There is a lot of confusing and contradictory information on washing cloth nappies online. Contrary to what you often hear, washing cloth nappies should not be complicated.
You don't need a science degree to wash your clothes,
and you don't need one to wash your nappies.
Be guided by your own common sense and experience, and seek advice from people who have wide experience when you need it. Reputable longstanding retailers and manufacturers should be your first port of call if you get stuck. They deal with nappy washing queries all the time and have lots of experience.
You'll find most nappies will need a number of washes before obtaining full absorbency - just like a new tea towel becomes softer and more absorbent the more you wash it. This especially applies to those nappies that use cotton, bamboo or hemp as the absorbent fabric. To save water (and time) soak your new nappies in cold water overnight - this will cut down on the number of washes you have to do. If you can't wait to use your new nappies (let's face it, very few of us can!) it's fine to use them after a soak and a prewash - just be aware that you may experience the odd leak and have to change the nappy more frequently the first few times you use it.
Unbleached cotton prefolds need a slightly different prepping process. Find instructions here.
Nappy Rash CreamsYou may want to use a liner to protect the nappy if you use barrier creams - zinc and oil based barrier creams especially can clog up the fabric of the nappies - though thorough washing with hot water and detergent should remove it without too much difficulty.
Dry Pail/BasketWe recommend dry pailing - place your soiled nappy (after removing solids - see 'What about the poo?') into your nappy basket or bucket DRY. Do not soak, do not add bleach. Rinsing the nappies before placing them in the bucket will dilute the urine if necessary (night nappies benefit from a hot rinse especially) and help prevent stains. Surface stains (STAINS not residue soiling) can be removed after washing with natural sunlight. Rinsing before dry pailing is also recommended if your child has strong wees ('toxic wee' - like that associated with teething) or concentrated wee (like in a night nappy) as the strong urine can damage the fabric if left for too long before washing.
You might see advice around recommending using minimal detergent to wash your nappies for fear of 'detergent build up'. With modern washing machines and better designs of nappies that open up for washing, true detergent build up doesn't happen. Please make sure you use enough detergent to clean your nappies properly.
Check the individual manufacturer's advice regarding detergent use. You should use the full recommended amount of cloth nappy specific detergent and the full amount of supermarket detergents as recommended on the pack. How much detergent you need to use will depend on whether you use cold, warm or hot water (the cooler the water the more detergent you need), the soft/hardness of your water (South Australians have the hardest water and require more detergent than most other places) and which detergent you use, as well as your washing machine. There may be some trial and error involved to get what works best for you (don't be afraid to experiment and change detergents if you don't get a good result), but it shouldn't be complicated. Please note that smelly nappies are usually caused by insufficiently cleaned nappies (often not enough detergent) not by detergent build up.
Generally, until you know whether your child has a sensitivity, you can ensure your detergent does NOT contain ingredients designed to stay in the nappy after washing - fabric softeners, brighteners or artificial scents. These can either cause issues with nappy function (softeners reduce absorbency) or can cause issues for babies with sensitive skin.
An environmentally & grey water safe detergent from the supermarket is a great place to start if you're environmentally conscious or have a baby with sensitive skin. You will need to use the full recommended dosage for heavy soiling for best results, and sometimes more, depending on your water hardness, washing machine and water temperature. Washing in warm or hot will improve results with eco detergents and may be necessary.
Do NOT use fabric softener or soap flakes (stops nappies absorbing), vinegar (breaks down PUL, may damage elastic, and is bad for your washing machine), chlorine bleaches (except under specific circumstances as it can damage fabric & can cause nappy rash), soap nuts (is not a deteregent and is as effective as washing in plain water.)Do NOT use homemade detergent. This will in most cases void your warranty, and the unscientifically tested combination of ingredients could damage your nappies or cause skin reactions. Washing results can also be very mixed.
Do NOT wash on more than 60 degrees. Warm or hot water (less than 60 degrees) generally gets better results than washing in cold.
Depending on your washing machine, use a heavy duty or regular/long cycle. Short cycles don't provide enough agitation time for heavily soiled loads.
If you have a water efficient front loader, make sure you choose a cycle which uses enough water to thoroughly rinse and clean your nappies rather than an Eco or Water Saving cycle - nappies can absorb a lot of water and you want enough water to penetrate the fibres and clean well.
Most people find doing a short wash cycle (just make sure the cycle spins the dirty water out of the machine) before a full wash gives a much better result as a lot of the waste is removed before the full wash cycle.
If your nappies are not getting clean, try increasing the amount of detergent and/or the water temperature or switching detergents. Like any laundry load, make sure you're not overloading your machine.
Yes, you can wash your nappies with other laundry! Just run the nappies through a short cycle by themselves to remove as much urine & poo as possible, then add your other washing to make a full load.
The best method to dry your nappies is to hang them outside - the sun is a great natural bleach for surface stains like blueberry and banana! Many nappies can, however, be tumble dried on low heat - please read each nappy's care instructions prior to doing so and be aware that nappies dried in the dryer on a regular basis will experience more wear, and it doesn't provide the same bleaching effect as the sun.
On hot summer days, don't leave dry nappies baking for hours in that strong direct sunlight. While the power of the sun is great for bleaching nappies, it can also degrade fabric, elastic and waterproofing over time. Dry your nappies in the morning and bring them in, or hang them in a protected spot where they won't experience the harshness of the afternoon sun.
It is important to carefully consider your nappies' washing and care instructions as most warranties (if applicable) will be void if washed contrary to manufacturers' guidelines.
Here's the Australian Nappy Association's Washing Guidelines for a step by step routine.
Strip washing should NOT be required on a regular basis and, when you have a good washing routine, you shouldn't have to strip wash at all.
If your nappies are smelly or repelling, examine your wash routine - your nappies may not be getting clean enough (the oils/fats in poo can cause repelling and smells) or you may have ammonia build up. Try adding more detergent to your wash and doing a couple of hot washes. Or perhaps a longer cycle or extra rinse will be required - don't be afraid to experiment (but you shouldn't have to do multiple wash cycles or anything crazy)!
If you have a build up of softener residue or ammonia, or your nappies have started to repel or stop absorbing, you can do a 'strip wash' to reset your nappies before changing your washing routine. If you need a heavy duty solution, find details on how to strip and sanitise nappies at Cloth Nappy Help.
If your nappies have been smelling due to bacteria or there's been gastro or thrush infections, it can be a good idea to add some Canestan Laundry Rinse to the final rinse cycle.