Baby Laundry Basics
It's a dilemma many new parents face: You want to use only the safest, most natural products on your baby's clothes, but you also want his or her garments to be really clean.
The best approach is simple. Harsh detergents can irritate newborn skin, so use the mildest product possible. Soaps such as Ivory and Lux are made to leave fabric soft, and they contain few unnecessary additives that can cause irritation. But because they also are less alkaline than detergents, they don't have very strong cleaning properties. This means you might have to live with a few stains, especially in the early months. When treating stains, use the mildest product possible to do the job.
Avoid fabric softeners and products that contain dyes and perfumes, and keep an eye out for signs of an allergic reaction. Contact your doctor if any rash appears -- the skin might look dry and patchy or have tiny red bumps on it. The solution might be as simple as rinsing baby laundry more thoroughly, but you should always be on the safe side and have a rash examined.
Before washing any garment for the first time, read the care label. Baby sleepwear, in particular, often needs special care because it is required by law to be flame-resistant, and some soaps can hinder flame resistance.
You may want to wash the baby's clothes separately from the rest of the family's, but this isn't necessary, as long as you use a mild soap.
Always put baby clothes away clean, as dirt tends to attract pets, and stains can set and become permanent with time.
Baby Stain Guide
The good news is that the days of grass stains and finger paints are still a long way off. Babies produce a surprising amount of dirty laundry, though, and with baby stains, fast action is your best defense.
First, always presoak stains in cool water. Water is enough to remove many spots -- especially light ones such as drool and formula -- if you get to them while they're fresh. Even stains that have had time to set will loosen somewhat while they soak in the water. You can use a soft-bristled nylon brush and a small amount of soap to gently work out a spot, but don't scrub, or you'll risk damaging the fabric.
After trying to remove a stain, always check for remnants of it before drying clothing -- if the mark remains, you'll have to resort to something stronger. Just remember that babies' skin is very sensitive; be sure to rinse the clothing thoroughly after treating the stains, and skip the treatments altogether on clothes that will be rubbing right up against your baby's skin, such as cloth diapers or undershirts. Below are lists of common stains and suggestions for attacking them from Janet Brady, a textile and stain expert at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. (For a more comprehensive list of stains and their antidotes, refer to Removing Stains: The Basics feature and the Stain First Aid Chart.)
This includes breast milk, formula, most food stains, and spit-up. Soak in plain water first, then add an enzyme cleaner such as Wisk, Era Plus, or Biz. The enzymes in the detergent will attack the stain, literally digesting the protein. If traces of the stain remain, apply a combination solvent (an all-purpose stain remover) such as Shout or Spray 'n Wash, then launder as usual.
Oily, Greasy Stains
This includes baby oil, creams and petroleum jelly, If fresh, remove any excess, and cover the area with cornstarch or talcum powder to absorb oil; scrape off after 10 to 15 minutes. Apply a combination solvent like Shout or Spray 'n Wash, then launder as usual.
Fruits and Vegetables (juices, jams, berries)
This includes juices, jams and berries. Flush with cool water; soak in a one-to-one mixture of rubbing alcohol and water. If the stain loosens, launder as usual. If not, apply a combination solvent such as Shout or Spray 'n Wash, then wash. For a stubborn stain, lightly bleach the area by soaking it in a one-to-one mixture of white vinegar and water.
Attack diarrhea stains in the same way you would a protein stain (above). For urine stains, pretreat the area with a tablespoon of ammonia diluted in at least 1 cup water (be sure to test a hidden spot first to see if the fabric is colorfast). Follow with a combination solvent such as Shout or Spray 'n Wash, then launder as usual. (Note: Never mix any product containing chlorine bleach with either ammonia or vinegar; these combinations are toxic.)
Natural Laundry Supplies
If you prefer not to use chemicals on baby's clothes, try these natural options suggested by Annie Berthold-Bond in "Clean and Green" (Ceres Press, 1994). Be sure to rinse the clothes thoroughly. Keep these and all household products out of the reach of children.
An effective cleaner, deodorizer, and fabric softener. Mix with water to form a paste, and use on stains to absorb odors; or add to water when presoaking new clothes to eliminate residue.
A water-soluble mineral with antiseptic, antibacterial, water-softening, and whitening properties. Makes mild soap more effective (add 1/2 cup to wash). Also a good diaper presoak.
A natural alternative to chlorine bleach that's made of borax and hydrogen peroxide. Add 3 tablespoons to wash water to fight stains. (Available by mail-order from chemical-supply companies.)
Also known as sodium carbonate, a mineral with strong cleaning and degreasing properties. Add 2 tablespoons to laundry soap to make it more effective, or make it into a paste to remove greasy stains.
A naturally acidic pantry staple that cuts grease, softens water, and can lighten dingy and gray laundry. Add 1/4 cup to wash.
Special Care for Vintage Garments
If you have a vintage baby item, whether it's a treasured family christening gown or a beautiful baby dress you found in an antiques shop, you'll have to take an extra-delicate approach. Before you do anything, try to determine whether the garment is strong enough to wash. If the fabric smells of must and mildew, it may not stand up to immersion in water. If you have any doubt that a garment can be washed safely, it's best to seek the help of a professional.
To wash a vintage garment, first place it on a piece of nylon net to support the delicate fibers, then soak it in cool water. Choose a mild soap. Professional laundries often use Orvus Paste; available at many sewing and art-supply stores, it has cleaning and whitening properties but is gentle on fabric. With very delicate fabrics, don't worry too much about small stains, but if the fabric is sturdy, you can try a soap that contains a color-safe bleach. This will help to lighten yellow age marks on fabric and brighten whites that haven't been laundered for decades. Just be sure to rinse very well to remove all traces of soap. Always let vintage clothing air dry rather than subject it to the heat of a dryer.