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Thread: Experiment: Fabric Softener on Cloth Diapers

  1. #1

    Lightbulb Experiment: Fabric Softener on Cloth Diapers

    Background

    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:

    Goal

    The goal of this experiment is to observe and roughly quantify the effects of fabric softeners on cloth diapers.

    Expected Result

    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?

    Methodology

    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.

    Execution

    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.

    Actual 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:


    Supplemental Test

    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":


    Conclusion

    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.

  2. #2

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    Interesting. I personally find my cloth to be soft enough without adding any chemical softeners, but its good to see that it doesn't leave any lasting problems. You might also try 'dryer balls'. I've been using them as my only fabric softener for a couple years now. I personally find them to be about as effective as any fabric softener I have used before, and no chemicals needed.

  3. #3

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    Quote Originally Posted by babyhawk View Post
    You might also try 'dryer balls'. I've been using them as my only fabric softener for a couple years now. I personally find them to be about as effective as any fabric softener I have used before, and no chemicals needed.
    Good to hear! I definitely plan on trying these at some point.

    "Soft" is a relative term. I expect many people would have called my adult diapers "soft" before anything but prepping had been done. Unfortunately for me, I was "poisoned" by having worn my old 1970's Curity baby diapers from age 2 until around age 12-13. They were (and are--I have a couple!) ridiculously soft! I love my new cloth diapers, but the softness can't compare unless it's been helped along a bit. Which I don't mind doing.

  4. #4

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    This is absolutely amazing and super valuable. I'd often heard that you shouldn't use fabric softeners on cloth diapers because it would harm their absorbency, but I wasn't sure whether it was true, or how true it was. Thank you so much for actually doing this experiment.

  5. #5

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    Quote Originally Posted by LilJennie View Post
    This is absolutely amazing and super valuable. I'd often heard that you shouldn't use fabric softeners on cloth diapers because it would harm their absorbency, but I wasn't sure whether it was true, or how true it was. Thank you so much for actually doing this experiment.
    No prob! But again, I think that perhaps the most important finding here is that it's easy to undo the effects of the softener if you don't like them. I may do a follow-up test the next time I run a large load of diapers just to see what a "normal" (for me) concentration of the Ecover does. Of course, the most practical test is the one I've already done countless times: Wear and use the softened diapers! (That's the most fun kind of testing to do, too! )

  6. #6

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    Thanks for taking the time to do this test and post your results. I think I may have to give Ecover a try some time with my CTDC prefolds. I usually prioritize absorbency over super-softness, but this sounds like it might be nice

    But my favorite way to 'soften' the feel of a cloth diaper without actually adding fabric softener is to add a high-quality (think Malden Mills or Polartec, not JoAnn Fabrics) microfleece liner. This can just be a simple rectangle that is laid inside the cloth diaper or the inner liner of a pocket diaper. It feels amazing; I'm not sure if even a softened cloth diaper could compare, since the very weave of the cotton fabric will always add some roughness. There is no weave with microfiber, and as an added bonus it acts as a feel-dry liner.

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