Prev Next
Cloth Diaper Problems and Troubleshooting

Cloth Diapers & Homemade Detergent

By Amalah

Hello Amalah!

I am 9 weeks pregnant and super excited about cloth diapering! No one in my family, or any of my close friends use cloth diapers so I feel a little shy about it but I really am anticipating loving it! Anyway my quick question is in regards to detergent. I currently make my own using Fels-Naptha, Borax, and Washing Soda. I make it myself because it is way cheaper. That’s also my main reason for choosing cloth diapers (cost savings) I think I want to use Bum Genius diapers and I was wondering if you knew of this detergent would be bad for them. What’s the cheapest and what’s the easiest to find in a store that is good for cloth diapers if I can’t continue my homemade soap? I don’t do a lot of online shopping, but if it’s cheaper that way (including shipping) then I guess that’s what I’ll do!

-Cheap/Lazy Future-Momma

Since you’ve still got 30-odd weeks left of pregnancy and cloth diaper research, allow me to share the NUMBER ONE RULE of washing cloth diapers: There is no one right way, everybody does it differently, and OH DEAR GOD is there a lot of conflicting information out there.

In the 10 or 15 minutes I spent Googling the ingredients in your detergent, I learned all of the following:

Always, always soak first, but no, not always because that’s hard on your diapers. Just rinse first, but that might not get them wet enough. Always, always wash on hot. No, never wash on hot, it’ll break down the fabric. Extra rinses are the way to go, but only if you rinse with cold. But I can’t control the rinse temperature on my washer, so does that mean… Vinegar and baking soda and Oxiclean are the best! But only if you use the right amount and have hard or soft water and don’t use them too often, unless you’re somebody who uses them all the time with no problems. No, adding ANY additives to your diaper laundry is asking for trouble. Use Charlie’s! No, Rockin’ Green! No, Dawn! Borax is great! Borax is THE DEVIL. No, it’s the “free and clear” detergents that are straight from the bowels of cloth diapering hell, except for a bunch of people in the comments section who use them with no problems. Line dry or your elastic will disintegrate before your very eyes, except probably not. If you have to strip, something is wrong! No, stripping is just an inevitable thing! RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE.

You know what? Everybody just chill out. Your diapers all gonna be FINE ladies.

Anyway, so yes, I did find a few warnings about the homemade detergent recipe, which is very popular. Thirsties (a diaper brand/manufacturer) actually has an entire blog post about it and why/how each component is potentially damaging to cloth diapers, and it echoed a lot of what I read elsewhere. The upshot: Fels-Naptha is a pure soap and can cause pinhole leaks in waterproofed covers as well as “coat” fabric and not rinse cleanly, causing build-up and repelling/leaks. Borax is a great cleaner but can be HARD on fabrics, ESPECIALLY the elastic found in diapers like the bumGenius. It’s probably okay for plain ol’ prefolds, but if you’re trying to protect your pricier pocket diaper investment (or have a small diapering stash that you wash very, very often), there are definitely enough warnings out there to make you think twice about it.


But! I did not — though obviously I had to draw a line somewhere and STOP READING THE ENTIRE INTERNET — actually read any firsthand accounts of any of that damage happening. In fact, I read several accounts of cloth diaperers using your exact recipe (or other variations of it) and reporting absolutely no problems. What’s more likely to damage diapers seems to be repeatedly using a mainstream detergent (like Tide, All, etc.) and bleach, or overdoing it on the additives (vinegar, baking soda, Oxy, oils, etc.) — you can see photo evidence of bleach/additive damage on this post.

Me? I have no opinion or real first-hand experience here. (The only thing I use Borax for is to kill ants; I use Amazon Prime/Amazon Mom memberships to get my Charlie’s Soap delivered, via a regular subscription at a small discount, with free shipping) But I’ve had to course-correct my own supposedly “perfect” laundry routine quite a few times, so I don’t really see the harm in you just doin’ what you already do until you notice a problem. Does your baby get a rash? Are your diapers leaking? Staining? Do they smell bad? How’s that elastic looking? It’s possible none of that will happen. It’s also possible that all of that will happen, and STILL not necessarily be 100% the fault of your detergent. (It could be yeast, your water type, your washer’s water level, etc.) It seems to me that the anecdotal data suggests that you could continue using the homebrew and everything will probably be just fine.

(Though note that both Borax and the Fels-Naptha have logged complaints from users about diaper rashes, as well. But so has every other detergent/soap/cream/lotion IN THE WORLD, honestly. Your baby’s skin will be unique.)

If, however, you continue to read up on cloth diapers and your detergent and find yourself getting sufficiently spooked, I would suggest looking into a less vulnerable diapering system. bumGenius cloth diapers are AWESOME, for the record, and are probably my favorite pocket diaper of all. BUT pocket diapers are the ones that are most often mentioned in this detergent cautionary tales because it seems like the “natural” ingredients don’t always play nice with the “man-made” fabrics that comprise the BGs (suedecloth, PUL and microfiber). And I have to agree that fabrics like suedecloth, fleece and microfiber have given me a HELL of a time in the past, laundry-wise. Stink, repelling, staining, leaking, UGH. And forget about the elastic lasting past one baby if you hot wash and tumble dry all the time.

An easier alternative would probably be cotton prefolds with covers. I really love the waterproof Flip covers, which are made by BG and are basically the pocket version’s outer shell without the suedecloth pocket. Just fold a prefold in threes and lay inside the cover. Really no different than stuffing a microfiber insert into a pocket diaper, except that the prefolds are really inexpensive and virtually indestructible in the wash. The Flip covers can be washed with your “regular” (non-diaper) wash to spare them all the extra soaking/hot water/rinsing that can break down the elastic and waterproofing. (Just rinse them off if they get a little poop on them.) You can also reuse them through several diaper changes, provided poop stays on the prefold. Though in the newborn days, poop ALWAYS gets on the cover, but this does stop eventually and you can use the same cover pretty much all day. Which rocks.

The downside of that system is that unlike the bumGenius pockets, it’s not a “one-size” system, so you’ll need to purchase more diapers as your baby grows. I found that it all really evens out, cost wise, since you don’t necessarily need the same amount of diapers in every size and can customize your stash, PLUS the pocket diapers are a pretty big up-front investment to start. (And thus risky if you decide that you don’t like them for any reason.) My third son, Ike, is a toddler now and still wearing the same dozen “large” prefolds I ordered back in…January of 2012 (or 20 months or so ago), according to my order history at Green Mountain Diapers. Niiiiice. He wears the one-size Flip and Thirsties, and a couple wool soakers that I got when he was six months old and simply streeeeettttch the hell out of to get them to still fit. (And a couple large Workhorse fitteds with extra inserts for night. He’s outgrown our medium gDiaper covers but the inserts are still perfect.)

On the other other hand, if you decide that no, you really do want the bumGenius pockets AND you want a laundry detergent that’s 100% guaranteed not to cause them any damage, you could try tweaking your formula like this one, or this Borax-free one. Or you could TRY scouring your local stores’ shelves for one of the detergents listed at the bottom of this post. (Which omits Charlie’s, for some reason.) Personally, I’ve never any luck finding a tried-and-true CD-friendly detergent at a local store. Alas. Some baby boutique-type stores sell cloth diapers AND detergent, but I’d be cautious about a potential price markup. I have also heard that places/stores/resources for breastfeeding mothers (like where you can rent pumps and buy specialty supplies) occasionally stock cloth diapers and accessories as well. Not quite as convenient as grabbing a gallon at Target, however, which is why many moms just go ahead and order online. The Thirsties blog that I linked to mentions a liquid detergent called “Arm & Hammer Essentials,” which I BELIEVE I’ve seen in the grocery store, but never before today knew was recommended for diapers. So I dunno about that one. Plus I have hard water and need to use powdered detergents anyway so OH MY GOD I GIVE UP IT’S ALL TOO MUCH.

Comments time! Any experiences with homebrew detergents and cloth diapers? Good, bad, ugly? Any other detergent recommendations for the uber-thrifty minded? (Oh God, this is going to get so confusing and contradictory SO FAST, I just know it. Sorry, OP. We’re all just kinda nuts, I think.)


If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice[at]gmail[dot]com.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

icon icon