Updated: Dec 28, 2022
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There is a lot of different advice out there for washing nappies. According to the NHS highly dirty items such as towels, bedding and cloth nappies should be washed at 60° with a bleach-based product. Our routine has derived from the UK Nappy Network website and I have continuously tweaked it to fit it with our lifestyle, washing machine, drying facilities and nappy selection.
Our nappies are a mix of bamboo, hemp, microfibre, all in one, all in two, pocket, flat, shaped and wraps. When trialling different routines for yourself always make sure you refer to the manufacturer guidelines to protect your warranty.
Note: there is no one-size fits all routine for washing nappies as your machine, load, detergent and water hardness all play a part in the effectiveness of your clean. I would recommend taking a routine like below and tweaking it until you find the right fit for you.
1. Store dirty nappies in a dry pail or wet bag
Post-weaning, rinse/scrape any poo down the toilet, pre-weaning all nappies can go straight in the bag/bucket because both breast milk and formula poo is water soluble.
2. Fill the machine 3/4 full
This allows for a good amount of agitation to the nappies which is needed for effective cleaning. Much less and there is not enough for your nappies to rub against, much more and they won’t move enough.
If you need to you can add non-nappy items to this wash, for example: cloth wipes, muslins, baby clothes, small towels, anything which can withstand a 60° wash (when adding towels make sure it is nothing larger than a hand towel, bath towels can encase your nappies and prevent agitation).
3. Run a rinse cycle
Most machines reuses the water from and rinse or pre-washes within the main wash cycle, so it is important to a separate rinse cycle first.
This cycle is not doing any cleaning so detergent isn’t required, although some people do choose to add a small amount. This cycle is purely removing the bulk of the poo and wee and taking the dirty water out of the machine before you wash your nappies.
4. Add detergent
Start with a full dose of any non-bio powder detergent.
Powder is best for two reasons:
It is more easily rinsed from the nappies, over time, liquid detergents can coat the fibres and affect the absorbency.
Most powders contain oxygen-based bleaching agents which gives a better clean of highly dirty items. For more information see page 96 of this NHS document (further advise on cleaning cloth nappies can also be found on pages 50, 60 & 61)
Non-bio is recommended because many bio detergents contain an enzyme called cellulase which is not always listed on the ingredients (it’s often just referred to as a cleaning enzyme), cellulase can cause early degrading of natural fibres such as hemp and cotton.
5. Select the longest 60° cycle
This should be a minimum of 2½ hours, you want as much water as possible to go through the machine when washing nappies so avoid any eco settings and if you have buttons for adding extra water/wash/rinse/soak etc. push them all.
It is always recommended to check the manufacturers guidelines before choosing your temperature, some advice their nappies may only be washed at a maximum of 40° to keep your warranty (personally I wash everything at 60° and to date haven’t had any issues, although for some brands this does mean I have voided my warranty).
Some people advise you to spin at 800, personally we spin at 1200 with no adverse effect yet. I recommend running an extra spin or two afterwards to get as much water out before drying.
If you can still see bubbles at the end of the wash or your nappies are coming out smelling of detergent, you are either using too much or your wash cycle is too short and you may want to run an extra rinse.
7. Hang to dry
The greenest way to dry your nappies is on the line, however, if you are limited on space or time many brands can be tumble dried.
Here are some top tips to make the most of your drying time:
Hang your most absorbent, therefore slowest drying, nappies at the highest point on your rack and work your way down with things like wraps and liners at the lowest point.
Once temperatures reach 10° outside, if it is dry it is nearly always faster to dry your nappies outside.
When drying inside, pointing a fan at the drier or putting a dehumidifier underneath can reduce drying time by up to half. Always hang nappies to dry in a well ventilated room.
Point any stained nappies towards natural light, even on a cloudy day the sun's UV rays will help remove staining.
Never hang your nappies on a hot radiator, but most heater airers are absolutely fine - the general rule is if you can keep your hand on the heated surface for a prolonged time it is fine for nappies, if you can’t, it’s not.
On those rare heat wave days where the temperature soars past 30° hang your nappies in the shade if you are line drying outside.
If you're choosing to tumble dry, do so on a low heat to protect the fibres. 100% cotton fitted or flat nappies can be tumble dried on any heat.
Personally, in winter I like to line dry for 24 hours then finish any without PUL in the tumble dryer, which helps to soften them
Some things to note when washing your cloth nappies
If you live in a hard water area your natural fibre nappies will harden over time, you can combat this by adding a natural softener, such as soda crystals, to your wash; or by finishing the dry in the tumble dryer. Most babies will not be upset by hard nappies so try not to fret. In the event your nappies get too hard, you can soften them by leaving them out in rainy weather for around a week. Never add fabric softener to your wash.
There is lots of conflicting advice surrounding washing cloth nappies, if your routine is working for you, ignore everything else and stick to what you know - you'll know if your nappies aren't cleaning properly.
If you are having problems with smelly nappies reach out to a nappy library or your original retailer for personalised help (or me). I would avoid the large Facebook groups, as I said above different routines work for different people so it's easy to get overwhelmed.
If a routine sounds overcomplicated, it probably is, remember while additional steps will rarely cause immediate damage to your nappies, it can significantly reduce the lifespan of your nappies and you may find yourself replacing them sooner than you expected.
A good and regular wash routine will keep your nappies fresh, whilst preserving their longevity. There is no need to add a sanitiser to your regular wash or for strip washing, however if you do wish to then the following sanitisers have been marked as cloth nappy safe by the UK Nappy Network: Violets Natural Bleach, Bambino Mio Fresh, Bio-D Nappy Fresh. Always double check the manufacturers guidelines before washing your nappies.