How to Wash Cloth Diapers in an HE Machine

How to Wash Cloth Diapers in an HE MachineThere are two parts to cloth diapering that can really frustrate parents.  The first is just how to get started.  All those choices can be overwhelming!  The second, is figuring out your laundry routine.  In general, laundering with a High Efficiency (HE) machine can make cleaning diapers a bit more difficult so I’d like to give you a few tips to laundering diapers in an HE machine effectively.

Here is some basic laundry science background so that you can better understand how and why these tips work.  To get diapers clean you need 5 factors.  These factors include WATER, ACTION (agitation), TIME, CHEMICALS (detergent), and HEAT.  In and ideal situation all of these factors would be equally balanced and laundry would be easy as pie (chart).  Sorry for the pun-ny.  An HE machine cuts down on your water component, and if you are as lucky as I am to live in an area with hard water, this will further complicate your wash routine.

Fear not!  The nice thing about the WATCH formula is that if you are lacking in one area, all you have to do is increase the other areas to get the same result.  For example, if you have less water you may need to use a hot wash instead of a warm wash, increase the amount of detergent a smidgen, and maybe increase the time of your wash by having a short soak period.

Here is what my wash routine looks like:

  • I start by discarding all solids into the toilet as suggested (with the exception being exclusively breastfed babies).  I also rinse urine from all night time and nap time diapers (any diaper my twins are in for 3 hours or more) in the sink to help prevent ammonia buildup.
  • I wash every other day to prevent bacteria and ammonia from accumulating and damaging my diapers.  I add 2 large white towels to every wash and try to wash the equivalent of about 18 diapers at a time (give or take).
  • I start with a warm rinse (soil is removed more efficiently at the temperature it was added according to Mr. Steve Tinker of the American Reusable Textiles Association).  I push the “water plus” button (which adds water to the cycle).  On my HE machine I am able to push the “rinse/spin” button which sets the washer for a 19 minute total rinse and spin cycle.
  • I then do a second rinse cycle but adjust the spin so that it is set to “no spin”.  This second rinse gets everything nice and saturated with water, tricking my machine into having more water to wash with.  This cycle takes about 9 minutes.  If you have diapers that don’t smell clean at the end of your wash routine you may try adding a prewash to your routine at this point in the cycle.  Kelly’s Closet sells Thirsties Pre-Wash (note: sadly this product is being reformulated so it’s out of stock for a short period) which is designed to help eliminate bacteria from your diapers without the harmful effects of bleach and other harsh chemicals.  Please note that this is a pre-wash and is not designed to replace your detergent!  Another great (and FREE) way to get rid of bacteria is to sun your diapers dry.
  • Lastly, I add my detergent along with a water softening agent (such as Calgon).  (VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have hard water and you don’t add a water softening agent, your detergent will not be as effective.)  I set my washer to a Normal Hot/Cold wash cycle and then adjust the wash to “water plus”, “heavy soil”, and “extra rinse”.  These settings add extra water to my wash and rinses, and increase the agitation time of the wash.

I hope these tips take some of the frustration out of your wash routine!  It took me a couple years to perfect my routine and I hope this post will prevent you from having to “reinvent the wheel”!

Twincerely, Janice

This post was written by Janice of Janice is a Cloth Diaper Circle Leader with the RDA, a stay at home mom to twins, an RN, an environment and cloth diaper advocate, and a blogger. You can find more posts written by Janice at

Notes added from  Remember to verify the wash and care instructions with the manufacturer of your diapers to ensure that you don’t ruin your diapers or void the warranty.  It should also be noted that this same advice will work on both top loading and front loading HE machines.  We’re always available to help you solve your laundry questions via email, phone, or one of our many social media outlets like our Facebook Fan Page.

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9 Responses to How to Wash Cloth Diapers in an HE Machine

  1. Megan says:

    Thanks!! It sounds like we have the same washing machine. Can you tell me how much and what detergent you use? And how much calgon? I want to try this routine cause it really sounds just like my house 🙂

  2. Kaja N. says:

    This is helpful! I have a very similar routine for a front-loader HE machine. I do a “speed wash” set to warm/cold with no spin for my first cycle and usually add just a small sprinkle of detergent. Then for my primary wash I do “normal/cotton” with the “stain cycle” “hot/cold” 2 extra rinses and high spin speed and I use a half-scoop of detergent. I think my water is normal. Once I made it to this routine after experimenting a couple months, I have not had any stink issues. I will also rinse my inserts at the sink to cut down on ammonia (but my hubs doesn’t so only about half get pre-rinsed). I do a larger load of diapers about every 3-4 days.

  3. Kami says:

    Thank you so much! I will have to try those rinse/spin cycles at the beginning. I have very hard water with a HE machine and have so many problems with stink, no mater how much detergent or rinse cycles I use. What type of detergent seems to work best for you and do you add the Calgon to the area where you put the detergent?

    • Calley says:

      Detergent type is more a personal preference since everyone has different availabilities locally. I have had good results with both Rockin’ Green Hard Rock and Planet (local). I add the Calgon in the same drawer as my detergent. Could also work in the bleach drawer.

  4. Becky says:

    Great article! How much Calgon do you use & how do you add it? I also have hard water & a HE washer. And adding towels? Is that for weight to encourage more water?

    • Calley says:

      For an HE machine I would use about 1/4 cap of Calgon (liquid – or 1/4 scoop powder) in with the detergent cycle. Yes, adding towels is more for the weight. Sometimes it’s effective.

  5. Dana says:

    Thank you! I had never thought of a spinless wash to trick the machine!

    • Calley says:

      Yes I know. You don’t hear it often but you leave your diapers really wet and fully saturated for the wash cycle. It’s a great “trick.”

  6. Sarah says:

    thanks for writing this. i’ve been cloth diapering for over 3 years with an he machine and still struggle with stink issues. sometimes my water is hard (when the water softener needs more salt) and sometimes soft (when the softener is working the best). i had not thought of the spinless wash and will be trying it tomorrow!