Do You Have Detergent Buildup in your Cloth Diapers?

Last week, in my post about the problem with Fluff Love University recommendations, I talked about Emma, a first time mom (FTM) who invested in cloth diapers to save money. Like so many of us cloth diaper users, Emma had no friends and family to support her, let alone offer guidance, so she had to turn to the internet for wash and care advice.

Pretty quickly Emma found what looked to be an awesome resource, the Fluff Love University (FLU) Detergent Index, which gave her an almost complete list of detergents, told her which were good and which were bad, and even gave her the amount to use for each detergent listed. 

Emma was impressed with all the work that went into that site and the attention to detail. She also wanted to prove all of her naysayers wrong. Determined to succeed, she followed the FLU instructions to the letter. This is why Emma was so confused when her diapers began to stink, badly, and her baby is started to get rashes. 

Emma felt like a failure, but the truth was that it was bound to happen. You can read all about The Problem with the Fluff Love University Detergent Index here. That post was the first in this series of three posts about detergent buildup. 

`In this, the second post, I’m going to talk about how to know if you have detergent buildup in your diaper and if so, how to get rid of it.

So, do you have detergent buildup in your cloth diapers? If you’ve used Fluff Love University detergent recommendations in the past, purchased used diapers, or are having smell issues you can’t seem to solve for longer than a few weeks with stripping, you may have detergent buildup. I recommend testing your cloth diapers for detergent buildup if any of those scenarios sound like you.  Afterall, knowledge is power. 

Why Is Detergent Buildup so Bad? 

While Fluff Love University claims detergent buildup is a myth, I am constantly helping moms deal with the stink and rashes that come from it. As soon as the detergent (visible through suds) is gone, so is the stink and rash problems. It’s also well known to be a problem by the detergent industry itself. 

As Mary Gagliardi, a scientist at Clorox, explains in this Readers Digest article, using too much detergent can lead to a ton of problems including stains and residues on clothes, smelly washing machines, wetter clothes at the end of the cycle,  increased wear and tear on your washing machine’s pump and motor, and of course an increase in the bacteria left on your laundry. 

Much of the problem is that too much detergent in your washer causes too many suds. 

Tide’s website states that:

“Too many suds prevent a good wash by cushioning the clothes from rubbing against one another – it’s this rubbing that helps the clothes get as clean as possible…. Not only does oversudsing affect your washer’s efficiency, but excess suds can also prevent some of the impurities from being completely rinsed out of the machine properly. This means that impurities can redeposit onto your clothes, resulting in odors or machine malfunctions. 

“Too many suds can also block up the system, which can prevent the washer from pumping out water and, in turn, cause more suds.”

Too Many Suds in the Washer.

It’s both the redepositing of bacteria and feces/urine onto your diapers and the detergent particles still on your diapers that can cause irritation to skin, and of course that tell-tale stink. 

How to Test for Detergent Buildup

Of course, not all rashes and stinky diapers are caused by detergent buildup. Products like petroleum and zinc, fabric softeners, and infrequent washing (leading to bacteria buildup) can all cause your diapers to not get fully clean and thereby start to stink and harbor bacteria. 

Diagnosing the problem is an important step to solving it. While a strip can fix the damage of many of these issues, the problem will return again and again if the root cause isn’t fixed. 

There are two ways to text for detergent buildup, they are: 

1. The Swoosh Test

This is the easiest test for detergent buildup. You simply fill up a glass bowl with warm water, submerge a clean and dry diaper in it, and after a few minutes swoosh it around and squeeze it out a few times. If white film and/or bubbles (suds) gather along the sides of the bowl, you’ll know your wash routine wasn’t able to get all of the detergent out of the diaper, and you have buildup. 

2. The Extra Rinse Test

For this test, you’ll be using your washing machine and a full load of dirty diapers instead of a single clean diaper and a bowl of water. 

This test is great when you’re down to your last few diapers and you don’t want to sacrifice a usable diaper before you have a chance to do a load of laundry. This test is NOT RECOMMENDED if you’re using a washing machine that’s not yours and/or one you don’t normally use. This is because while you’ll be seeing any detergent buildup on your diapers, you’ll also be seeing any detergent buildup that might be in the washing machine itself. 

To do this test, put your load of dirty diaper in, and wash using your usual cycle, and your normal detergent amounts etc. Once the final rinse has been done, restart the machine on an additional “rinse and spin only” cycle. Allow the machine to fill and begin agitating for a few minutes, then pause it and take a look inside while it’s full of water. If you have suds you’ll know that your regular routine wasn’t able to rinse all of the detergent out of the diapers, and you likely have a buildup problem. 

If you try these tests and you don’t see very much film or suds, but you’re still having rash and or smell issues, you’ll know that something else is happening and you can knock this one off your list. 

How to Remove Detergent Buildup

If you do find yourself with a detergent buildup problem, you’ll want to take the following three steps to fix the problem and reset your diapers:

1. Clean Your Washing Machine

Unfortunately, if you’ve been regularly using too much detergent, it’s most likely that not only do your diapers have detergent buildup on them, but you have detergent buildup in your washing machine as well. 

In fact, if you’re only following the recommended amounts on the detergent bottle for your diapers, and using too much in your regular laundry, the problem could very well just be with your machine having buildup that’s depositing on your diapers.

Recall the Tide website said that too much soap can block the system, preventing the washer from pumping out water and, therefore causing more suds.

To clean your washing machine, you can use a commercial cleaner like affresh, or simply run a full cycle (some machines do have self-cleaning cycles) with hot water and a cup of vinegar to cut through the detergent. 

This of course only applies if you’re using the same machine all of the time. If you’re using a commercial laundromat or traveling etc. this step will be fruitless for you. 

2. Strip And Rinse Your Diapers Clean

Once you’re machine is clean, it’s time to tackle the diapers themselves. The detergent that’s built up on them needs to be cleared away completely, which is not always easy. The quickest way to do this will be to strip them. You can read my full post about how to strip diapers here. Rinsing them thoroughly after stripping, perhaps using some vinegar in the rinse (you can read all about vinegar for cloth diapers here) will also help speed up that process. 

You’ll need to strip/rinse them until you don’t get any suds through either of the tests mentioned above, this could take several rounds of stripping and rinsing if the buildup is particularly bad. 

3. Adjust Your Wash Routine 

Once everything is clean and clear of soap buildup, adjusting your routine will be vital to avoid the problem from happening again. 

The first step is to reevaluate how much detergent you’re using. Make sure to start with the recommended amount for heavily soiled loads of laundry, on the bottle/box of detergent you’re using for your load size. From there you can add more for some situations/needs and reduce it for others.

I am being pretty vague here, but that’s because the topic of next week’s post, the third in this series, is going to be all about how to help you figure out how much detergent to use, so check back here for that soon. 


Buildup from using too much detergent is very much a real problem and even acknowledged by detergent makers themselves (see quotes from Clorox and Tide above).

When detergent buildup happens to diapers, the dirtiest and most multi-layered laundry you’ll ever wash, detergent buildup causes more problems than dull and stiff clothes, it causes bacteria buildup, stink issues, and eventually rashes. It can also be very bad for your washing machine. 

To test for detergent buildup you can either test a single clean diaper in a bowl of water, or perform an extra rinse in your machine as laid out above. If you’re using multiple washing machines or a laundromat to wash your diapers, the swoosh test of a single diaper will be best for you. 

If you find that you have detergent buildup you’ll need to reset your washing machine and your diapers by cleaning them thoroughly (instructions on how to do that properly are above). Once you’re back to ground zero, you’ll need to adjust your wash routine including how much detergent you’re using. 

Whether or not you have detergent buildup, figuring out how much detergent you should use for your specific situation is key. 

The Next Step

As mentioned, to close out this three-part series I have a post about How to Figure Out How Much Detergent to Use in Your Specific Situation.  In it I take you through how to calculate your proper detergent amount based on your unique needs including your preferred detergent, your washer, and your water type.

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