Stripping cloth diapers is sometimes necessary to remove buildup of detergent, oils, or minerals. If you are using a cloth diaper safe detergent and avoiding rash creams, you probably won't need to strip you diapers more than every few months - if at all. If you are using a detergent that does not rinse clean or that does not work well in your water, you may need to strip your diapers much more often.
When to Strip Cloth Diapers - If your cloth diapers are repelling (losing absorbency) or are smelling bad even when clean or freshly wet on, they likely need to be stripped.
Detergent Buildup - The most common reason for needing to stripping cloth diapers is detergent buildup. You'll know there is detergent buildup if your cloth diapers smell funky when they come out of the dryer or if they smell really bad when your child wets on them. Pee always has some smell to it, but if a freshly wet diaper burns your nose or a morning diaper smells extra strong, it is time to remove all the detergent buildup.
Some detergents leave residue behind, causing buildup on the fabric. Another common cause is using too much detergent for your water. Use slightly less than the amount recommended on the box or bottle. If you are using a cloth diaper specific detergent
use the amount recommended. You'll need more detergent if you have hard water, less in soft water.
To strip detergent buildup, fill the washer with the hottest water you can and your clean diapers. You might even want to turn your hot water heater up a bit for this, but be sure to turn it back down immediately to reduce the risk of burns (safety experts recommend keeping your hot water heater set to no more than 120 degrees farenheit to avoid potential disasters if small children turn the water on themselves). Then, agitate the load on the highest setting for a full cycle. Now, rinse in warm and check to see if there bubbles when the load agitates. If you see suds, there is a detergent buildup. At the end of the cycle, spin the water out and repeat until there are no more suds. This may take 3-4 washes if you have a lot of buildup. You can also add a commercial water softener to the first wash to help remove buildup (Calgon makes a readily available water softener).
To prevent future detergent buildup, consider using Allen's Naturally, Thirsties Wash, Country Save, Tiny Bubbles or other recommended cloth diaper safe detergent
Fabric Softener Buildup - In theory, fabric softener should never meet up with cloth diapers. The job of fabric softener is to stick to fabric. This makes cloth diapers less absorbent. You may have a fabric softener buildup if your diapers have been rinsed or dryed with fabric softener or if you use dryer sheets on your regular laundry (fabric softeners contain all kinds of truly toxic chemicals, so I don't use them anyway, even though we have hard water - learn about fabric softener dangers
To remove the fabric softener, fill a sink or tub with hot water and 1 Tablespoon or so of blue Dawn. Stir it up and add your diapers. Let it soak for 30-60 minutes. If you have severe buildup, you can scrub the inner layer of pocket diapers to help loosen buildup. Rinse welll, then put the diapers in the washing machine. Be especially careful to rinse if you happen to have a front loader as the Dawn will foam a lot unless rinse well.
Run a hot wash cycle, then check the rinse water for bubbles. If there are bubbles, keep washing and rinsing until they are gone. Some people recommend putting the Dawn into your washing machine, but this can void your warranty and may lead to a Brady Bunch style foaming episode (yes, I am old enough to have seen the Brady Bunch when it was still new - moving along....).
Mineral Buildup - Mineral buildup is common in hard water areas. Your diapers may look dingy. They may smell bad when freshly wet. Or they may have an odor even when they are fresh from the dryer. We have horrible well water and this is a common issue for us.
You can remove mineral buildup with a commerical fabric softener such as Calgon or a mineral remover such as RLR (both should be available in your local grocery stores). RLR is also sold online. Use half the recommended amount of Calgon or follow the instructions for RLR. Wash in the hottest water you can manage. You might want to turn the hot water heater up for this one too (again, remembering to restore the safety temperature as soon as possible). If you prefer, you can add hot water by boiling it on the stove. Wash diapers then rinse twice.
Diaper Rash Cream - Any diaper cream can cause buildup. Even those that are advertised as safe for cloth diapers can cause a buildup if your detergent/water/tendency to slather it on/whatever allows it. Using a fleece or disposable liner can help prevent this problem - though you may need to wash the reusable liners separately. Any cream with zinc oxide or fish oil in it is a recipe for disaster.
To remove it, you will need hot water, so again, turn up the hot water heater temporarily. Break out your trusty friend, the blue Dawn. Add one Tablespoon and stir. Add the diapers and stir again. Let the whole thing soak for about an hour. Then, using a stiff brush such as a nail brush, scrub the lining of the diapers both inside and out. Rinse well and then put them in the washer. You might want to add a very small amount of Dawn, like 1/2 teaspoon to the washer. Again, this can void your warranty and you definitely don't want to add too much and have an overflow.
Wash on hot, rinse and repeat if needed. You'll want to look for scum on the rinse water. You may need to repeat the entire process more than once if the buildup is severe.
When All Else Fails - Sometimes the odors remain in your cloth diapers no matter what else you try. I have had customers tell me that their diapers still stink no matter what they do - even having tried chlorine bleach (which is generally a no-no that will void your warranty on most brands of diapers). Finally, I learned about the vinegar soak method and it has helped many people find their way out of stinky cloth diaper land.
Simply fill the washer with the hottest water possible. Add 3-4 cups of white vinegar. Then soak the diapers overnight - or at least 3 hours. Then rinse twice. If you have a front loader, you may need to do the initial soak in a bucket or tub, then drain and transfer to the machine.