The Evils of the Sanitize Cycle on Cloth Diaper Laundry

Image from Stock.xchng. Used with permission

Whenever you do cloth diaper laundry, the goal is to get your diapers clean.  Your cloth diaper stash takes a lot of abuse.  I mean, our kids pee and poop on those things… over and over again!  So with that in mind, you’d think that you want to get your cloth diaper laundry as clean as humanly possible, right?  And what can be better than sanitized or sterilized?

It turns out that when it comes to your cloth diaper laundry, just plain clean is generally good enough.  But then there are these beautiful, amazingly energy efficient front load washers.  And there’s that lovely “sanitize” button…  It seems like it should be the perfect solution, right?

It’s not.  While “sanitize” means to “render sanitary, free from elements such as filth or pathogens,” it’s not super kind to your diapers.  It can actually get far hotter than manufacturer specifications for some varieties of diapers.

I was curious about the temperatures, so I decided to start calling washing machine manufacturers after finding no hard and fast temperature information on sites with washing machine specs.  According to Maytag, their sanitize cycle renders clothes NSF safe.  NSF certified minimums for washing is 131F/55C.  But that’s just the minimum.  I couldn’t find any information regarding the actual temperature that the washing machine uses on sanitize.  The nice gentleman on the other end of the Maytag customer support line couldn’t, either.

Some sanitize through steaming.  The temperature that water turns to steam is 212F/100C.  That’s also the boiling point of water.

Here’s the thing: while boiling will most certainly kill most things, it may also kill your diapers.  Rockin’ Green says to wash your diapers at a maximum of 150F/65C, but to stick with 130F/54C for every day cloth diaper laundry… with deference to the manufacturer instructions, of course.  The instructions on BumGenius diapers says to wash at 100F/40C.  AppleCheeks diapers say to wash at 140F/60C.  Rumparooz website says explicitly (and this is a quote from their website) “Washing your pockets on the sanitize cycle will void the warranty.”

If you really do need to hard core sanitize, you most likely will only need to sanitize your inserts.  That’s where the issues are more than likely to reside with your diapers in the first place.  The only time I would ever make an exception to this rule is under the same conditions that I would actually use bleach: if dealing with MRSA, a really bad nasty fungal infection, or something else that requires a “kill or cure” approach to getting your cloth diapers back.

Have you ever used the sanitize cycle on your cloth diapers?  How did it work out for you?

About Suzi

Suzi is an American ex-pat living in British Columbia. She's a cloth diaper addict, wife, mom of three, and President of the Prince George chapter of Cloth for a Cause.


  1. My fancy front loader isn’t fancy enough for the sanitize cycle, but yikes! I would liken that to using the dishwasher to sanitize diapers (which is just gross for so many other reasons!). A good wash routine is really all you need to keep those diapers smelling clean and fresh 😉

  2. I never have with anything that has PUL in it. I sanitize my prefolds and inserts when I strip them. It’s amazing to see the suds that came out with that hot of water. I have since switched detergents!

  3. I have never sanitized my diapers before. I rarely ever use the cycle, occasionally on towels or sheets but that is all. I would use it to clean my inserts or prefolds though, just haven’t had to yet.

  4. Kaleena Snell says:

    Thanks for this article. I’ve been using the sanitize cycle with my applecheeks and rumparooz for a year now. Fortunately the PLU is still in great condition. I won’t be doing that anymore though! I actually just recommended using the sanitize or steam cycle to a girlfriend who is looking to start CDing. I’ll be forwarding this article on.

  5. I use the sanitize cycle for every load of diapers. They are holding up beautifully with no stains or stink, and I never need to strip. No issues with leaking either. I guess it would damage the pul over time but all my kids are potty trained by 15 months anyway.
    guess that

  6. dieseltaylor says:

    In Europe we have the same concerns on washing – and the difference between visibly clean and hygenically clean. What we do have is washing machines with water heaters so we can dial in the right temperature. Just to say 60C is about 135F degrees.

    This is the latest advice just published that may be useful:

  7. I don’t have the sanitize option on mine, but this was good info to know, especially when staying at grandma’s and she decides to throw the diapers in the wash!

  8. Washing diapers on anything below 140F will NOT kill common bugs in fecal matter. While you and I are not sucking on our clothing, our little ones are not so smart. NHS did a study where they found that ALL laundry washed at temps below 140F contained measureable amounts of bacteria, mold or virus’ that can make someone sick. This is especially true for someone who may have a weak immune system to start with.

    It is important to understand what type of materials you are using for cloth diapering. If you use 100% cotton pre-folds with no elastic, etc. then these can be boil washed (90C or 190F) without harm to the fabric. We have both a Miele and Bosch washer. We try to use the Bosch for diapers only. All prefolds are always washed on Sanitary, which for a USA Bosch is 161F (Miele is 158F in the USA on 120V models, 190F on 220V models). Covers are washed at a lower temp based on fabric. Poly/PUL lined are washed at 50C and wool is washed at 40C. If wool is soiled then it is hung in the sun after washing for at least 8 hours. The UV rays from the sun kill most bugs.

    We had lots of problems with yeast infections, etc. until we started washing all cloth that touches babies skin on sanitize. Presto, no more yeast caused diaper rash. We also ditched the all-in-ones unless they were 100% cotton (Fitted type). We now use 100% cotton pre-folds or 100% cotton all-in-ones from green mountain diapers along with poly/pul or wool covers. Make sure to skip covers with Velcro. Snaps last longer under hot wash cycles and they don’t catch on other clothing.

    Pre-folds are so much easier to work with than all-in-ones. When you couple them with covers you essentially have an all-in-one that you don’t have to dig a dirty insert out of anymore. Prepping for a change is as simple as put down the cover, lay pre-fold inside and place baby. If you add 100% cotton wipes then you can throw all cotton in right in the washer or into the wash pail and put the cover in a separate pail.

    We bought a Bosch washer on e-bay and try to use it solely for diapers. every diaper goes right in the washer. No more pail. Just buy a 24″ Euro sized washer and it works great to do a load every day. No more stinky pail, sanitized pre-folds and wipes. If you figure what you would spend in throw aways, you will have PAID for the washer when your child is potty trained!

  9. Found this article interesting but just thought that you guys should know a few things. Boiling does not sterilize and putting things in the sun does not either. The sun does not produce the uv range which is bacteriacidal.

  10. Melissa E says:

    Wow, I’m so glad I read this before I gave into temptation!

  11. Just want to point out a mistake in your article. MRSA is a bacteria, not a fungus. It’s Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. My source is my career in Medical Laboratory Sciences 🙂 Otherwise, love the article!

  12. Hmmm. I’m thinking of using mostly covers/ai2s so that I can sanitize the part that most of the bodily fluids are touching without worrying about snaps and pul.

  13. I support the use of Sanitize Cycle on my washer, as the temperature only goes above 150 for 3 minutes. I also use Country Save Detergent and Calgon Water Softener. I add or soak inserts only in Borax, Super Washing Soda and Oxi-clean Free on occasion( I find the cost of Oxifree clean for 101 loads to be cheaper then Country Oxygen bleach that’s why I went with Oxifree). I believe getting rid of bacteria, not having stink issues or ammonia build up and not having to strip is more important to me then Cloth Diaper Company warranties. The reason I have chosen a detergent like Country Save, is the company is not against adding other additives, is very friendly in their response. Cloth Diapers are still cheaper then Disposable diapers and cloth diapers are not meant to last forever either. I am not ashamed of not following what manufacturers recommend. I do not use CHLORINE BEACH, TIDE, GAIN, AMMONIA, VINEGAR in my diaper cleaning process.


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