Fabric Softeners and Cloth Nappies


One of the big ‘no-no’s about washing cloth nappies is using fabric softeners, which seems a shame, since a soft nappy sounds like a good thing…


How fabric softeners work

There are three main parts to any fabric softener – a conditioning agent, an emulsifier and dyes/fragrances.

The conditioning agent is what makes clothes feel soft, reduces static cling, and makes ironing easier. It does this by coating the fabric with a thin layer of oily residue. Depending on the brand, these agents are either fatty compounds or silicon compounds.

As you can probably guess, an oily substance is not going to work really well in your washing machine let alone bond to the fabric, so emulsifiers are added to make that happen. They work by either making the molecules of the conditioning agent so small they penetrate right into the fibres (micro emulsifier), surround the compound molecules so they can be dispersed into the water rather than separate and float on the top (macro emulsifier), or use an emulsion polymer that sticks the particles to the fabric.

Why is this a problem?

With a fabric softener, you’re essentially taking items that have just been cleaned by your machine, then adding a new layer of residue during the rinse cycle. Fabric softeners are designed to stay in the fabric (and it also has a reputation for staying in your washing machine and causing a gunky buildup).

There are two potential issue that arise when you use fabric softener on your cloth nappies (but applies to other washing as well):
  • You’re adding chemicals to a clean nappy - an item that goes against your baby’s most sensitive skin. If you’re using cloth nappies to reduce exposure of your children to chemicals or because chemical sensitivities run in your family, then this might be a concern as they can cause irritation in some people.
  • Fabrics softeners either take up space in the fibres of the absorbent layers of your nappy, or coat the fabrics making it water repellent. Both of these decrease absorbency by reducing how much urine can be absorbed into a nappy. This is the big one, since being able to absorb is a major criteria of cloth nappies!

Be aware that if you use fabric softeners on the rest of your washing, it will build up in your machine and you will get residue on your cloth nappies, even if you don't add any to your nappy loads.

CHOICE recently ran a test on fabric softeners, comparing both the softness and absorbency in their results. Some manufacturers of fabric softeners were upset that absorbency was even examined as part of the test, but we’re very glad they did as the results clearly showed that the softer the resulting item, the less it absorbed - an issue for things like towels and tea towels as well as cloth nappies. Some big brands of fabric softeners have absorbency scores of 20% (compared to water at 89%). And some brands which had good scores for absorbency (like the top one which was 82%) scored below 50% on the softness scale.


So, how can I soften my cloth nappies?

If your nappies are coming off the line stiff and hard, there are some tricks that you can try to soften your nappies without using fabric softeners.

  • If you live in a hard water area (hard water leaves mineral deposits like calcium and magnesium on your laundry that can make nappies stiff) make sure you're using enough detergent and wash on warmer water to see if it makes a difference.
  • Reduce the speed of the spin cycle on your washing machine - the fabric fibres won't be competely compressed and it increases the drying time.
  • Increase the drying time by hanging nappies in part shade or in the morning or evening - the faster an item dries, generally the stiffer it will be. Just like stiff towels in summer!
  • Before hanging the nappies on the line, give them a shake and a flick to loosen the fabric fibres so they aren't as compressed.
  • When taking your nappies off the line, give them a scrunch as you put them in the basket.
  • After bringing your nappies in from the line, thrown them in the dryer on low heat for 10 minutes.
  • If you don't have a dryer, then some manual scrunching and body heat will soften the nappies up - I used to sit on stiff nappies and in a few minutes they were fine!