How To Wash Your Cloth Nappies And Keep Them Smelling Fresh

I've been reviewing my cloth nappy cleaning procedure recently, from pail to washer, from drier to drawer, hoping to optimise the whole process.

When we started, the process was not seamless. That's partly why we waited a month or so after the birth to jumping into cloth nappies full time. It takes a little bit of effort, especially when you get started, but the weight of habit soon pulls you along. Nowadays it just seems normal.

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The thoughts of optimisation started a while ago when the Boy began pulling dirty nappies out of the pail - not just the once, but several times. Now it's hanging off the window latch (the bucket, not the baby) - but I sense that this isn't the best way to go because as the nappies grow more plentiful, more strain is put on my poor window.. It's going to just rip out of the wall soon.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the actual wash cycle, and the detergent used. We've tried a few different approaches and had a few people ask which is the best detergent to use with cloth nappies.


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Should you use non-bio?

Maybe you should use bio?

Should you avoid perfumes?

Maybe you should use one of those special (and more expensive) detergents formulated especially for cloth diapers.

Yeah, maybe... But maybe not.

The detergent you use is relatively unimportant in the wash itself - if you use too much, your nappies will smell; if you use too little, your nappies will smell. If you use this brand or that brand, it doesn't seem to make too much difference. However, as you will see, there ARE some things you need to watch out for when you make your choice. Let's take a look.

The Bucket - ew

Wash Routine

The actual wash routine should not be too complicated. To get cloth nappies nice and clean and fresh-smelling (ish), here's what I do:

  • Shake out any solids (!) - shake them into the toilet, ideally. Sometimes you'll encounter a poo that has the consistency of smooth peanut butter, That one ain't going nowhere, and unless you want to use your best fish slice or your fingernails, maybe it's best just staying there.

    This is where you'll find the benefit of liners - you can use biodegradable paper or bamboo liners, or reusable fleece liners. The reusable ones have much the same problem with the peanut butter poos, in my experience, so unless you want a washing machine full of pasty poo then give the disposable liners a go.

  • Dry pail the nappies. I don't soak my nappies, and I don't think it's recommended to do so anymore. If you do soak them, you'll get a smell building up and a pretty slimy biofilm on the inside of your nappy bucket. Best to just chuck 'em in and forget about them 'til laundry day.

    If you use pocket nappies, you can take the inserts out at this point which means you can then just throw the whole lot into the machine and save a bit of work down the line after they've had the chance to fester a bit. Even better, if you line your bucket with a mesh or string bag, it can just be turned out easy peasy.

  •  I don't like to leave used nappies sitting for more than two days, not least because I then start worrying that after the next change he's just going to have to go naked - maybe I could just leave him in the paddling pool till the wash is done!? So for the wash cycle, ideally you should have a cold water rinse (this helps get the urine washed out, apparently heat can "set" it in...).

    I wash at 40C, some manufacturers recommend against washing at 60C while other sources say you should ONLY was at 60C. I've never had problems at 40C, although if your baby is sick (diarrhoea) or has thrush or anything, 60C is the way to go. The lower temperature is also a bit more energy-saving and may increase the lifespan of the nappy.

  • Finally, you should have a final rinse with enough water to rinse the nappies clean of detergent. We use the "extra rinse" setting on our machine. Otherwise, the inserts smell after a while. I think this is detergent building up in the fabric. This also has the effect of making the inserts less absorbent.

    Another approach would be to use less detergent - some people recommend using half of the normal amount you would use and testing. If you agitate a washed nappy in some water, you will see - if it becomes sudsy then you are either using too much detergent, they aren't rinsed well enough or both.

A few things to remember

A post shared by Siobhan Daly (@myecoliving) on

A few important points to remember - don't use any detergent with a softener included in the ingredients, indeed don't use a fabric softener/conditioner at all on the nappies or inserts. These will really affect the absorbency of the nappies, and in my experience, it happens pretty quickly (whoops!).

Bleaches may best be avoided, although as I mentioned above, they shouldn't end up on your baby's skin given a proper washing routine. The problem is that they can damage the fibres in the nappies, and lead to a shorter lifespan.

The same goes for anti-bacterial additives, such as Dettol. To be honest, the detergent and water will get rid of most of the baddies. If you are concerned, then occasionally throw them in at 60C and you can rest easy.

A final thing to note is that any new natural fibre nappies or inserts should be washed a few times to get them up to full absorbency. They don't need to be dried between washes. I tried a few bamboo inserts side by side - half pre-washed, half used straight out of the packet - the difference was noticeable, but they evened out after a few uses.

Drying nappies

The easiest way to dry your nappies is to throw them into the tumble drier. However, I never tumble dry the wraps; I sense that the PUL fabric doesn't like the high temperatures. Well, okay, I'll admit it - I think I ruined a few wraps by putting them in the drier. And I put the nappies and inserts in on the lowest heat setting now, which seems to work just fine.

Most of the inserts I have dry really quickly anyway - they almost come out of the washing machine dry (thank you, spin cycle). So line drying them is my second choice - especially on those rare days when it's not raining. It rains a lot here. But I feel better about line drying to be honest, even though they end up a little crispy (the tumble drier softens them nicely).

The only nappies that don't seem to dry that quickly are the thick bamboo pile ones, but they still dry pretty thoroughly without the machine when necessary.

The benefit of the line drying is that the sun seems to bleach out any stains quite nicely.

For the wraps, I have a little drying rack rigged up above the tumble drier (it's a stick wedged between the walls of the washing room). I just drape the wraps on there, and they dry really fast.

I try not to dry nappies inside because our house isn't well ventilated, but if you have the option, I think it would be a good idea. As I said, they dry pretty quickly.

As always, check the care instructions for your nappies and wraps - some don't recommend tumble drying, in which case it might be best to avoid it.


Naturally, at times, nappies are going to smell. That's normal. What isn't normal is a smell when they're washed and dried - they shouldn't be smelly when they're not in use.

Some nappies DO get a smell when they are wet - namely when they're full of wee. This shouldn't be an offensive smell though, rather just a damp wee smell.

If they are smelling, you can try a few things. I would start with the test I mentioned above, put a clean nappy in a bucket of water and give it some welly. If it gets sudsy, then there is probably detergent residue left in the nappy.

For this, I'd recommend making sure that your wash cycle has the extra rinse option turned on if available, or reducing your dose of detergent if not. You could manually set the machine to rinse and drain after a wash if you need to. Test again.

Another option is to do the occasional hot wash, with a dose of something like Napisan or any oxygen bleach (Vanish Oxy Action etc.). This needn't be done for every wash, but it is a good idea occasionally.

This will also, along with some good ol' fashioned sunshine, help with stains.

So Which Detergent For Cloth Nappies?

As I implied above, I would happily use pretty much anything. There are a few things that I would avoid, and these are:

  • Strong fragrances (just because ew, and they seem to stick around in the clothes after rinsing so MAY cause a reaction in baby's skin)
  • Optical brighteners and bleaches - these just seem unnecessary, potentially irritating and may shorten the life of your nappies.nt
  • Softeners/conditioners - these coat the surface of the fabric and can lead to loss of absorbency and water repulsion. Not ideal for a nappy!
  • Biological cleaners. I was a bit wary of adding this because I use enzymatic cleaners occasionally. I certainly don't think they're harmful, and they definitely do a good job... BUT! Check the warranty on your nappies - some will be void if you use a biological cleaner (I'm looking at you, bumGenius).

    There is no evidence that biological cleaners are bad for your baby, and they are very effective cleaners. However, the enzymes in them could damage the fibres in your nappies, primarily if you use natural fibre nappies such as cotton or bamboo - there in an enzyme called cellulase which will break down the cellulose from which these nappies are made. I don't think it's a problem to use them occasionally.

If I absolutely had to recommend a detergent, I would suggest Boot's own brand sensitive detergent powder. It does contain a bleaching/whitening agent, but I use only a small dose. No skin problems, no smell problems, no stains, and nappies are just as absorbent as ever.

A second choice would be Persil - non-bio, ideally, as I mentioned above the enzymes could damage your nappies.

If you're set on getting a special dedicated nappy cleaner, you could try this one which comes well recommended - Rockin' Green. Check out the reviews on Amazon.


If you're dead set on a dedicated nappy cleaner, I recommend this one.

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