Monday, May 5, 2014

The Tide Controversy #ClothDiaper Safe?

If you cloth diaper and are part of the cloth community online, you will have heard at some point about Tide. It is very common in forums and groups for at least a small sect of individuals to go around in comments extolling the virtues and superior cleaning powers of Tide, Tide Ultra, or Tide Original. But how much of what they have to say is based on fact, science, or empirical evidence? Is it just hearsay or a bad rumor spiraling out of control?

Here I would like to get to the bottom of the Tide controversy, and bring you some facts about Tide to help you decide if Tide is right for your cloth diapers or not. References are listed at the bottom of this article.

Tide does in fact work very well at cleaning dirty diapers. Tide Free and Clear contains no optical brighteners or fabric softeners, the ingredients that would make your diapers repel. So technically it is a cloth diaper safe detergent.

Tide works so well because it has water softeners and enzymes already added into it,[1] and you don't have to worry about adding those features separately via additives like calgon and bac out. 

Water softeners are extremely helpful for the 85% of Americans who have hard water. [2] The water softening ingredients in Tide are sodium cumene sulfonate, sodium formate, and sodium hydroxide. Any ingredient made with "sodium" is going to pull calcium and magnesium out of the water one way or another,[3] just as sodium carbonate is washing soda, our water softener available on grocery store shelves. 

All of these ingredients serve other functions as well as being water softeners. To digress for a moment, sodium cumene sulfonate for example is a surfactant.[3] Surfactants in detergent by definition lower the surface tension of water, which allows other cleaning agents in a detergent to wet the clothes/diapers more quickly, so all the yuck can be more easily removed. If you can imagine mixing up a lanolin solution to lanolize wool, you have to add a squirt of baby soap into hot water with your tsp of lanolin in order to emulsify the lanolin, or break it up and spread it out throughout the mixture, right? Surfactants play the same role in emulsifying. They emulsify the oils in soils, effectively dispersing and suspending them so that they do not settle back into the clothes/diapers you are trying to clean.[4] Surfactants are what make detergent different from soap, and is the reason why detergent is more effective at cleaning in hard water than soap.[3]

Contrary to detergent charts on the Internet warning against the use of enzymes in diaper laundry, you WANT enzymes in your cloth diaper laundry detergent! Enzymes are 100% natural and are extremely helpful in doing diaper laundry, since enzymes like lipase and protease catalyze (eat) biological matter like that in feces and urea. So they literally break down and dissolve pee and poop molecules! Protease is the most helpful in breaking down pee (urea) and therefore preventing against ammonia. [5] The enzymes in Tide are protease, mannanase, and pectinase. Protease breaks down protein compounds, mannanase breaks down anything containing the food additive guar gum (ice cream, tomato sauce, etc.),[6] and pectinase breaks down fruits. Surprisingly lipase, the enzyme breaking down lipids (fats,oils like those in feces) is not present in Tide. It is however found in several other detergents.[7] 

So why isn't everyone using Tide for their diaper laundry if it is so great? The controversy stems from the fact that there are some chemicals in Tide that some mothers worry about using. Of course some mothers do not worry about them. 

In particular, most people are not even aware (and some people do know but do not make it known when recommending Tide to other mothers) that there is or was at one time a carcinogen in the product.[8] 

There was a lawsuit against Proctor and Gamble, followed by a promise to remove hazardous levels of 1,4 dioxane from their products by September 2013.[9] However, the removal of dioxane has not been confirmed since their agreement was signed in a California court on January 25, 2013. Even so, if 1,4 dioxane has been removed from their factory/formula in September, that doesn't mean that all bottles of Tide currently on the shelves do not still have it in them.

If you feel confident that 1,4 dioxane has been removed from Tide, or if you don't feel that the levels of 1,4 dioxine present in their formula are harmful, then you may be perfectly happy using Tide! If you have no problem with any of the other ingredients listed on the ingredient list, then go ahead and use Tide! 

That being said, if you do or even if you have no problem with any of the ingredients, you may prefer another laundry detergent over using Tide.  Certain ingredients or fragrances can irritate  some babies; especially those with eczema. 
If a detergent does not contain water softeners and enzymes already in the formula, you can still make it work for you and your dirty diaper laundry routine. You may find you do not need to add either or one of these things, but if you do, there are laundry additives available that you can purchase and add to your wash cycle separately. 
If hard water is your main concern, then it is possible to add a water softening agent on your own to any detergent you already use. If I were to use any other detergent like Country Save or All free and clear military version, I could achieve basically the same effect as Hard Rock or Charlies (contains sodium carbonate) or Tide by adding half a cup of Calgon (a water softener that dissolves minerals like calcium: hence the name Cal-gone) or half a cup of washing soda (sodium carbonate) to my wash loads. Both Calgon and washing soda are considered laundry boosters and available in the laundry aisle at your nearest grocery store.
Bac-out is a laundry additive or pre-treatment that is a pure, live enzyme solution. They don’t disclose what enzymes are inside, but we can guess these enzymes are probably protease, pectinase, mannanase, lipase, and possibly amylase. You want to be careful using amylase on bamboo if you have any, since it breaks down starches, like bamboo, and could cause holes. You may include a capful of bac-out in your wash cycle or spray it directly on diapers after each change, or just after that stinky overnight diaper change, and have the same enzyme effect in your laundry as Tide, which has it already built in. There are other “stain and odor remover” products on the market that are also live enzyme solutions; for example Ecos makes a product called “Stain and Odor Remover.”[10]

By learning which elements are in Tide that make it work so magically, you can extract them, or find them in some other form and use them separately. Some would say this makes the whole process of laundering so much less convenient or more complicated.  Others would say that this knowledge gives you more control, and more freedom. The choice is yours. 

[3] personal communication, Annello, J.


Researched and Written By: Stacy Mojica is an accredited Real Diaper Association leader, founded the Low Country Real Diaper Circle, Sun City Real Diaper Circle, and Cloth for Everybum, Inc. She has two daughters born in 2011 and 2012. Stacy has a degree in English and ran a small artisan cloth diaper shop via Etsy for one year, but has made her career in cloth diaper advocacy and education. Stacy has a tendency to hyper-focus.  Give her a coffee and a kid-free hour and she will do amazing things!


  1. Great article and facts! it is nice to have solid facts instead of opinions!!! I personally have used Tide after all of the natural products I tried caused problems in our hard water and was very pleased by the results and am currently using Gain and really loving it. I now need to go and do some research though as I am one of the ones who was unaware of the carcinogens that were in Tide, that is really quite scary! Thanks for the great post!

  2. I admit, powder tide does work best in our hard Minneapolis water. I tried it for six months and had the cleanest diapers ever. I do hate the toxic ingredients though. I imagine most tide should be dioxane free by 2015? My homemade detergent doesn't work as well. :(

    1. I used Tide for many years and liked it. Our youngest is allergic to the detergent for clothing and diapers, so that forced me to switch to another brand. Our dog also struggled with some bad allergies and those resolved when we switched to the natural detergent. We are lucky that we have soft water at our house.