Several months ago, I got my first adult cloth diapers (prefolds) from AdultClothDiaper.com and ChangingTimesDiaperCo.com. It was the first time I'd worn cloth diapers since my youth, and... well, they just didn't seem soft enough! Now, bear in mind that my previous cloth diapers were the ones I'd worn as a baby, and had been washed literally hundreds of times. Still, I wanted crazy-soft diapers more than anything! Sooo...
I searched for ways to soften diapers. Parents on several boards recommended using eco-friendly "green" fabric softeners, saying that they hadn't observed any "repelling" (when liquid just rolls off of the fabric) when using these softeners with their child's cloth diapers. Of the fabric softeners discussed, Ecover softener seemed to be the most recommended.
I said, "What the heck!!" I bought some Ecover softener, washed my diapers with it, and OH MY GOD! The diapers felt AMAZING. Just so, so good, I wanted to wear them all the time. They were soft, squishy... I just can't adequately describe how amazing softened cloth diapers feel!
I hadn't spent much time in my new cloth diapers before trying softener on them, and I also tend not to wear wet diapers for long, so I would likely never have noticed any change in their performance had I not gone looking for it. Still, for those who wear cloth and have wondered (including myself), it seemed worth testing.
So I did. Here you go:
The goal of this experiment is to observe and roughly quantify the effects of fabric softeners on cloth diapers.
I expect to see that fabric softeners do harm diaper performance, with the eco-friendly "green" softeners being less harmful than the conventional softeners. After all, mothers can't be wrong about Ecover… right?
Subject diapers, both softened and non-softened, are placed on a flat surface that has been tilted to encourage runoff. A predetermined quantity of water is then slowly poured onto the "up" end of each diaper. Runoff is then measured, with lower measurements indicating better performance.
1) For this test, I bought six Bummis organic cotton 4x8x4-ply prefold diapers, toddler size (because a local maternity store happened to carry them). Cotton diapers require several "prep" washes to remove the natural oils so that they don't repel urine. I ran the diapers through six full wash/dry cycles. They became nice and thick and quilted-looking:
2) I then marked the corners of the diapers that were going to be softened so that I wouldn't confuse them. One hatch mark for the Ecover, two marks for Downy, a conventional softener. The unmarked diapers would be the "control" diapers, and would be tested without softener.
3) Next, each pair of diapers was run through a rinse cycle with a MAXIMUM QUANTITY of its respective softener, according to the directions on the bottle. This is certainly a worst-case scenario (normally, one would be washing more than two baby diapers!), however I wanted to make sure that the effects of each particular softener on the diaper were clearly observed.
4) Three cups of green-dyed water would be used in each test--"fake pee":
5) To ensure a nice, even flow of liquid onto the diapers, I sabotaged a thin plastic container by poking a 1/8" hole in the bottom with a screwdriver.
6) Each diaper was placed, in turn, into a large serving tray that was tilted approximately 20 degrees. An overturned dish rack was placed over the "up" end of the tray to hold the reservoir of liquid. Note that in some of these pictures, it appears as though the rack is actually coming into contact with the diaper. That is not the case.
7) The liquid was poured into the reservoir and allowed to run onto each diaper (this is the Downy-softened diaper, and you can see how the liquid is rolling off):
8) Once the reservoir was empty, the diaper was removed and the liquid that had escaped into the bottom of the tray and the underlying pan was poured back into the measuring cup to see how much had run off.
9) The test was repeated for each diaper's twin to ensure my sanity. The repeated tests produced almost identical results.
Not surprisingly, the unsoftened diapers fared best, absorbing 2 of the 3 cups of liquid poured onto them. The Ecover-softened diapers fared worse than I had hoped, absorbing half as much as the unsoftened diapers. Finally, the Downy diapers absorbed only half as much as the Ecover diapers. Ouch. The dye appears darker on the softened diapers because the liquid didn't spread out into the fabric as much:
So, my Ecover- and Downy-softened diapers were no longer particularly absorbent. The question was: For how long? As a quick test, I decided to run the softened diapers through three back-to-back washes without softener, then measure them again to see if their original performance had been restored. Here are the results, which show that, at least with Ecover, three washes was indeed an effective "undo":
Should you use softener of any kind on your cloth diapers? It "depends." Some facts to consider:
1) As indicated above, this was a worst case scenario, with each softener being used in its maximum concentration on a very small load. Normally, you would not do such a thing.
2) The effects of softener are easily undone, especially in the case of Ecover.
3) Softened diapers feel FRICKIN' AMAZING.
So what will I do? I will absolutely continue softening my diapers with Ecover. The feel is just too awesome to pass up, and in smaller quantities the softener has left my adult diapers absorbent enough to take a couple of wettings from me. That's more than enough. Further, if I ever needed maximum absorbency, I could either stuff my diapers (which I often do anyway just for the padding) or "unsoften" some of my diapers with a couple of back-to-back washes.
Final verdict: Go forth and experiment fearlessly. There is no lasting harm in trying.