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Coming Clean on Washing Baby Clothes

You'll be spending a lot of time washing baby clothes. Do you need special detergent? Here's what you need to know about how to wash baby clothes and take care of an infant's sensitive skin.

You finally have your sweet new baby. Wow, how tiny! But that little bundle of joy generates large bundles of laundry! From spit-up to drool to diaper blow-outs, babies go through so many outfit changes a day it can make your head spin like your washer and dryer.

As you start to tackle that mountain of tiny socks and onesies, you’re wondering: Should I be washing baby clothes separately or can I just throw them in with the rest of the family’s laundry? Do I need a special detergent?

Well, here are some do’s and don’ts from laundry experts, plus other handy tips:

How to wash baby clothes

  • Use a detergent that’s free of colors, dyes, scents, perfumes or fragrances to help reduce the possibility of allergic reactions. It should be made for babies or labeled as clear and free.
  • Wash all clothing before the first wearing or first use, whether it’s new or a hand-me-down, advises the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “Some manufacturers use finishing chemicals to make clothes look crisp and they could be harmful to baby’s skin,” explains Mary Marlowe Leverette, a laundry expert. “Also, if the items were manufactured overseas, some countries allow chemicals like formaldehyde as a preservative during shipping to reduce mildew, mold and bacteria growth.”
  • And don’t forget about other items in baby’s life. “It’s important that the mattress pad, sheets, blankets and anything else that has direct contact with baby’s skin be washed before use,” says Dr. Elizabeth Easter, a textile consultant and professor at the University of Kentucky. She adds that babies are born with sensitive skin that needs time to acclimate to the environment. “You have to give baby’s skin time to toughen up,” she says.
  • Stick with one detergent. If a skin problem does arise, this will make it easier to pinpoint the problem.
  • Pre-treat visible stains.
  • Turn garments inside out to prevent surface abrasion and secure zippers, buttons, snaps and other closures, says Dr. Easter.
  • Follow the fabric care tag. That will also help you know whether to wash the fabric in cold or warm water.
  • Rinse clothes twice, especially if you suspect your child has a skin allergy. This will ensure that detergent residue is removed from clothing, says Dr. Easter.
  • Use fragrance-free fabric softeners.

What not to do while washing baby clothes

  • Overload the washer or dryer when washing baby clothes.
  • Use too much detergent. Follow the guidelines. Otherwise you’ll have a residue.
  • Use detergents, fabric softeners or other laundry items with fragrances.
  • Mix baby’s clothing with heavily soiled items. “You don’t want a football jersey mixed with baby’s laundry,” Dr. Easter says.

Tips on washing baby clothes

  • Unless your baby has skin problems or you have a family history of eczema, you most likely won’t irritate baby’s skin by washing her clothing with the family’s. The AAP cautions that detergent can cause skin problems, such as irritation, in some kids. This looks like a red rash and usually happens immediately, such as when your baby puts on a wool sweater. The rash is itchy. But the irritation disappears when the item is removed.
  • Detergents can cause allergic contact dermatitis, a red and itchy rash that doesn’t appear immediately. You may notice that type of irritation showing up anywhere up to a week after exposure or after multiple exposures. The AAP says rashes linked to detergent tend to be worse where clothing is tight and rubs more on the skin, such as the arms, legs and diaper area. If your child has swollen lips or eyelids, wheezing or coughing, or vomiting, diarrhea or hives, the rash is most likely not caused by detergent and deserves immediate attention.
  • To determine if washing your baby’s clothes with the rest of your family’s clothes will be OK for your baby, test just one or two articles of baby’s clothing by throwing them in to the load and then seeing what happens when your baby wears them. If you notice a change in his skin or he seems itchy, continue to wash his clothing separately.

Stacey Feintuch’s sons are ages 1 and 5, so she spends much time in her laundry room. She is a seasoned print and digital writer and editor with loads of experience and two journalism degrees. She has worked at numerous health and parenting websites and magazines.