Sanitizing Used Cloth Diapers: Everything you need to know

Written by: Krystal Keller



Time to read 4 min

If you're on a budget you can often find great deals on gently used, or pre-loved cloth diapers. Whether you’re shopping at your local kids consignment store, on poshmark or facebook marketplace— sanitizing cloth diapers purchased secondhand is necessary before wearing them on your baby or toddler.

Note that sanitizing cloth diapers should not be part of your regular routine. Sanitizing cloth diapers should only be done as needed—if the baby has an infection, is experiencing frequent diaper rashes or you are purchasing second hand diapers. Frequent sanitizing is not necessary and may be harmful to the integrity of your diapers. 

Why is it important to sanitize pre-loved or used cloth diapers before use?

Sanitizing reusable cloth diapers ensures that the diapers are free from bacteria and other harmful germs before wearing them on your baby or toddler. Various types of bacteria that cause skin infections, diarrhea and urinary tract infections can linger in cloth diapers that are not washed properly.

The most common bacteria found in improperly washed cloth diapers:

  • Staphylococcus aureus, also known as "staph," is a type of bacteria that is commonly found on human skin, in the nose, armpit, groin, and other areas. While these germs don't always cause harm, they can make you sick under the right circumstances. This type of bacteria may cause skin infections, such as impetigo.
  • Escherichia coli, also known as E. coli, is a type of bacteria that is commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless and even help keep your digestive tract healthy. However, some strains can cause illness, such as diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, pneumonia, and other illnesses.
  • Proteus vulgaris is a type of bacteria that can cause urinary tract infections and other infections. Ammonia/bacteria: a bad cloth diaper wash routine can leave behind ammonia and bacteria from feces, which can lead to diaper rashes.
why it is important to sanitize used cloth diapers before wear

Other good reasons to sanitize used cloth diapers before use:

  • Lingering odor. If the previous owner had an improper wash routine, strong smelling laundry detergent or many indoor pets, it is possible that lingering odor may be present in your new pre-loved diapers. Sanitizing can help minimize and remove unwanted odor. 
  • Stain removal. Sanitizing your modern cloth diapers may help remove stubborn stains that may not have come out during regular washing. 
  • In addition to bacteria, improperly washed cloth diapers can also harbor yeast, a type of fungal infection caused by an overgrowth of Candida in the body. 

While it is unlikely that a pre-loved cloth diaper will make your baby sick, we recommend sanitizing all second hand items with bleach prior to use. Note that diapers shared between siblings in the same household do not need to be sanitized. 

How to bleach sanitize second hand reusable cloth diapers?

  • Begin with clean cloth diapers. Ensure that your diapers have been washed and rinsed thoroughly before sanitizing. Note that sanitizing is not a remedy for detergent build up.
  • Dilute bleach in cold water. Use a bleach that is labeled as a disinfectant for effective sanitizing of your modern cloth diapers. Ensure that the bleach you choose is at least 5.25% sodium hypochlorite. You can find this information on the packaging.
  • Soak the cloth diapers in your diluted bleach solution for at least 15 minutes, but no longer than one hour. Excessive soaking for long periods of time, such as overnight, is not necessary and may cause unnecessary wear on the lining or elastics of your diapers. Be sure that each diaper is fully submerged for best results.
  • Rinse with warm water, followed by a warm wash cycle in your machine to remove any excess bleach. Sometimes bleach may irritate your baby's delicate skin—be sure to rinse all cloth diapers well to ensure that all of the bleach is removed.
  • Dry as desired. We recommend air drying or tumbling dry on low or no heat. 

Precautions to follow when sanitizing used cloth diapers at home:

  • Wear protective gloves to avoid skin irritation. Bleach is a strong chemical and should be used only as directed on the product packaging. 
  • Never mix bleach with another cleaning agent. 
  • Be sure that your bleach is not expired. The shelf life of bleach is approximately six months to a year, depending on how it was stored. After six months, bleach starts to degrade, and even in its original bottle, it becomes 20 percent less effective as each year goes by.
  • The waterproof lining of most pocket diapers is made of a PUL which is colorfast, and will not fade in a bleach solution. However, knits and cottons may fade, even in a properly diluted bleach.

Potential risks of using bleach to sanitize your modern cloth diapers?

The most common risk of using bleach is skin irritation. As mentioned above, a baby's sensitive skin may be irritated by any excess bleach. Ensure that diapers are thoroughly rinsed and washed after sanitizing to minimize the risk of irritation.

Second to skin irritation is fabric damage. Bleach is a strong chemical that can wear down fabric if not used as intended. Be sure to follow all manufacturer instructions for proper dilution and use of bleach and other laundry products. It is important to use bleach sparingly in your cloth diapering routine. Sanitizing cloth diapers should not be a part of your regular routine.

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Stripping cloth diapers and sanitizing cloth diapers are two different processes with different purposes:

Stripping cloth diapers refers to the process of deep-cleaning the diapers to remove buildup of detergent, minerals, or other residues that can cause issues like odors, repelling, or decreased absorbency. The goal of stripping is to remove this buildup and restore the diapers to their original clean, absorbent state.

Stripping methods often involve soaking the diapers in hot water with specialized stripping agents like RLR, washing soda, or vinegar. In contrast, sanitizing cloth diapers is the process of killing bacteria and germs on the diapers, usually through the use of bleach or other disinfectants. 

Learn more about how and when to strip your cloth diapers here»

Sanitizing helps prevent the spread of illness-causing microbes. Sanitizing is often done separately from stripping, either as a regular part of the wash routine or as an occasional deep clean. It does not necessarily remove the type of buildup that stripping addresses.

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