Homemade detergent is becoming popular as moms look for more natural options for their cloth diaper laundry. Some homemade detergent is ok for cloth diapers, from what I can see on some ingredient lists. Other home made detergents contain ingredients that are really bad for diapers. Personally, I prefer to use tried and true, clean-rinsing, biodegradable detergents such as Allen's Naturally or Country Save.
The desire to avoid dangerous or unnecessary chemicals is one reason many moms and dads choose to cloth diaper. When you are putting cloth on your baby you know exactly what is touching their skin. As a mom, I really like knowing that I am not putting bleached paper pulp or petroleum-based plastics on my baby. However, that desire to use all natural products is not as clear as it looks when choosing a detergent.
Typical laundry detergents contain optical brighteners, fragrances, dyes, enzymes, fabric softeners and other chemicals designed to stick to fabric. Those chemicals stay on the fabrics and are in contact with your baby's skin all day, every day. For cloth diapers, those chemicals can cause or worsen diaper rashes.
So, home made detergent is better, right? In most cases, the answer is no. I am open to the possibility that there are truly safe home made detergents available. Some people swear by one brand, some by another. If you choose to use a homemade detergent, first make sure that you know what is in it. These detergents are not regulated and are often based on a recipe found on the internet or what a particular person thinks would make a nice detergent. Very rarely are they based on science and I have yet to see one that was designed by someone with a background in household chemical use.
Watch out for these ingredients, as well as any others that sound fishy:
* Fragrances. Fragrance oils can coat fabric if they are used in large amounts. Essential oils can also coat fabrics. Even if an essential oil is "natural" that does not mean it is safe, so be aware that some essential oils are not safe for use by babies or pregnant women (such as rosemary). Also, some fragrance oils are not intended for use on skin, so if they are used in laundry detergent there is no way to know if they are safe.
* Natural or handmade soap. ALL soap is made with oils and lye. Properly made soap has no lye left in it, so it is safe for skin. However, the oils in soap can and will coat fabric. A properly made (with minimal "superfatting") natural laundry soap should be fine for regular laundry, but can cause problems with cloth diapers. Those oils can lead to repelling diapers instead of absorbing.
* Fels Naptha. I don't know why so many people think this is a natural product. Read here for more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fels-Naptha. That is NOT coming in my house.
* Borax. Borax can prematurely age elastic and PUL. If you are using all cotton diapers, it shouldn't hurt them. However, borax can be toxic if inhaled. May cause other health problems as well. Safer than some things, not as safe as many believe it is. http://www.anvilfire.com/21centbs/material/33850-usborax-borax.pdf.
* Washing Soda. Washing soda can remove stains, but it is very caustic and can cause chemical burns. It can also wear down elastic and degrade diaper fibers. http://www.diaperpin.com/clothdiapers/article_bakingsoda.asp
So, what detergent should you use? I can't answer that directly, since water and personal circumstances vary.
You can see more information about choosing a detergent here.
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