Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tell-it Tuesday: Troubleshooting cloth diaper residue and build-up (part 2)

This is the second part to the post "Troubleshoot the cloth diaper STINK!" we did last week. Please keep in mind you can click on any of the pictures to make them bigger. 

You pull them out of the washer or dryer, expecting crisp clean diapers but instead get a disgusting poop or musty whiff-no matter what you smell exactly-the diapers just don't smell clean (like nothing) or they smell clean until your child pees and them and then the smell is so strong it turns your stomach. Or maybe you've noticed an issue with repelling or decreased absorbency.

The most common causes of residue and build-up in cloth diapers are: diaper creams, minerals in hard water, detergent and other laundry additives. In addition to causing issues with stink you may also notices issues with repelling to learn what repelling means go HERE) and absorbency. Your child may also experience rashes caused by the build-up and residue or because the cloth diapers are not coming totally clean do to the lingering residue or build-up.

If you ask 10 different cloth diapering families what they do to resolve cloth diaper residue and build-up you may very well get ten different answers. Early in our cloth diapering we had one heck of a time with residue and build-up and even now we still struggle with it occasionally. I understand there may not just one fix for everyone but this post discusses what works or has worked for us. I use a top loader, if you have a front loader you may need to play with the troubleshooting instructions to make it work for you. 

Residue and build-up from DIAPER CREAMS

Before we begin with the actual troubleshooting I want to say a few words regarding diaper creams. Most diaper creams are not cloth diaper safe because they have ingredients that are water barriers by nature. This means that they repel the water away from the baby's skin-great for baby's skin if you're trying to heal a diaper rash, not so good if it gets on the diapers. I've had several people tell me that one particular diaper area cream (Grandma El's) I used and had an issue with they did not have an issue with-that may very well be true but there are many more that have had issues. I stand my position that if the diaper cream has any water barrier ingredients (and Grandma El's DOES), like lanolin or petroleum, use a liner. If you use a reusable liner make sure you wash is separately from all your cloth diaper laundry. You don't want it to "spread" all over your stuff in the washer-which is what happened to me. I have been able to use all sorts of creams, everything from A&D to prescription yeast cream to Grandma El's, without issue to my cloth diapers by using a microfleece liner and washing them with my whites. If you are having issues with cloth diaper rash please see our post titled "How to resolve [cloth] diaper rash".

Typically with diaper cream residue you will notice some sort of repelling because of the water barrier properties,  you may  also notice staining or discoloration on the diapers or inserts. In the picture of these clean inserts you can see a dark discoloration on a few of our white inserts from the creams. If you rub a discolored area you may or may not feel a film.

 If you suspect you have residue on your diapers from diaper creams I recommend a stripping using the original blue Dawn. If you can't find original blue Dawn you can use Ultra Dawn in "Original" scent. You can get a coupon for any Ultra Dawn from the Dawn site HERE

If you think you may have residue or a film from fabric softening sheets I would strip like this for that purpose as well. I would also take a wet towel with some Dawn on it and either tumble it on a "cool" cycle or wipe the inside of the dryer out with it. 

1-Take the diaper with cream on it and rub both sides with the Dawn liquid. 
2-Fill the washer with hot water- as hot as you can get it. You may consider adding a pot or two of boiling hot water to the washer add a tablespoon of Dawn to the hot water and toss the diapers in. 
3-Proceed to do heavy was load. As I stated in part 1, be sure not to overload your washer. The diapers, inserts, etc. need room to agitate freely. 
4-When you have finished your stripping cycle(s) rinse, rinse, rinse! Rinse with hot water until there are no more detergent bubbles.

**Don't confuse detergent/residue bubbles--suds (bad) with agitation bubbles (not bad). Agitation bubbles are caused by the process of agitating the clothes and are perfectly OK. Agitation bubbles will look like a few bubbles that sit on top of the water, they may or may not pop when you open the top. Detergent/residue bubbles look more like bubbles you would see in a bubble bath, they're greater in number and more "foamy" looking than agitation bubbles. I tried to get a few pictures of the different bubbles. Glamour was is no-sudsing so I knew I wouldn't be able to get a good picture with that detergent so I tried All liquid. I was hoping for heaping mounds of bubbles but this was the best I could get. The kind of heaping bubbles you want in a bubble bath you do not want in your washer with cloth diapers.

ETA 11/24/10: My sister-in-law came to me earlier today to discuss the absorbency issue she's been having with my nephew's diapers. I took a sniff and noticed they had a scent to them, not necessarily detergent smell, maybe scents from the house, etc., hard to tell. I decided to do a HOT/heavy cycle for two Thirsties fab fitteds that she brought to determine if her issue is related to residue and this is what we got after I let it agitate a little bit.

You do NOT want to see bubbles like this during your hot wash (or any other time but hot seems to really bring out the bubbles). You can click on the picture to make it bigger. This is major, major detergent build-up and residue left on her fab fitteds.

(And now back to your regularly scheduled post....)
Because Dawn works by removing/breaking down the residue you may need to do a few ultra hot/Dawn strippings to remove all of the residue. If you are doing more than one stripping cycle as soon as the first load cycled through I would repeat steps 2 and 3. You could also do an overnight soak in Dawn. If you were going to try that I would follow steps 1 and 2, let them agitate for a period of time and then let them soak. In the morning you could pick up with step three and continue on.

5-It's up to you if you want to rewash them using your cloth diaper detergent. 

Build-up from minerals in HARD WATER

While there is no set standard of things you have to experience to have hard water build-up you may notice your diapers are dingy looking. You may also notice, like other types of build-up, that your diapers are crunchy and/or stiff feeling. You may or may not notice stink issues-this is from the minerals in the hard water not allowing the diapers to get totally clean or rinse totally clean. I also experience(d) absorbency issues. For more information you can view the section regarding hard water in part 1

If you have hard water build-up the first thing to do would be to remove the build-up. One of the more popular ways to do this is to put the diapers through a cycle or two with some Calgon Water Softener in it. You may also consider soaking your diapers in Calgon. For optimum removal I suggest the diapers and accessories are clean and you do not add detergent. 

Water filters and water softeners (not the same thing) can help reduce hard water. If you're not ready or able to install a filter or softener system you could continue to do washes with Calgon added in, do washes or soaks with Calgon regularly but less often than every wash. 

As I discussed in part 1 another option is finding a cloth diaper safe detergent specifically formulated for hard water. I personally use Lulu's in the Fluff hard water version and since I have been using it I have not had to use any additives, like Calgon, Vinegar, Baking Soda, etc. which is saving us so much money. If you find you need more omph than her hard water version has, Lulu also has an extreme hard water version but notes very, very few people need it. Glamour wash works to neutralize those minerals which allows the cleaning agent to do a thorough and effective cleaning. 

Residue from DETERGENT and other laundry additives

Residue from detergent and other laundry additives, like fabric softener, or the essential oils from diaper area cleaners-or even cloth diaper safe detergents-is one of the biggest complaints of cloth diapering families. When we first started cloth diapering, back before I knew better, I tried a couple liquid detergents that I could buy in store that were highly rated on charts I found on cloth diaper related sites. Doing that was seriously one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. It took me a while to figure out what had happened and to know how to fix it. Meanwhile we wasted money trying things (like Calgon) which didn't help the issue overall. When I finally figured out it was detergent residue it was like a light bulb went off. That set me on my journey to find a truly cloth diaper safe detergent. over the last year I have tried many different detergents, everything from Arm & Hammer, to Crunchy Clean, to Thirsties pre-wash and super wash, to Tide, Ivory Snow and Crunchy Clean. You can read all about my cloth diaper detergent sagas on my blog.

If you have an issue with residue and build up due to detergent or laundry additives you may notice your  diapers STINK to high Heaven out of the washer and/or the dryer or that after your child pees in the diaper it smells so bad you want to throw up. You may also notice your diapers aren't coming clean, they look dingy and dull, or there's a scent to them-even if it's a nice or pleasant scent-when they're clean and dry. You may also decreased absorbency. 

Easiest way to tell if you have residue do to detergent or additives:
Take a big sniff. As I stated in part 1 clean cloth diapers should not smell like anything. If your diapers smell like the detergent you're using take that as a sign your detergent is leaving residue in your diapers. 

One thing I don't think a lot of people realize is that with certain cloth diaper safe detergents scent is added to them in the form of fragrance oil. The same goes for many of the diaper area cleaners on the market. All it takes is a small amount of oil within the laundry cycle-whether from a diaper area cleaner or detergent itself- to create issues with stink and residue. If you have the option to get unscented detergent from your favorite cloth diaper detergent manufacturer I suggest doing that that way you don't have to worry about the possibility of residue being left on your dipes from the fragrance oil-this is especially important if you have hard water. Having hard water will make it more difficult to completely remove the fragrance oil and ensure it rinses clean. The only two diaper area cleaners that I tried that I did not have a laundry issue with were Thirsties booty luster and Lovey's Tushi Wash. Everything else, including the stuff I made at home using various recipes that included different oils, left scent and residue on our cloth diaper laundry. Due to an issue I had with Thirsties booty luster completely unrelated to laundry I have been using Lovey's Tushi Wash exclusively for months. 

A sure fire way to tell if you have residue leftover in your diapers due to detergent:
Fill up your washer with hot water-the hotter the better. DO NOT add detergent or anything else. Throw a few diapers in there, close the lid and let them agitate for awhile. At some point before the spin cycle peek in, you may want to peek in several times at different points just to see what you can see. If you see bubbles/suds your detergent has left residue in your diapers. See the ** section with pictures above to help you determine what sort of bubbles you're looking for or looking at. Keep in mind that my pictures were on the mild end, you may have endless bubbles in your washer if you have a tremendous amount of residue in your diapers. 

To remove the residue from your diapers:
You will need to strip your diapers. If you have no idea what stripping your diapers means please check out THIS post for a list of cloth diaper related definitions and explanations.

There are a couple very effective ways to remove the build-up that I have found. One is numerous washes in very hot water, again the hotter the water the better, with NO detergent. Run a hot/heavy load let it cycle through and run another one. Keep running hot washes with no detergent until there are no more suds. If you have hard water you may find adding some liquid Calgon helps pull the nasties and resdiue out of your diapers. 

Stripping with Dawn, as talked about in the "DIAPER CREAMS" section above. You would skip step 1 but follow the rest of the steps until there were no more suds. Again, if you have hard water you may find adding some liquid Calgon helps to remove the residue by removing whatever mineral build-up may exist which will help everything else rinse out easier. 

Doing what is called a "Glamour Soak" using Lulu's in the Fluff Glamour Wash. You could obviously do this with any other cloth diaper safe detergent but Lulu's is the only one I recommend. A Glamour Soak consists of using double the amount of Lulu's in the Fluff detergent you would normally load (or about three tablespoons), a washer with hot water or even a utility sink or bath tub-just lock the door or put up a gate so that the little ones don't try to hop in, and soaking overnight. Like Calgon, Lulu's will help pull the residue out, prevent minerals from re-depositing on the diapers (if you have HW), and will clean your diapers. In the morning you would allow the washer to cycle through and then rinse with hot water until there were no more suds. 

That concludes part 2 of our two part blog series. You can view part 1 here:

As always, if you have questions or  need additional information you can contact me or Megs or leave us comments. Although we do review comments on a regular basis, if you need prompt attention please email us. 

This article was originally published on the Cow Patties Cloth Diapers blog at on 11/16/10 and may not be reproduced in whole or in part with the author’s ( ) or blog owner’s ( ) expressed written permission.


  1. Wow, there are so many issues caused by chemical detergents! It still doesn't cease to amaze me. We had almost all of those issues with build-up and left over stink, and rashes etc. until we discovered soap nuts seven months ago. Believe it or not, we haven't had to strip our diapers since because they leave no buildup, and there is never any stink, poopy or musty or any smell at all, because they are naturally antibacterial. I shove my face deep into the diapers every time just to make sure they still smell fresh, and they still do, even after seven months. All we do for washing the diapers is a cold water rinse and a full hot water wash with the soap nuts. That's it. Then throw them in the dryer. If we ever do have to put diaper cream on him we still use a liner though. Those creams are hard on cloth diapers.

    We were so impressed we started our own little company. And I'm really not trying to advertise, but I was reading about both of your long wash routines and thought to myself, "they really need to try soap nuts!!" Can I mail you each a trial size bag to try out?


  2. Katie~ I'm willing to try soap nuts. I can't promise I'll try them on my cloth diapers right away, I'd see how they'd do on my regular laundry first but I'm willing to give your brand a shot with my very hard well water! Email me at crunchybabe @ crunchy

    Oh, and if you're looking for a promotional opportunity Megs is looking for sponsors for tomorrow's Flash Giveaways on Facebook. If you're interested in that contact her at cowpattiescloth @

  3. Thank you for this post! I'm currently dealing with stink issues, and trying to find the right detergent that will work with my hard water. I had been using the Crunchy Clean hardwater formula since starting to cloth diaper a few months ago. Another cloth diaper blogger sent me a few samples of Rockin Green Hard Rock, and I've just started using my cloth again since soaking the dipes in the new detergent. There is a definite improvement, but still some stink. Should I strip them with Dawn and start over?

  4. Short answer, yes stripping with Dawn may help you. Did you buy your diapers new or secondhand?

    Long answer, I actually used Crunchy Clean earlier this year. It was what worked the best for us for awhile but unfortunately I started having the same issue as you were. Switching to unscented Crunchy Clean helped (no fragrance oils) but even so I was having to strip once a couple times a month to keep the stink at bay and improve the absorbency.

    About the time I discovered the Glamour Wash Rockin' Green came out with their hard water version. I would have gotten some if I hadn't just started using (and having exceptional results) with Lulu's in the fluff.

    Looking back, I'm glad we didn't order the Rockin' Green HW version. My youngest has very sensitive skin and hearing and seeing pics of the wounds that that detergent caused was heart breaking for me. I'm sure they've fixed the formula since the recall over the summer, but I don't want whatever ingredient caused the chemical burns in the first place, in any amount, in this house. Make sure you're doing an extra rinse and double check to make sure that your packages haven't been recalled if the person you got them from had them sitting around awhile.

  5. Thank you for posting pictures of soap bubbles. it seems so simple but growing up i always thought more bubbles equaled more clean on regular clothes and that is so not true. It took me a while to figure out that less is more with cloth. Thanks for your help.