Our first live chat, with Penny Broderick of the Nappy Library Information Service

This week saw the Nappy Science Gang’s first live chat with an expert related to the project – and what a chat it was! From now on, live chats will happen regularly, so watch this space for details!

One Tuesday 12th May at 8pm, we had the pleasure and privilege of putting our questions to Penny Broderick.

Penny runs Worcestershire Nappy Advisory Service and is the founder of the Cloth Nappy Library Information Network. She has done a huge amount of nappy testing at home to try to investigate best washing routines, nappy absorbency and many more issues. She has been described as ‘knowing more about cloth nappies than anyone in Britain.’

We were delighted that Penny joined us for a live chat. When the chat opened, she introduced herself to the group and explained how she used cloth for her first daughter (born in 2008) due to environmental concerns. After people started asking her where she got her nappies and how she used them, she began lending them out and this eventually evolved into a Nappy Library. Penny now has over 2,000 nappies and over 6 years of expertise testing them.

Here you can read the questions the group asked Penny, along with her very enlightening answers.

Q: Where can I go for cloth nappy advice? (‘m thinking of starting to use them.)
A: There are FAQ’s on our website (www.worcsnas.org.uk) that are designed for beginners, so start there.

Q: What is the best way to wash cloth nappies (and at what temperature?)
A: I have 3 different washing machines and detergents work VERY differently in each, despite them all being connected to the same water supply. Non-bio is the most popular detergent choice (as it’s kinder to the skin, though washing at 60 degrees probably denatures the enzymes in biological detergents anyway) followed by the Eco Egg. Results with different detergents and methods vary massively from machine to machine.

All nappies can withstand washing at 60 degrees, apart from very very cheap ones and fake imports.
Every nappy library’s insurance is based on washing at 60 degrees on a cotton intensive cycle between loans. They all collaborated to agree that this was the best way to ensure hygiene. The manufacturers and retailers in the Network group (most of them) agreed so we collaborated on the washing guidelines that Go Real, the Network and the others use.

Q: Why 60 degrees?
A: Because most machines only have 40 degree and 60 degree cycles, nothing in between (some now have 50) and we know that most germs are killed at slightly over 40 degrees (which is why our bodies raise our temperature to over 40 degrees when we are ill).

Q: Is it true that liquid detergent coats cloth nappies and this builds up over time – so it shouldn’t, therefore, be used?
A: No that’s not true. Again results vary from machine to machine, so some will be fine with liquid and some not, and this will vary between liquid brands too.

Q: What is the rule of thumb when working out how much detergent to use?
A: You should first clean out your machine with a hot wash so there’s no detergent residue. You start with half your regular dose that you use for clothing, then watch the final rinse cycle. If there are detergent bubbles (i.e they don’t pop in under 20 seconds) in the final rinse, then use slightly less next time. If there aren’t, use slightly more until you get bubbles, then drop back a step.

Q: What kind of washing machine do you find to be the best at cleaning nappies?
A: Older machines tend to work better because newer machines are more ‘eco friendly’ and put less water in. Nappies and heavily soiled items need a lot of water and jiggling around to get them clean, so the more gentle machines with less water just don’t work as well.

Q: Are there any brands of cloth nappy that are still made in the UK?
A: Yes, TotsBots and Nature Babies, along with lots of WAHM (work-at-home Mum’s) own brands.

Q: Would using a cotton intensive cycle make a difference to smell?
A: Nappies shouldn’t smell if they’re being washed properly but yes, a more intensive cycle will part the fibres and ‘puggle’ the fabric more, thus getting more dirt out….logical really. Ensure you’re using enough detergent too. Many are so scared of build-up that they’re not using enough. You’re best using a FULL dose and then doing an extra rinse if you’re worried about build-up (or use an Eco Egg). Doing a rinse cycle first to make the nappies heavier helps. When I dye stuff, I reduce the spin on the first rinse to leave the items heavier too. A rinse cycle (with no spin), a 60 degree cycle followed by another rinse and then spin cycle is optimal.

Q: What about the laundry cleansers that you can get now, like the Dettol one to kill germs? Are they ok to use with nappies?
A: The general consensus between libraries and nappy retailers etc. is that the Dettol one is a bad idea. As with adding any antimicrobial to a wash on a regular basis, you’re going to build resistance. As a one-off it wouldn’t do any damage, but regular use is to be avoided. And in my view Dettol is terrible for the environment. It wouldn’t actually damage your nappies though – it shouldn’t affect the fabric, PUL or elastics.

Q: Do you recommend using tea tree oil in your wash?
A: Tea tree use is my huge bugbear at the moment. (I’m also a trained aromatherapist) People use regular amounts of commercial tea tree in their nappy wash and we’re getting thrush that is resistant to it! Little Lamb (nappy brand) removed their advice to use tea tree, and we’re in regular arguments with Cheeky Wipes about it! Tea tree shouldn’t be used on under 12s unless treating a specific condition anyway as it is very sensitising. And did you notice the HUGE rise in eczema since companies starting adding chamomile to baby products so much? The Aromatherapy Council is trying to put some proper research in place to do with that. We use chamomile to treat eczema, and it has been known to cause eczema. People think it’s fine to use on babies, but it shouldn’t be used all the time. Patchouli for example, treats psoriasis but also causes psoriasis.

Oils safe to use on babies are lavender (which very very few people react to, but always test anyway and it can be used neat to treat conditions. It’s the only one that can. It stings on broken skin though, be warned!) And mandarin which needs to be diluted in a base oil (so does the lavender really as it’s stimulating when neat or in large quantities). Mandarin can stain.

A great cloth wipe solution is chamomile tea actually. Much less concentrated than essential oil and smells lovely. You can use lavender to add an element of healing and antimicrobial if you want. Commercially grown lavender tends to still have enough variance, chemically, between plants so that resistance doesn’t build up in the same way that it can with commercially grown tea tree. Chamomile is naturally healing and soothing, like lavender but without the antimicrobial effects. Chamomile tea is a safe way to have the healing effect of chamomile. Essential oils are so so concentrated that a drop of chamomile essential oil is like 1000 baths in chamomile tea! Chamomile tea, with a drop of lavender and a drop of mandarin is amazing!

People really don’t know that 2 ml of eucalyptus oil can kill an adult if ingested. A mouthful of Olbas Oil would kill a child. Easily. But because it’s ‘natural’ people merrily use it without a thought.”

The group discuss how many ‘nappy myths’ are out there, and how the Nappy Science Gang project is a fantastic way of disproving, conclusively, some of the common ones that circulate.

Q: Is it necessary to do regular maintenance washes to ensure your washing machine is as clean as possible?
A: It depends on the machine. My machine number 1 seems to cope really well with long gaps between cleaning cycles. In fact we went for 3 years without cleaning it because we each thought the other was doing it, and had no smells! The best way to clean your machine is a very hot wash initially, 95 or ‘boil’ if you have it. When that cycle is running clear, then I’d use a proper machine cleaner the first time, and then another 95 cycle after. Then regular 95 cycles every month or so should keep it clear.

Q: I’ve heard some babies can have an allergy or react to PUL. Is this true and if so how common is it?
A: Some children appear to react to PUL but it’s actually the damp seeping through. Most PUL wraps/nappies are not fully 100% waterproof, and in the right circumstances the outside will get damp. Also, re. reacting to PUL, it’s not usually the actual PUL that they’re reacting to, but the fabric that it’s backing. The laminate itself is the shiny stuff on the back of it. The other stuff is usually polyester/nylon type threads/material.

Q: How does fleece work in keeping moisture away from the skin?
A: Fleece is magic! It’s to do with evaporation, temperature and wicking. Basically, fluid prefers warm, absorbent material. So when fleece is inside the nappy, as a liner, the fluid passes through it to the warm absorbent material on the other side and prefers to stay there. On the outside of a nappy, it prefers to stay in the warm absorbent side, not the cool air side. So any small amounts that are drawn out by the air, evaporates off, which helps the nappy last longer too. That’s why it doesn’t work for small babies; the mattress gets warm as they don’t move much, and their rooms tend to be warmer… so the fluid moves through to the nice warm absorbent mattress or clothing. Same thing in a car seat…, jeans warm up, fluid moves through the fleece wrap. It doesn’t need a lot of movement, so it’s usually fine for babies over 6 months old. But not in a warm car seat on a hot day, wearing cotton clothing over it!

If you had two towels though that were identical, and had fleece between them, and they were saturated to the same level, the fluid would prefer the warmer side by a small fraction.

Polar fleece is thicker than microfibre fleece, so harder for fluid to pass through, meaning it will repel more on the outside as a wrap, but as a liner it can make it hard for the fluid to pass through into the nappy in the first place. Which is also why using a fleece liner, with a fleece lined pocket and then a charcoal insert coated in fleece, causes leaks! Three layers of polyester fleece to get through!

The best way to test fleece for making liners or a wrap, is to put a warm cotton towel on the worktop, lay the fleece on top, press it with your hand (if you don’t press it, it will simply roll off) and slowly pour water onto it. You can then see how fast the fluid moves through the fleece.

Laura Hobbs (project Science Co-ordinator) comments that fleece is ‘hydrophobic’ which means it ‘repels’ water. So much so that it holds less than 1%

Q: Is a thinner fleece liner preferable to use (if any) with a fleece lined nappy?
A: Yes, thinner for liners, but not so thin that the fluid is sitting against the skin. Think of it like nylon mesh… you want it thick enough to be a barrier but thin enough to pass through. If the nappy is already lined with fleece, then you’re only wanting a fleece liner to catch poo, not stay dry, so thinner is better.

Q: What effect does it have when you put a disposable liner over the fleece, does that stop it working?
A: The disposable liner will just get wet and stay damp against the skin, so that’s pointless.

Q: I am interested in knitting wool wraps but wonder if they will be too hot for summer and how effective they are?
A: Wool is not my area of expertise I’m afraid. I am currently having a page written on it by an expert for my FAQ on the library website so that will be available soon.

Sophia Collins (Project Manager) says that we are hopefully going to be doing a live chat with Dr Tony Pierlot from CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency) in a few weeks’ time. He’s a world expert on wool.

Q; How long can you ‘get away with’ leaving nappies before washing? Say if camping for a week. Would the stinks start to bond into the nappies and be hard to get out? I’m trying to find a solution for holidays – I don’t want to use disposables but I don’t want to invest in a camping washing machine unless they’re definitely worth it.
A: I’ve always said 3-4 days, which is based on personal experience. We once went on holiday and left a wet cotton nappy in the bucket which was almost exactly 7 days to the hour when I got back and found it… it was pretty grim! Some people do say they wash once a week though. I’ve left pads for a whole week before though and they’ve been fine, but they are bamboo and zorb, not cotton, so material probably makes a difference. If you use a camping washing machine, you could minimise the risks by using disposable liners (or throwing out the fleece liners catching as much poop as possible) and hand-rinsing either before, or after to make sure you know they are totally clean before you dry them. You can do a second wash by hand if you’re not 1 not cotton, so material probably makes a difference. If you use a camping washing machine, you could minimise the risks by using disposable liners (or throwing out the fleece liners catching as much poop as possible) and hand-rinsing either before, or after to make sure you know they are totally clean before you dry them. You can do a second wash by hand if you’re not 100% convinced by the machine. Logically, cold water slows bacterial growth etc. anyway, they prefer warm and damp, so cold water then drying promptly and thoroughly would discourage bacteria etc. I am also pretty sure that hand washing in cold water would be fine if there was no sharing of nappies and no infections, and the nappies were properly dried between.It would be interesting to test the variation between fabrics in this respect too – different materials left damp in different temperatures…how long before mildew and other stuff starts to happen?

Q: What sort of disposable liners are the most effective?
A: It depends what you mean by ‘effective’ If you mean better at staying in one place and catching poo, then yes, some are better than others. If you mean actually being flushable, that would be different ones. Some claim to be washable and flushable, which is impossible and something we hope to test in Nappy Science Gang. The sewage companies say that anything that doesn’t break up when shaken in a bottle of water for 30 seconds should not be flushed. In terms of staying damp against the skin, the softer they are, the more damp they’ll get against the skin, usually, as a general rule. But not always.

Q: My washing machine does a fast wash (40 mins), which puts all the water in at once. Or its normal wash takes about 3 hours but I think adds less water or not all at once. Any ideas what is best? No idea if the short cycle is long enough nor if the full one uses enough water!
A: I’d say that a full wash is best, but if the nappies are not heavily soiled, and you’ve got no bugs or infections or rashes going on, and you’re confident in your detergent, the odd quick wash might be fine. It’s something that would vary hugely depending on the machine so something only you can decide I’m afraid! You can always shove a jug of water in to make the load heavier before it starts to make it add more water (assuming it does that).

Q: Regarding washing routines, I had always done a cold rinse first but allowed the machine to spin afterwards. I did this with the thinking that I was rinsing out the wee (particularly with 3 days worth of stinky teething nappies). Is this not necessary and should I stop the machine before the spin and have the extra water for the wash?
A: Try it because I think it’ll be one of those ones that varies machine to machine, child to child, nappy material to nappy material. When you rinse though, you dilute the wee, and when you spin, you remove it from the fabric. So a fast spin removes more of the diluted wee, logically.

A huge thank you to Penny and everyone who joined her for the chat.

Next week, our live chat will be on Tuesday 19th May at 8 pm. We’re delighted to be joined by Mark Smith and Adrian Clark, who are both members of the Royal Society of Chemistry Water Science Forum. They know all about the chemistry of water, water hardness and analysis of water. They also have some ideas about the pink stain mystery… So come along and ask all your water-related questions!

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