How to wash cloth nappies – a complete guide

One of the things that can put people off cloth nappies is ‘what about all the washing?!’. But it’s really not as much work as you’d think. You can wash nappies every 2-3 days and they can go in with baby clothes, muslins and towels – anything light-coloured that will survive a hot wash.

To prove this, I’d like to share my wash routine with you and show how easy it can be. Before I get into details, it’s worth saying that this can be a fairly contentious topic in the nappy community (would you believe…). There are various schools of thought on how to wash nappies, how hot, how long, how much detergent, which detergent etc. It can be really confusing, overwhelming and off-putting for new nappy users, but it really doesn’t have to be so complicated. Cloth nappies should be simple and effective to use if they are to compete with the convenience of disposables.

I use a routine that is as simple as possible, while still keeping my nappies in good condition and stain free. I’ve had three years of trial and error to get this right and the nappies I started with three years ago are still going strong and fresh.

Click here to skip the detail and get the quick version

Step 1: Storing dirty nappies

Dirty nappies can be stored in a bucket or large wet bag. I have used both and personally prefer the wet bag, but it’s personal preference. Important things to remember:

  • Close any Velcro tabs to stop them catching on anything else in the wash
  • Pull out any inserts or boosters to make sure they get washed properly
  • Airflow will reduce smells, so a bucket with vents or an open wet bag is good
  • Wash every 2-3 days so nappies aren’t sitting dirty too long
Colourful cloth nappies in woven laundry washing basket

WHAT ABOUT POO???

There’s no hiding or sugarcoating this. Dealing with poo is the worst bit about cloth nappies. However, I do have some tips to make it as palatable as possible:

  1. Pre-weaning poo can go straight in the machine. It’s totally water soluble, so no extra attention required.
  2. Use liners. Fleece or disposable liners make dealing with poo a lot easier as there’s less to clean it off.
  3. Tip what you can straight in the toilet. If there’s only a few little bits left, don’t worry as they’ll come out in the machine.
  4. For those nappies where ‘tipping in the toilet’ won’t cut it, there are a few methods. I’ve tried many and my go-to is putting a bucket in the shower, spray the nappy down into the bucket then tip the contents down the toilet. It is the most effective with the lowest risk of poo ending up where it doesn’t belong.

You do get used to it and it makes potty training less of a shock, but it’s still poop. Sorry.

Step 2: Rinse

Before the main wash, it’s important to do a cold rinse to get the bulk of the nasty stuff out before the main wash. This helps loosen any potential stains and make sure your main wash isn’t full of really dirty water. Some people add detergent to this wash and set a temperature, but it’s really not necessary. Keeping it nice and simple, I just set the ‘Rinse + spin’ setting on my machine.

TIP: Some fancy, newer machines have an eco feature which weighs your washing before it starts a wash to determine how much water and detergent to use and how long the cycle should be (mine does not). If yours does this, I would advise setting the spin speed to 0 or the lowest you have on the rinse cycle. This means your nappies will be full of water and heavier when you start your main cycle, meaning the machine will give them a better wash.

Step 3: Main Cycle

This is hard to fully advise on because every machine is different, so I can’t tell you an exact program to use. However, these are the main criteria you should be looking for when selecting a program:

  • 60 degrees – you can also wash at 40 – this up to you. I’ve used both and personally have found 60 is best for keeping my nappies fresh and stain-free. It can shorten the life of your nappies, but I haven’t seen any negative effects having swapped to 60 over a year ago.
  • Around 2hrs+ – the main thing that cleans nappies is agitation i.e. bashing against each other in the machine. So a quick cycle won’t let the nappies agitate enough to fully clean.
  • Spin speed 1000 – A higher spin speed can overly stress elastics, so to keep them nice and springy stick to 1000. If your nappies are coming out too wet, an extra spin cycle at a lower speed will work better than a higher spin speed on your main wash.
  • Not an ‘eco’ program (usually shown by a little arrow icon) – Eco programs use much less water, so don’t clean nappies as effectively. They’re great for everyday clothes, but nappies aren’t your everyday level of dirty. So a full cycle is needed to wash them thoroughly and effectively.
  • Load 2/3 full when wet – As above, agitation is one of the most important things to get nappies clean. This means your wash needs to have enough space for the nappies to move around, but also enough other things for them to bash into. If you find that your machine is looking a little empty after the rinse, chuck in some muslins, babygrows, hand towels etc. to bulk it out. I wash most of my white/light baby clothes in with my nappy wash.

On my machine, I choose the ‘Baby Care’ program. The speed and temperature are adjustable, it uses plenty of water and is long enough to fully agitate the nappies.

Colourful cloth nappies stacked on shelves in nursery bedroom

Detergent

There are entire Facebook groups, spreadsheets and websites dedicated to which detergent you should use for cloth nappies. Seriously.

My two main takeaways after trying to digest this information are:

  1. It’s best to use powder over liquid as it’s easier to measure the right amount. Plus liquid detergent can coat nappy fibres making them less absorbent and clog up machines. I use non bio as we wash at 60 which kills the enzymes in bio making it pointless. However, bio is fine as long as it does not contain cellulase which can break down natural fibres like cotton and bamboo (many UK bio brands are fine, but if you’re not sure stick with non bio).
  2. Measure your detergent carefully. Look at the box and use a scoop or cup to work out how much you need for your machine size and water hardness for Heavy Soiling. As you won’t be totally filling your machine, I then calculate about half to two-thirds of this amount. You want enough detergent to get bubbles at the beginning and get everything clean, but no bubbles left at the end so detergent doesn’t build up in your nappies. It’ll take a few goes to fine-tune it, but once you’ve worked it out use the same cup each time.

Step 4: Drying

There are several ways to dry nappies, but the best way is to hang them on a line or airer. Here are some points to consider when drying your nappies.

  • Line drying – the quickest way to naturally dry nappies on a warm, windy day. Sunlight is also incredibly good at bleaching stains. It’s not often a concern in the UK, but just be careful if temperatures get high as direct sunlight on PUL can destroy it. I dry my wraps in the shade or indoors in summer for this reason.
  • Airer – my go-to in winter. We have an airer positioned in front of a radiator and it works well. Try to space things out and put the nappies that take longest to dry (natural fibres) at the top of the airer.
  • Heated airer – These don’t get as hot as a radiator so are suitable for some nappies, but they do still get hot so avoid putting any PUL directly on the bars. Try laying a tea towel or muslin over the bar before the nappy to avoid any damage.
  • Tumble drying – most nappies (not wraps) will be fine on a low tumble cycle, other than those with exposed PUL. Try to avoid doing this every time as it will shorten the life of your nappies, particularly the PUL and elastics. I sometimes leave nappies on the airer or line to mostly dry then finish them off in the tumble dryer. It helps soften them and just dry that last bit. Always, always check the washing instructions on each nappy to make sure they’re okay to tumble though and always use a low (or delicates) heat setting.
  • Socktopus – a firm favourite in many cloth nappy households. This is an excellent device which allows you to hang multiple nappies in a small area. Hang it up in a window or in the airing cupboard and nappies dry in no time!

*Radiators* – these get incredibly hot, so you shouldn’t put nappies directly on a radiator. Even fitted nappies with no PUL can be damaged going directly on a radiator (for example, bamboo may suffer ‘balding’). You can get mini hanging airers to go on radiators or put a standard airer next to one to make best use of the heat instead.

Three colourful reusable nappies hanging on a washing line in a garden in front of a leafy background

Points to note

  • Some of the things I’ve mentioned may invalidate your warranties for some of the more prescriptive nappy brands (looking at you, Motherease) who might advise against non bio, regular washing at 60, any tumble drying and so on. Many of my nappies are old or preloved so simplicity and making sure my nappies are reliably clean is more important to me. But do check the manufacturer’s website first if you’re unsure.
  • It may take trial and error. When I look back at how I washed our first nappies, I’m surprised they still function as well as they do. But this also shows that getting it wrong isn’t the end of the world.
  • Once you find what works for you, stick with it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
  • If you get any issues with constant leaks, persistent nappy rash, staining or strong-smelling nappies, your wash routine may need tweaking. The Nappy Guru Place is a lovely, supportive group who are great at troubleshooting these sorts of things.
  • Laundry isn’t life. I must admit I am so much better at washing all our normal clothes now I understand more about what gets them clean. But I’m not gonna spend an entire day doing nappy washing and fretting over different brands of detergent. I have found a good balance between getting my nappies clean and keeping it simple.

Tl;dr version

I have gone into a lot of detail here so if you’re just after the quick version here goes:

  1. Store – nappy bucket or hanging wet bag. Wash every 2-3 days
  2. Rinse – cold or low temperature, no detergent
  3. Main wash – 60 degrees, 1000 spin, extra rinse or water if possible, non-eco mode, ~2hrs+
  4. Detergent – non bio powder, find the amount for heavy soiling with your water hardness and machine size, use between 1/2 and 2/3 this amount. Tweak amount to get nappies clean but with no bubbles at the end of the cycle
  5. Dry – hang on an airer or line. Tumble on low occasionally if needed. DON’T put nappies directly on a radiator

Simples.

If you have any questions about washing nappies or switching to cloth, please feel free to ask. I’m always happy to help. Send me a message on Instagram or email me.

A stack of four reusable nappies in bright colours being held in front of a white wall


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