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).
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.)
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)
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.
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.
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.