Selecting a laundry detergent for cloth nappies and general laundry

Most modern detergents are suitable for washing cloth nappies. However, many people come to Clean Cloth Nappies with concerns about using the ‘wrong’ product or ‘harsh’ detergents against their baby’s skin. These are often based on well-meaning but misguided information surrounding detergents and washing cloth nappies.

Our website provides science-based explanations of laundry detergents that have been reviewed by qualified chemists. We are a source you can trust, combining science expertise and hands-on cloth nappy experience. With our wash routine recommendations, you can use most commercial detergents, along with laundry boosters and optical brighteners. Read on to find out more.


Some cloth nappy manufacturers provide washing instructions with restrictive and complex detergent requirements. For example, they might caution against using detergents that contain oxygen bleach, enzymes, built-in fabric softeners, optical brighteners and fragrances. These restrictions are not correct; cloth nappies do not require specialist detergent and can be washed using the same detergent that you use for clothing and linen.

There are online cloth nappy communities that claim that commercial detergent builds up on fabrics and that this buildup causes leaks. These groups often advocate using a minimal amount of detergent. These claims are incorrect and also dangerous. The most destructive chemical for cloth nappies is ammonia. Our founding group members originally washed using 1 tbsp of detergent, a wash routine that led to ammonia build-up, minor chemical burns and delaminated nappies.

Fearmongering claims about mainstream detergent ingredients destroying cloth nappies were at their most prevalent in Australia during the early to mid-2010s. The popularity of Clean Cloth Nappies has diminished these claims; however, this incorrect advice is still prevalent in some parts of the cloth nappy world.

Modern detergents are clean rinsing and do not build up. Leaks are usually caused by an incorrect fit or lack of absorption. Using the right amount of an effective detergent and washing in warm-hot (40-60°C) water is the best way to keep your cloth nappies clean.

Baby wearing grey knit hat
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Using the right amount of detergent

Use the amount of detergent advised on the package for a heavily soiled load (sometimes described as large load/hard water) in your main wash, and around half of that in prewash.

Patreon members and website subscribers have access to our detergent indexes. We have reviewed 212 different detergents, and included dosing guidance for those that are suitable for cloth nappies.

What makes an effective detergent

Commercial detergents consist of surfactants, enzymes, oxygen bleach, fragrances, stabilizers, builders, and water softeners (if applicable).

Water temperature is important. In a nutshell, increasing the wash temperature will provide better results than altering surfactants. For stain removal, adding oxygen bleach assists more than enzymes.

Detergent performance is affected by:

  • concentration and combination of surfactants
  • other raw materials (for example, enzymes and oxygen bleach)
  • the water hardness level
  • the soiling type and level
  • wash temperature
  • wash duration
  • machine type (a front loader is more effective because of the assistance of gravity)
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Detergent ingredients


Surfactants actively remove soiling from fabrics. Different detergents contain different amounts of surfactants. It is important to use enough surfactants to remove all the dirt.

Anionic surfactants are known to be effective at removing soil, clay, dirt and oily stains. 

Nonionic surfactants have good cleaning power, are milder on human skin, and are highly soluble. Differing from anionic surfactants, nonionic surfactants are virtually unaffected by the presence of multivalent ions in hard water. 

A mixture of surfactants is applied in detergent formulation. The anionic surfactant contributes to cleaning performance in soil removal and the nonionic surfactant contributes to making the surfactant system less sensitive to water hardness.


Enzymes help the speed and increase the performance of cleaning products. Almost all laundry detergents in Australia and New Zealand contain enzymes to help remove stains, increase whiteness, eliminate fabric pills, and prevent re-soiling. Laundry detergent enzymes allow for shorter wash cycles and lower wash temperatures while ensuring the desired cleaning result.1 Simply put, they save energy.

Some detergents in the UK are non-biological (non-bio), meaning they do not contain enzymes. It is safe to use bio detergent on your baby’s clothes and nappies.

There’s no evidence that using washing powders with enzymes (bio powders) or fabric conditioners will irritate your baby’s skin.

NHS – What you’ll need for your baby2

Enzymes have been used in laundry products since the 1950s, are extremely carefully formulated, effective, safe and do not cause skin reactions.3

The role of different enzymes

Detergents contain different enzymes to target different stains, they are substrate-specific, targeting a specific active site, activating, and then washing away.

Optical brighteners

Optical brighteners are fluorescent dyes added in tiny quantities to most laundry products, including those marketed for babies such as Purity and Amolin. They are not detrimental to fabrics or human health. In fact, optical brighteners are also used in personal care products such as toothpaste, makeup and shampoo.

The dyes fluoresce under UV light, making whites and colours look brighter. They are made to be residual, which means they stay on the fabrics. Optical brighteners are broken down by UV light or washed away in subsequent washes.

There is no scientific evidence that optical brighteners cause skin reactions. Studies of people with allergic contact dermatitis show no reaction to laundry products in nearly 100% of cases.5

In studies that have been conducted in waterways, the level of optical brighteners present is well below the level that could be described to be harmful to aquatic life. Studies conducted at wastewater treatment plants (endpoint of wastewater from households connected to mains plumbing) show up to 98% of the optical brighteners are removed during the water treatment process.

There is nothing about the chemistry of optical brighteners that ‘builds up’ or causes fabric to repell water.

Fragrances in detergent

Fragrances are included in detergents to cover the smell of surfactants, which smell unpleasant. Sensitive, plant-based or ‘eco’ detergents still contain fragrance (as well as fewer or weaker surfactants), just less than the mainstream versions.

Many products claim to contain ‘natural’ fragrances, in most cases, this is a marketing claim as natural fragrances and synthetic ones are composed of the same raw materials.

Mainstream detergents

Mainstream detergents and the surfactants they contain are safe to use with modern cloth nappies. You can buy them at your local supermarket or department store.

Most mainstream detergents can be used at any water temperature. We recommend washing in warm-hot (40-60°C) water. Learn more about washing in different water temperatures.

Plant-based, sensitive and ‘eco’ detergents

Plant-based, sensitive and ‘eco’ detergents can contain fewer surfactants than mainstream detergents. For this reason, it is sometimes necessary to increase the amount of detergent above the manufacturer’s recommendation to achieve a great clean. Some plant-based detergents work better with a laundry booster.

Two hands cupping small plant, against background of green leaves
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What makes an environmentally friendly detergent

To be environmentally friendly a detergent must:

  • use sustainable feedstock for raw material production, and
  • be readily degradable in wastewater and not harmful to the environment (both aquatic, flora and the soil).

You might also want to consider the packaging, where the detergent is made, and how far it needs to travel to reach your house.

‘Eco’ credentials around the world

Products that are labelled ‘eco’ must comply with legislation, and ideally certification for the entire life cycle of the product.

Australian law requires all ‘eco’ claims to be accurate, substantiated, specific, not unqualified and/or general statements. Claims should only be made for a real benefit, not overstated and should consider the whole product life cycle.6

The European Union uses ‘Ecolabel’,7 a certification awarded to products and services which have a lower environmental impact than other products in the same group. The label criteria were devised using scientific data on the whole of a product’s life cycle, from product development to disposal. This certification is available for Australian products also. The United States has similar ecolabel standards.8

Washing temperature for plant-based, sensitive and ‘eco’ detergents

These detergents do not necessarily need hot (60°C) water to work. This is a myth! Surfactants’ ability to remove soiling is not reliant on whether it is plant-based or petroleum-based. Our detergent index contains several plant-based detergents that wash well in warm (40°C) water.