What’s the deal with enzymes and laundry detergents? Some brands thoroughly embrace enzymes while others steer clear. Some cloth diaper groups suggest it’s the only way to clean diapers, while others go, eh, whatever. 

What is an enzyme? 

An enzyme is something that works to break down other dirt compounds. The Science Learning Hub best describes it as a “biological molecules that catalyst chemical reactions.” It is a natural occurring thing that is derived from micro-organisms. They are considered biodegradable.

Some of the more popular laundry enzymes are lipase (for oils and fats), amylases (starch molecules) and proteases (for protein chains). This makes them excellent at removing stains. However, you need a specific enzyme for a specific stain as they target different molecules. 

We need very little enzyme in a detergent to be effective. Strangely, Enzymes are something that can be reused. It’s not a one wash and done. We just don’t have any effective way of recapturing them before sending them down the drain with microfibre particles.

 And while. I’m a skeptical about the insistence we need them, this article from the New York Times makes an interesting argument about how enzymes increase the efficiency of laundering allowing us to use less detergent (and thus less petrochemical and palm oil) and use colder water for washing. That sounds like a perk. Now to find a cloth diaper friendly detergent that has a mix of great wonderful things .

What enzymes do we *need* for cloth diapering?

Arguably, you don’t need enzymes for cloth diapering. 

Enzymes are typically cited for their stain removal capabilities and less for their cleaning capability. Most detergents suggest they use enzymes not because it cleans better but because it reduces staining. This suggests we only need enzymes if we want less staining. 

There are many enzyme-free detergents that also successfully clean cloth diapers. Remember, cloth diaper laundry is a mix of factors from water temperature, to agitation, to the type of diapers and soil you are trying to remove. 

Proteases are best suitable for protein-based issues like urine and poop.

Do enzymes cause allergic reactions to detergents?

Many detergent companies list enzymes as being a common allergen. Within the written research, it appears this allergy is traced back to detergent factories in which some factory workers exposed to enzymes struggled with rhinitis and/or asthma. This issue was managed by capsulation enzymes and reducing their airborne nature. 

However, a literature review of 44 other papers in 2008 (Basketter, et al., 2008), concluded that enzyme-containing laundry detergent was not linked to skin complaints. 

What do detergent manufacturers have to say about enzymes?

Persil: Persil notes enzymes allow washing at colder temperatures while allowing for easier dirt removal. This reduces staining and impacts household bills. Detergents without enzymes still clean but need higher water temperatures for enzymatic stains. 

Tide: Tide has very little information pertaining to enzymes but I did reach out. All Tide products contain enzymes to speed up the breaking down of stains during the laundry process and they use a combination of enzymes to tackle many of the common staining culprits. 

How do I remove stains without enzymes?

Try to remove staining materials as soon as possible. That means getting the poop out of there stat. Where that’s not possible, the sunshine is a great remedy for even the toughest stains. Place a wet diaper in the sun to dry and the sun will quickly bleach and life the stain. A wet diaper will be more effective, but a dry diaper can work or be moistened prior to laying in the sun (or even a window on a cloudy day). 

Photo by Rita Chou on Unsplash

If the stain still lingers there are options like Buncha Farmers Stick and other stain treatments to help remove pesky lingering culprits. 

What does a cloth diaper detergent need? 

If enzymes aren’t the magic ticket item to cleaning your cloth diapers, what is? Well, it’s more about the capacity to remove the yuck from your diapers and thats a system of different detergent/soap ingredients mixed with water and agitation to thoroughly clean textiles. A large part of story involves the need for a sturdy surfactant to efficiently remove soils from the textile. Other elements such as enzymes, and alkaline agents improve cleaning capacity.