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Buildup causing cloth diapers to leak?

Posted by Julie on 8/20/2012 to Cloth Diaper How-To
I’ve been using cloth diapers for over a year now and I’ve had my share of leaks. At first, when a diaper leaks, I want to blame the diaper, but I’ve discovered that the diaper is not always to blame. During this time, I have discovered four main reasons for leaking that have nothing to do with the quality of the diaper you are using: fit, absorbency, clothing, and buildup.

If you’ve been reading The Cloth Diaper Blog regularly, then you have already seen my posts on how the improper fit and absorbency of your baby’s diaper plus the wrong clothing can cause leaks. Today, I want to address what I feel is one of the biggest things that causes leakage in your cloth diapers—buildup!

Buildup happens when residue from things such as fabric softener or detergent make their way into your diapers and lower the diaper’s ability to absorb. I’ve I know of four things that cause buildup in my cloth diapers:

  • 1.Detergent residue
  • 2.Fabric softener
  • 3.Heavy rash creams
  • 4.Urine

Most of these things can be avoided, though trying to avoid number 4 would defeat the purpose of a diaper—Ha ha—but we’ll get to that :-D

Detergent Residue

There are two things you can do to avoid detergent residues. First of all, you want to use only ½ the recommended amount of detergent in a top loading washing machine and ¼ the recommended amount of detergent in a high efficiency washing machine. Also, add a rinse without detergent before your wash. If you feel it’s necessary, add one after your wash as well. You can never have too much water when it comes to washing diapers. The more water used when washing them, the lower the chances are of buildup blocking absorbency.

Second of all, the type of detergent you use is important. You want to use a natural detergent that has no enzymes, phosphates, or other harsh chemicals in it because those things will cling to the absorbent fibers of your diapers and begin to repel moisture rather than absorb it over time.

Fabric Softener

When coupled with diapers with synthetic fibers such as fleece or microfiber, fabric softener will cause the diapers to repel moisture. I know it’s tempting to want your diapers super soft, but I’ve found that stiffer diapers will be much more absorbent—in fact all of my diapers get more and more absorbent with lots of use. If you want soft diapers, you can add a little vinegar to the wash or use natural fabric softeners (my all natural detergent has a soy based fabric softener) to keep your diapers soft without ruining their absorbency. Another great way to keep diapers soft and to reduce drying time is to use wool dryer balls. They’re a wonderful, all natural alternative to fabric softeners.

Rash Creams

It is prudent to avoid rash creams when using cloth diapers because they also cause build up in the fibers and repel moisture. Most of the time, this shouldn’t be a problem since mothers with cloth-diapered babies generally report little to no incidence of rashes. For the first year of my daughter’s life, I was one of these mothers. I never had a problem with rashes and thus never even considered using rash cream.

However, there are some cases when rashes are unavoidable and thus using rash creams becomes necessary, even for cloth diapered babies. When my little girl got Hand Foot and Mouth disease, she got a nasty, reoccurring yeast rash that took us months to get rid of and we found it necessary to use creams on her sensitive little bum.

I’ve found a couple of ways to use rash creams successfully with cloth diapers.

  • 1.Line your diapers with either a flannel baby wipe, or a biodegradable paper liner. This protects the diaper from the cream that your baby’s skin needs. If you do this with cloth liners it might be best to wash them in a load separate from the rest of your cloth diapers.
  • 2.Light creams (creamy rather than oily) seem to cause much less problems with buildup. If using a rash balm such as Desitin, for instance, choose the creamy Desitin rather than the classic, greasy kind.
  • 3.Use cloth diaper friendly rash creams such as Grandma Els or the Grovia Magic Stick (which is what we use and I love it!). Just make sure your cloth diaper brand won’t lose it’s warranty if used with these creams. If you’re not sure, then be safe and use a liner. But, honestly, I haven’t noticed any extra buildup on my diapers since using the Grovia Magic Stick regularly.


The last culprit of buildup on cloth diapers is urine. Over time urine residue can build up in your diapers even without the use of fabric softeners, harsh detergents, or rash creams. This buildup is more likely to occur if you have a high efficiency washer than if you have a top loader because HE machines simply don’t produce enough water to rinse all of the urine out of the diapers thoroughly. Most of it is washed out so you may not notice any smells or repelling for weeks or even months, but eventually the diapers will start to smell even when clean—which is when you know it is time to strip them. I love my HE machine but once my daughter passed the breast milk only stage, her diapers began to stink with urine buildup and I found myself stripping them once every month or two. Eventually I found that I could avoid urine buildup in my diapers by not only adding a rinse before and after washing them, but by adding extra water to my HE washer. I just add a couple of gallons of water to the detergent dispenser in my wash. Some people add a wet towel to their load of diapers which tricks the washing machine into using more water. Either way, the trick to avoiding this buildup of urine is to use as much water as possible.

All Natural Diapers

If you use diapers made with all natural fibers, you may not notice any problems of buildup at all. Generally, diapers with microfiber cores are the ones that are prone to stinky residue that repels moisture. However, even with natural fibers, a good washing routine is still necessary to keep their levels of absorbency hight.

If you have read all four parts in this series and applied these principles to your cloth diaper routine and leaking is still a problem for you, then I’d say that you’re probably at the point where you can look for a different diaper brand or style. There are definitely a few cloth diapers out there that simply don’t work for my daughter, and that’s okay. On the rare occasion that I find a diaper that leaks or won’t fit properly despite my best efforts, I can sell it online or trade it in to a cloth diaper retailer and recoup much of the cost of the diaper. Not all cloth diapers work for everyone. That’s why I’m so thankful that there are so many options out there. You’re bound to find a system that works for your baby and his or her special needs.