Fabric Softener on Cloth Diapers

Cottontail

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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! My previous cloth diapers were the ones I'd worn as a baby, and had consequently been washed hundreds of times. Obviously, this wasn't a practical approach to softening my new diapers, but I still wanted crazy-soft diapers more than anything. So, I searched for easier ways to soften diapers.

Fabric softeners seemed like the obvious answer, but conventional softeners have a tendency to reduce absorbency, and coat the diaper in a "repelling" layer, causing liquid to just roll of the fabric like oil on Teflon. However, testimonials from parents on several boards indicated that they had not noticed any such problems when employing eco-friendly "green" fabric softeners with their child's cloth diapers. Of the fabric softeners discussed, Ecover softener seemed to be the most highly recommended.

I decided it was worth a try, 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, it seemed worth testing.



Aim



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



Hypothesis


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:

231-1-PreppingDiapers.jpg



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.

231-2-MarkedUpDiapers.jpg



3) Next, each pair of diapers was run through a rinse cycle with the maximum possible volume 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".

231-3-FakePee.jpg



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.

231-4-ReservoirCloseup.jpg



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.

231-5-TestAssembly.jpg



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).

231-6-DownyDiaperUnderTest.jpg



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 check for any anomalies in the process. The repeated tests produced almost identical results.



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. The dye appears darker on the softened diapers because the fabric didn't wick the liquid as effectively.

231-7-TestResults.jpg




Supplemental Test #1: Washout


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":

231-8-WashoutResults.jpg




Supplemental Test #2: Larger Load


In the real world, a load consisting of a mere two baby diapers would be ridiculous. Add to that a full dose of fabric softener and each diaper is quite literally bathed in softener! It's a worst-case scenario, at least intuitively. But how does it actually affect absorbency? Anecdotally, my own experiences washing several adult-size diapers with Ecover suggest that a greater diaper-to-softener ratio makes the diapers soft without absolutely destroying the absorbency.

For this final test, I applied the same quantity of Ecover used in the first test to a load of one dozen diapers. These consisted of the original half-dozen Bummis prefolds (pre-washed to eliminate as much of the previously-applied softener as possible), and a half-dozen Green Mountain Diapers prefolds, which I'd recently purchased for stuffers, prepped, but never softened. Admittedly, involving a different brand of diaper poisons the test a little, but this is all about whether or not we see a change, and I didn't want to buy more diapers.

And? Well, see the results below--a big difference! Though the diapers still came out feeling wonderfully squishy and soft, they leaked only about a third more than the unsoftened diapers had in previous tests. The wetness didn't roll straight off, though it didn't wick evenly throughout the diaper core either. Rather, it did something in between, though happily closer to the latter than the former:

231-9-LargerLoadTest.jpg




Conclusion


Should you use softener of any kind on your cloth diapers? It "depends." Some facts to consider:

1) As demonstrated above, the effects of softener vary significantly. Applied in large quantities to very small loads, it clearly hurts absorbency a lot. On larger loads, however, one can reasonably expect to gain softness while retaining a majority of the diaper's original absorbency.

2) The effects of softener are easily undone, especially in the case of Ecover. Diapers no longer absorbent enough? Restore their original absorbency with a few normal, no-softener wash cycles.

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 when applied to my normal loads of 2-3 adult prefolds (equivalent to about a dozen toddler ones), Ecover has left enough absorbency to handle a couple of wettings. Further, if I ever needed maximum absorbency, I could either stuff my diapers 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.
 
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I learned on the internet that mothers now days say not to use fabric softner all all.instead I leatned to use white vinegar in my final rinse.to pre rinse wet diapers first in cold water,then wash in hottest water with a good detergent an never use chlorine bleach,instead I use borateem as an additive,then 2 rinses in cold water with the final rinse adding like 1/2 cup of white vinegar ,then dry diapers.vinegar eliminates germs,residual detergent,odors,take place of fabric softners.
 
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My cloth diapers are flat rectangles, home made from different fabrics, I wash them with or without softener and could not find any big difference except that they feel better with softener, so usually I add some softener.
 
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poobrat said:
I learned on the internet that mothers now days say not to use fabric softner all all.instead I leatned to use white vinegar in my final rinse.to pre rinse wet diapers first in cold water,then wash in hottest water with a good detergent an never use chlorine bleach,instead I use borateem as an additive,then 2 rinses in cold water with the final rinse adding like 1/2 cup of white vinegar ,then dry diapers.vinegar eliminates germs,residual detergent,odors,take place of fabric softners.

(Better late than never, I s'pose!)

I've tried the vinegar thing, and... :shrug: It doesn't really work. Not for me, anyway. Maybe if I had super hard water or something, and my diapers were getting calcified. Then, perhaps, the vinegar would help dissolve and displace the solids much like how descaling solutions remove calcium from coffee pots. But actively softening fabric is something else, really. You're coating the fibers. Compare a fabric softener like Ecover to what you get with vinegar, and there's no comparison in terms of softness.
 
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That's amazing Cottontail. I wonder what would happen if you used half the recommended amount of softener? Would the diapers be more absorbent and would they feel just as soft? You certainly did a lot of work on this experiment. I've noticed that a lot of the more resent cloth diapers seem a little less soft. Of course, they may last longer if the weave is tighter.
 
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dogboy said:
That's amazing Cottontail. I wonder what would happen if you used half the recommended amount of softener? Would the diapers be more absorbent and would they feel just as soft? You certainly did a lot of work on this experiment. I've noticed that a lot of the more resent cloth diapers seem a little less soft. Of course, they may last longer if the weave is tighter.

Hey! Glad to be of entertainment. :)

I've observed a few more things in the years since writing this post-turned-article, and they've influenced my routine a bit. I actually used to do more or less what you're suggesting. I'd add a bit (but not a lot) of softener to each load, with the aim of maintaining the softness of my diapers. What I found, though, was that after a few dozen back-to-back washes with softener, my once puckered- and quilted-looking twill diapers were starting to become smoother and flatter. I concluded that the softener was accumulating faster than the intervening wash cycles could deplete it.

Rather than resume my search for the perfect quantity of softener (it might be mythical), I took what seemed like an easier approach and went to using softener only on every other rinse cycle. The hope was that, with two wash cycles (including detergent) between softenings, the balance would be tipped the other way. The downside would be that my diapers would alternate between being "very soft" and "a bit soft," but that seemed preferable to loosing my precious quilty twill.

And that seems to work very well.

All of this needs tuning to one's diaper load size, water quality, and preferences, too. I don't do the prewash/rinse thing that some people do, and I'm sure that has an effect. I recently moved from a house on a municipal water system to one on a private well, too. We have a water softener and use detergent boosters for hard water, but my fabric-softener-to-diaper ratios were totally reset. D'oh! (I'm back on top of things now, though.)
 
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I wonder what the effect of dryer sheets would be.
 
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Vic92 said:
I wonder what the effect of dryer sheets would be.

The softening agent in most dryer sheets is lanolin, so I assume given a balanced load it'd be about the same.
 
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but if softener of fabrics are based in petroleum
 
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dltrainer said:
but if softener of fabrics are based in petroleum

Which doesn't dissolve in water/pee, and instead coats the cotton. See where we're going here?
 
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Wow Cottontail, this was fantastic. I knew you had to have a science background and you do! Thanx for writing it.
 
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Conclusion


Should you use softener of any kind on your cloth diapers? It "depends." Some facts to consider:

1) As demonstrated above, the effects of softener vary significantly. Applied in large quantities to very small loads, it clearly hurts absorbency a lot. On larger loads, however, one can reasonably expect to gain softness while retaining a majority of the diaper's original absorbency.

2) The effects of softener are easily undone, especially in the case of Ecover. Diapers no longer absorbent enough? Restore their original absorbency with a few normal, no-softener wash cycles.

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 when applied to my normal loads of 2-3 adult prefolds (equivalent to about a dozen toddler ones), Ecover has left enough absorbency to handle a couple of wettings. Further, if I ever needed maximum absorbency, I could either stuff my diapers 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.
That's research done right! I don't document for all practical purposes ANYTHING, the bane of my existence. One thing about chemicals on or in your clothes, get a turkey baster and each time you get a new laundry product, put a tiny drop on the inside of your wrist and remember (or document) the result. That's the one patch of skin that would most often won't be affected by chafing clothes. Even if it's the same brand but a different scent or colour. EU regulations are tighter than the US ones and the chemical companies take full advantage. All they really have to state is "proprietary formula".
 
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Wow this was great. Entertaining and Educational. Thanks for putting this experiment together, documenting it, and then sharing it with us. (y)
 
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poobrat said:
I learned on the internet that mothers now days say not to use fabric softner all all.instead I leatned to use white vinegar in my final rinse.to pre rinse wet diapers first in cold water,then wash in hottest water with a good detergent an never use chlorine bleach,instead I use borateem as an additive,then 2 rinses in cold water with the final rinse adding like 1/2 cup of white vinegar ,then dry diapers.vinegar eliminates germs,residual detergent,odors,take place of fabric softners.
Are you folks all talking about pre-fold diapers? I am just wondering, as I use the Babykins Pull-On diapers as a cloth solution. I've not had much trouble with overly hardened cotton. I wonder why. I never bleach or use fabric softener. I use a "all natural" no dyes, etc, detergent, wash in machine on normal cotton fabric setting, and then I dry them two cycles on a lower heat (knits & delicate setting), once inside out and then right side out. MY cloth diapers have held up very well over the years. Some do get stains, but I wear plastic panties and frilly diaper covers and you never even see the cloth diaper, so I don't mind the staining so much.
 
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Cottontail said:
So what will I do? I will absolutely continue softening my diapers with Ecover. The feel is just too awesome to pass up, and when applied to my normal loads of 2-3 adult prefolds (equivalent to about a dozen toddler ones), Ecover has left enough absorbency to handle a couple of wettings. Further, if I ever needed maximum absorbency, I could either stuff my diapers 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.
Thanks for taking the time to share your insights. My wife will now purchase Ecover for my diapers and we will try your advice.

You inspired me to ask AI for its suggestion for making diapers softer. Of course, you can't mention the word "diaper" with AI and get anywhere, so I framed the question more generically. Here is my prompt and Claude's response:

Cotton fabrics become "harder" over time due to washing in hard water and exposure to minerals through sweat and urine. What is the safest and most effective method for softening fabrics that have been mineralized?

Here are some tips for safely and effectively softening mineralized cotton fabrics:

- Use a store-bought fabric softener when washing the clothes. Look for products labeled as being safe for hard water. The softeners contain ingredients that help remove mineral deposits. Follow the product instructions for best results.

- Soak the fabrics in a mixture of 1 cup white vinegar and 1 gallon of warm water for 30 minutes before washing. The acidic vinegar helps dissolve mineral deposits.

- Make a solution of 1 cup baking soda in 1 gallon of warm water and soak the fabrics for 30 minutes. Baking soda helps neutralize and remove mineral buildup.

- For spot treatment on extra hard water stains, make a paste with 2 parts baking soda and 1 part water. Gently rub the paste into the stained area and let sit for up to an hour before washing.

- Use a water softening shower head attachment when washing mineralized clothes in hard water. It will help prevent further mineral buildup.

- Consider installing a home water softener system if dealing with very hard water on a regular basis. This will soften the water for the whole house.

The key is to avoid harsh chemicals that could damage fabrics. With some simple natural ingredients and the proper laundry techniques, you can safely soften up mineralized cottons.
 
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I did some more research based on the ingredients of Ecover available in the USA. The same ingredients in Ecover are found in another product called Seventh Generation fabric softener. You can buy it online from Walmart at a fraction of the cost of Ecover. I'm going to give it a try.
 
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i have been told fabric softener can reduce the absorbencies of the products
 
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carrielg said:
i have been told fabric softener can reduce the absorbencies of the products
We are told many things in life. I have been using fabric softeners on diapers for more than forty years. Rest assured, they still absorb wetness.

The keyword is "reduction." The absorbency may be reduced, but if you increase the quantity of cotton (add more thickness) you can find a point where the softness is satisfactory and the diaper holds the required amount of urine. As Cottontail pointed out, softness is an important characteristic of a diaper.

Also, the absorbency of the fabric is time-related. If you pour a fluid over the surface, a diaper treated with a softener will allow more fluid to run off because the absorption rate is slower. But if you wrap the diaper around the source of the fluid, the fluid will have nowhere to go except through the fabric. Since I always wear my diapers rather than pee on them from a distance, the diapers have to absorb the fluid.
 
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tumble drying is good for making them fluffy
 
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Yes, tumble drying is key to maintaining soft diapers. I tried drying them on a clothesline and it was like wearing a cardboard box. Absorbent, but not very comfortable. ;) We just bought a new dryer that arrived yesterday.
 
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