Hello everyone and welcome to the mother of all chat write-ups!
This is a really interesting, but also really long chat we had with the admins from Fluff Love University, a group of cloth and science lovers from the USA. They introduce themselves and their work in the chat, but if you want to find out more about them you should nip over to their website here.
Since this is an exceptionally long chat and we were sort of jumping from one topic to another whilst writing, I decided to split it into chapters for you, so you can read it all in its entirety or just skip to whichever topic you are most interested in. I hope you will find this useful and interesting!
**WARNING** to avoid confusion I want to clarify at the start of the write-up that: USA bleach is different from UK bleach and what we call detergent in the UK is not the same as a USA detergent. Also, MSDS sheets are the equivalent of UK COSSH sheets. Read the post to find out more!
There are so many people on the expert panel today (8 in total!), it might get a bit confusing, so let’s first learn about who they are individually:
Holly : Hi all! I’m Holly. I have my hands in a lot of pots here at Fluff Love but I try to focus on the behind-the-scene s PR work with industry relations. I also help out with the website, other social media outlets and our new-ish sister group Down under in AU/NZ.
Fran : Hi I’m Fran. I’m a mum of one little boy, Bentley, who is almost a year and a half. I’ve been CDing for that long. I have 2 bachelor degrees in Biology with an emphasis in public health and chemistry as well as anthropology with an emphasis in biological anthropology. I also am completing my thesis work in environmental science. I work full time outside the home at night and I do daycare for a friends son during the day.
Melony : Hi! I am Melony Grace, also an admin with Fluff Love & CD Science. I mainly work with trouble shooting wash routines with some of the unique machines.
Jill : Hello everyone! I’m Jill Bristow, I am a Fluff Love admin and I do a lot of work on the website and maintain the detergent index.
Melony : Hi! I am Melony Grace, also an admin with Fluff Love & CD Science. I mainly work with trouble shooting wash routines with some of the unique machines.
Jen : Hi, I’m Jen. I do a lot of the data work and website content development.
Meri: And I’m Meri Mackey from Fluff Love and CD Science.
Q: What is fluff love university?
Jen: Fluff Love University is our web page. We have a ton of information on all sorts of cloth diapering related topics.
Jill: Fluff Love University is our website, which is based off of the principles and research of our Facebook group, Fluff Love & CD Science. Since the inception of our website, we have become a registered non-profit organization working to make cloth diapering easy and accessible to every family.
Holly : Fluff Love University launched in November 2014, it has a cutesy kind of University theme to it because we wanted to not only give those new to cloth an easy education on how to get started but really delve into the science behind washing and other such topics.
Q: So what prompted you all to do this?
Holly: Well, a bit over a year ago a few gals decided that they wanted a space that not only helped families wash their nappies properly but they wanted to be able to tell people the reasons and the whys behind the recommendations. A place like that didn’t truly exist.
Q: Do you do experiments or point people towards research that’s already been done?
Jill: We do a little of both. We experiment on our own in a similar “citizen science” way to you guys – basically anything we can do in our own kitchens and laundry rooms. We also point people towards existing research from reputable organizations such as the CDC, WHO, Health Canada, and so on. And our great strength comes from our surveys and survey data. Jen, can you speak to our data collection and how that helps us further our fluffin’?
Jen: Sure. In addition to looking at whatever research is out there, we also heavily use surveys to collect data from our members and also from other cloth diapering groups. We have done two large scale surveys totalling about 8,000 responses looking at washing methods and outcomes such as rashes and ammonia. I work as a data analyst so I generally want to collect as much user data as possible.
Q: I’ve looked at your detergent index a few times. I wondered how you came to your recommendations, eg. when you say a powder doesn’t have enough surfactant, is that based on your having tested it in some way, or on a reading of the ingredients?
Jill: It is based on both. We look up the material safety data sheet for every detergent in our index. A typical detergent will contain between 5 and 30% surfactant, depending on the brand and type (plant based, free and clear, mainstream, and so on). Sometimes an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) will say that a detergent only contains 1% surfactant, or it will not contain any surfactant whatsoever, and in those cases, it’s an easy call that those detergents will not be strong enough to wash human waste from multi-layered fabrics.
1. ON THE QUANTITY OF DETERGENT TO USE
Q: I’ve noticed a great emphasis on using a full dose of detergent, rather than the half dose or less that the community still recommends. Did that advice come through surveys too, or from experiments?
Holly: that recommendation primarily comes from common sense and from an understanding that detergent build up is a myth. A further understanding of the difference between soap and detergent and then supported by survey data. Nappies are the dirtiest thing you’ll ever wash, it doesn’t make sense to use less cleaning power to wash it.
Jen : As an analogy, if an older child had a stomach bug and was sick in her clothes, you certainly wouldn’t use a quarter measure of detergent to wash them — cloth diapers are even thicker fabric than clothing.
Q: Does it make sense to use more powder than necessary? How do you know how much is the right amount?
Holly : Our recommendations range between full dose and up to double dose. It depends on the formulation. We can gain a lot of understanding by reviewing ingredients lists, the order of the ingredients and then even at times the MSDS will tell us a percentage range of the ingredients. From there it does take a bit of trial and error to find the correct amount for each individual based on their circumstances, but that’s how we arrive at the starting point. A helpful resource we’ve found is here: «link», as well as this one: «link».
Jen: Regarding detergent quantity, in our surveys of both our members and other cloth diaper groups, detergent quantity was an important variable. Using less than the recommended amount of detergent for heavily soiled loads was clearly associated with a risk of bad smells, ammonia, and serious rashes.
2. ON DETERGENT BUILD-UP. MYTH OR FACT?
Q: Where does the understanding that detergent build up is a myth come from? Experiments? If so can we see data and analysis of the evidence because that would really help us!
Fran: Detergents are designed to wash away, they have a hydrophilic and and hydrophobic end. The hydrophilic end wants to attach to water, that’s its job.
@Fran: There’s a finite amount of water available for those detergent molecules to attach to though, right? And therefore a finite amount of detergent that can be rinsed away?
Fran : That is true, but only to a very small extent. But there is only a cup of detergents for at least 20 gallons of water. And there is a rinse cycle at the end of the wash, per normal washing machine function. And even *if* there was a small amount of detergent left behind, it would bind to water molecules and be washed away during the next wash cycle. This has also been confirmed from scientists we have talked to at companies who manufacture detergents.
@Fran: agitation would be another one I think. Doesn’t detergent require agitation to do its work? So if it found a place to sit undisturbed in the machine or in the nappy it could hang around.
Fran: No, agitation isn’t going to play a role in its ability to bind to water. To help remove soil, yes, but not the water since it is present all around. The only way that would be possible, really, is if your machine was broken and you had detergent just sitting on/in the nappy.
@Fran: detergent sitting on/in the nappy seems quite plausible though, depending on how and when the mixing and dissolving takes place in the machine. And I know that my drawer is full of grotty powder build-up (I’m a poor housewife) so there’s a good chance there’s some in the machine.
Jen: There’s a saying, when you hear hoof beats, don’t look for zebras. If you have thick cloth that’s been covered in human waste, and the cloth smells foul and is giving the child a rash, the more logical assumption is that the human waste not being properly washed out is what’s causing the smell and rash, not the detergent not being washed out.
@Jen: we’re trying to avoid assuming anything much for our science though. We want to test these things.
Meri: but with any scientific experiment, you don’t want to loose the forest for the trees. It’s not assumptions without facts. It’s looking at the big picture and logical trains of thought.
@Meri: but it’s possible that detergent build-up increases the propensity of the human waste to stick to the fabrics, in some way, which might explain where the idea that it is to be avoided comes from.
Holly: there hasn’t been much research or study with detergent build up because that’s just not how it was designed, if you know what I mean. It’s sole purpose is to grab soil and rinse cleanly. It’s the reason it was invented. It would be like researching whether soda pop and water were the same thing. You don’t because you know it’s not. There was a study done 20 years ago but that supports the fact that detergent doesn’t build up but it’s hard to cite a study that old. This may be an interesting read for you all, this is our research piece with sources cited on the myth of detergent build up: «link». This page reviews the most common ingredients in detergents: «link»
Q: The community have used less detergent as recommended by the manufacturers, any idea how they came to this recommendation?
Holly: I honestly don’t know the origin of the detergent build-up myth and the reasoning for using less. I suspect it came from people confusing soap with detergent and experiencing soap build up and then therefore assuming that detergent builds up as well. I think a lot of boutique style detergents and soaps came out and their dosage is so small that there were many excuses made for that reasoning that led people to believe they needed to use less.
3. ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN UK AND USA PRODUCTS
Q: What do you mean when you say “plant based, free and clear, mainstream” detergents?
Jill : there are many types of detergents. Here in the States, we have designations such as “Free and Clear” that indicate a detergent is free of fragrances and dyes (I believe they’re called “sensitive” varieties in Europe). Free and clear detergents are weaker by nature, often containing a much lower percentage of the surfactants than regular, full-scent versions. “Natural” options are also growing in popularity. These detergents use surfactants derived from plant sources rather than from petrochemicals. Plant based surfactants usually come in smaller amounts of detergents because they are expensive to manufacture and also because they are very sudsy, which makes them hard to use in high efficiency machines.
@Jill, thanks. I guess a lot of people might assume that ‘free and clear’ detergents are just lacking the perfumes, etc that are there for cosmetic reasons. Why do manufacturers also put less active ingredients in?
Jill: Yes – because surfactants stink! The surfactant itself smells so terrible that without a scent to cover it, the consumer would be turned off by the smell of the detergent in the container.
@Jill, wow, that’s interesting. I did not know that. What does it smell of?
Jill: It’s hard to describe, not like anything else I’ve smelled. We tested a batch of detergent with a high surfactant concentration and no scent, and all of our testers commented that the detergent stank. It was unpleasant!
Q: Do we have anything equivalent to ‘natural’ washing detergents over here in the UK, does anyone know? Can Ecover be one of them?
Jill: Yes, Ecover is a natural plant-based brand. I think you also have some of the same brands we do, such as Seventh Generation.
People also added that Seventh generation, Eco Leaf, Method and Violets are all natural plant based.
Q: Are there enzyme-free detergents in the USA? That’s something I can’t remember from growing up there, and there are a ton of enzyme free brands over here.
Jill: We do have enzyme free detergents, but we don’t have the “bio” and “non-bio” designations you guys have. Instead we have to check ingredient lists and MSDSs manually.
Q: I’ve also seen a few European brands recommended on the detergent index and was wondering if you’ve noticed any huge differences between European detergents (like Ariel) and mainstream American.
A: it depends on the brand. Ariel is pretty close to a mainstream American, as it and Tide (and Gain, and Era, and Dreft) which are all made by Proctor and Gamble (P&G).
Q: I saw references to ‘HE machines’ on your site. I guess that stands for high efficiency? Can you say something about how that relates to common machines here?
Jill: All Euro machines would be equivalent to American HE machines.
Jen: In our survey results, we didn’t see any significant variations in effectiveness between HE front-loaders, HE top-loaders, and non-HE top-loaders, which are the three general categories of machines in North America.
Holly: Similar to our detergent index, we have a machine index with a massive collection. Most will be unfamiliar to you but it might interest you just to peruse: «link»
4. ON WATER CONTENT
In response to the fact that the admins from FLU said that detergent build-up does not exist, we discussed the possibility of differences in the mineral content of water.
Q: I believe there is some instance of detergent build-up over here, as well as mineral build up. Both I think can be linked to the differing water hardness, the eco-washers and the less water volume used in front loading machines. What do you think?
Jen: It wouldn’t be logical for detergent build-up to occur in Europe but not in North America, the fundamental way in which detergent functions is the same on both continents.
@Jen, there are lots of differences between here and there that could make that occur though, I think. Like different types of machine (may use more or less water) and different treatment of the water supply? We might both have hard water but unless we can compare the hard figures of mineral compounds in the water we can’t assume.
Holly: We are able to compare water hardness levels and content through testing. Our members regularly test their water for hardness levels. Machines may behave differently and use varied amounts of water but it is easy enough for anyone to review their manuals and gain that understanding and act accordingly.
Jill: I want to add that there are only a few minerals water can be rich in that make it hard. Calcium and Magnesium are the most common, but metals can be dissolved in the water too (Manganese and Iron especially) and some elements like Sulphur can dissolve in the water. However, no one on Earth would be using Plutonium-hard water. Keep in mind that washing machine water is potable, and there’s only so many things we can safely drink.
5. ON MINERAL BUILD-UP. MYTH OR FACT?
Q: When you talk about mineral build up from hard water, what minerals do you mean?
jill: Typically calcium and magnesium. Rarely iron. Any other minerals building up in your diapers (such as manganese) and you’ve got a bigger problem than your diapers, because that’s very dangerous to your health
@Jill: So things like calcium carbonate?
Jill: Calcium carbonate is produced as a precipitate of a water softening reaction between calcium ions in the water and sodium carbonate (washing soda) that is usually present in detergent.
@Jill: I was just wondering because I’ve seen you say not to do more rinses if you have hard water, because this will make mineral build up worse. But I’m trying to work out why. Calcium carbonate has retrograde solubility (it dissolves more easily in cold, rather than hot water), so how will a cold rinse make more of it deposit?
Jill: Because it’s not calcium carbonate in the water. It’s calcium ions which are unbound to anything and they can build up on the fibers of your nappies. When you add detergent containing washing soda, or add washing soda itself to your wash, then the calcium ions bond with the sodium carbonate and produce calcium carbonate as a precipitate (which will rinse away, as you noted) and sodium ions, which do not build up on fabrics.
@Jill, So when you say mineral build-up you’re not talking about ‘limescale’? That’s what people will assume in the UK because of limescale deposits in machines and kettles.
Jill: No, because limescale build-up is calcium carbonate. We talk about “mineral build-up” meaning calcium or magnesium in the fibers of diapers.
@Jill: So you’re talking about deposition of ions, not minerals.
Jill: Yes, I suppose we could simply say “Calcium build-up”
6. THE SOAP VS. DETERGENT ISSUE
Q: So you said that earlier than soap builds-up and detergent doesn’t. What is the difference between soap and detergent?
Holly : The difference between soap and detergent is boiled down to their surfactants (cleaning agents). Both synthetic and plant based detergents contain anionic surfactants (ones with hydrophobic (soil loving) and hydrophilic (water loving) ends). Soap is a non-ionic surfactant meaning it has a hydrophobic end and a very weak (if at all) hydrophilic end. This means that soap is attracted to soil stronger than it is attracted to water. That’s why soap can build up and detergent can not. [Edit: According to the Royal Society for Chemistry, soap is also an anionic surfactant http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/resources/chemistry-in-your-cupboard/finish/6]’
Jill: So the problem would be when soap is the primary cleaning agent. For example, we have a detergent brand called “All” which uses saponified coconut oil (also called sodium cocoate, cocomidopropyl betane, or castille soap) as its primary cleaning agent. “All” detergent shows about a 25% rate of leaks in our survey data, as compared with Gain or Tide, which shows a 10% rate of leaks.
Jen: Also, in our survey, among people using homemade detergents, which use soap (typically fels naptha) as the primary cleaning agent, 26% reported their diapers leaking, compared to about 6% of people using mainstream detergent. We’ve also found that our members experience a huge improvement in rashes and smells when they use a sufficient amount of strong detergent.
Q: Do some laundry detergents contain soap, and some not?
Holly: Many detergents contain varied amounts of soap in addition to surfactants. Depending on their rank in the ingredient list they can either be a problem or they can be disregarded due to the surfactants that accompany it. Like the strength and concentration of the surfactants. There are a few detergents that we do not recommend because they have too high of a soap content.
@Holly, thanks. Is there a way for a consumer standing in the aisle at the supermarket to know which detergents have soap in? (Or, enough soap to potentially be a problem)
Holly: It takes some studying to recognise ingredients by name, but a person could if they desired, like the admins have. For ease to the general public we’ve created the detergent index that has over 300 detergents listed and we add regularly upon request.
At this point it became obvious that were having an issue of semantics which had caused a lot of misunderstandings between NSG members and FLU members. The issue boiled down to definitions, since in the UK we use the word “detergent” as a byword for the whole product used to clean clothes, whether it contains soap or not. Therefore when we refer to “detergent build-up” we are referring to an unspecified product build up from the washing powder. However, in the USA by law a detergent must contain no soap!
Q: What do you call a soap in the USA?
Jill: Here in the US we are bound by regulations on what can be called a “soap” and what cannot. For it to be considered a soap by the FDA, it must contain primarily saponified fats or oils. This is tricky because many people colloquially refer to any cleaning agent as “soap,” even if it may not contain any saponified oils whatsoever, and instead uses only synthetic surfactants. Detergents in the US cannot contain soap as the primary cleaning agent. They may contain a small percentage (1-2%) of soap as a stain fighter.
Q: So let’s analyse a product together. Persil non bio is made by Unilever. Ingredients are: 5-15% anionic surfactants, oxygen based bleaching agents. <5% non ionic surfactants, optical brighteners,perfume, phosphonates, polycarboxylates , soap, zeolites.
Jill: In the example you just gave, soap is the next-to-last ingredient, meaning it is a very small percentage of the whole. It is not the primary surfactant and any soap scum created would be removed by the anionic surfactants that are the first ingredient.
Q: washing powders have so many other ingredients too – do you know if these have any impact on how detergent behaves?
Holly: There isn’t anything else that directly interacts with the surfactants. There are other ingredients that boost efficiency (like water softeners) that bind with minerals in the water to keep them from depositing on fabrics and to keep detergent from being exhausted by trying to clean the water vs the fabrics. There are enzymes, there are fragrances and optical brighteners, liquid detergent has suspension ingredients, high efficiency detergent has defoaming agents.
Tips, suggestions and recommendations from the FLU admins on the way to proceed with our experiments:
Fran: I think you guys need to do some hard research into the differences between actual soap and actual detergent and then look hard at what is in the laundry powders, or whatever you want to call them. This is the only way you are going to be able to get to the actual bottom of this and get REAL answers to your questions. Doing actual science is hard work and sometimes it takes a ton of digging.
As a final consideration on this, and as a member of the chat pointed out “We all agree soap can build up and cause stinks. We are both saying the same thing, just we use different words and our laundry treatments are different, as is our water, and our machines”.
7. ON TEMPERATURE
Q: I read that most people in the US do laundry using a cool wash, why is that?
Fran: I don’t wash in cool.
Holly: For mainstream detergents you can usually get by washing in cool and the people that do so are doing it for energy efficiency and to save money.
Jill: We do not (generally) have temperature controlled machines like you do in Europe, so even our “hot” washes are only 120-130degF [note: 120degF is 50degC]
@Jill: that sounds about the same as ours then. British machines say they can wash at 60degC but independent consumer testing found most of them only reached up to around 55degC.
Jill: We wash on hot or cool as personal preference here, really. I do think some of your machines will do 90degC, correct? None of ours will go that high, even ones with a “sanitize” cycle.
Q: you have all these stats on detergent type and leaking, did you find any difference from what temp people washed at?
Jen: We actually didn’t include wash temperature in the most recent survey.
8. ON EXPERIMENT DESIGN
Q: I wondered if you guys could describe any of the experiments you’ve done, please. We’re still at the stage of reviewing our planned tests with the epidemiologists so would be interesting to see what you’ve done.
Holly: Most of our testing is simply us trying out new detergents that we may be on the fence about or having a hard time deciding on a starting point for dose. A few times I’ve done some things with bleach that we have on the website, but nothing quite so technical to actually call it a legitimate experiment.
Q: Have you guys done any microbiology tests at all? Found anything interesting?
Jen: So far the only lab testing we’ve done is lead testing. We’ve discussed doing independent microbiology tests but haven’t yet.
9. ON STRIP-WASHING
Q: How did you devise your stripping protocol (which can be found here)? The products you suggest aren’t available in the UK (for example, USA and UK bleach are not the same thing)
Jill: We offer several alternative sanitizing methods, the easiest of which to UK members is a 90degC wash. You also have quaternary disinfectant options such as Dettol sanitizing rinse, which we do not have in the US. It is unfortunate that our USA bleach is unavailable in Europe, that’s why I suggest a heat sanitization method as your best alternative.
@Jill: We have been led to believe that sanitisers can lead to a risk of resistant bacteria [see the chat write-up with microbiologist Mark Webber to find out more about this]. Also, our thick concentrated UK bleach is too strong and harsh for cloth nappies to be soaked in. And finally, washing nappies 90degC is not recommended by manufacturers as it might delaminate PUL. None of those are acceptable options to me or many others in the UK. So what should we do?
Jill: If you are unwilling to use heat, unable to use bleach, and refuse to use other sanitizing chemicals for fear of bacterial resistance, then what you are telling me is you would rather put bacteria-laden nappies onto your child and risk rashes, infections, or chemical burns. There are only so many ways you can kill bacteria.
@Jill: I am not saying anything of the sort and I think if you obliquely accuse people of putting their children at risk you are very likely to offend and alienate them. We’ve had experts who’ve told us that detergents themselves can kill bacteria, and that extra rinses can flush them away. Have you got any evidence that it’s actually harmful not to have killed every single bacteria on the nappies?
@Jill: There’s billions of bacteria on every inch of our skin, we have more bacterial cells on our bodies than our own cells. What makes you think that failing to completely remove bacteria from our nappies will lead to ‘chemical burns’? We need bacteria, it should never be in our minds to try and sanitise nappies because not only is that a stupid idea it is also futile, you will never remove all the flora. Also, we’ve learned about the way bacteria build a home in clothes, by creating a biofilm, and how the agitation, detergent and repeated rinsing are very effective at removing bacteria to a point which is socially clean, and that the added impact of sanitisers is minimal and may only unnecessarily stress the remaining bacteria, allow resistant strains to develop.
Holly: Then wash them with a good strong detergent, plenty of it and a sound routine from the get go and hope you never have a yeast rash issue.
Jill: Ammonia can cause horrific chemical burns that have sent many babies to the emergency room. When you wash with a good routine and remove the bacteria from your diapers, you do not need to use any additional sanitizing agent. When you do not the E. Coli, Streptococcus, possibly Staphylococcus, and many other infectious and dangerous bacteria can flourish inside your diapers and cause rashes or burns. Simply put, there is a reason you do not eat poop, but you do eat yogurt.
Fran: And have any of you actually tried to wash a diaper at 90c to see what happens?
@Fran: We’re planning on doing this test as part of our experiments.
Fran: I’ve run many loads of diapers through the sanitize cycle of my washing machine and never had a single one delaminate. I also worked at a hospital where PUL backed mattress pads are run through washers that hot with bleach without issue.
Meri: I also personally washed on my sanitize cycle for two weeks when my son had a yeast rash. Zero delamination (note: sanitise cycles only reach 160F which is 71degC)
10. ON ECO EGGS
Q: Have you looked at Eco-Eggs?
Holly: Yes, to sum up our stance on eco-eggs: they are a scam and cannot work to sufficiently clean nappies. Most of these companies eventually end up in court with lawsuits.
11. ON MATERIAL TYPE
Q: Does the material the nappy is made of have any effect on whether it develops issues?
Fran: Not that we have found. Cheapies diapers aren’t going to magically have issues compared to more expensive brands. They are all literally made the same way with the same materials.
@Fran: just as there is a huge difference in detergents there is a huge difference in the variety of China cheapies. We are aware of them.
Holly: I’m not sure what kind of “cheapies” you all are using. Here Alva and Sunbaby are the most popular and they are awesome.
Fran: You don’t even know what you’re talking about in regards to China cheapies. I have an entire paper written on them that will be going on to our website. The cost has more to do with how goods are acquired and used, i.e. everything is made and sourced in China, there is no overhead or marketing costs, they are not certified, so that takes a huge amount of the cost out of it.
@Fran: I actually meant my question to be on the type of fibres: natural fibres are rougher, synthetic fibres smoother, so I wondered if there was a difference between, say, cotton and microfibre, in how much stuff sticks to them.
Time was up, and we already overrun by quite a bit, to because of that and other reasons we had to leave the chat room. That was an interesting chat, I’ll let Holly sup it up with her own words!
Holly: To sum it up, we highly recommend learning the difference between soap and detergent and utilizing the terms and familiarizing yourself with the chemical ingredients. Feel free to peruse Fluff Love University and the group on Facebook and feel free to email any questions or message any of the admins on Facebook! At the end of the day clean cloth talks and Fluff Love has gone from 0-60,000+ members in less than a year.
Thanks for your time everyone!