Tea tree oil is in an ever growing amount of “natural” products and the cloth diapering community has grown quite fond of it. Essential oils are an amazing resource and Tea Tree Oil (TTO or Melaleuca) has some wonderful properties including treatment against bacteria (including staph and MRSA), viruses, fungal infections, and yeast. This is great news for the cloth diapering community since parents are often concerned about how to sanitize their children’s diapers after they have come into contact with or are exhibiting symptoms that they have been exposed to one of the above listed “bugs”.
I read lots of suggestions from moms on message boards and Facebook posts suggesting that parents add a few drops of TTO to sanitize their diapers. This sounded great to me and I had used it several times until I ran in to a post suggesting that a few drops of TTO would not be a high enough concentration when washing to kill all the “bugs”. Why would this be a huge concern? If you don’t kill bacteria completely, then there is a chance that they will grow and adapt to your current treatment, forming super bacteria. This is why doctors don’t want to give you an antibiotic every time you come in to their office sick. If you are sick with a virus, and antibiotic will do nothing for you and overuse of antibiotics (or incomplete use) can lead to stronger bacteria. So, in search of a proper TTO to water dilution, I scoured the internet searching for study based facts. I found very little. Who has the money to create studies? Large companies (mostly pharmaceutical) and universities have the funding and resources to create studies that they need or deem important. How many cloth diapering parents out there are funding research? This means that there are no direct studies of TTO’s effectiveness during laundering. Does that mean that we can’t find an answer? Not necessarily.
Just this week I had lunch with a friend I used to work with who knows more than I do about essential oils. I had questions and knew that many other moms had similar questions that we need fact based answers to. My friend Lisa referred me to Robert Tisserand, a world renowned essential oil expert, known for his fact based work with essential oils. Below is the email I sent him with my questions and his response:
(Here’s the boring explanation of who I am) “The cloth diapering community has run into a bit of controversy regarding the use of Tea Tree Oil to kill microbes including bacteria commonly found in feces, yeast, viruses shed in feces and in rare cases, mold (usually related to improper storage).
Many moms have been recommending a few drops of TTO when laundering diapers. This has been disputed, suggesting that such a dilution can cause bacteria resistance and growth of super bacteria.
I would love your suggestions of dilution ratios (TTO/water) as well as your opinion as to the effectiveness of straight TTO in laundry. I am concerned first with the fact that the oil may not distribute evenly because of oil/water relationship as well as the fact that most parents wash their diapers on a warm or hot setting. I am fairly new to EO use and properties, but I was under the impression that EOs loose their antimicrobial properties when heated.
If you have any suggestions as to how parents may treat their diapers properly and most effectively with essential oils (or grapefruit extract – which is another cloth diaper users favorite tool), I would greatly appreciate your assistance. For example, would it be more effective to soak diapers in a particular dilution of oil/cold water after washing them, followed by another rinse to prevent any skin irritation?
I would love to be able to reference articles to support your suggestions!
Thank you so much for taking the time to assist the cloth diapering community!”
This is an interesting question!
As for resistance, with either tea tree oil (TTO) or other essential oils, it’s a non-issue. There are one or two research papers suggesting that TTO might cause resistance, but the bulk of the evidence shows the opposite, and any resistance is slight and transient.
But tea tree oil is very effective at both killing (in high concentrations) and preventing virulence (in low concentrations) of MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus).
These properties of essential oils have given rise to their increasing use in food packaging (to prevent bacterial growth) and as “growth-promoters” in farmed animals, instead of antibiotics.
Three or four drops of tea tree oil is enough for a laundry load, added to the soaking cycle. The warm or hot setting is not an issue, so long as the diapers are in an enclosed space. Heating essential oils does not damage them (they are steam distilled at the boiling point of water) nor does it alter their antibacterial properties. The essential oil might evaporate, but it’s just as effective in vapor form as in liquid form.
You are right about dissolution – essential oils mix very poorly with water, but the physical action of a washing machine tends to break up the essential oil into very tiny droplets. During rinsing and drying, the essential oil will be mostly lost (which is a good thing – you don’t want any risk of skin irritation) with only traces remaining.
I hope this is helpful!
To specify what he meant by the longest soak cycle I clarified and Robert replied that it should work well to add the TTO where your washer suggests to pour bleach. It will then have at least 2-3 rinses to be removed from your diapers prior to use.
So, for anyone conflicted about using TTO, go for it! It would be a great addition to your laundry routine especially if your little one has experienced any sort of stomach virus, if your diapers aren’t smelling clean (check your detergent amount also) after they are washed, or if you have any reason to suspect that your little one has an infection. Do note that TTO will not fix all rashes and will have no effect on diapers suffering from ammonia buildup or repelling due to excess detergent. Please see your doctor for questions regarding diaper rash so that they may swab the rash and tell you if the rash may be due to a “bug” or not. I hope this brings you as much peace of mind about using TTO as it has brought to me.
*Please note that it is important to purchase undiluted TTO to maintain effectiveness.*
Once you’ve dealt with ammonia buildup in your diapers (see my post HERE for how to get rid of ammonia), how do you keep it from coming back? I learned a few things while taking the flats challenge. There is value in a wet pail. In order to soak your diapers without decreasing the life of them you should only soak absorbant material without PUL or TPU (the “waterproof” material). What if you only have AIO diapers? I suggest that you use a fitted, prefold or flat for nighttime and nap time diapering. These are the diapers that your baby wears for the longest and they are the ones that build up the most ammonia.
What’s the routine? First you need to rinse out whatever diapers you are using for nap or nighttime. I rinse until the water running out of the diapers is clear. Rinse on warm to get the most out of your diapers. Then I place these diapers in a bucket with 1/2 a scoop of oxiclean in a bucket with enough water to cover the diapers. Throughout the day, I will add any flats, prefolds or diapering materials that are not “waterproof”, like wipes or poopy fleece liners. For the safety of your baby, it is important to keep your wet pail out of their access or reach. I keep mine in the laundry sink which is blocked from the twins’ access by a baby gate.
The changes I made to my wash routine to keep ammonia buildup from returning were fairly simple. I have a front loader HE machine. The problem we face when washing with a machine like this is that it uses as little water as possible. Enough water is KEY to getting cloth diapers clean. In order to trick your machine into adding more water, add a wet towel to your wash. You must use a sufficient amount of detergent to get your diapers clean. If they don’t smell clean out of the wash you may need more detergent. Because I have hard water, I found that I could use the recommended amount of detergent only if I used an additive to soften the water as well. I use Charlie’s soap and Charlie’s laundry booster (for hard water).
By using a wet pail to soak diapers, adding a water softener to my wash, and adding water to my wash (the wet towel), I no longer have ammonia buildup. It took a lot of experimenting to get this routine! For my full wash routine click HERE. I hope this helps you to keep your diapers ammonia buildup free!
Now that my twins are older, they have stronger urine and it has taken some adjusting to my wash routine to get their diapers ammonia free. I have not had another ammonia burn incident, but before the change in our routine, we had stinky ammonia smelling diapers after one use. Blech.
To start from a clean slate, I first boiled all my inserts as well as those that could be detached from our AIOs, for fifteen minutes in about 4 loads. Next I split all the diapers, including my AIO’s, into two loads (so as not to overload our washer) and stripped them. I stripped the diapers by rinsing them, washing them with a teaspoon of blue dawn dishsoap, and then rinsing until the water showed no evidence of suds. I used hot water for stripping. After stripping the diapers, I used them on my DD (for nap and night) and DS (more than just nap and night – more on this with a potty training update…) like normal.
After one day off from washing diapers, it was back to the grind (I now wash every other day because I only have one-ish in diapers). I switched detergents to Charlie’s Soap and Charlie’s Laundry Booster and Hard Water Treatment and have had great results!
Day to day care: Rinse any soiled diapers with the diaper sprayer and place them in the dry pail. All AIO and diaper inserts go in this pail as well. (I keep diaper shells/covers in another bucket by the washer to be washed on warm).
1) Load diapers (separating all snap in inserts helps increase the life of the diapers) and push the rinse/spin button on the far right. Then I set the spin speed to OFF. This keeps more water in the diapers. This rinse takes 7 minutes.
2) Add detergent (I use 1 Tablespoons of Charlie’s detergent and booster each) in the drawer designated for detergent (top left). I set my washer to a Normal wash cycle and adjust from there. I set the Wash/Rinse button to Hot/Cold, the Spin Speed button to Low (this keeps more water in the diapers for the extra rinse), Soil Level to Heavy and I then push the Water Plus button on the very right.
3) After the wash cycle is complete, I push the rinse/spin button again leaving the spin cycle setting alone. My machine rinses on warm which is the temperature recommended for most effectively removing soil from diapers.
For more tips and troubleshooting, check out the bummis cloth diapering website. They have tons of science to back up their suggestions. As always, check with your manufacturer if you have any doubts as to how to wash your diapers. Many manufacturers recommend that you only wash in warm water. In my experience, warm water was just not hot enough to get the ammonia out of our diapers. I have found the cloth diapering community and any retailer I have dealt with, to be very kind and helpful. If they can’t answer your question they will generally refer you to someone who can answer you! Please feel free to send me specific questions by email or by comments on this post. I am in league with the RDA (Real Diaper Association) and they have tons of retailers, manufacturers, and experienced cloth diaper experts at their disposal to question!
Months and months ago I noticed that our cloth diapers just reeked of ammonia after they were peed in. Let me assure you that, if you are nearly knocked out when you dump your dirty diapers into the washing machine, you have ammonia build up. It may just initially smell bad, but, if left untreated, this build up will LITERALLY BURN your baby’s bum. I had never heard of this being a possibility! So, if you have stinky diapers, this post is for you. And, if you plan on using cloth then you need to know the signs of ammonia build up.
After a diaper has been peed in, it should just smell lightly of urine. If it smells of ammonia, then it’s time to start treating the diapers. How do you treat diapers for ammonia build up? I found a couple great websites that were full of helpful info! The first is Pooters and the second is All About Cloth Diapers. These are both great resources if you would like to use a method other than the one I chose. I went with the method I could use without buying any new detergents or cleansing agents because I wanted to start treating my diapers the moment I learned what the heck was going on.
My twins had suffered red bottoms 3 times before I figured out what the problem was. I took my dear daughter (DD) and dear son (DS) to the pediatrician because I thought for sure this was a yeast rash, since it was so persistent. I treated the diapers for yeast (see post HERE) once with tea tree oil, stripping and oxiclean and then a second time with bleach (which you aren’t supposed to use because it decreases the life of the diapers). The pediatrician swabbed DD’s rash to check for yeast and gave us a prescription for a prescription anti-fungal. After we put both kids in hybrid diapers with disposable inserts and used the prescription cream, the rash started clearing up. After having treated the diapers, I thought I was in the clear to start using them again once the rash was completely gone. Um, not the case. Why? It wasn’t yeast! The culture swab came back negative for yeast.
I put DD in cloth again and 3 diapers later she had a serious burn AGAIN. I was very upset. What was I doing wrong? What else could this be, if not yeast? I started reaching out to fellow cloth diaper users on Facebook. After several suggestions that the twins suddenly BOTH became sensitive to our detergent (which I found very unlikely), someone suggested that I boil the diapers. This sounded like a good idea to me. I started boiling diaper inserts (not my AIOs) and continued to research online. The next morning I checked Facebook and found a reply saying that it sounded like ammonia burn. This immediately felt right to me because when I saw how bad the rash was, I thought “this looks like a burn!”. DD had blistered! (See the post HERE for how we quickly healed the ammonia burn/rash.) I then had some specific information to look up. I found the above mentioned websites and began to treat. Since I was already boiling diapers, I continued using that method.
Use the largest pot you have and fill it 3/4 the way full. Use long tongs to add and remove diapers. After water has come to a boil, slowly add one diaper or diaper insert at a time. (I’m just going to say that this is a crucial point. I got lazy after a few pots of diapers and added too many at one time. The pot boiled over, I had a flooded stove, and the water spilled into the cabinet below onto all my pots and pans and the floor. Then I had to keep two toddlers out of the kitchen, with a hot water covered floor and clean up everything. Spare yourself and add the diapers slowly.) You can boil between 15-30 minutes but if you are boiling anything with PUL I’d go with 15 minutes. Longer may damage/melt your diapers. Pooters also suggests that diapers older than 2 years shouldn’t be boiled because it may damage them beyond repair. I then removed the diapers one at a time and placed them in a metal rubber coated bowl. Make sure your container won’t melt with the heat of the diapers! I then took the diapers over to the sink and placed them in a colander to drip. After they cooled off a bit, I took them to the washing machine.
After boiling I rinsed the diapers in cold. I have a front load HE washer and I will give you the setting I used along the way. After rinsing, I washed the diapers with the Kirkland biodegradable liquid laundry detergent and put vinegar in the laundry softener compartment. I usually use Tiny Bubbles Detergent because it is specific for cloth diapers. If you use a non-cloth diaper specific detergent you can get buildup from the detergent in your diapers that can cause stink and other problems. I set the washer to Hot/Cold, heavy soil, extra rinse, and water plus. After this cycle was complete I added another rinse to total 1 pre-rinse and 3 post-wash rinses.
I REALLY didn’t want to boil my AIOs, for fear that the waterproofing layer would melt. Instead, I washed them separately on the sanitary cycle with Tiny Bubbles Detergent and then washed according to the above directions. After DD had one pee in the unboiled AIO, I could smell ammonia (not as strong as it was before but still). So, I got over my fear and boiled my AIOs, three diapers at a time, for 15 minutes each set followed by the post boil wash routine from above.
I knew this had worked once I put the kids in a diaper and
smelled didn’t smell the ammonia aroma from a soiled diaper! No red bottoms! I wish that ammonia build up was talked about more as a frequent problem. I have heard of several moms who happily cloth diapered for over a year, and suddenly had to give it up because of severe diaper rash. I’m thinking ammonia could have been the culprit.
Because of this discovery, I have changed my wash routine. I now, pre-rinse cold (I used to just push the prewash button), wash Hot/Cold with Tiny Bubbles Detergent & 1/2 scoop oxiclean, use the heavy soil, water plus and extra rinse settings, as well as add one more extra rinse at the end. I also wash monthly with the Kirkland detergent mentioned above to prevent buildup. I used to wash every other day but am now washing every day. I read a BumGenius recommendation stating that 12-15 AIOs are considered a full load for an HE machine. Yikes! I was totally overloading my machine! I think I was washing 16 AIOs plus the same amount of inserts AND cloth wipes too! I’m now also soaking the overnight, nap time & poopie diapers in a wet pail with water and a few drops of tee tree oil.
After all this I started asking around to see if any fellow cloth diapering mommas had experience telling the difference between a yeast rash and an ammonia burn. One mom suggested that if you put a cup of baking soda in baby’s warm bath the rash should improve if it is not yeast. If it remains the same by the next morning, then it may be yeast or a bacterial infection. I’d say, if you take baby to the doctor and the doctor swabs the rash, the results will give you the best information. In our case, the swab came back negative for anything. This makes perfect sense since it was an ammonia burn and not a bug of any kind.
It amazes me how much there is to know about parenting, cloth diapering, and life in general. I hope I have made this cloth diaper journey a bit easier on at least one of you! What’s your wash routine? Is it working for you? Share in a comment on this post and help save someone else from reinventing the wheel!
I just came across a great thread to add to this post and I wanted to share! This thread is about washing, detergent and buildup and is REALLY informative. Click HERE to check it out. For my latest wash routine update click HERE.