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Detergent Build-Up & Cloth Diapers: Causes + Prevention

Detergent Build-Up _ Cloth Diapers_ Causes + Prevention

If your child is starting to eat solid food, you may wonder about the best way to handle the inevitable baby wetness if you’re cloth diapering.

Establishing a good wash routine is important to thoroughly clean and sanitize your cloth diapers and prevent detergent build-up.

Whether you’re new to cloth diapering or just looking to improve your current routine, I’m here to help!

Table of Contents
Table of Contents

What is Detergent Buildup in Cloth Diapers?

What is Detergent Buildup in Cloth Diapers?

Detergent buildup in cloth diapers happens when too much is used during washing or when the detergent isn’t completely rinsed.

This can cause the diapers to become less absorbent and lead to issues like diaper rash or leaks.

If there is detergent buildup, you can also have stinky cloth diapers!

To fix the issue, I personally think that stripping cloth diapers, which removes the buildup of detergent (or other residues), is the best way short of buying new ones.

Stripping can be done through different methods, such as washing the diapers in hot water, using specific stripping agents, or adding vinegar or baking soda.

Preventing detergent buildup in the first place can be achieved by using the recommended amount of detergent and ensuring a thorough rinse in your wash routine.

Why Is Detergent Build-up Bad?

Why Is Detergent Build-up Bad?

When you’re a full-time parent, sometimes, a lot of small, simple things go over your head.

One of them for me was properly washing my baby’s diapers.

Because I was in a rush to get other things done, I failed to thoroughly wash my kid’s diapers, which left some detergent residue.

As a result, my baby’s skin was red and irritated, which brought about a lot of crying and diaper cream.

As you can see, detergent buildup is bad for cloth diapers because it can cause various issues for you and your baby.

Firstly, it can make the diapers less absorbent, meaning they won’t work as well. I like to avoid leaks as much as possible because they’re such a hassle, so I also avoid any buildup.

The buildup can also make cloth diapers smell, which is not ideal for obvious reasons.

More importantly, a detergent buildup can cause skin irritation and rashes in the baby’s skin.

Having detergent build-up is bad because it means your regular wash routine isn’t resulting in clean cloth diapers, which is the ultimate goal of wash cycles.

Causes of Detergent Residue Buildup in Cloth Diapers

Cloth diapering can be complicated, so more information is always helpful! Here are some causes of buildup to keep track of so you can avoid it more easily.

1. Using Too Much Detergent

1. Using Too Much Detergent

Too much detergent can cause buildup on cloth diapers because excess detergent doesn’t rinse completely during washing.

The leftover detergent can stick to the fibers of the diapers and accumulate over time, creating a waxy buildup.

A bubbly wash may make you feel like your diapers are cleaner, but more suds actually make them more difficult to clean.

Too many soap suds prevent agitation in the washing machine, which is needed if you want sufficiently clean diapers.

Using the recommended amount of detergent for cloth diapers and ensuring an adequate rinse cycle with every wash can help prevent buildup.

The Problem With Soft Water

Soft water has fewer minerals and can cause detergents to dissolve more thoroughly, leading to overuse and buildup.

However, if you use more detergent, build-up can occur easily. Besides, you can strip cloth diapers anyway.

2. Hard Water

2. Hard Water

Unfortunately, soft water is not the only type of water that causes problems. In fact, you’re more likely to use hard water in your wash routine.

Hard water can cause buildup because it contains minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, which can react with your detergent and form a residue on the diapers.

These can gradually pile up, leading to issues like your cloth diaper having reduced absorbency and foul odors.

If you have hard water, you can keep diapers clean using a water softener or add a water softener agent to the wash to help break down the minerals.

3. Using the Wrong Detergent

3. Using the Wrong Detergent

Using the wrong detergent brand can cause detergent buildup on cloth diapers because some detergents contain ingredients that can leave a residue on the diapers.

For example, a certain laundry detergent brand with fabric softeners or fragrances can cause buildup without the appropriate wash cycle.

Try to use a detergent that is recommended for cloth diapers, free of additives or fragrances, and with enough cleaning power to remove dirt and bacteria.

4. Insufficient Rinsing

4. Insufficient Rinsing

Insufficient rinsing can cause detergent buildup on cloth diapers because the detergent residue on the diapers eventually heaps together.

You are especially prone to this problem if you use MORE detergent than necessary because you may be unaware that you must do an extra rinse or a hot wash cycle.

You can easily do more rinses in your washing machine if needed, but be sure that your settings aren’t damaging the diapers’ fabrics.

5. Using Fabric Softeners or Dryer Sheets

5. Using Fabric Softeners or Dryer Sheets

Softeners or dryer sheets contain chemicals that can coat the diaper fibers and prevent them from absorbing properly.

I suggest washing cloth diapers WITHOUT these items.

Instead, using a vinegar rinse or wool dryer balls can help soften the diapers and reduce static cling without leaving any harmful residues.

6. Overloading the Washing Machine

6. Overloading the Washing Machine

Overloading the washing machine can cause buildup because the machine may not have enough space to agitate the diapers and rinse out all the detergent properly.

Take note of your load size and follow the recommended washing instructions for your washing machine and cloth diapers.

7. Using the Wrong Water Temperature

7. Using the Wrong Water Temperature

Water that’s too hot can cause shrinking or warping of the diapers, while detergent may not dissolve or activate properly in cold water.

Using the recommended water temperature for both your main wash AND short wash is important.

This way, the laundry detergent dissolves and activates properly to thoroughly clean the diapers while avoiding damage.

How to Test for Detergent Buildup in a Cloth Diaper

How to Test for Detergent Buildup in a Cloth Diaper

If you suspect you’re experiencing this problem, here are a few ways to know for sure:

Water Droplet Test

To conduct a water droplet test, take a clean and dry cloth diaper and add a few drops of water to the surface.

If the water is quickly absorbed and the cloth diaper remains pliable, then you can consider it clean and free of buildup.

If the water beads up or rolls off, the cloth diaper may have buildup, and further washing or stripping may be necessary to remove it.

Absorbency Test

Similarly, to perform the absorbency test, place a clean and dry cloth diaper on a flat surface and pour a small amount of liquid onto the center of the diaper.

The cloth diaper should quickly absorb the liquid, and the surface should remain dry to the touch.

If the liquid pools on the surface or the cloth diaper doesn’t absorb it quickly, it may have detergent build-up.

Swoosh Test

To perform the swoosh test, you will need a wash bowl (but preferably a glass bowl for its transparency), your laundry sink, and a clean and dry cloth diaper.

Fill your bowl or sink with plain water (warm water being the best option) and dunk the diaper, soaking it completely.

Then, squeeze it a few times.

If the diaper feels slimy or if there are soap suds or any residue that appears in the water, then the diaper may have detergent buildup.

Otherwise, if the plain water remains clear and there are no more suds other than air bubbles from the water (these easily pop and disappear), it is free of buildup!

How to Remove Detergent Buildup

How to Remove Detergent Buildup

I’m happy to share a few ways to manage buildup that I have found to be very effective! Keep reading to eliminate it:

Strip the Diapers

To strip diapers of detergent build-up, follow these steps:

  1. Wash them in hot water with no detergent, then do several rinses to remove any residual soap.
  2. Then, soak in a hot water solution and a stripping agent (chlorine bleach is NOT recommended) for several hours or overnight.
  3. After soaking, wash them in hot water again with no detergent. Follow again with several rinses until the water runs clear.

This process can be repeated as necessary to remove all buildup.

Once stripped, the diapers should be thoroughly rinsed and dried to restore their absorbency and help them smell clean again.

Use Vinegar or Baking Soda*

For this method, here’s my guide:

  1. Wash the diapers with warm water and a small amount of detergent, then rinse with a cup of white vinegar added to the wash.
    • The vinegar helps to break down any residual soap and removes odors.
  2. If you want to use baking soda, soak them in hot water and a cup of baking soda for several hours or overnight.
    • The baking soda helps neutralize residual acids and alkalines that can cause odors and irritation.
  3. After soaking, wash them with hot water and a little detergent, followed by several rinses to remove residual baking soda or vinegar.

NOTE: Your washing machine may or may not be able to handle these adequately. Be sure to check your manufacturer’s instructions.

Types of Buildup When Washing Cloth Diapers

I have explained that using more detergent than necessary causes problems, but is detergent the only thing that can build up in your baby’s diapers?

Unfortunately, there are quite a few. But with a bit more knowledge, you can avoid them!

Detergent Buildup

Detergent buildup in cloth diapers happens when the detergent used to wash the diapers doesn’t get fully rinsed out, leaving behind a residue that builds up over time.

This residue can make the diapers less absorbent and cause skin irritation or rashes. Detergent build-up can occur due to the various reasons I discussed earlier.

If you’re experiencing detergent build-up, you should address it immediately and prevent it from happening moving forward.

Mineral Buildup

Mineral build-up in cloth diapers happens when minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, collect onto the fabric.

If you have hard water, you’re more likely to experience this problem.

These minerals can cause the diapers to become stiff and irritating to the baby’s sensitive skin.

You can switch to a detergent specifically formulated for hard water or use washing soda with the regular laundry to prevent it.

Remove mineral buildup by doing any of the stripping methods I discussed above.

Fabric Softener Buildup

When softeners or dryer sheets are used during washing, the chemicals coat the fabric and create a barrier that prevents the diaper from absorbing liquid.

This buildup can cause the diapers to leak as they become less absorbent as the build-up accumulates.

Ammonia Buildup

Ammonia build-up occurs when you do not rinse clean the urine from the fabric or let soiled cloth diapers sit in the diaper pail for an extended period.

Over time, the bacteria in the urine break down and create ammonia.

When this happens, the ammonia smell can become prominent, and worse: it can cause ammonia burns.

If you suspect your baby has an ammonia burn, use some diaper rash cream and consider using a disposable liner while they are recovering.

To prevent this, ensure that the diapers are FULLY rinsed and washed with enough detergent, as too little detergent can’t remove all traces of urine.

If this build-up is a problem for you, try incorporating an oxygen-based booster (like hydrogen peroxide) when you add detergent to the wash cycle.

Diaper Cream Buildup

Diaper creams can accumulate in your cloth diapers’ fabric, making them less absorbent and leading to repelling.

The oils in the diaper cream can create a waterproof barrier that prevents the fabric from properly absorbing moisture.

This buildup can occur when too much diaper cream is applied or not enough is removed before washing.

Using liners to protect the diaper from direct contact with the cream and avoiding petroleum-based creams can prevent this.

Hard Water Buildup

When the minerals in the water, such as calcium and magnesium, combine with the detergent residue, they form a hard substance that can stick to the fibers of the diapers.

Unlike mineral buildup, which is caused by the minerals in the water alone, hard water buildup is caused by the interaction of minerals and detergent residue.

Additionally, hard water buildup requires extra attention to remove the detergent residue.

Mold or Mildew Buildup

Mold or mildew is caused by dampness and lack of air circulation. It can appear as black or green spots and can cause a foul odor.

This can be harmful and difficult to remove and may require soaking and sunning the diapers to get rid of it.

Prevent mold or mildew by thoroughly drying the diapers before storing them and using breathable diaper pails.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to questions many parents want to know:

Is Detergent Residue Harmful?

In itself, the residue is not toxic or harmful to health.

However, it can lead to skin irritation and persistent rashes. In some cases, the detergent chemicals may harm the fabric, causing the diapers to deteriorate faster.

How Should I Wash Cloth Diapers?

Generally, you want to wash cloth diapers with a proper amount of detergent, rinse thoroughly, and choose the right water temperature.

I recommend pre-washing to remove excess waste and a hot cycle with a detergent to clean diapers.

After washing, run another rinse cycle to ensure that ALL detergent is removed.

Can I Use Vinegar to Strip Cloth Diapers?

Yes, you can use vinegar to strip cloth diapers.

Vinegar can help remove the detergent and mineral types of buildup. Ammonia smell and build-up can also be neutralized.

See my guide for cleaning your pocket diapers and regular cloth ones using vinegar above.


Detergent buildup is a common problem that can happen for many reasons. It causes issues like reduced absorbency, diaper rash, and stinky smells!

Those who use cloth diapers for their babies should have a good wash routine to keep them as clean and sanitary as possible!

A good wash routine involves using the right detergent and ensuring a thorough rinse. If a detergent buildup does occur, stripping cloth diapers is the best solution.

About the author

Angelica Graham

A few years ago, Angelica found out about all the plastic and toxic ingredients that got into most children’s products. And this worried her to no end. Because of this, she began to research what the best ingredients and materials were for children and made it her mission to share this information with other mothers.