How to Sanitize Without Bleach

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We hear it all the time – moms and dads today are desperate to find a way to keep their homes clean and safe without the use of a harsh product like household bleach. And we’ll be the first to tell you that there certainly are times when bleach is not appropriate to use! However, before we dive into that rabbit hole, let’s talk about why we so strongly recommend bleaching cloth diapers when you need to sanitize them!

Why bleach in the first place?

There are times when you need to kill off microorganisms that could be living in your cloth diapers.The most common and obvious time is when you purchase pre-loved diapers – these diapers have come in contact with bodily fluids of another human, and as you would with anything that someone else pooped on, it’s an absolute must to sanitize these diapers. Another reason you would want to sanitize is if your child had a yeast infection. Yeast is a hardy little bugger, and since it exists in the body naturally, you can’t completely rid yourself of it. After the yeast gets out of hand – as in, a yeast infection – you’ll need to make an effort to kill off more of the yeast than usual, so that your baby’s body can rebalance itself. Similarly, any time there is a bacterial or fungal infection in the diaper area, your baby’s diapers need to be sanitized to make sure the infectious organism doesn’t continue to live in the diapers and reinfect your kiddo. Examples of other infections include staph, ringworm, or impetigo.

So, we can all agree that sometimes diapers need to be sanitized, right? With that said, why use bleach to do it?

Bleach:

  • is readily available
  • is inexpensive
  • is well-researched and tested
  • is extremely effective
  • won’t cause organisms to develop resistances to it, thanks to the way it kills
  • breaks down readily and quickly into salt and water

Like all household cleaners, you should exercise caution when using bleach, and store it well out of reach of children – and the same thing could be said about tea tree oil, grapefruit seed extract, washing soda, borax, any laundry detergent, your kitchen knives, that bottle of sriracha you bought to try and hated but you can’t throw it away because sriracha is cool, the dog’s food, the dog’s water, and the bottle of glitter someone who obviously hates you gave your kid.

When is bleach not OK?

Howeverwith all of that said, there are some very specific situations when bleach is not an appropriate disinfectant. These times are

  • When you have iron-rich water: Bleach acts as an oxidizing agent, which basically means it makes things rust faster than they normally would. Iron rich water combined with bleach makes – you guessed it – rusty water. And rusty water stains. If you have accidentally bleached something that was washed in iron rich water, and the fabric is stained, you can use Super Iron Out to try and remove the stains. Similarly, if you have iron rich water that stains your clothes, Super Iron Out can be used as a laundry additive to prevent rust stains from ruining your whites.
  • If you’re battling severe issues such as persistent ammonia, we recommend trying these options first, and if the problem persists, disinfecting bleach may be the answer. With iron hard water, you can do your soak in a friend or family member’s home, or buy several gallons of bottled water for the soak and rinse. There is still some risk of staining with this method, but rinsing well prior to washing will help minimize this issue. And, as always, your baby’s bottom is more important than pretty diapers!
  • When you or someone in your household is allergic to bleach: As can be said for everything from peanut butter to penicillin, some people are allergic to bleach. If you or someone in your household has a true bleach allergy, regardless of the severity, you should obviously avoid using it whenever possible. Please keep in mind that an allergy to a bleach is not the same as thinking it smells, or the fumes being a little annoying – those things happen to everyone, and with every strong cleaner. An allergy is something different and serious, and if you have one, bleach is not for you.

So what do I do if I can’t bleach?

Unfortunately, being unable to bleach doesn’t mean you can skip sanitizing diapers when they need it. You’ll need to use another method to make sure those diapers are clean enough to go on your baby’s bottom!

Alternative 1: Hydrogen peroxide and borax

Method:

Soak (to sanitize used diapers or after stripping): 4 cups of hydrogen peroxide + 1 cup of borax : 1/2 bathtub of water (or a medium load in a non-HE washing machine).

Wash (during treatment of a yeast or other bacterial/fungal infection): 4 cups of hydrogen peroxide + 1 cup of borax + detergent to each wash load.

Pros:
  • Ingredients are easy to find
  • Relatively inexpensive for a soak
  • about 85% as effective as bleach
Cons:
  • Expensive to use to treat yeast in the wash
  • Carries the same risk of fading diapers as bleach
  • May void manufacturer warranties

Hydrogen peroxide on its own can function as a disinfectant or antiseptic – a fact we all learned the first time we scraped our knees! However, disinfecting hard surfaces with perioxide and disinfecting thick, multi-layered laundry are two very different ball games. A regular old brown bottle of peroxide is enough to disinfect your countertops, but when diluted and faced with many layers of modern cloth diaper, it is simply not effective enough to get the job done. You could add more peroxide to the mix, but by the time you got enough to disinfect, the concentration would be so strong that it would almost certainly be damaging to the diapers. Adding borax to the mix, however, causes a chemical reaction that amplifies the disinfecting power of the peroxide, meaning you can use less and still effectively kill germs. If you need to sanitize in a smaller vessel, make sure you maintain the 4:1 peroxide:borax ratio (i.e., in a 5 gallon bucket you could use 1 cup of peroxide and 1/4 cup of borax).

  • But wait! Isn’t Oxiclean (or other oxygen bleach) just solid hydrogen peroxide? Can’t I use it instead? Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing the amount of peroxide in any given batch of Oxiclean or other oxygen bleach. Although the ingredients are there, we can’t know if they’ll be strong enough to disinfect. If they were specific about it or gave the consumer better information, we (theoretically) could use Oxiclean as a sanitizing solution. However, at this time, the needed information isn’t available to the consumers to develop the proper concentrations to use for sanitizing multi-layered fabrics. So, we mix our own instead.

Alternative 2: Lysol Original Concentrate

Method:

Soak (to sanitize used diapers or after stripping): 1 cup : 1/2 bathtub of water (or a medium load in a non-HE washing machine).

Wash (during treatment of a yeast or other bacterial/fungal infection): 1 cup + detergent to each wash load

Pros:
  • Relatively easy to find
  • Will not cause fading
  • Effective – kills 99.9% of germs, including the flu virus
Cons:
  • Expensive to use to treat yeast in the wash
  • Can be harder to find, especially in the quantity needed to treat yeast in the wash
  • May make diapers smell like Lysol

 

Original Lysol Concentrate is a disinfectant commonly used by hospitals and nursing homes to wash bed linens or adult diapers in patients with bleach allergies or sensitivities. It is very effective. Really, the biggest downside to this one is the cost. You’ll need to double our bleach recommendations to get enough power to sanitize cloth diapers, so use 2 tablespoons per gallon of water in a small vessel, 1/2 cup for 1/4 bathtub, and 1 cup for 1/2 bathtub. This is a less commonly used and therefore less tested method, so do test “unicorn” diapers with your solution in an inconspicuous spot to make sure the Lysol doesn’t cause any staining.

  • What about Pine-Sol? That’s cheap and the bottle says it kills 99.9% of germs! Yes, it is cheap, and Pine-Sol is labeled as a disinfectant. The Michigan Department Of Health lists Pine-Sol and Lysol by name as suitable ways to sanitize linens contaminated by vomit or feces. We have not tested Pine-Sol, and it will probably make your diapers smell like a Christmas tree, but it is an option if you’re in a pinch, at least from a “it will definitely kill germs” perspective!

Alternative 3: Pine Oil Disinfectants

Method:

Soak (to sanitize used diapers or after stripping): 2 cups : 1/2 bathtub of water (or a medium load in a non-HE washing machine).

Wash (during treatment of a yeast or other bacterial/fungal infection): Not suitable for this.

Pros:
  • Will not cause fading
  • A more “natural” choice
  • Effective
Cons:
  • Incredibly expensive
  • Will probably make your diapers smell like a taxicab
  • Oily residue may be hard to wash out (use hot water and good strong detergent!) and so it should not be used to wash during treatment of yeast.

Hexol and other pine oil disinfectants are another EPA registered disinfecting option. Although I can’t quite figure out a scenario when you’d want to use these over one of the other MUCH more cost effective options, if for some reason you’ve got a bottle of Hexol you’re itching to use, this’ll do the trick. It require 4 times stronger of a solution to sanitize as well as bleach, which means you’ll need 4 tablespoons per gallon in a small vessel or 2 cups in a half bathtub. Yes, that’s a lot – when you wash after soaking, do so several times using a good strong detergent and hot water to make sure all the residue is removed from the diapers. And even then, expect your baby’s bum to smell piney-fresh for a while.

Alternative 4: Your Washer or Dryer’s Sanitize Cycle

Method:

Soak (to sanitize used diapers or after stripping): Not needed – a single wash on sanitize/sanitary/90C will disinfect as well as a soak.

Wash (during treatment of a yeast or other bacterial/fungal infection): Use of sanitize/sanitary/90C cycle + detergent will treat yeast or other infection without any additives

Pros:
  • Cheap and easy, if these cycles are available to you
  • Effective
  • Uses heat to sanitize instead of chemical methods
Cons:
  • Can be damaging to diapers if used with great frequency
  • If your washer breaks, these cycles may not work and you wouldn’t know it
  • Not available to everyone

Modern washers very often come with a sanitize, sanitary, or 90C cycle that can be used to effectively sanitize diapers, especially during the washing phase of treating a yeast infection. Thanks to NSF Protocol P172, these cycles are regulated, and a washer or dryer can’t advertise a sanitize/sanitary cycle unless it kills 99.9% of germs and doesn’t transfer germs between loads of laundry. That means that as long as your machine is working properly, you can reliably sanitize your laundry using these cycles.

There are some major drawbacks to this option – namely, the wear and tear on the diapers. In order to sanitize, the washer must heat and hold the temperature high enough for long enough to kill all those germs. This usually means holding at 160 Fahrenheit for upwards of ten minutes. All that heat can really do some wear and tear on synthetic fabrics, such as the polyester, microfiber, elastics, and aplix of your diapers. While an occasional wash on sanitize won’t hurt your diapers, it should definitely be noted that repeated washings on sanitize are no gentler on diapers than repeated bleach soaks are. You will definitely wear your diapers out significantly faster washing on sanitize full-time.

However, that said, it is far more important to keep your baby rash and infection free than it is to keep diapers in EUC! That means we’ll recommend the sanitize cycle as a viable option, for parents who have it available and who are confident that their machine is in good working order.

One Final Note…

There are many ideas floating around on the internet about other alternatives to sanitize your cloth, such as tea tree oil or grapefruit seed extract. While we have done our best to explain why we don’t recommend GSE or TTO or vinegar or lemon or rubbing alcohol or Oxiclean or the sun here, this page doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive list of every appropriate product in the world. Quaternary disinfectants, such as those used in the medical or food service industries, may be appropriate to sanitize cloth, but they are hard to find and generally not available to a consumer. Other disinfectants are sold by the gallon and used at full strength – while they may be a viable option for a single diaper, for obvious reasons they’re not appropriate for doing a whole load of laundry. If you have any questions, please contact us!