What is your water hardness?
Why does this matter? Hard water has more minerals in it that, over time, deposit in your fabrics. This is especially important for cloth diaper inserts, which you want to be as absorbent as possible. Mineral build up decreases that absorbency.
You can do a simple test at home to see. Purchase a water hardness test kit. It comes with strips that you dip in water and tells you what your hardness is.
One recommendation I have is to use water directly from your washing machine. You can catch water in a cup as the machine fills or pause your machine, open it, and get some water out of the drum.
What kind of machine do you have? Is it high efficiency (HE)? Does it have an agitator?
Why does this matter? If it is HE, the machine takes into account how much is in the drum and uses that amount to determine how much water to add. If you your load isn't very heavy, the machine does not add as much water. We will discuss below what you can do to solve this.
If you don't have an agitator (many HE machines do not) then you need more items in the drum to agitate together. They basically rub against each other to get clean. If you do have an agitator, it does that process for you.
Do you know what detergent you want to use? Honestly, I recommend using the same detergent as you do for baby's clothes. Preferably, have just one detergent in your house. It's so much easier. Later on if baby has a skin sensitivity problem you can always change it.
Are you choosing a plant based detergent? If so, hot water tends to work better.
How frequently do you want to wash? What size load will you be washing?
A universal cloth diapering rule: no fabric softeners! No detergent that includes it either. No dryer sheets in the dryer. You can use wool dryer balls to prevent static if needed.
If you have hard water:
You will need more detergent in your prewash and main wash than people with soft water.
You will likely need to add a water softener such as borox or callgon. This depends on how hard your water is and what detergent you are using. You can always start without these and reevaluate if issues arrise.
You don't want any extra rinses as hard water means your water contains more minerals. You don't want minerals to deposit on your cloth diapers and lead to absorbency problems.
If you have soft water:
Use less or no detergent in your prewash.
You may do an extra rinse to make sure all detergent is rinsed from your diapers. Remember, with soft water you don't need to worry about minerals depositing and leading to absorbency problems.
Having two wash cycles for cloth diapers is a pretty universal concept. These are the dirtiest things you will wash in your machine so it makes sense that it will need more washing than anything else.
This can be any amount of diapers. It doesn't need to be a ton. Just throw in all of your dirties.
Prewash is generally a shorter cycle for most people. Depending on your machine, choose a cycle that is relatively quick but will still clean well. For example, I use the “light whites“ cycle.
I prefer to use hot water but this is based on preference, some people use warm. You can try different methods here and see what works best.
Some people will tell you not to use hot because it can supposedly damage your PUL/TPU over time. I have not found this to be the case. I've been washing on hot for 2 years now and not had any issues. I think it would need to be extremely hot to cause damage. This type of heat damage is more of a concern in the dryer than the washer.
Plant based detergents work best if using hot water.
Use less detergent than your main wash.
I use a little under half of the amount I use in my main wash, and I have relatively hard water. This wash isn't meant to get them really clean but to just rinse and get the process started.
With soft water, use less or no detergent in your prewash.
If you do not have an HE machine, choose an appropriate water level for the size load you have. Err on the side of more water than not enough. This is trial and error and can be adjusted later if needed.
This depends a lot on your machine. Do you have a HE machine? If so you will need to "bulk" your load of diapers, meaning add items to it. Add things like socks, underwear, onesies, hand towels. Nothing too large or your small inserts could get wrapped around say, pants or sweatshirts.
If you do not have an HE machine, you can still bulk the load and use the max amount of water; or, don’t add anything and choose an appropriate amount of water for your load size.
Read up on your detergent. Check out what's on the packaging to see how much they recommend using. Use a little more if you have hard water. You can always adjust this amount later on if you notice problems arising. You can also check in cloth diaper groups (facebook or instagram accounts) and ask if anyone else has used the detergent you plan to use. This information can be helpful but take it with a grain of salt because different machines play a big factor as well.
If you have hard water, this is where you add a water softener. You can use Calgon or Borax. Follow the instructions on whichever product you choose.
Choose a wash setting that is longer and will clean well. For example, I use the “heavy whites” setting.
If you don't have an HE machine, choose an amount of water that corresponds with the load size. I usually have a lot of diapers in there and use the max amount of water. Remember, if you do have an HE machine you won't choose the amount of water that is added and you have "bulked" the load for this reason.
In terms of temperature, I use hot water in my main wash as well, but again this is preference. I find my diapers get more clean with hot.
If you have soft water you can include a rinse in this cycle.
There you have it. Prewash, bulk (if you have an HE machine especially), and main wash. I recommend hanging anything with PUL (polyurethane laminate) or TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), such as diaper shells and covers, to dry. There is no universal wash routine. It will vary and it’s often a lot of trial and error.
If you are looking for an eco-friendly, plant based detergent option that works, stay tuned! I will be sharing about this on Instagram and Facebook so if you aren’t following me, make sure you do!
Also stay tuned for another post that discusses possible issues with wash routines that can arise and how to fix them.