Our current knowledge of the P retention efficiency of peatland buffer zone areas used to reduce sediment and nutrient leaching from forestry areas is insufficient. Especially the role of P sorption by soil in buffer zones needs closer examination as there is considerable variation in the efficiency of P retention. Six sites in southern Finland were chosen for the study. The buffer zone areas varied between 0.1–4.9% of the catchment area. A total of 10 kg of solute PO4–P was added to the inflow of the buffer zone areas and the concentrations of PO4–P in inflow and outflow were measured for 2–4 years. P retention characteristics of the surface peat were determined with sorption-desorption isotherms before and after PO4–P addition and the effective buffer zone area over which the added P was spread was determined from soil water samples. P retention in the two largest buffer zone areas was complete (100% retention), and the third largest buffer retained 94%. Retention in the three smallest buffer zones was 24%, 95% and 95% of the added P. As a result of P addition reduction in peat P retention capacity was detected in three out of four cases. The effective buffer zone area varied from 67% to 100% of the total buffer zone area. Factors contributing to efficient P retention were large buffer size and low hydrological load whereas high hydrological load combined with the formation of preferential flow paths, especially during early spring or late autumn was disadvantageous. High P retention capacity in peat contributed to the sustainability of P retention. The study showed that even relatively small buffer zone areas are able to efficiently reduce P load.