How to Wash Cloth Diapers

How to Wash Cloth Diapers // prefolds + pul covers

Dirty diapers is probably the sole reason, or at least the biggest reason, Pampers and other disposable diapers are so popular. It definitely inhibited my initial considerations for cloth. Obviously, and thankfully, I reconsidered.

How did I get over my fear of dirty diapers? By picturing myself doing laundry. I read up on the process involved, visualized myself doing each step. And that visualization wasn't so bad. I realized there are much grosser things I deal with as a mother.

Cloth laundering varies with each person. Just go on a cloth diapering board or compare suggestions from online articles and you'll see all kinds of preferences. You'll also notice each person's chosen methods is a variation of one basic process: Rinse, wash, rinse, dry. The changes come as you overcome obstacles like dealing with hard water or eliminating diaper rashes; what works for one person, because of a lot of different factors, may not work for another.

The cloth diaper laundry process is basically...

1. Rinse cold: By hand at each diaper change (if baby/toddler eats solids or drinks formula) or in the washer without detergent (if baby is exclusively breastfed). This rinses off poop particles and keeps stains from setting.

2. Wash hot: Using a cloth diaper-friendly detergent (something free of dyes, perfumes, etc.) and about half manufacturer's recommended amount (2-ish TBSP). Suds in the rinse cycle calls for another rinse or less detergent to prevent build up and thus diaper stink or serious diaper rash.

3. Second rinse cold: Water is key in getting diapers properly clean and removing all the detergent. This can be just a rinse cycle; or another full cycle without detergent.

4. Dry: High heat in a dryer without dryer sheets (use dryer balls), or line dry (the sun can help with stains). Especially be careful to follow any special instructions for your specific diapers.

More specifically, this ↓ is how we wash our cloth diapers (prefolds and PUL covers).

Affiliate links used; see full note below.

How to Wash Cloth Diapers

1. Dirty diapers are in a diaper pail or wet bag.

First, we have a dirty trash bag full of poo. Well, a diaper pail liner full of wet or soiled prefolds and covers, and the occasional sprinkling of baking soda. (We put baking soda in a glass parmesan cheese shaker to make sprinkling in easier.) This trashcan and pail liner is next to the changing table (then, moved to the bathroom when baby started solids).

If baby is exclusively breastfed (EBF)...

When our baby was exclusively breastfed, dirty diapers were thrown directly into the pail, no rinsing necessary. I was grossed out by this idea at first, but saw so many people recommend it that we gave it a try. It's as easy as everyone said. Poop from an exclusively breastfed baby is water soluble, so it washes away in the washer. And there were no odor problems in the diaper pail.

When baby drinks formula or starts eating solids...

When we first started cloth, our preschooler was potty trained except for nap and night, so if she happened to poop in her diaper, the poop was shaken off into the toilet and the insert rinsed if necessary. When our baby started eating solids, we started doing the same with his poopy diapers. We use the old-fashioned swishing method, or you can get a diaper sprayer.

How to Wash Cloth Diapers

2. Use pail liner or wet bag to empty dirty diapers into washer.

The diapers are then taken to the washer and tossed in by turning the pail liner inside-out. No touching dirty diapers.

Washing Cloth Diapers

3. Pre-rinse in cold water.

I set the washer to the highest water level (we have a little washer and water is your friend when getting cloth diapers properly cleaned) and run it on a light wash cycle with nothing but water. This is enough to rinse away all of the poop from exclusively breastfed babies.

If diapers are rinsed individually by hand at each diaper change (when baby is on formula or eats solids), then this step isn't as necessary. Or a quick rinse can be done instead of a full cycle.

Washing Cloth Diapers

4. Wash in hot water with 2 TBSP free and clear detergent.

I throw in about a 1/4 cup baking soda and 1-2 TBSP free and clear detergent and wash on hot on the heavy cycle.

On choosing detergent for cloth diapers...

Because we use low-maintenance prefolds and pul covers, we've had no problems with using any basic free and clear detergent. (If I had to choose, I'm not sure why, All is my favorite.) We've had no build-up and no need to strip. However, if your diaper stash includes other materials (esp. microfiber or other stay dry layers), you might look for a cloth-diaper specific detergent like Rockin' Green. (Be warned, it is definitely more expensive. I got a sample of it from an event and liked it okay; but we've never felt the need to buy it ourselves.)

Washing Prefolds and Covers

5. Extra rinse, with vinegar if needed for smell.

I run everything through a second rinse, usually on cold. I run it through a light cycle if I feel further agitating is necessary to rinse away all detergent. Any remaining detergent can cause build-up and thus stink or diaper rashes, so rinsing is important.

On using vinegar with cloth diapers...

Sometimes I add vinegar (used to be in a Downy ball, now I pour it straight into the washer). This helps especially if the diapers have a little smell to them after washing. I've heard vinegar can be hard on cloth diapers (especially for non-cotton materials), but occasional use helps get 'em clean and our prefolds stay soft and white (mostly).

How to Wash Prefolds Cloth Diapers

6. Dry diaper covers and pail liner on low heat; dry prefolds on high heat.

I put everything into the dryer and run it for 10-20 minutes on low heat. Pail liners, wet bags, and PUL covers don't need much to dry, and too high heat for too long can be damaging to both the elastic and the PUL water-proof coating. So I always dry them on low heat for 20 minutes or less.

After I take the PUL products (pail liner, wet bag, covers) out of the dryer, I finish drying the prefolds on the hottest setting.

Dryer sheets vs. dryer balls for cloth diapers...

Dryer sheets shouldn't be used because they can leave a film on the diapers which inhibits absorbency. We use plastic dryer balls with all of our laundry. There's also the option of wool dryer balls.

How often and when?

We keep enough diapers in our stash to wash every 2 to 2 1/2 days, and I wash when I'm down to 1-2 covers--just enough to get us through if I need to change a diaper in the middle of washing. I use the above process to clean the diapers, and can usually do so during our morning routine or in the evening after the kids are in bed. The only thing that draws it out longer is if I forget to switch them.


also read:
our full cloth diaper supply list
how to change a cloth diaper
how to "swish" a poopy diaper
all posts: cloth, pregnancy, and more

*Affiliate links used in this post. Purchases made through these links could earn me a small commission with no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!


  1. Thank you for this! I lost my paper instructions on washing my prefolds and needed a refresher as it has been awhile! Great reference. :)

  2. Thanks for this! I'm such a laundry noob; I didn't understand how to do an "extra rinse cycle" (my machine doesn't have a switch or anything like some do that adds a rinse cycle.) I didn't realize it was as simple as running a load w/out detergent! Thanks :)

    1. I hear ya! I felt that way about all things cloth-related when I first started :) A lot of washers are able to just run a rinse cycle, but I prefer the full agitating and everything to get the suds out.