The prewash is an important step in the laundry process, as it washes away the majority of the pee and poop in the diapers, allowing the diapers to get squeaky clean in the wash cycle. Let's compare washing diapers with washing a really muddy car. So you've been out driving through nasty mud puddles and your car is caked with mud. What would happen if you attacked your car with a sponge and bucket of soapy water right off the bat? Within seconds the bucket of water would be filthy, your sponge disgusting and no matter how hard you scrubbed, your car would never look clean. So what do you do first? You spray the worst of the mud and grime off with the hose.
This is what the prewash cycle does. It rinses away the majority of the pee and poop that the diapers contain, so that the next cycle (the wash!) can be as effective as possible. Without washing those nasties away, the main wash cycle will be done in very dirty water, and no matter how awesome your washing machine is, your diapers will still be a muddy car. Detergents work by complexing with particles of dirt and suspending them in water so that they can be washed away. If there is a huge amount of dirt in the diapers and wash water, your detergent will be overwhelmed and not able to do its job.
Obviously your diapers will not be clean after the prewash, (like your car isn't clean after being sprayed with the hose) but they will be adequately prepared for the wash cycle.
What Cycle Should I Use?
Lots of Water
A good friend of mine works in Hazmat, and he loves the saying "the solution to pollution is dilution". I doubt he was talking about cloth diapers, but I am going to adopt it here.
Let's go back to the car example. Would you get a spray bottle and gently mist the mud on your car, or would you soak that puppy down with the garden hose? The hose, of course. A small amount of water just won't do the job. Same with your diapers. You want to move as much water through the fibers as possible, to flush out as much nastiness as you can.
If you have a top loading washing machine, this is easy. Select a water level that adds as much water as possible for this first wash. You want the level of gross in the water to be as dilute as possible.
High-Efficiency machines may make our life easier by lowering our water and electricity bills, but they do throw a bit of a wrench in the works as far as cloth diapers go because they use a smaller amount of water. Consult your manual or talk with the manufacturer to find out which cycles use the most water. On some machines it is the delicate cycle, others it is the bulky cycle, and some have a handy "add water" button. On my washing machine (with two kids, 3 horses, a large dog and a hockey-playing hubby I have gotten to know it well) the express wash cycle uses a large amount of water, so this is my chosen cycle. Take a peek in through the door in the middle of the cycle to see if there is extra water sloshing around in there.
There are a couple of anecdotal tricks out there to encourage your washing machine to add more water. Whether they work or not depends on what machine you use, but they may be worth a try. One is to add a towel soaked with water to add weight to the load. Another is to start the machine, wait until it has added the water and soaked the diapers, and then restart it so it adds more.
Some Agitation and a Good Spin
The length of the prewash cycle isn't as important as the length of the wash cycle, but it should have some agitation to make the water move through the diaper. A quick wash cycle (e.g. express wash) is sufficient on most machines.
The prewash cycle should have a good spin cycle at the end so as much of the rinse water as possible is removed.
Detergent or No Detergent?
Should you add detergent to the prewash? Popular opinion seems to be split on this one.
Some believe that since the function of the prewash is just to wash away the worst of the dirties before the true wash, detergent is not necessary. And since any amount of detergent would be quickly overwhelmed by the amount of germs in the water, it has no function.
However, there is also evidence that adding a small amount of detergent improves the ability of the prewash to prep the diapers for the wash cycle. Most laundry detergents contain water softeners and other ingredients that improve water's ability to penetrate laundry and whisk the dirt away. So adding some to the prewash cycle, even though it not in sufficient amounts to get the diapers completely clean, will help remove even more waste in the first cycle to ultimately get them cleaner in the wash.
My opinion? I will straddle the fence on this one. Try the prewash cycle without detergent. If it works, leave it be. If your diapers aren't coming out clean after the main wash, try adding a small amount (e.g. 1/4 what you use in the main wash) to the prewash. Or if you know you have extremely hard water, you may want to add detergent right away to take advantage of the water softening ingredients.
Cold or Warm water?
Laundry experts advise warm water, as stains and soils on fabrics come out best at the temperature they are deposited at. However, if keeping laundry costs low is a factor, cold water works as well.
Prewashing By Hand
If you are doing your laundry in a shared facility, or have to pay per load, you may want to prewash your diapers by hand. And it is completely possible (and really not that hard!)
A bucket, bathtub or laundry sink all work for this. Just pop the diapers in, add enough water (and detergent if you choose) that you can slosh them around in it and then give them a quick swish (rubber gloves make this task a lot nicer). If the water is extremely gross, you can drain it and repeat. Wring them out as well as you can, and they are ready for the washing machine. Since the majority of the grossness has been removed, you can actually wash them with other laundry.
You can rinse diapers out individually as you take them off baby instead of rinsing them all at once, but use caution, as storing soaking wet diapers can lead to mold issues. Yuck!
Prewashing is Easy!
And there you have it! Your diapers are ready for the main wash, and will come out squeaky clean. For more information about laundry, check out our blog post
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