How to Strip Wash Cloth Nappies/Diapers

Why would you strip wash?Over time, laundry detergent can become trapped in the fibres of your nappies even when you only use the absolute minimum amount to wash them. This can cause the nappies to become less absorbent because they’re clogged up with detergent and then they start to leak when they would normally be fine. The trapped detergent also traps bacteria which can start to smell.

If you notice that your nappies have a strong smell (sometimes like ammonia*, sometimes just a musty smell, particulary when warm and wet like after half an hour in the tumble dryer) even when they’re clean, or they smell bad after only one wee in them, you may have detergent build up. The trapped bacteria can also irritate baby’s skin and cause nappy rash.

If your nappies start to smell, suddenly start leaking when they’d normally be fine or baby has unexplained rash, it may be time to strip wash.

*It’s pretty normal for night nappies to be whiffy after a full night, but if you can’t wash the smell out you may have detergent build up.

How do you strip wash?There are a couple of different ways to strip wash. Do check the washing instructions for your nappies – some advise against particular methods and using them may invalidate any guarantee on them. As a general rule, I would be happy to do all of the following methods every so often. I wouldn’t do the harsher methods (like the ones using vinegar and bicarb, which can shorten the life of bamboo and cotton) unless it was absolutely necessary. If you are finding it necessary to use these methods often, I would work out why – perhaps your washing routine could do with tweaking. I would be happy to use the gentler methods more often.

The easiest is the ‘Dishwasher Tablet Method’:

  • Wash your nappies as usual and leave them in the machine.
  • Add a bog standard dishwasher tablet (no fancy gels or dissolving wrappers) to the drum with the nappies.
  • Do a good length wash cycle (no quick washes) on 60 degrees C.
  • Do an extra rinse or two.
  • Dry the nappies as usual and they’re ready to use.

This is the least thorough of the methods but it is usually enough. This is a good way to prevent build up in the first place so I usually aim to do it every 6 weeks or so. It’s very quick and easy and is suitable for PUL and elastic.

The next method is the ‘Full Dose of Detergent Method’:

  • You can start with clean or dirty nappies, wet or dry.
  • Use a full dose of detergent (rather than the small amount you’d normally use) and do a good length wash cycle (no quick washes) on 60 degrees C.
  • Rinse, rinse, rinse and keep rinsing until no more detergent bubbles come out in the water. Be prepared for this to take ALL day. You can use cold water.
  • If it is taking too long or you need the washing machine for something else, you can carry on the rinsing in the bath – run a full bath of cold water (no need to waste hot water) and leave the nappies to soak in it for an hour or more. Swirl them round in the water every now and then. When the washing machine is free again, carry on the rinsing in there. It shouldn’t take many more rinses after the soak.
  • Once the rinsing is finished, dry the nappies as usual and then they’re ready to use.

This method is really thorough and will normally shift pretty stubborn detergent build up. It takes AGES but it’s worth it if your nappies needed it. It is okay for PUL and elastic.

The third method is the ‘Washing Up Liquid Method’:

  • Start with clean nappies.
  • Soak all nappies in a bath of hot water and washing up liquid overnight.
  • Next scrub each nappy/insert/liner with neat washing up liquid and a scrubbing brush.
  • Soak them again overnight.
  • You can boil inserts and things with no elastic or PUL in water and washing up liquid if you like.
  • Then rinse them in the machine until no more bubbles come out. This may take until the end of your natural life!

This is an extremely thorough way to strip wash but is VERY labour intensive and will take an awfully long time. I would only do this if both other methods have failed you. It is okay for PUL and elastic.

The following methods are NOT suitable for items containing PUL.

The ‘Vinegar and Bicarb Wash Method’:

  • Rinse and spin the nappies in the washing machine.
  • Leave the nappies in the machine and sprinkle them with bicarbonate of soda.
  • Add a generous glug of vinegar to the conditioner drawer and start a wash.
  • As the machine is taking in the water add a glug of vinegar to the detergent drawer too.
  • After the wash, do three extra rinses and spins.

The ‘Vinegar Soak Method’:

  • Start with clean nappies.
  • Soak all items in a 50:50 water and vinegar mix overnight.
  • Rinse out the vinegar in the washing machine.

After each method, if you can hang the nappies to dry in natural light (it doesn’t have to be sunny, any daylight or even moonlight will do) it will help remove stains. Note that the actual washing isn’t intended to remove stains so you won’t suddenly have sparkly white nappies after it.

The above aren’t the only methods and people will have different variations. Please add any of your tips in the comments below.

How to avoid having to strip washI suppose, technically, if you’re having to strip wash it shows that your washing routine isn’t quite right for your nappies. If you are having real problems with stink, leaking or rash I would suggest that you reassess how you’re washing them.

Things to check include:

  • Detergent dose – are you using too much? If you are, it can build up in nappies really quickly and be difficult to strip out (you may need to use the harsher/more time consuming methods to get it out). Generally, 1/4 to 1/3 of the detergent manufacturer’s recommended dose should be plenty unless you’re using a special nappy detergent in which case you should use the recommended dose. Remember to take into consideration what type of water you have e.g. you will need more in hard water areas.
  • Detergent dose – are you using enough? If strip washing makes your issues disappear for a short while but then they come back quickly, you might not be using enough detergent to get them clean. Try increasing the dose a little and see if it helps.
  • Water/rinsing – how much water does your washing machine use? Newer machines are very water efficient, which is bad news for nappies because they are more absorbent than normal clothes. To increase the level of water in the wash cycle you can either do a rinse before the wash (turn off the spin if you can, cold water is fine) or you can put a wet towel in the machine with them. If I’m in a hurry, I sometimes pour a couple of litres of water in on top of the nappies rather than doing the rinse. Then use the ‘heavy soil’/’super wash’ type function for the wash. It should be a good length cycle; quick washes are not sufficient for nappies. After the wash, keep doing extra rinses until no more detergent bubbles come out in the water. You need to check this before the spin as machines often drain any bubbles away at the end so it looks fine even if bubbles were still coming out in the water.
  • Temperature – is the wash hot enough? Many people can successfully wash nappies on 30 degrees all of the time with no issues. However, machines, detergents, nappies, water and babies all vary considerably so if you’ve checked the other things and are still having problems, try washing on hotter (up to 60 degrees C should be fine for most nappies, do check the label though) or doing a hotter wash every now and then.
  • Detergent type – is it right for your nappies? Some people wash on low temperatures with non-bio and it’s fine but others have problems with this. Try something different if what you normally do isn’t working. Make sure you’re not using fabric softener on nappies as this will clog them up very quickly. If you do want to soften them, Bold 2in1 apparently uses a different type of softener to other types – it is clay based, which washes out in the rinse unlike other oil based softeners. One UK distributer of nappies (Baba Me, who distribute Cotton Babies nappies – Bumgenius, Flips, Econobums etc) claims that Ecover detergent does not wash out of nappies properly. They have not provided any evidence for this so make of it what you will.

Having said that if you’re needing to strip wash you’re doing something wrong, I will admit now that I do a dishwasher tablet strip every 6-8 weeks as a preventative measure. I haven’t actually needed to do a strip since I started doing this. Before, I was probably stripping nappies once every 6 months using the full dose of detergent method. Although I could probably tweak my washing routine to eliminate the need to strip completely, I think for me it would simply involve doing more rinses, which takes time, water and electricity. It’s better all round, for me, to do a quick strip wash every 2 months rather than add more extra rinses every wash. So work out what works for you. If that means stripping every now and then but you’re ok with it, go for it!


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