Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Adventures in Cloth Diapering Part 1: Detergents

We wanted to cloth diaper Jem for a few reasons. First and most importantly, to keep disposables out of the landfill, as well as to save money (disposables aren't cheap and add up quickly).  I won't go into all the facts about disposables, but you can find some good info here. I haven't gone through every fact on this page to verify the accuracy of all of them, but it should give you at least a general idea of why cloth is a good idea.  Of course I certainly understand the choice to use disposables, with everything else you have to do as a parent, who has time for extra laundry too?  To be honest though, it hasn't been as time consuming as I expected it to be, and not having to lug an extra bag out to the trash disposal center every day or two has actually been quite nice!

Which brings me to another reason for choosing not to use disposables: the smell.  As a former nanny, I know how disgusting the plastic garbage bag full of disposables ends up smelling at the end of a day or two.  I had read that cloth diaper pails actually smell less, and so far that is absolutely true.  Why is this?  Well, disposables are made of plastic.  Garbage bags are made of plastic.  Plastic can't "breathe" the way cloth can, and everyone knows that to take up less space in the garbage bag you have to roll the disposables up into tight little balls: tight little smelly, non-breathable balls.  No matter how hard you try to keep that diaper genie smelling fresh and clean, when you go to open up the pail to remove the bag you are hit by a death smell that forces you to hold your breath while frantically scurrying to tie the bag and run it out to the curb as quickly as possible.  At least, that's how it's been in my experience.  Especially because, although all bags of diapers print instructions to dump solid fecal matter into the toilet, it's easier just to roll the poop up in the diaper and toss it in the bin.  That's why the bin is kept next to the changing table, right?  How many parents actually dump every poopy disposable into the toilet before trashing it?

So, naturally, cloth diaper pails tend to smell less.  It's not that they don't smell at all, but they smell much less.  Cloth diapers can breathe.  Cloth pail liners can breathe.  And it's imperative to dump solid poop into the toilet before throwing the diapers in the pail, because otherwise laundry would be a nightmare.  It is possible to get certain funky smells.  Ammonia, for instance, or a strong urine smell if baby has an infection or ate something that didn't agree with him that week.  But overall, the smell of our diaper pail has been quite bearable in comparison to diaper pails I've dealt with in the past.

Anyway, I'm digressing from what I really wanted to talk about in this post, which is detergents.  You're not supposed to use regular soap detergents on cloth diapers, because the soap and other additives can quickly build up in the fibers of the diapers and cause leaking and repelling issues, particularly if your diapers contain synthetic fibers like microfleece (which is often used to line cloth diapers to help wick moisture away from baby's skin).  So I decided to set out to find the most diaper-friendly, eco-friendly and dermatologically-friendly detergent possible.

It was important to me to find a detergent that listed every ingredient right on the label.  I tend to be suspicious of "proprietary ingredients." I understand that companies like to keep certain ingredients secret in order to prevent other companies from stealing their formulas, but when it comes to my baby's skin I want to know what's in it. If he were to have an allergic reaction, I'd want to have a good idea why.  And I've recently become aware that some companies will purposely choose not to disclose ingredients that they know to be harmful, controversial or suspicious.

After much reading and research about different brands, and coming very close to deciding on Country Save (because it's cheaper than other brands and can be bought in large quantities on Amazon), I instead decided to try Nellie's All Natural.  To be honest, I loved it and have no real complaints about the way it worked.  It kept the diapers fresh and clean, and it's unscented so you can really tell they're clean.  The ingredients were listed as "sodium silicate and coconut oil-based surfactants."  I researched sodium silicate and found it to indeed be natural and eco-friendly, with a history of not causing rashes.  I already knew what coconut oil was, it's great for soothing skin, so anything made from it had to be good, no?

Well... after I'd bought the bag, I made a discovery.  Nellie's website stated that the "coconut oil-based surfactants" were actually Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, or SLES.  (Update: Nellie's website has now started using the term "coconut based (LAURYL) Ethoxylated fatty alcohol" instead of SLES... I am unclear whether or not they have changed the ingredient or if they've just become more vague.  A conversation with a customer service rep left me feeling that I'd been given the runaround).  I'd learned of SLES two years ago when I developed a strong sensitivity to regular brands of toothpaste and had to switch exclusively to Biotene.  SLES is a powerful foaming agent, often derived from chemically altered coconut or palm oils.  It's found in industrial-strength floor cleaners.  It's also found in many detergents, hair products, body washes and in almost every brand of toothpaste (it's what makes things foamy, and since we've been trained to equate "foamy" with "clean," manufacturers like to include it in any cleaning product).  It's been found to be just abrasive enough in small quantities to cause or exacerbate canker sores and skin rashes in highly sensitive individuals, like myself.

What does this all mean?  It means that SLES has developed a bad name, not for entirely unfounded reasons, though it certainly won't hurt everyone.  Would it cause a skin reaction on a little baby wearing cloth diapers that were washed in Nellie's?  Probably not, since the detergent is designed to wash out entirely and not leave any traces on the diapers.  Jem didn't have a problem with it.  However, like I said, I don't like it when manufacturers don't disclose their ingredients.  I understand why they probably do it (though I admit I can't say for certain): I would think other customers are also wary of purchasing baby products containing SLES, since babies tend to have such sensitive skin, and they might lose some business if they wrote the proper name on the label.  Why risk losing business if the product works, doesn't cause rashes and is, indeed, eco-friendly?  But it left me feeling just a little bit cheated, like I'd been lied to a little. I'm a full disclosure kind of gal.  So I decided when the bag of Nellie's was finished, I'd try another brand.  If I didn't find any other that I liked, I could always come back to it.

I considered Rockin' Green, a formula used by one of my friends and by many in the CD community.  However, now I was being even more careful.  Two of the ingredients listed in RG are "natural chelating agents," and "bio-degradable surfactants." Since the bag didn't actually say what those chelating agents and surfactants were, I emailed Kim, the founder and owner of RG.  She was very nice but could not tell me what those ingredients were, since they were proprietary.  She only said they were indeed natural and eco-friendly, and did not include SLES or any coconut-based ingredients.  I thanked her, but decided to try something else first.

I decided to go with Crunchy Clean.  A family-run business founded by a mom in her kitchen, Crunchy Clean has only three ingredients: sodium carbonate (washing soda), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and sodium percarbonate (oxygen cleaner). It is indeed about as environmentally and dermatologically friendly as they come, and I loved it almost as much as Nellie's, if not more.  It didn't quite get stains out of my diapers as well as Nellie's did, but that was okay with me, I just laid the stained ones out in the sunny living room window and the stains bleached out naturally.  I was happy.  I felt truly crunchy. :-)

And then, alas, about five or six months in, our diapers started repelling and leaking like crazy.  Jem was constantly waking up wet and uncomfortable.  Was this due to the diapers themselves?  They'd never done this before. Was it the Crunchy Clean?  How could it be, since CC doesn't contain soap or brighteners or anything that could junk up the diapers?  We discovered the answer after noticing a chalky white film on our shower head.  We had hard water.  The minerals in the water were clogging up the fibers in our microfleece.  What to do?  Buy new diapers?  Heck no, those things were expensive!  We'd have to find a way to soften the water, which meant either special ordering a case of Calgon water softener along with the detergent, or switching detergents.

First we had to strip the diapers of the minerals that were already in them.  For that I used RLR Laundry Treatment (which I bought at Diaper Junction because, including shipping, they had the best price I could find).  I have no idea what's in it.  They claim to be eco-friendly and all natural, but since all the ingredients are proprietary, who can say for sure?  However, since it's only meant to be used once a month at most (I only used it that once), and I'd heard good things about it, I bought a few packets for less than $2 each.  Whatever is in it has a very powerful foaming agent, so you have to rinse the diapers about seven or eight times after using it, but it worked.

Since the only hard water diaper detergent I'd really consistently heard good things about was Rockin Green's Hard Rock formula, that's what I went with.  It worked quite well, and we even stopped getting stains.  I still don't know what all the ingredients are, but desperate times call for desperate measures.  It was a few dollars more than the CC I'd been using, but you do what you've got to do! We did start having some ammonia issues (not kind to baby's bum) which probably didn't have anything to do with the detergent, but I can't be entirely sure.

And then we moved.  I made sure to find out what the new town's water was like, and though it's still on the hard side it's not nearly as hard as in the town we moved from.  So I decided to save a few dollars I'd try a new detergent I'd started hearing rave reviews about, Lulu's in the Fluff.  It lists the same three ingredients that CC does, but according to "Lulu" the actual chemical makeup is somehow different.  Not being a chemist I have no idea how.  But I CAN tell you that it works quite well in our water so far.  Somehow it's formulated to work in moderately hard water.  We are getting a little staining, perhaps not quite as much as we did with Crunchy Clean.  But again, a little sun bleaching and the stains are gone.  "Lulu" was also quite helpful in suggesting we start rinsing our diapers before throwing them in the pail to help clear up the ammonia issue. We'd started using a fish tank ammonia neutralizer which had only been helping reduce the smell somewhat (yes, you can do that...if it's safe for fish, the most sensitive creatures probably on the planet, it's safe for baby diapers. It works great for some people, just didn't work too well for us).  After buying a diaper sprayer and getting accustomed to ringing out the wet diapers by hand (not quite as gross as it sounds), the ammonia buildup is almost entirely gone. :-) Thanks Lulu!

So, that's where we stand so far.  I've tried Nellie's, Crunchy Clean, Rockin' Green and Lulu's, and I've liked them all. Nellie's and RG seem to be a bit better with reducing stains, CC and Lulu's are probably the simplest and most truly eco-friendly.  All of them use minimal packaging, which is always a plus!  If I try anything else I'll be sure to post about it here!

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