Of the dozens of potential challenges moms face when cloth diapering, most often it is regarding wash routine. Diapers stink, diapers are irritating baby’s bum, diapers aren’t absorbing like they used to, and so forth. So comes the flood of advice from moms, all who mean well and some with brilliant advice; others… very poor.
Understanding how detergent works and the impact of hard water can help you diagnose problems.
Detergent by definition is a chemical substance used to break down grease and grime and then remove it. Soap, shampoo, shaving cream: all these are types of detergent. We are going to focus on laundry detergent.
Detergent uses Surfactants (Surface Active Agents) to get things clean. They reduce surface tension of water to help things get “more completely wet”, which may seem silly, but when you understand how water molecules work, it makes sense. I love the illustration of a window on a rainy day. Water droplets tend to form as the molecules like to cling together and then streak down the window. The window is wet, but not uniformly. Surfactants help water be wetter! Surfactants have molecules with a hydrophilic and hydrophobic end. Imagine a balloon. That is what the molecules look like. The “string” is the hydrophobic end; it doesn’t like water, but it loves dirt, oil, and grime. The balloon part is the hydrophilic portion, which loves water! So imagine a blob of dirt on clothing. The “strings” cling to the dirt, but the balloon doesn’t want to
mingle with the dirt, it wants to mingle with water! So it looks like a bunch of balloons creating a barrier between the clothing and the dirt, thus removing it from the clothing and making sure it doesn’t redeposit into the clothing. Agitation works to break down large dirt particles into smaller, more manageable ones. Water temperature plays a role in how quickly these surfactants work. We can all remember back to our early school days: warm molecules move faster than cold molecules. Cool huh? At this point, the final rinse washes away the detergent, including all the yuk those surfactants grabbed onto.
Here’s where understanding hard water becomes important. Most people in America have hard water to some degree. Hard water is the arch nemesis of cloth diapers. The minerals in hard water can deposit into the fabric, reducing the material’s absorbency capabilities. I’ve heard it said “there’s no such thing as mineral build-up, it’s detergent build up” and vice versa. The fact is, they are both a thing. Let me explain…
Most people have hard water. As minerals begin to accumulate in laundry, they become a storehouse for bacteria, and it stubbornly clings to residual detergent. This will lessen the absorbency of diapers, potentially creating rash issues, and almost certainly giving off a variety of foul odors after some time, especially when the diaper gets urinated on. And, because these deposits like to hold onto detergent, it can mask itself as a detergent build up, as dropping a diaper from the wash into water will yield some kind of suds or significant film. Likewise, detergent build up can create stink issues and skin rashes. Remember the surfactants holding onto the yuk? If you don’t rinse them properly, residual detergent in the diapers can also mean residual yuk. Residual yuk eventually becomes growing bacteria. Growing bacteria becomes foul odor, rashes, and frustration.
Unlike detergent build-up, mineral build up will impact the absorbency of diapers. In fact, in severe cases of mineral build up, you will have something called repelling, where liquids would sooner roll off the diaper than absorb into them. Pouring a little warm water over your diaper is a quick way to check for this. If the water rolls down the fabric rather than absorbs, you have repelling. You cannot rely on this test alone to check for mineral build up, but if you speculate your diapers aren’t as absorbent as they used to be, this is a quick way to test them. While no repelling doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue, the presence of repelling is an absolute indicator of mineral build up.
So how can you tell the difference if excess detergent in diapers is from mineral build up or just using too much detergent if you aren’t experiencing any noticable repelling?
Fortunately, that doesn’t matter because the solution to both are the same: stripping (NOT to be confused with bleaching) and adjusting your wash routine if needed. I highly recommend GroVia Mighty Bubbles for stripping, which has a proven track record of success and takes the guess work out! Simply follow package instructions. (For instructions on stripping without GroVia MB, another post will surface on the matter soon and will be linked here when it is done.)
“But if the problem is just detergent build up, why not just rinse on hot a few times?”
I’ve heard this before and this is a poor idea, namely because it would have to be significant enough build up (I’m talking slimy clothes) to make an added rinse more helpful than hurtful. If there isn’t enough residual detergent in the load of diapers to ward off the minerals in the hard water, you could very well be depositing minerals right into the diapers that the detergent worked hard to prevent from happening in the first place. Even with water softener added, if your build up is so bad that it is creating odor or rash issues, then extra rinses or even extra detergent won’t eliminate the problem. Regardless if the lingering detergent is due to mineral build up or not, bacteria can build up in either situation, creating those rashes/odor issues, so the solution is the same: reset the fabric by stripping and then adjust your routine. Besides, if the build up of detergent is due to mineral build up, then extra rinses, even with water softener, are done in vain. That is a step added to improve a routine, not correct an existing problem.
Understanding the cause of your detergent build up is important for improving your routine and preventing the issue(s) from reoccurring. If you are actually encountering serious issues more than once a year, then after you strip your diapers, you will want to adjust your wash routine. This may mean using more/less detergent, switching detergents, adding water softener (NOT laundry softener), or a combination of these.The reason I say more than once a year is because, with babies ever-changing bowel habits and urine, having to adjust your routine on occasion can actually be quite normal… and frankly, all diapers could use a refresher at least once a year, even if your routine is solid. Having to strip your diapers more than once a year to avoid serious rash or odor issues, however, is not normal.
If you have a whole-home water softening system, then any detergent build-up is likely just that: detergent build up. Many people with home water softening systems are prone to using too much detergent, as you typically need to cut back on the load amount as recommended on the packaging (by as much as one line according to Tide reps, don’t quote me on other brands of detergent). In your case, simply giving the diapers an added rinse is almost certainly all you need to do to adjust your routine.
For those of you with particularly hard water (above 180 ppm), Calgon is often recommended by cloth diaper manufacturers over Borax for softening water because it is far less harsh, but Borax will work, too (and I know many who use it regularly without issue).
I have read studies that show liquid detergent being more effective in both hard and soft water because they use nonionic surfactants which aren’t impacted by minerals in hard water, whereas the surfactants in powdered detergents must combat the minerals, requiring up to 15% more detergent to clean in hard water. However, most mainstream powdered detergents, like Tide, come with built-in water softeners that make them more efficient for those with hard water issues.
I validated this when I contacted Tide the other day via chat (since they are a mainstream brand often recommended for diapers) and asked them at what PPM/GPG they recommend adding water softener in addition to Tide. Their response: just use more Tide to combat the hard water, specifically one line extra. When asked what constituted hard water (which I meant at what PPM they recommended the increase), they told me to contact my local city/municipal office for more information on hard water. *facepalm* Afterwards, I discovered their liquid Tide is generally good for up to 120 ppm and their powder is good for up to 180 ppm. Any harder than that, add one line extra. No water softener needed.
Since I contacted Tide specifically about this, it warrants mentioning (just food for thought) that if using an extra line of Tide will be all the added boost you need to combat hard water, I’d recommend that over Calgon any day only because it’s both easier and cheaper. Calgon requires a 1/4 cup and costs about 16 cents per ounce. An extra line of Tide is only 1/8 cup and typically costs 12-14 cents per ounce. Unless your water is insanely hard, it just makes more sense to just up your Tide by a line if you’re already using it in the first place. If your water is hard enough that it requires the added line, an additional rinse should not be necessary, either. Calgon is great, though, for those who use other brands of detergents, especially brands designed for sensitive skin or eco-friendly.
Some people with harder water may find that just switching from liquid to powder may be all they need to combat their laundry issues. Likewise, if your water isn’t all that hard, you may find it beneficial to prevent detergent build up by switching from powder to liquid.
Usually, the best people to contact for advice if you’re really struggling with issues in your wash routine are the diaper manufacturers themselves (who have loads of experience in the field and can cater your advice to your specific needs and circumstances). It also never hurts to reach out to the manufacturer of your detergent to ask for their recommendations, too, regarding laundering in hard water.
It helps if you test your water’s hardness as well. Need a test strip? You can usually find them pretty cheap, but some pool stores will have a few strips they’ll give out for free if you ask. I’m sure a friend or neighbor with a pool or hot tub have them, too, and wouldn’t mind parting with one if you ask nicely. Tide’s advice wasn’t all too far out there, either, when they recommended contacting the city about water hardness, too. They may be able to offer some data for the water in your area as well.
To summarize: Detergent build up is caused by using too much detergent, not hard water, and doesn’t impact the absorbency of diapers. Mineral build up is created by not using proper water softeners/enough detergent, and the accumulation of minerals can eventually impact the absorbency of diapers. Those minerals also latch onto detergent and create a detergent build up, even though the problem is typically a result of not using enough. Because detergent uses surfactants which work by grabbing the yuk and carrying it away when rinsed, residual detergent means residual yuk. Residual yuk becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. Bacteria creates issues with foul odors and rashes. The no-brainer fix is to strip your diapers using GroVia Mighty Bubbles. If you encounter problems more than once a year, it’s a good idea to test your water and revise your wash routine. The best place to seek advice is the manufacturers of your diapers and detergent.
If you made it to the end, wow! This was quite an article, and I sure shaved a lot off, too! I debated breaking it down into separate pieces, but just couldn’t bring myself to do it, so kudos for surviving! If I missed something important or you have something to add/correct/share, please comment below and let me know!
Stay tuned on YouTube for another giveaway soon and God bless!
My reference to Tide or recommendation of Calgon is not, in any way, a paid endorsement. I reference Tide simply because they are a widely-available brand with a very good reputation in the laundering community, diaper and otherwise. As always, none of my links to any products are affiliates: I do NOT get paid or compensated to share these products or retailers with you.