Now that I have several months of cloth diapering behind me, using about 5 different brands, 2 different categories of diaper, and 3 different washing machines, I realized something.
There is NOT a set way to wash cloth diapers. It really depends on you, your diapers, and your washing machine settings.
Here are the main things to keep in mind when setting your routine:
1. Diapers get clean from lots of water, not lots of detergent.
What this means is that whatever detergent you use (see Resources below for more on choosing detergent; I use Ecos Free & Clear, which I buy from Target), use a tiny amount. I use about a quarter of the amount I would normally use on a load. It turns out to be very cost-effective, as well. My bottle of detergent says it has enough for 50 loads, and I've been using it since August and even use it for loads of Svanja's clothes.
What this also means is that you need to run the wash several times WITHOUT detergent (so residue gets washed out) to get the diapers really clean. If you have an extra rinse setting, feel free to use it. If you have pre-wash, you can use that as well. Just make sure the diapers get a lot of water through them. Detergent residue can cause absorbency issues, and urine residue can cause ammonia build-up.
2. Cold water removes stains, hot water gets the dipes clean.
Warm water would probably clean them well, too. I just feel more comfortable getting the hot water running through them. I know there are people who have had diapers melt (although I wonder if it was in the washing machine or dryer), and some diapers (like Charlie Banana) will have warranties go invalid if you wash them in hot water. But I've washed all, including my Charlie Banana with its now-invalid-warranty, in very hot water, and they've held up perfectly fine.
Wash the diapers in cold water to get rid of stains BEFORE you wash in hot water, if you're concerned about stains (for example, if you're planning to sell them on a site like re-diaper.com, or if you just happen to be a neat freak and can't stand stains anywhere). I don't particularly care about stains in my diapers since I find stains to be a normal part of babyhood am going to wear the diapers out on the rest of my kids, but I do wash in cold water first just to try to get an edge on them. And maybe there's some random microbe that dies in cold water but not in hot...you never know! (ok, maybe not...but still!)
3. What really matters in the end is if the diaper smells like nothing.
Seriously. It doesn't matter if your routine is completely different than your friend's, as long as the diapers are getting clean. The easiest way to tell? Get your sniffer working. Toss the diapers into the wash, select a cycle, add a little detergent, and press "Start." At the end, open the lid, and take a whiff; if you smell something, set another cycle (this time without detergent). If you don't smell anything, grab a diaper and hold it close to your nose. If you smell something, toss it back in and start another cycle. Keep repeating till you don't smell anything. Once you don't, toss the diapers in the dryer (on low, of course) or hang them out to dry.
I've found that sometimes there is a hint of scent to the diapers when wet, but when dry, they're completely scent-less. This is okay, but it does mean that next round you may want to put the diapers through for another cycle, since ammonia could be building up. It's better to nip it in the bud than wait until it gets so bad you have to strip the diapers.
You may find that you have to do two cycles with detergent and then two without. You may find you only have to do one cycle with detergent and that's it (although this scenario is unlikely). It just depends on the detergent, your washer, and your diapers.
4. Line-dry or dryer-dry.
Both of those options are available; choose which one works for you. Want to save money, get rid of stains, be a little more green, or start conversations with your neighbor? Line-dry in the sun (the sun bleaches stains). Don't have much time, not sunny or warm out, or want to make sure the diapers are soft and fluffy and not pooped on by both babies and birds? Dry in the dryer on low. I choose the dryer route most of the time since I live in (currently 16* and cloudy) northern Illinois, but in August I would sometimes set them outside to dry. None of my diapers or covers have fallen apart or melted in the dryer, either.
You've probably come to this page looking for a set routine you can do, but I found that mine did not follow anyone else's pattern. I'll tell you what mine is so you can start off of it if you wish, but remember that it may not work for everyone.
We currently use a top-loader (we've used an HE in the past, and I may do another post on some tips for washing with an HE eventually). I put the detergent in, add the diapers, turn the water level to small, turn on extra rinse, and do a regular cold cycle, a regular hot cycle, and another hot cycle. I then throw all the diapers (including the covers) into the dryer and turn it on low until they're dry.
Here are some resources for washing diapers that I would recommend, if you want to delve farther into the topic:
- http://www.diaperjungle.com/detergent-chart.html: REALLY useful chart for figuring out what detergent to buy.
- http://dirtydiaperlaundry.com/how-to-prep-cloth-diapers-your-questions-answered/: AWESOME article on prepping diapers (yes, you do have to do some prep washing before you use your diapers!). Actually, I would highly recommend this entire site for all your cloth diaper questions.
- http://www.greenmountaindiapers.com/washing-diapers.htm: Another article on washing cloth diapers; includes instructions for wool covers.
- http://www.cottonbabies.com/clothdiapers.php: Cloth diaper 101 set up like a FAQ; lots of good info on washing them