How to Wash Cloth Diapers For the First Time

When considering how to wash cloth diapers for the first time, you must think about many things such as what kind of material the diaper is made of and how much detergent to use based on how many diapers you are washing. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

While no rules are set in stone, this extensive guide walks you through the nitty-gritty of how to wash cloth diapers for the first time!

Why prep cloth diapers?

You want to make sure your diaper is clean before you put it on your baby. The cloth diaper is worn right on the most sensitive part of your baby, so you certainly want to make sure it’s fully clean. 

Since cloth diapers are manufactured, whether it’s by a small business or a large company, there is always the risk of contamination. 

You also want to remove all the natural plant oils from the natural fibers of the diaper. Bamboo, hemp, and cotton fabrics all contain some of the natural oils from the plants. Oil repels moisture, so if you want the diapers to be functional you have to get rid of the oils.

The crops vary from season to season, so the same kind of fabric might take a different amount of washes to be prepared when you buy diapers from different batches.

Generally speaking, natural fiber fabric reaches the best absorbency after 10 washes.

How do I prep my cloth diapers?

First, figure out what kind of fabric you have by looking at the product tags. This will determine how you need to prep your diapers.

Polyester diapers

Polyester cloth diapers contain stay-dry linings and microterry. If your diapers are completely polyester or a polyester-nylon blend, they will only need one wash.

Here are the steps to wash a polyester cloth diaper.

  1. Put the diapers in your washing machine with detergent.
  2. Run a hot wash cycle.
  3. Rinse for a second time to make sure all the detergent is removed.
  4. Hang the diapers to dry or machine dry the diapers on low heat.
  5. Don’t use fabric softeners or bleach.

Cotton, hemp, and bamboo diapers

Natural fibers need many washes to become absorbent. Generally speaking, the darker the fiber is, the more washes it will need to be fully absorbent. White fibers already had some of the natural plant oils taken out of the fiber during the manufacturing process.

Shrinkage is completely normal and should be expected when you’re prepping natural fiber diapers. 

Hemp and cotton diapers can shrink 10-15% while bamboo can shrink around 20%.

Here are the steps to prep cotton, hemp, and bamboo diapers:

  1. Put the diapers in your washing machine.
  2. Run a hot wash cycle.
  3. Rince for a second time to make sure all the detergent is removed.
  4. Machine dry on the lowest heat setting. When you use a dryer it helps to make the diapers’ fabric softer.
  5. Repeat at least 3-5 times.
  6. Diapers will be ready to be used during the day, but they won’t reach their best absorbency until they have been washed 10 times. It’s best to wait until you reach this point before using the diapers during bedtime or naps.
  7. Don’t use fabric softeners or bleach.

How do I know how much detergent to use?

If you have a problem with recurring smelly diapers, it is likely that you aren’t using enough detergent. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet about how much detergent to use.

Around a decade ago the general consensus, both by retailers and by bloggers, was to use ½ the amount of detergent that the manufacturer recommended.

Throughout the years, this misinformation has scared people from using enough detergent because they’re worried about ruining their diapers. 

If you are using cloth diaper-specific detergents, they have a small amount of fillers. Sometimes they have no fillers at all. Due to this, you can use between 1 and 4 tablespoons. 

But if you are using a commercial detergent, you will need much more.

What are the factors when deciding how much detergent to use?

Some factors include:

  1. Washer
  2. Water
  3. Diaper fabric
  4. Diaper quantity
  5. Detergent

The first step is to choose what detergent you’re going to use. Purex Free ; Clear, Gain, Tide Free ; Gentle, and Tide are all safe bets. If you want to go a more natural route, cloth diaper detergents are a good option.

Next you need to determine how big your load is. 

A small load fills around ⅓ of your washing machine. It includes around 10 diapers, a pail liner, a wet bag, and cloth wipes.

A medium load fills around ½ or ⅔ of your washing machine. It includes around 12-15 diapers, 2 pail liners, 2 wet bags, and cloth wipes.

A large load fills around ⅔ or ¾ of your washing machine. It includes around 15-18 diapers, 2 pail liners, 3 wet bags, and cloth wipes.

Here are some tables to help you know how much detergent to use.


Load Size# On Cup

Tide Simply Clean ; Fresh

Load Size# On Cup

Arm ; Hammer

Load Size# On Cup


Load Size# On Cup
Small 1


Load Size# On Cup
Medium 3

You might need to change the number a bit depending on if you have hard water or soft water. Set your water level to match your load size.

What are wet bags?

A wet bag is a way to store and transport dirty diapers when you’re not home. 

It is a leak resistant, waterproof, and reusable bag with a zipper to keep liquids and odors from escaping.

They can usually hold up to 3-15 cloth diapers.

What are diaper pails?

A diaper pail is essentially a trash can specifically designed for dirty diapers. It can hold disposable diapers or cloth diapers. 

Diaper pails seal to prevent odors from escaping.

What are the benefits of cloth diapers?

Health benefits

  • Cloth diapers support potty training because the infant is able to feel when the diaper is wet.
  • There is less exposure to harmful chemicals like fragrances or pesticides. Organic cotton diapers don’t have pesticides.
  • Cloth diapers reduce skin irritation because they are more breathable.
  • If an infant has allergies, they might have skin reactions to chemicals or fabrics in disposable diapers.


The verdict is still out on whether or not disposable or reusable diapers are better for the environment. Most studies took place decades or many decades ago.

There is a belief that manufacturing cotton diapers, as well as all the water used to wash them, is just as bad, or worse, for the environment as filling landfills with reusable diapers.

Washing your cloth diapers in full loads and using a clothes hanger instead of a dryer can reduce environmental impact by around 15%.

Also, if you reuse your diapers on more than one baby it can greatly reduce their impact on the environment.

Other reasons

Other reasons for using cloth diapers include:

  • Enjoying how they look
  • Saving money
  • Supporting local and small businesses
  • Not supporting large diaper companies

What are some downsides of cloth diapers?

Cloth diapers are not the best choice for everyone.

You won’t always save money by using cloth diapers. If you buy high-end cloth diapers or use a laundering service, that can end up costing a lot of money.

Cloth diapers can also be inconvenient. Having to wash diapers on top of being a new parent and juggling self care, other children, family obligations, and work can be a huge chore. 

It is unclear if cloth diapers are better for the environment. If you are using them just for their environmental impact, read the current literature and launder them in the most sustainable way possible.

They aren’t the go-to. This means that other caregivers like babysitters, daycare staff, and family members may not know how to use them.

Lastly, they don’t guarantee that your baby won’t be exposed to chemicals. Some cloth diapers may have pesticide residue, fragrances, bleaches, or dyes. Detergents can also expose your baby to chemicals so choose carefully.

Final thoughts

It is important to prep your diapers to get rid of plant oils and any potential contamination from the manufacturing process. Your cloth diapers are going on the most sensitive part of your baby, so you want to do everything you can to make sure they’re perfect.

Polyester diapers have a different first-washing method than hemp, bamboo, and cotton diapers. The main difference is that you have to repeat the process multiple times with hemp, bamboo, and cotton diapers, whereas you only need to go through the process once with polyester diapers.

Follow the table charts to determine how much detergent to use based on the detergent and load size.

Cloth diapers are a great choice for many families and hopefully this guide has given you more confidence and the knowledge you need to prep your cloth diapers the right way.

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