Detergent Residue and Cloth Diapers

As we’ve helped customers with the cloth diaper washing questions over the last twelve years, we have accumulated a number of research-based articles and studies about detergent ingredients and detergent residue.  I’ve compiled some points regarding detergent residue below. This information may prove helpful for cloth diapering moms, cloth diaper business owners, and manufacturers making decisions about washing cloth diapers.

Detergent residue can be UV brighteners, fragrance/perfumes, dyes, and fabric softeners either singly or in combination.

Detergent Residue is Recognized by Industry Organizations
The AATCC (American Association Textile Chemists and Colorists), is a professional organization that provides test method development to it’s industry. On several test protocols, including one regarding flammability, the AATCC describes detergent residue. While the test being called out isn’t directly relevant to washing cloth diapers, it is important to see that a formal textile industry is describing the issue of detergent residue in it’s testing protocols.

Detergent Residue Found to Increase Fabric Weight
Atsko (the makers of Sensi-Clean), Charlie’s Soap, and PuraDerm have all published the results of tests performed by the textiles laboratory at Clemson University showing fabrics washed in regular liquid Tide, Dreft, Ivory Snow, and Baby Soft (all detergents containing UV brighteners, perfumes and dyes),  increased in weight by as much as 2% over the period of 8 washes as compared to washing in plain water or additive-free detergent.  Most of these manufacturers have removed the mention of specific brands from the test results now published online. One graph (The version with the brands removed is available here).

PuraDerm Image

Detergent Residue Has Been Shown to Increase the Flammability of Fabrics
Additionally, the same companies have both published a graph of Clemson University test results showing an increase in the flammability of fabrics washed with the same list of detergents. This graph compares Tide, Ivory Snow, Dreft, Baby Soft, and Charlie’s Soap. (As a side note, since these manufacturers have published the exact same research describing the performance of their detergent, it is my opinion that one product is private labeling the others.)


The graph in this image is more complete than the one currently published by Charlie’s Soap. The updated version of this graph (with brand names removed) as well as details regarding the test methods used is available here:

Nearly all fabrics are flammable.  “Flammable” simply means that a fabric will eventually ignite when exposed to a flame. “Flammability” is a measure of how quickly a garment ignites. Flammability can be reduced, but not eliminated.  Flammability is tested by exposing a fabric swatch of a specific size to a flame and observing how quickly it ignites and, upon ignition, how quickly it burns across the length of the test swatch.  Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates the flammability of children’s garments and requires that fabrics used in these garments have a burn rate greater than 3.5 seconds. PUL used in bumGenius cloth diapers has been recently tested by a lab at 54 seconds, exceeding the CPSC safety requirement by a factor of 15.

Also of interest is how detergent residues may affect the flammability of fabrics. A research article by Jiangman Guo, Virginia Polytchnic Institute,  references a number of different academic studies as well as Consumer Reports research and comes to the conclusion that fabric softener increases the flammability rate of fabrics. The same article also discusses flammability issues with any garment made of cotton, regardless of how it’s washed.  As parents are choosing diapers for their baby, the outer surface of the diaper should be a consideration. A diaper cover with a polyester outer is going to be less flammable than a diaper cover with a cotton or wool outer.  Additionally, to avoid increasing the flammability of cloth diapers, care should be taken to avoid the use of fabric softener.

Fragrances and Dyes Have been Shown to be a Cause of Diaper Rash
An article published in Pediatric Annals cited two other medical studies when the author said, “Some chemicals used in the production of diapers have been reported to cause skin sensitization; for example dyes and fragrances used in the manufacturing of the diaper.”

The same article goes on to say, “Fragrance allergy is not only common in the general adult population but also in the pediatric populations, especially in adolescent females.10 Potential sensitizers include perfumed products (scented sprays/candles, deodorants, shampoos, lotions, etc.). Often, the dermatitis is distributed in the head and neck areas, associated with the point of contact with the source.”(3)

Also see:
Diagnosis and Management of Contact Dermatitis

Fragrance Ingredients
Perfumes in detergents are designed to leave a scent in your laundry. To achieve a fragranced load of wash, detergent manufacturers rely on fragrant chemical compounds created from natural and/or synthetic ingredients. Proctor & Gamble, the makers of Tide, has released a list of all of the chemicals used in their product fragrance formulations. For the benefit of this audience, I’m including a link to the entire 20 page list  of chemicals.  I’m also including a screenshot of a representative section of one page of this document.  This list goes on for 20 pages and is primarily composed of ingredients that only a fragrance chemist would immediately recognize.


Perfumes have been found by multiple medical studies to be positively correlated with asthma and contact dermatitis. For some people, breathing air that has perfumes in it can induce asthma attacks. Touching things that have been perfumed can also cause contact dermatitis.

Also see:
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
American Lung Association
Allergic Contact Dermatitis to Detergents
Review of the Styrene Assessment[…]

Enzymes in Detergents
Enzymes can be great things!  Generally speaking, when well rinsed, enzymes should never cause an issue with cloth diapers.  However, one type of enzyme that is designed to attack proteins can produce a sunburn-like rash under certain circumstances when the diaper isn’t rinsed well and the detergent contained high concentrations of the enzyme.

Optical Brighteners in Detergents
Optical brighteners are an ingredient that, when added to laundry detergent, remains in your clothing and essentially bends the light you see so your clothing looks cleaner.  It’s a trick… your eye is only seeing things brighter and whiter because the optical brightener changes the way you see the color in your clothing.  Out of all of the additives we see in laundry detergents, this is the one ingredient that is guaranteed to be in your clothing and has absolutely no cleaning benefit. It shows up in almost every detergent on the market, including most hypoallergenic or free & clear products.

Also see:
Noneczematous Contact Dermatitis

Contact Dermatitis Due to Optical Whitener in Washing Powders
Allergic Contact Dermatitis to Detergents

Conclusion: Mainstream Detergents On Cloth Diapers

Using mainstream detergents that contain certain additives on cloth diapers may leave chemical residue on the fabric of those diapers.  By design, those diapers are used on very young babies and toddlers in a moist environment full of urine and fecal material.  While many residue-producing detergent ingredients have been tested on adults, most chemical companies do not also perform testing on newborn babies in a wet environment saturated with urine and fecal material.

We have accumulated a great deal of third party research showing that detergent residue is a fact. In some cases, it can be a health hazard.  When this research is considered in combination with the reports that we have from parents who have washed their cloth diapers in residue producing detergents and seen serious allergic reactions in their child, we believe that there are reasons to be seriously concerned about recommending these products for use on our diapers.

Over the years, we’ve received many calls from parents after a child has experienced a diaper rash while wearing a cloth diaper.  The parent is generally worried that their child is allergic to the diaper. Occasionally, we find that a baby is likely allergic to a polyester fiber.  In these cases, the baby also has a skin reaction when wearing fleece pajamas or other polyester clothing. However, after some investigation, we usually discover that their child is probably reacting to an ingredient in the household detergent.  Switching to a non-residue detergent generally resolves the issues the child is having while wearing cloth diapers.

Jenn is the Founder and CEO of Cotton Babies. She holds an Executive MBA from Washington University. She was awarded Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Emerging Category for the Central Midwest Region in 2011. Among many other awards, she recently received a 2017 YWCA Leader of Distinction Award for Entrepreneurship. Jenn holds many patents on various inventions in a number of different countries and is listed as one of 50 Missourians You Should Know. She is particularly fascinated by languages, chickens, and children (she has four) when she’s not reading economics journals.

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20 thoughts on “Detergent Residue and Cloth Diapers

  1. Except, my diapers come cleaner with Tide. I am on a cloth diaper board on facebook, where people can come and ask questions and get help with laundry routines. Most of the time they come looking for help is because their diapers smell and they can’t get rid of it. Whether it be ammonia or barnyard stink. You know what’s recommended to combat those smells? Tide. And you know what? Almost 100% of the time, these moms will come back and say how wonderful their diapers smell and haven’t had issues since. There are free and clear options available, too, for those with sensitive skin. Yes, there are also natural versions, but the best results have come from using Tide.

    • I’m glad that some moms have found something that works for them.

      Unfortunately, there’s another side to those groups… the process of helping the moms for whom Tide didn’t work. That’s when they call us.

  2. Currently taking statistics in school and based on what i learnt – our research data is misleading.
    Could you as explain to me as to why Tide cleans diapers with no issues and Charlie’s with recommended washing routine was leaving diapers dirty, stinky and was giving baby’s bottom burns?

    • The Charlie’s Soap graph was included in this blog post purely for informational purposes. That graph’s inclusion is not a recommendation for Charlie’s Soap. Recommended detergents:

      While Tide works for some families and some babies, it does not work for all babies. We cannot recommend any product for use on our diapers that is designed to coat our product with (and expose babies to) a long list of unnecessary chemicals.

  3. Jen, I noticed that the tests mention Tide liquid. What happens with Tide powder? We use Tide Powder, BG and Country Save detergents interchangeably (I look for the best price) and I’m always happy with how cleanly my diapers are. (I understand tide voids the warranty). But does Tide powder leave the residue that liquid does?

  4. I think the research may be a bit biased, coming from companies that sell detergent. Why not post the third party articles results too, or at least reference them? It appears the graph on the weight of the diaper shows that tide doesn’t really change the weight any more than water. I’d like to see more information and more critical analysis of the data (confounding variables?).

    • Excuse me, not liquid tide but Puraderm! Anyway, I’d still like to see more before I’ll let go of my tide free and clear powder

    • The testing was done by Clemson University, not by the detergent companies. An independent lab is paid before they run testing (and because they ran testing). They follow a testing protocol and don’t stand to gain because of the results. I have a full copy of the lab results on a different computer and plan to post those as well.

      I did link to the full third party articles in my post. The clinical research links were unintentionally overlooked. I need to add those in – if you would like to do your own research though, pubmed is full of studies. Search for fragrance, dyes, and contact dermatitis.

  5. To each his own!!! I am curious though… I have 3 different brand diapers and the other 2 brands actually recommend mainstream detergents such as Tide powder and Gain. One particular brand even says to use the FULL recommended amount for the load size instead of 1/4 or 1/2. Those have never needed a second wash because they always come clean the first time. (saves money on electric and water bill only washing once) Just curious as to why it’s so different brand to brand when the materials are pretty much the same?

    Surely it’s understandable how so many of us get confused over wash routines with so much conflicting information out there. For me, the simpler the better.

    Taking a cloth hiatus while DD has uncontrollable rashes from teething 🙁

  6. We are one of those families that cannot use tide because of sensitivities to the additives. Unfortunately, my son is also sensitive to soap, which means that we can’t even use tide free and clear because it takes 10+ extra rinses to get all of the soap residue off the diapers. The only detergent that rinses reasonably clear for us is Rockin Green, which “only” takes an additional 4 extra rinses to get mostly off. And before you ask, yes, I have hard water, yes I use hard rock, and yes, I add Calgon to all my rinses to help rinse off the residue. I get so frustrated with mamas who preach the tide gospel for all diaper smell/rash problems; it’s not a panacea for everyone and I wish those mamas that only advocate tide would realize that there are many possible causes for rashes and diaper issues out there and give mamas the range of possible solutions. We have found something that works for us, but it’s taken over a year to slowly diagnose the multiple causes of our problems.

    Thanks Jen for this informative article. Hopefully it helps some moms on the road to figure out what may be causing their issues.

  7. And on those Facebook groups you’re not allowed to talk about success you’ve had with something like Charlie’s or problems you’ve had with tide. Or if you’ve had problems it’s because you’re not using enough.

    Jennifer I’ve seen it claimed that while detergents leave a residue (which is frankly enough for me) that residue does not build up over time because it washes out and is replaced every wash. I’m wondering what you think about that. The weight graph certainly seems to indicate that they do build up.

    • Detergent leaves a residue on clothing. The exact composition of that residue varies by the product being used. The graph indicates that the residue effect is incremental. I haven’t seen the results of this testing beyond eight washes.

  8. Thank you so much for writing this. It couldn’t have come at a better time. My baby is only 7 months and I’ve taken great care to use cloth diaper safe detergent. But I’ve only been CD for 7 months and started second guessing my whole wash routine because of stuff I’ve been reading on Facebook about using mainstream detergents. While having to change my routine a little because my son’s poop has changed with introduction of solids. I’m so glad that it came across this and didn’t wash with unsafe detergent. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  9. What about the claim that detergent “buildup” will cause repelling? I find it interesting that this is one of the biggest claims against mainstream detergents, yet you have brought up many “studies” none of which claim any repelling issues.

    And what does flammability have to do with any of this? If your child’s diaper is on fire, you have bigger issues…..
    **Under 16 C.F.R. Parts 1615 & 1616, Underwear and diapers are not children’s sleepwear and are therefore exempt from flammability requirements testing ( **

    Sure, fragrances & dyes could *possibly* cause diaper rash (but that’s when we use free & clear detergents, right?)….but ammonia & bacteria WILL cause diaper rashes.

    I could understand why you wouldn’t recommend any ONE particular brand of detergent, but why shun all if them completely? True detergent allergies are extremely rare, and while some may be sensitive to some, there are many more to choose from.
    I just think cotton babies puts such fear into their consumers heads about mainstream detergents that it’s not right. Detergents won’t destroy diapers, at least not when used appropriately.

    • – Repelling is a relatively rare issue that is caused by things that are applied to a baby’s skin and rubbed off onto the cloth diapers (like rash cream). Repelling is almost never caused by detergent ingredients. When repelling is the complaint, a poorly fitted diaper is nearly always the actual issue. This article doesn’t address the issue of repelling because I don’t think (and like you said, there’s little evidence outside of conjecture) that it is related to detergent residues.

      – Flammability is testing is required for any piled fabric (like flannel, minky, wool, or suedecloth), including when those fabrics are used in cloth diapers.

      – You’re correct, fragrances and dyes could cause diaper rash. Ammonia and bacteria could also cause diaper rashes. Diapers that are washed properly with residue-free detergent won’t have fragrances, dyes, ammonia or bacteria in them… everyone wins.

      – We don’t shun ALL detergents. We actually recommend an entire list of additive-free detergents. Several of those detergents are readily available in big box stores all over the United States.

      – We cannot recommend detergents that are designed to leave chemicals coating our diapers. Our diapers are used on babies. Sensitive skin, cloth diapers, babies, and unnecessary chemical residues don’t mix well on a broad scale… which is where we have to operate.

      – Some detergents won’t destroy diapers. However, badly formulated detergents actually do destroy diapers.