash.

I bought about 20 diapers and found that I needed to wash them every two to three days. If you want to wash less often, buy more diapers.

3.

Rinse and wash.

When my diaper basket was getting full, I would put its contents into the washing machine and run on a hot water cycle using a gentle washing powder. For this step, just be sure to follow the washing instructions on your particular brand of cloth diapers to ensure they retain their waterproof covering. You'll want to look for drying instructions there too—some are better off with air drying.

Pro tip: Hard water is not suitable for washing diapers. If your home has hard water, you'll need to add a separate water-softening agent to your wash.

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4.

Keep a "dry bag" and "wet bag" handy.

When out and about, we had a diaper bag for all the "dry" products such as clean diapers and cotton cloths. The soiled items were kept in a waterproof "wet" bag. This prevented cross-contamination and made for a simple system everyone could remember.

A recap of the top do's and don'ts of washing cloth diapers: 

Do:

  • Give them a try: Test them out at least once, and you might find that they're easier to work with than you think. Remember that it doesn't have to be perfect. It also doesn't have to be all or nothing: Maybe you choose to use cloth diapers only during the day or when you're at home.
  • Test a few kinds to start: There are a few types of cloth diapers, each with its own pros and cons. I personally landed on a mix of all-in-one cloth diapers (as the name suggests, these are all-in-one, so the inner liner is attached to the outer covering, which makes folding laundry easier, but I found that they take longer to dry) and diapers with separate liners and covers (these are quicker to dry, and pairing the liner and cover at folding time doesn't take too much extra effort).
  • Invest in a bidet attachment: This will make cleaning cloth diapers so, so much easier. Rinse directly into the toilet and put them into a dedicated diaper laundry bucket after. Then all that's left to do is wash, dry, and repeat.
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Don't:

  • Be overwhelmed: As I write about in my new book, A Zero-Waste Family, maintaining a low-waste home with a little one is about effort, not perfection. Think of cloth diapers as an experiment—one that could save you money and planetary resources!

The bottom line.

Cloth diapers are a low-waste alternative to disposable diapers—and they're easier to clean than you may think. Simply rinse with water, keep in a separate laundry pile, and wash in the machine as needed.

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Anita Vandyke, MD
Anita Vandyke, MD
Doctor & zero-waste advocate

Anita Vandyke is a qualified rocket scientist, medical doctor, and, most importantly, mother to Vivian. She was born in Guangzhou, China, raised in Australia, and currently splits her time between Sydney and San Francisco. She has a Bachelor of Engineering in Aeronautical Space and received her Doctor of Medicine from The University of Notre Dame Sydney.

She is the author of A Zero Waste: In Thirty Days and A Zero Waste Family: In Thirty Days. Anita writes about motherhood, zero waste living, and minimalism on Instagram and her website.