The Problem of Detergent Residue Is New

Since I wrote about detergent residues on cloth diapers last month, I’ve been fascinated by how much more there is to say about it and how big a problem it has become. According to Bummis, a Canadian company that has been making cloth diaper covers for nearly 20 years, the problem of residues is actually quite new.

Over the past year, it seems that more and more detergent manufacturers are adding extra ingredients to their formulas in order to differentiate their products and brands. This has led to a surge in the number of calls we receive from those who use our products, about wicking and leaking that ultimately end up being the result of detergent residue. This is a widespread issue throughout the cloth diapering industry.

The Problem: Detergent Additives

Bummis Super Brite cloth diaper covers

If we could just read an ingredient label, we could just avoid whiteners, brighteners, “free and clear,” and natural surfactants. Avoiding these usually means avoiding the problems of leaky, stinky diapers. The problem is compounded, though.

Another Problem: Changing Formulas

Few laundry detergent companies list their ingredients. Some won’t even reveal the ingredients when asked. Even if they did list their ingredients, you would need to check every time you buy. Formulas are continually changing. A detergent that works now may not work in the near future.

The Wild Card: You

The other issues to consider are your own water and your own washing machine. Is your water hard or soft? Different water quality means a different reaction with the changing detergent formulas. Details are tough to pin down.

Is your washing machine high efficiency? It’s a great idea to use less water or not use water as hot. This saves water and the energy use to heat the water and run the washing machine. In the end, though, it may not save any energy or water if you have to wash and rinse multiple times to keep your diapers absorbing and your diaper covers repelling.

You Can Solve the Problem!

Before it starts to feel overwhelming, I want to assure you that you CAN solve the problem of detergent residue on cloth diapers.

First, use a simple detergent with few ingredients. Avoid “New whiter formula” and “No more stains ever” and “Now softer than a squishy marshmallow.” Stay away from new formulations that really just mean more ingredients. “Free and clear” sounds like a description we could all live with, but it actually means more additives to kill dust mites. Stick with a detergent with just a few recognizable ingredients.

Diaper Allergies

If you still have a problem with leaky or stinky diapers after you change your detergent and rinse out the residue—that is, if the residue still builds up—try eliminating one issue at a time the same way you would if your child had food allergies.

  • Is your detergent really additive free? Call the manufacture and ask about ingredients. If they won’t tell you, switch. It’s not worth guessing.
  • Is your water hard or soft? Compensate for your water.
  • Is your water level too low? Adjust upward gradually.
  • Is your water temperature too low? Use hotter water each time to determine the best balance between clean diapers and low energy use.

If the problem isn’t solved yet, try calling the manufacturer. It is clear reading the new Bummis article on detergent residues and their broader article on detergent and other residues that Bummis knows how to solve these issues for Bummis diaper covers. Other manufacturers are most likely to see the patterns for their own products as they troubleshoot with their customers.

So many of these issues deserve more attention that I will come back to the individual issues in detail in the coming months.

Whatever you do, don’t give up. Washing your own cloth diapers and cloth diaper covers makes your life so much simpler in the long run. You can adjust your washing to deal with changing detergents (by avoiding the changing detergents), and it’s back to the simple cloth diapering life.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem of Detergent Residue Is New”

  1. I use cloth for my twins and a friend sent me some soapnuts with a baby gift. I have been afraid to use them.( They look so could they ever get anything clean?) I’m glad to hear they work. Maybe I’ll try them with the next load.


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