Cloth Diapers and Detergent Residue

Detergent residue is a film left on fabric by detergent. Detergent residue builds up on all items that are laundered, but usually you will notice it only when dealing with a fabric that is supposed to be either waterproof or absorbent. Problems with wicking and leaking are often the result of detergent residue and is a widespread issue throughout the cloth diapering industry.

Because there are so many additives (both natural and synthetic) that can cause problems with fabrics, it is impossible to list them all here. However, here are some to look out for:

  • Fabric softeners
  • Brighteners
  • Stain Guards
  • “Natural” Soaps

What problems can a detergent residue cause?

WICKING & LEAKING: Wicking is the spreading of fluid across a fabric. How does that residue cause waterproofing to wick?
There are two ways that residue can cause wicking.
One way is that the detergents leave a film on the cover which works as a transport for the liquid to travel along the inside of the cover, along to the edges then across the front. It appears like the fluid went right through the cover but it actually went around!
The second way is that a cover with a laminate works by not allowing a “whole” water molecule to pass through the membrane and one possible way this is done is through water tension. The water molecules bind to each other and do not penetrate fabric. Detergents have wetting agents that break water tension, which allows the detergent to dissolve and disperse and allows clothes to get cleaner. When residue from detergent is left on the covers, the fluid loses its water tension and can saturate the fabric. This appears as a general wetness of the cover, not a specific leak like at the thighs or tummy. Unfortunately, most people will assume their covers are worn out or defective before realizing that they have a detergent residue problem – a problem that can usually be remedied!

REPELLING: This is an issue for diapers. If diaper fabric fibers get coated in detergent residue they will begin repelling the urine like a duck’s plumage repels water. Residue is not the only culprit here, but it is a common one that can be remedied.

STINKY DIAPERS: There are numerous causes of stinky diapers or covers, detergent residue being among them. This is because the residue will trap or “bind” the odor to the fabric. With our diaper covers, detergent residue is the number one reason that the product may smell. Luckily, residue can be removed- in a process you might hear referred to as “stripping.”

RASHES: As can be expected, if your diapers are covered with a chemical residue, they can be expected to cause skin irritation in babies with sensitive skin.

YELLOWING OR GRAYING OF WHITES: Notice your whites aren’t very white any more? The most common cause is detergent residue…

So, now what?
The good news is that products that have been damaged by detergent residue can usually be saved! If the residue is not too extensive, it can often be resolved by doing a couple hot water rinses with no detergent, then throwing the diapers and covers in the dryer.
If this does not resolve the issue, a more intense “stripping” may be necessary. Repeat the following process twice:

  • Run your covers and diapers through a wash with only hot water (if allowed by manufacturer’s washing instructions).
  • Run a second wash using 1/2 cup baking soda and 1/2 cup vinegar in this second wash.
    1/2 cup vinegar again in first rinse cycle.
  • Run a second rinse cycle with plain hot water.
  • Dry covers in dryer.With proper care, cloth diapers will work very well and last a long time!

What do you think?