How To Wash & Clean Modern Cloth Nappies Correctly [Your go-to guide]
One of the main keys to success when it comes to cloth nappies is keeping them in tip-top condition with a good wash routine.
The benefits of sticking to a good wash routine are endless, and inadequate washing can unfortunately ruin your nappies.
Here we detail how to look after your modern cloth nappies from end to end – from the moment they come off your baby’s bum to the moment they go back on.
From where to put those dirty nappies, to how to wash and dry them, we also provide guidance on how to do a strip and sanitise (a deep clean).
The good news is that keeping your reusable nappies sparkling clean and stain free is much easier and less intensive than the old-fashioned way of soaking them in a smelly bucket in the outhouse.
Washing machines have come a long way since those days, and they are more than capable of handling the hard work so that you don’t have to.
We’ve put together this guide for modern parents to ensure you spend minimal time washing and maximum time making memories with your delightful little human.
- How to store used cloth nappies – why dry pail?
- What to do with the poo?
- How to wash cloth nappies?
- Additional nappy washing hacks
- How to dry cloth nappies?
- How to do a strip clean? (strip and sanitise)
1. How to store used cloth nappies - why dry pail?
Here’s how to store cloth nappies as you remove them from your baby – and why we use a dry pail rather than a sealed bin or soaking bucket.
Outside of the cloth nappy user world, most people have never heard of a dry pail before.
So, let’s start with what a dry pail is: it’s basically a plastic or wire basket, with lots of holes and air flow, for you to store your baby’s used nappies in.
Most people consider nappies one of the worst smells imaginable, when I was expecting my first baby I regularly received the advice: “Make sure you buy a well-sealed nappy bin to contain those awful smells”.
It’s true, placing a dirty nappy into a dry pail basket instead of a well-sealed nappy bin seems counter intuitive, surely it’s allowing the smells to escape and take over the house? Won’t visitors smell it straight away?
However, that misconception brings me on to one of the best kept secrets of using cloth nappies: you can say goodbye to those nasty smells.
The chemicals used in disposable nappies might be good for absorbing human waste, however there’s a price to pay: the stench that comes with it.
Remove all those nasty chemicals and you’re left with the natural fibres of cloth nappies and combined with the magical powers of the dry pail basket, no smells.
The airflow of the dry pail, and with a regular wash routine, means that ammonia doesn’t build up, and the minute amount that does build up is dispersed into the air.
In contrast, if you were to place dirty cloth nappies into a sealed bin, when you open the bin, you would sure enough be hit with a concentrated smell of ammonia.
Aside from the smell, there’s another reason we don’t want ammonia building up: it can start to set in the fabric leading to a nasty rash on your baby, and can degrade the fabric causing small holes to appear.
How to use a dry pail system
You will ideally need two dry pail baskets: one for the dirty nappies as you’re taking them off your baby. And one for after you’ve pre-washed your nappies.
You can skip ahead and view our detailed washing instructions here.
Here’s our 3 easy steps to successful dry pailing:
- Step 1: As soon as you’ve removed a dirty nappy from your baby and put on a fresh nappy, separate the dirty nappy cover from the insert and place both parts into the dry pail basket. See our washing instructions below to find out how to treat poo nappies before placing them into the dry pail, you may not need to do anything.
- Step 2: Let the nappies build up in the dry pail over the day. In the morning, put all of those dirty nappies on a pre wash. Again, follow our washing instructions below for best washing tips.
- Step 3: Place these pre-washed nappies into your second dry pail basket to air while they await their main wash. You should continue to add dirty nappies to your first dry pail basket as you remove them from your baby.
Remember to wipe out your dry pail basket every now and then with disinfectant.
Why we don’t soak
In the good old days, people used to soak terry flat nappies in buckets of water with bleach or Vanish.
There were a few issues with this technique, which is why we don’t do it today:
- It presents a drowning risk to children, as it’s possible for children to drown in less than 2 inches of water
- Vanish and other equivalent laundry boosters are no longer made of the same ingredients, and are no longer as effective
- Constant soaking of inserts leads to quicker degradation of the fabric and your inserts won’t last from child to child. Soaking the covers will cause irreversible damage and void your warranty.
- These days it’s an unnecessary added step, modern cloth nappies are kept cleaner and fresher by leaving your washing machine to do the hard work for you and by dry pailing.
We recommend never soaking your Nappy Luxe nappy covers as this may cause irreversible damage to the PUL and will void your warranty.
Nappy Luxe inserts can be soaked briefly and occasionally if required, for example if your baby has done a particularly stainy poo you may want to soak with water and stain remover for a few hours.
Or if you’ve let your wash routine slip a bit and your inserts are a bit smelly/stained, you may want to do a deep clean strip wash as detailed in this guide.
Washable nappies have come a long way since the good old days, and we now know there’s a better way to store used nappies while they wait for wash day – the dry pail!
Choosing a dry pail
You can use any type of basket with holes as your dry pail, below are a few ideas:
- Wire baskets
- Plastic struckets
- Plastic laundry basket
- Wire tired kitchen trolley
- Wire drawers
There are a few factors to bear in mind when choosing your dry pail baskets:
Depending on the type of wire and how old it is, it may be prone to rusting – rust is not something you want coming into contact with your nappies.
The size of the baskets. This will vary depending on your wash routine and the age of your baby. For example with a newborn baby, you’ll be changing their nappy more frequently, up to 10 times per day, and if you’re only pre-washing every second day you may need to allow for a basket large enough to fit 20 nappies in.
A small wire basket isn’t going to be big enough.
Even if your baby is older and only getting through six nappies per day, and you pre wash daily, you may only do a main wash on the third or fourth day, in which case you may be able to get away with a smaller pre-wash basket but you will need larger main wash basket.
Where to place the baskets
This will depend on what works best for your home setup and your family. The logical place is in the laundry room or near to your nappy change station.
Many people affix the dry pail baskets to the wall to enable them to be out of reach of grabby little hands, and have extra airflow.
However this isn’t always possible, so here are a few alternatives:
- On top of the washing machine
- A floor-standing wire trolley near to the washing machine
- Want your basket in a carpeted room? Try a plastic strucket to protect the carpet.
- No laundry room? Try the bathroom. It means you’re right near to the toilet to enable you to dispose of solid poos before dry pailing.
- Renting? Try an over door hanger, with wire baskets hooked on and off as needed. You can move the hanger to any door that works for you without creating any holes in the walls.
2. What to do with the poo?
Often the most pressing question before starting cloth nappies is one that can be awkward to ask and trickier to find a direct answer – what do you do with the poo?
Here’s some direct and clear answers to this question – “answers” is plural as it depends on whether your baby has started solids yet, and whether they are breastfed or formula fed.
In short, the best way to deal with baby poo is in exactly the same way as adult poo, get it down the toilet so that it can go to waste water treatment.
Here’s a simple table to summarise where your babies poo should go:
Babies under 4-6 months who have not started solids - exclusively breastfed
Babies under 4-6 months who have not started solids - formula or mixed fed
Babies / children over 4-6 months who have started solid food
|Poo nappies can go straight in the washing machine||Dispose of poo in the toilet before putting in the washing machine||Dispose of poo in the toilet before putting in the washing machine|
Let’s delve into this in more detail.
Babies under 4/6 months who have not started solids – exclusively breastfed
Solid food is usually introduced to babies between 4 and 6 months old.
If your baby has not started solid food yet, and is exclusively breastfed, we’ve got some great news for you: their poo nappies can simply be placed straight into the washing machine without needing to pre-rinse.
Hooray – this is by far the easiest and least hands-on method.
Babies in this category have poo that is water soluble which means it’ll be spun away in the washing machine and straight to the sewerage with nothing left behind in the washing machine.
By following our washing instructions, you can rest assured that your washing machine will be clean and ready to use for whatever you choose to wash next.
Babies under 4/6 months who have not started solids – formula or mixed fed
For babies in this category who are formula fed or mixed fed, you’ll need to simply tip your baby’s poo into the toilet.
If poo still remains on the nappy cover or insert, you should rinse this off the nappy before it goes in the washing machine – more on this below.
Babies over 4/6 months who have started solid food
Once you start your baby on solids, you will start to notice a difference in their poo and this is when you will need to start following the “formula fed” instructions above, if you aren’t already doing so.
Some parents luck out, with their baby’s poo being solid enough to tip into the toilet without the need to do any further rinsing of the nappy before it goes in the washing machine.
For others, there may still be poo on the nappy which should be rinsed off first.
Luckily, there are a few tricks to the trade which you can introduce to streamline this process.
Some cloth parents chose to install a bidet sprayer by the toilet and use this to spray off excess poo straight down the toilet – a great option for those who don’t have a laundry sink.
Others choose to grab a dedicated dish scrubbing brush (ensuring that everyone in the household knows what this brush is for and not to use it for anything else) and use this to give the nappies a rub in the laundry sink before washing or dry pailing.
Most cloth parents choose to wear gloves when dealing with poo, understandably.
The laundry sink and your washing machine are both hooked up to the sewerage, meaning that waste goes to the exact same place as the toilet.
If you are using the laundry sink method, just ensure you regularly disinfect your sink and add a little bleach down the plug every now and then – just like you would to keep your toilet clean.
You can also “flush” your laundry sink by putting the plug in and letting some water fill up before releasing the plug.
As mentioned above, many cloth parents find the entirety of their child’s poo can be rolled into the toilet with hardly any trace left on the nappy and simply place it straight into the dry pail – this is the nappy jackpot!
3. How to wash cloth nappies
To keep your nappies clean, free of stains and smells, and ensure they have a long life, here’s a summary of our recommended 2 step wash process:
Let’s start with the basics, what to wash your nappies with. Unfortunately most eco-friendly washing detergents just don’t cut it washing the dirtiest laundry you’ll ever need to wash, so we recommend avoiding these.
The laundry brands we recommend using are mainstream ones available from your local supermarket such as Biozet. These have been proven to result in a good thorough clean.
You can follow the volume of detergent to use based on what each detergent brand recommends. Your main load of washing should be the “heavily soiled” amount of detergent – usually a full scoop, sometimes more.
Another thing to consider is the hardness level of the water in your area which can dictate what detergent will work best for you. If this sounds confusing, don’t fear - trial and error should give you the answer.
All washing machines differ in the cycle types and lengths they can do. So I’ll provide a rough guide and you can adapt based on your own washing machine.
Another tip when choosing your washing machine cycle, don’t pick a “delicates” cycle or “eco friendly” cycle. Any cycles for delicates don’t give as thorough a clean. Eco friendly cycles tend to use less water which isn’t ideal for washing the dirtiest thing you’ll ever wash in your machine.
Step 1 - Pre wash or First wash
Frequency: Daily or every second day
Example detergent / washing machine cycle: Biozet powder, half a scoop. 60 degrees. Cycle length should last around 1 hour. We don’t recommend a cycle under 40 minutes in length.
Machine loading: N/A – it doesn’t matter how full this load of washing is. Most modern washing machines weigh the load and only use the amount of water needed.
Preparation: Make sure solid waste (baby poo) has been knocked into the toilet first as per our earlier instructions.
Why do a pre-wash?
Imagine you’re washing a pair of socks and you only have a small bucket of water to wash them in, and rather than being the fresh white colour they were yesterday, they’re completed caked in mud. They’ve been left out all day and the mud has hardened a bit. You might start off by knocking off as much mud as possible. When you then wash them in the bucket of water, the water all turns brown, and soon you’re washing the socks in a muddy bucket of water. If you persist and give them a real thorough wash, you wring them out, you’re then left with a semi-clean pair of socks. But they’re still not the crisp white colour they once were.
Now if you had another small bucket of clean water, you could give these a second thorough wash using more detergent. The end result? A perfectly clean and white again pair of socks.
This is why we do a hot pre-wash for nappies, to get rid of all the wee and poo, and to kill bacteria before they have a thorough main wash where the real cleaning happens.
One important point to bear in mind is that whilst we call it a “pre-wash”, we don’t recommend using the pre-wash function that some washing machines allow you to add to your main wash.
There are a few reasons for this, firstly, most washing machines do not drain the water between the pre-wash function and the main wash. It’s really important that the main wash uses completely clean fresh water.
Secondly, and I’ll come onto this in more detail below, the main wash needs to “loaded” correctly. With the pre wash, you don’t need to worry about how full it is, but making sure the main wash is appropriately full is a key component to making sure it washes thoroughly.
Thirdly, but still linked to the second point, the pre-wash needs to happen more frequently than the main wash, and unless you have a very small washing machine and several children in cloth nappies, it’s unlikely you’ll have enough dirty nappies in 1 – 2 days to adequately load a main wash.
We recommend 60°C for the pre-wash cycle, as this is the perfect temperature for killing viruses, bacteria, and removing stains from your nappies.
You do not need to hang nappies to dry in between the pre-wash and the main wash.
After you’ve finished your pre-wash cycle, move these nappies into your second dry pail basket.
Step 2 - Main wash
Frequency: Every 2 – 4 days
Example detergent / washing machine cycle: Biozet powder, a full scoop. 40 degrees. Cycle length should last around 3 hours. We don’t recommend a cycle under 2 and a half hours in length.
Machine loading: lightly pack full
Preparation: add in all nappies you’ve pre-washed over the previous days, in addition to any small baby items you need to wash anyway.
What else can be added to a main wash?
This step is great because this is when you combine your already pre-washed nappies with all the other items you need to wash anyway.
The only rule is that you should avoid adding in anything larger than a tea-towel / small adult sized t-shirt.
We also recommend not adding in any dark items that may discolour your nappies.
Here’s some household items you can add in to achieve a full load:
- Baby clothes
- Tea towels
- Hand towels
- Burp cloths
You need to achieve a lightly packed full load before it goes on, this results in the best agitation and therefore the best clean. Lightly packed full means that the machine is full of items before you switch it on, but not so full that you have to force the door shut. When the cycle is about 3 quarters of the way through and everything is very wet, it should look about 3 quarters full.
When this cycle has finished you can now hang out your laundry to dry – some instructions on this can be found below.
4. Additional nappy washing hacks
As your baby grows, discovers the joys of food, and moves through various phases of their life, you will find that the consistency of their poo changes. You may find they go through a stainy poo phase and despite your best efforts, you may need some extra strategies to tackle unwanted stains.
For example, you may have previously found that prewashing on the second day worked perfectly, but now you need to move to a daily pre-wash.
The good news is that NappyLuxe inserts are topped with microfleece which not only acts as a stay-dry layer to keep your baby comfortable, but it also repels stains for easy cleaning.
Make sure you’ve followed the instructions “What to do with the poo” if you haven’t already, then read on below for a checklist to tackle persistent stains:
- Drop the poo into the toilet as soon as you’re able to rather than leaving it until later to deal with. By reducing the time that the nappy and insert are in contact with the poo, you’re less likely to get stains.
- Spray a pre-treater spray (such as Vanish/Napisan, or DiSan from Aldi) wherever needed or use a laundry soap bar such as Sard to scrub on the nappy insert as you’re adding it to the dry pail basket.
- Some people choose to install a bidet sprayer next to their toilet to spray the soiled nappy directly into the toilet instead of using a scrubber brush in the laundry sink. The choice is yours. Just be sure to use a plumber to install the sprayer.
- When you’re putting your pre-wash on, you can add stain remover powder into the same tray as your normal detergent. The amount you add will depend on the water hardness in your area.
- As you’re getting nappies out of the pre-wash, check to see if all stains have gone. Treat again as above if any remain and place in your second dry pail basket to await the main wash.
- Finally, if your baby has very stainy poos and you’ve tried all of the above: try soaking the insert in a small plastic container overnight with some stain removing laundry booster. Note: DO NOT soak the covers as this can cause damage.
5. How to dry cloth nappies
Once you’ve got your wash routine sorted, it’s time to ensure you dry the nappies correctly without causing them any damage.
The cover and inserts are made from different materials and therefore drying instructions differ for each.
How to dry nappy covers
Nappy covers should be dried on the line, out of direct sunlight.
The PUL is made from laminated fabric that has a breathable water-resistant layer, and it needs to be treated carefully to ensure it doesn’t get damaged.
Treat it carefully and your PUL covers will last many years and through numerous children.
Damaged PUL can mean it no longer does its job of keeping moisture inside the nappy, and can lead to leaks.
Do not tumble dry, not only can the heat damage the PUL, but the snaps and elastics can get caught and cause irreversible damage.
Take care when removing your nappy covers from the line not to tug at the elastics as this can damage them.
How to dry nappy inserts
These are far more durable and can either be line dried in the sun or put in the tumble dryer on a hot setting. Even the hottest setting is fine for NappyLuxe inserts.
However, we are eco-conscious at NappyLuxe and we recommend line-drying wherever possible.
6. How to strip and sanitise cloth nappies (S&S)
A strip clean, or a strip and sanitise, is effectively a very deep clean of your nappies.
You shouldn’t need to do this very often, or at all, if you have a good thorough wash routine.
Here are a few examples where you might need to do a strip clean:
- Your nappies and/or inserts smell / are stained. You’ve tried washing them a number of times using our wash instructions above and the stains/smells still won’t budge.
- Your nappies and/or inserts have become a bit discoloured. You’ve tried washing them a number of times using our recommended wash instructions and they are still discoloured. This may be because they were a little neglected, or it could be colour run from darker items of clothing.
- Your baby keeps getting a very red nappy rash. It’s possible that this could be ammonia burn from a build-up of ammonia in your nappies if something went amiss in your wash routine.
- You purchased or were given second-hand nappies. These may not be stained or smelly, but it’s still hygienic to start afresh with totally clean nappies.
NappyLuxe snap in nappy covers have been designed without any excess fabric that could hold on to stains or smells, so it’s very rare that the covers will need a strip and sanitise.
If you have found that your covers do have any stains or smells, we recommend putting them through 2 separate long 60 degree washes, of around 3 hours each, which should resolve most issues.
The inserts are made of numerous highly absorbent layers of fabric and therefore are more likely to pick up stains or smells if they’re not looked after carefully.
If you do need to do a strip and sanitise, head on over to Clean Cloth Nappies to discover the latest method.
Thanks for reading. We hope you have learnt a few things on how to clean cloth nappies.
Don’t forget to read our other guide The ultimate FREE guide to using modern cloth nappies in 2023 to other tips and tricks for using cloth nappies.
Guide by Natalie Lassen
Natalie, Founder of NappyLuxe, is an eco-conscious mother and entrepreneur who discovered the benefits of cloth nappies for her family and the environment. With a mission to create the ultimate cloth nappy, she spent years researching and testing various designs before launching NappyLuxe - a range of high-quality, easy-to-use, and ultra-absorbent cloth nappies. Natalie is passionate about sharing her experience and expertise, helping parents make informed decisions and embark on their own sustainable parenting journey.