Washing in Hard Water

How does hard water impact my diapers?
Most regions of the world have hard water to some degree. You may notice signs of hard water buildup on your sink, shower, faucet, or appliances. Many people don’t think about how it affects their laundry, but when it comes to cleaning cloth diapers, hard water makes a difference. Those mineral deposits that build up around your water faucets also build up in the fabric of the diapers. A dingy shirt here or there is no big deal, but mineral buildup in your baby’s diapers can wreak havoc.

Hard water deposits can greatly impact the functionality of your diapers. As mineral deposits build, they trap bacteria. That buildup leads to ammonia or barnyard stink issues, repelling or leaks, and even rashes or burns. Many people mistake hard water buildup with detergent buildup (which is a myth) because they notice suds in their water at the end of the wash cycle. The good news is that no amount of detergent will keep fabric from properly absorbing, but when hard water traps residue, it can hold on to detergent like it does everything else and release residual suds. What you’re actually seeing is the effect of hard water on the fabric, and if it’s holding on to detergent residue, you bet it’s holding on to bacteria as well.The solution is a good wash routine with the proper amount of detergent and water softeners to combat the buildup of minerals.
Powdered detergents generally contain more built-in water softeners than liquids do. Often, in hard water, even those built-in softeners aren’t enough. In heavily soiled laundry, the detergent often needs a boost to work effectively. Even if you have a water softener installed, be sure to test your water at the washing machine to make sure it’s connected to both temperatures and is softening your hard water adequately.

Extra rinses are a BIG no-no when dealing with hard water. When you run rinses after the wash cycle is complete, you redeposit all those hard minerals that the detergent and softener worked so hard to keep away. If you experience excess suds or slimy diapers after your wash is done, you should do some troubleshooting of your wash routine. Remember that detergent is designed to rinse clean with proper agitation, so checking your agitation should be your first step in addressing the problem. Please read our files on washing in Standard Machines and HE (High Efficiency) Machines, or visit our Facebook group for more detailed wash routine help.

Water Softeners

The most accessible water softeners to add to your wash routine are Calgon and Borax. Both can be found in the laundry aisle, and both are effective for softening hard water. There are also some off brands that you may find, such as Rain Drops or White King. Add the correct amount of water softener to your washes depending on your water hardness at the beginning of the wash cycle. Just add the softener directly to the washer’s drum.
Be sure to test your water hardness to avoid adding water softener to already soft water. Over softening brings its own set of problems.

Be Careful!
Do not add your water softener to your washer’s “softener” compartment, as that compartment is for fabric softener, and it is dispensed during the cycle’s final rinse.

Precipitating water softeners

Precipitating water softeners work by binding with hard water minerals to form a solid particle, which is then agitated away.

Borax water softener (often sold under the Twenty Mule Team brand) is the naturally-occurring mineral sodium borate. It is perfectly safe to use in laundry applications, although it is always recommended to use care when handling all laundry products.

Washing soda (sodium carbonate) is another non-precipitating water softener, although it is less effective than borax so you’ll need to use more. Washing soda is not the same as baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), but you can convert baking soda to washing soda by baking it in your household oven at 200F(93C) for an hour.

Non-precipitating water softeners

Non-precipitating water softeners work by binding with hard water minerals in solution (sequestering), which means that they do not form solid particles.

Calgon is a common brand of non-precipitating water softener that is available in Europe and the United States and comes in liquid, powder, and capsules/tabs. The Calgon brand gel (sold in Europe) is not recommended as it does not contain enough of the active ingredients to effectively soften.
Rain Drops is an less expensive brand than calgon and can be found in many large stores.
Other softener brands are 100% zeolite, which is the active ingredient in Calgon. Some brands of non-precipitating water softener available in Europe contain high percentages of phosphates which work, but contain phosphates that have a negative impact on aquatic ecosystems.
You may also choose to install a water softening appliance, which usually works by running the water through a mineral tank, filtering out the harmful minerals through ion exchange. The salt pellets used in water softening appliances do work on their own as water softeners, but need to be refilled regularly to combat hard water.

*A note on water softeners
Precipitating water softeners are useful, though non-precipitating water softeners are generally more effective, and may be a better choice for those with extremely hard water or iron-rich water.