Let’s Talk About Bleach, Baby!


If you participate in any of the online cloth diapering forums, you have probably noticed a relatively recent spike in the popularity of bleaching your diapers as the first line of defense for just about any issue.  Your baby has a rash?  Bleach soak.  Yeast infection?  Bleach soak.  One diaper smells a bit funky out of the wash?  Better bleach soak all of your diapers.  Now, I know that many of you who are reading this are already starting to get upset over what you think I am about to say and are already formulating your biting comments about putting your baby’s health and safety above keeping your diapers in pristine condition.  But just hold on for a minute and read on.  (And, for the record, I absolutely 100% agree with putting your baby first!)


The evolution of the cloth diapering community has been an interesting one.  When I first joined it several years ago when I was pregnant with my first child, the washing/care recommendations were something along the lines of using a few teaspoons of so-called “cloth diaper safe” detergents in excessive amounts of water.  What – you want to try a “regular” detergent?!?  Only if you want your diapers to spontaneously combust!  You want to bleach your diapers?!?  Clearly you don’t care about your diapers or your baby!  Anyway, you get the point.  Cloth diapers were viewed as fragile and, as such, needing to be handled with kid gloves.  Fortunately, not too long after I became involved in this community the tides began changing and people realized mainstream detergents, proper water levels, and yes, even bleach were important tools in effectively cleaning cloth diapers.


Somewhere in the relatively recent past, though, the 30-minute bleach soak burst onto the scene and became wildly popular.  Suddenly, the 30-minute bleach soak became the gold standard for “resetting” your diapers whenever you needed to tweak your wash routine or were dealing with a rash.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not a bleach-hater.  I use it.  I recommend it.  But I also like to base my actions and recommendations on facts and science – not just on what is popular at the moment within the cloth diapering community – and, honestly, the way people are recommending to bleach has left me a little skeptical about their methods.  For instance, when dealing with yeast, the recommendation is to do a 30-minute bleach soak and then continue to add bleach to your wash cycle for the full two weeks you are treating the skin.  Now, using a little common sense here, this doesn’t completely make sense.  Why would a bleach soak be necessary if subsequent washes can simply be treated by adding bleach to the wash cycle?  If you believe a soak is necessary the first time around, then it should be necessary for every load until the yeast is eradicated.


Ok, so coming back to my original questions about the 30-minute bleach soak – I wanted to find out where this recommendation came from and what, if any, scientific evidence supported it.  I mean really, why is 30 minutes the magic number?  Why not 15?  Or 45?  Or maybe you don’t need to soak at all.  So I started as close to the source as I could and posed these questions on one of the very large online cloth diapering forums where, as far as I can tell, this recommendation originated.  To date, no one there has been able to satisfactorily answer my questions – but I will address the responses I received as I present the information I found through my own research.  My research included contacting Clorox numerous time through both phone and e-mail, spending hours scouring both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) websites, and conducting other internet searches for additional information.  The information I have gathered from these sources has been very consistent and clearly indicates that bleach soaks are, indeed, UNNECESSARY.  So let’s take a look at what I have found.


First, I contacted Clorox via both e-mail and phone numerous times (to ensure I had clarified everything as explicitly as possible).  Here is what I found out from Clorox.  First, only hard, non-porous surfaces can be disinfected – porous surfaces such as cloth can be sanitized, which means 99.999% of bacteria are destroyed (for an explanation of the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting, click here).  I specifically asked how I would sanitize cloth diapers and was told using ½ cup of Clorox Regular Concentrated Bleach in the wash cycle with detergent will sanitize the diapers – killing 99.999% of bacteria – no soaking necessary.  It was suggested in the online cloth diapering community that perhaps it was necessary to soak diapers for 30 minutes to allow the bleach to penetrate all of the layers of the diapers.  This did not make sense to me as I would assume that the bleach would reach the inner layers of the diapers as quickly as the water from the wash cycle does – meaning it should not take any longer to sanitize multiple layers since the bleach would be in contact with the inner layers for almost the exact same length of time as it is in contact with the outer layers… but in the interest of covering all of my bases, I followed up by calling Clorox.  The Clorox representative confirmed that I was indeed correct and again emphasized there was no need to soak the diapers in order to sanitize them.  Additionally, in a follow-up e-mail, I asked how one would sanitize their laundry if they were washing by hand (trying to understand how bleaching should be done if not done in the washing machine as it is frequently recommended by the cloth diapering community to do the soak in your tub – though I should point out that, per Clorox, using bleach in your wash cycle regardless of whether you have a top loader or front loader will sanitize your laundry so there really should be no reason to use bleach in anything other than the washing machine – but again, just covering my bases).  Here is a direct quote of the response I received: “We do not have any recommendations on using our Clorox Regular Concentrated Bleach to use when hand-washing your laundry. This is because the bleach was designed to be used in the washer machine for laundry purposes. To properly apply Clorox Regular Concentrated Bleach to your load of laundry,  add half a cup into the washer before adding the clothes. Then, you can add your detergent. To fully sanitize your clothing allow for the entire wash cycle to complete.”


And in case you are questioning the validity of Clorox’s claims, consider this:  Clorox bleach is an EPA-registered disinfectant.  As such, there are strict guidelines regarding labeling products (i.e. what the product can claim to do on its label) and the company must be able to provide efficacy data proving the product meets or exceeds standards in order to make certain claims.  You will notice that the label on the new Clorox Regular Concentrated Bleach indicates directions for “laundry and sanitizing”.  In order to use the word “sanitizing”, Clorox must show that their bleach does, in fact, sanitize.  Click here to see the EPA’s Sanitizer Test and you will see that the results “must show a bacterial reduction of at least 99.9% over the parallel control count within 5 minutes.”   You can also see the testing guidelines specifically for sanitizing laundry additives by clicking here (you will need to download the PDF or Word document to view).  In case you don’t want to download the document, here is a direct quote regarding evaluating the sanitizing success: “The results should demonstrate a reduction of ≥99.9 percent (a 3-log10 reduction ) in bacteria over the control count for both laundry water and fabric. This reduction should be demonstrated against each test microorganism within the contact time claimed on the label.”  Additionally, the EPA requires labels to “distinguish between products recommended as soaking treatments prior to laundering and products represented as additives in actual laundry operations” (source).  Therefore, if soaking were required for the bleach to sanitize the laundry, the label would be required to state this – BUT IT DOES NOT.  Rather, it states that it is to be added during the wash cycle to achieve sanitization.


Honestly, this information from Clorox and the EPA’s website should be sufficient to show bleach soaks are unnecessary; however, I will continue in order to address more of the responses from the online cloth diapering community and to provide additional evidence that bleach soaks are unnecessary.


There was also some speculation in the online cloth diapering community that the 30-minute bleach soak recommendation was derived from non-cloth-diaper-specific recommendations from the CDC and/or EPA and then altered to what seemed “reasonable” for cloth diapers.  But first, who determines what is “reasonable”?  And if you have any scientific background – or paid any attention in a research methods class – you should know that it is dangerous to make assumptions and connections where there might not be any.  A couple of posters referred to the EPA’s guidelines for emergency drinking water disinfection (found here), which say you need to wait 30 minutes before drinking the water.  Hence, they speculated you would also need 30 minutes for bleach to disinfect diapers.  Here is the problem with this reasoning: 1) the amount of bleach used in disinfecting drinking water is miniscule as compared to the amount you use when sanitizing laundry; 2) when purifying drinking water, you are removing very different types of threats than when sanitizing laundry; and 3) if you are purifying water, then you are starting with water that is not safe for human consumption – and, assuming you live in a developed nation, your water (used for drinking, laundry, etc) is already free from the majority of the organisms you would want to kill if you need to follow emergency drinking water disinfection instructions.  Therefore, the length of time needed to disinfect drinking water cannot be extrapolated to disinfecting cloth diapers.


Another poster in the online cloth diapering community stated the CDC says you must soak clothing for at least 30 minutes if it needs to be sanitized.  I have actually heard this reference before; however, I have never been able to find this information anywhere on the CDC’s website and no one has ever been able to provide a link to this information.  In fact, I found no mention of doing bleach soaks of ANY length on the CDC’s website.  Here are some links that show just a sampling of their laundry recommendations under various conditions:

“Healthcare Associated Infections” – “Laundry: Washing Infected Material” click here

“Preventing Norovirus Infection” click here

“Cleaning & Disinfecting Laundry for MRSA” click here

You will notice that none of these pages mention bleach soaks.  The first link mentions that commercial facilities use 50-150 ppm (parts per million) concentrations of bleach in the wash cycle.  And lest you assume this is some super high level of bleach needed to achieve sanitization in the wash cycle, let’s look at these numbers.  50 ppm is less than 1 tsp of bleach per 1 gallon of water (1 tsp/1 gallon is 65 ppm assuming 5.25% sodium hypochlorite) and 150 ppm is less than 1 tbs of bleach per gallon of water (1 tbs/1 gallon is 200 ppm).  Also, I should point out that the first link is listed under the “Prevention and Control” sections of several diseases on the CDC website including HIV (found here) and Hepatitis (found here), meaning these instructions are what the CDC recommends to prevent the spread of these diseases.


Finally, I will point you toward ongoing research that is being conducted specifically on yeast in cloth diapers.  You can find information about the study here and preliminary results here.  You will see in the second link that they found that adding bleach to the wash cycle killed 100% of the yeast colonies.  Now, I will point out (as the links do) that this is a small, on-going study – so drawing hard conclusions from their results at this time is not appropriate; however, these results are just one more piece of evidence in support of all of the information presented above.

So in conclusion, I have found ZERO evidence that it is necessary to soak diapers in bleach in order to sanitize them and, in fact, have found a significant amount of evidence that shows a bleach wash is more than sufficient to sanitize diapers.  I will point out that you need to follow the laundry instructions on your bottle of bleach to effectively sanitize your diapers as the amount of bleach needed will vary depending on the concentration of the bleach.  For instance, if using Clorox Regular Bleach (which is 6% sodium hypochlorite), you need to use ¾ cup for a standard washer and 1 ¼ cup for a large capacity washer – while you only need ½ cup if using Clorox Regular Concentrated Bleach (8.25% sodium hypochlorite).  Additionally, bleach does break down and lose its effectiveness over time.  When I asked Clorox how long a bottle of bleach would maintain its disinfecting/sanitizing properties when used according to the label, they said they recommend replacing bleach every three months.  Of course, I take this recommendation with a grain of salt since they stand to profit from people frequently replacing their bleach.  That said, it is absolutely a scientific fact that bleach does lose its effectiveness over time – so if you have had the same bottle of bleach for years, I would highly recommend replacing it!  And finally, because I am sure there will be people reading this who will scoff at all of the evidence presented here and will say that diapers should still be bleach soaked to be “on the safe side”, I will just point out that, not only is there proof that sanitization is achieved in a bleach wash, bleach is still a caustic substance at the end of the day and repeatedly exposing any type of cloth to it for extended lengths of time will cause premature breakdown of the fibers.  So for the love of diapers and the babies who wear them, let’s stop bleach soaking our diapers!

2 Responses to Let’s Talk About Bleach, Baby!

  1. krista May 24, 2015 at 2:49 pm #

    This is a FANTASTIC article. Well written, well researched. I’ve often wondered similar things, and I am also a part of multiple online cd communities. Thank you for taking the time to share your findings and I hope this gets some recognition, for the positive.

    • Rachel May 26, 2015 at 12:17 am #

      Thank you, Krista! I do hope this information helps bring about a shift in people’s thinking – not only just about soaking their diapers in bleach, but also in how they evaluate any advice they find online :)

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