Help My Cloth Diapers Stink! Tips Resolving Whiffing Woes

Warning: I may suggest some things that could void warranties for diapers, so make sure you read the diaper company’s policies before making any changes

Flow chart for solving cloth diaper stink issues

One of the most common questions I am asked is “What the heck is going on with my diapers? My cloth diapers stink!” Sure, we can expect diapers to STINK, but many people have issues with the diapers still stinking after washing, or with the diaper smelling like a very unnatural ammonia smell. This is a very common problem, one which I have battled myself. I wanted to take this second to walk you through the series of questions I normally ask people when troubleshooting this issue. I base my advice on my own experience in the cloth diapering community and on the 4,000+ survey responses to my washing diapers survey.

So when I am working with someone with stink issues, here are my main questions…I have represented them here in this handy chart to walk you through steps to take:

NOTE: for HOT water, make sure it is no more than 150 degrees. To test, just set your sink to its hottest setting and put a meat thermometer under it. Do not use the Sanitize cycle on your machine.

Tips for resolving lingering stink issues with cloth diapers

Let’s start off by describing WHAT is happening with your diaper to cause stink:

There are two common causes to stink in diapers (1) detergent buildup and/or (2) the diapers aren’t getting cleaned enough

The two common smells are ammonia and barn:

Ammonia is a chemical reaction between detergent buildup and pee. The pee hits the diaper, the layer of detergent buildup crystalizes on contact and becomes a stench so strong is would make your window cleaner cry. So your first reaction is to then use less detergent, right? NOT SO FAST! Often times detergent buildup happens when the diaper is actually NOT getting clean enough. If a diaper isn’t getting clean enough, then the bacteria is providing a defensive barrier against detergent. So the detergent has nothing better to do then pile up on top of the diaper. This thread on Diaper Swappers written by the maker of Alioop washing products really helped me understand this issue.

Why is it that the diapers that smell the most like ammonia are the night diapers?

Two reasons: generally they are made of materials that are most difficult to clean because there are so many layers. I get this with my fitteds a lot because the water+detergent have to go through many layers to get to the mean stuff. The second reason is because your baby is laying in it all night and his/her nice warm body is essentially incubating it. Gross, I know. And this happens with any diaper, so don’t go running to disposables!

Barn smell: You probably smell this right as you are pulling the diapers out of the dryer. It can best be described as a barn smell, but it can also just smell like something DIRTY. When you pull your diapers out of the washing machine, they should smell like absolutely nothing.

 

Water Type

This tells me a lot when troubleshooting with someone. Here are some ways to know what kind of water you have:

* Make a cup of tea, if it ends up being pretty week after steeping a few  minutes, then it is soft. If you see that there is a film on top or the tea looks cloudy, then you have hard water. (pbs.org)

* Use your shampoo on your hair. If it lathers up easily, it is likely soft.

* Check out this map from Rockin’ Green. It isn’t 100% accurate (it says my water is soft when it is hard), but it is a great starting point.

* Check with your county. Your county is required to have an annual water report. It may take a little bit of detective work for you to find it, but even just searching your county’s name and “water type” on the internet may give you results.

* Buy a kit at a hardware store. Many cloth diaper retailers now also carry water test strips for approximately $1, which is a very economical way to test the specific hardness of the water in your home.

Hard Water

I have to say, most people who have ammonia have hard water (and most Americans have hard water since about 85% of American tap water is hard water). The minerals in your hard water are interfering with the detergent and preventing the detergent from doing its job. Therefore, it isn’t cleaning the bacteria in the diaper, and the detergent is just building up on top of it. You either need a water softener or a more effective detergent.

Here are my suggestions for you:

* Strip your diapers (you can read here on how to do that)

* Change your detergent (of respondents who had hard water, most were impressed with Tide – either Ultra, Free, or liquid -, Lulu’s Glamour Wash, and EcoSprout).

* Use the recommended detergent amount. I know many respondents use LESS than the recommended amount, but I say start off with the recommended and if you start to get buildup (i.e. tons of leaks), then decrease the detergent

* If you aren’t using Tide, put in an additive. I find I don’t need this with Tide on my hard water, but do with every other detergent. I recommend a tablespoon of washing soda (you can get this at your grocery store in the detergent aisle). Other people use Calgon and RlR. You can read the article here about what survey respondents use.

Soft Water

For soft water users, you are more likely to be fighting detergent buildup because you are using too much detergent. As you saw from my description above, if you have soft water, then your soap suds up REALLY fast. Generally this means you need to use less. You can tell by looking at your final rinse cycle and seeing if it looks super sudsy. Expect a few bubbles here and there, but a large amount is a problem.

So here are my suggestions

* Strip your diapers, but with less detergent than you normally use. You can see an article here on stripping. DON’T use blue Dawn.

* Consider changing your detergent. The detergents that did best for soft water users were  Rockin’ Green Classic, Rockin’ Green Soft, and Country Save.

* Use less detergent. If it is a cloth diaper detergent, then use the amount recommended for soft water (generally they tell you this on their website), if you are using a non-cloth diaper detergent, then start by using about 1/2 the amount.

If stink issues persist, up the amount of detergent.

If repelling starts, decrease the amount.

Normal Water

If you have normal water, I would lean towards you doing the steps indicated for the hard water, simply because you are more likely to be fighting that issue than a buildup issue.

 

Be Sure to strip your diapers before making any changes to your routine, that way you are starting with a blank slate.

 

Other Factors to Consider:

* Washing on hot may help you get diapers more clean–just note that may void diaper warranty and could lead to damage

* You may want to increase the amount of water going through your diapers when washing. Often HE machines sense how much water to put in by sensing the weight. Put in a damp towel to trick the machine into thinking it is a larger load, causing the machine to put in more water. Just make sure the towel is damp or else it will soak up all the water!

* Be sure you wash your washing machine regularly

* Make sure you aren’t over-stuffing your machine. It should definitely be no more than 2/3 full. Give lots of room for the water and detergent to move around.

* Make sure you aren’t using fabric softeners and dryer sheets. They cause buildup that prevent the detergent from getting to the diapers. Ecover is a cloth diaper-safe fabric softener.

* If you still have issues, you may want to re-consider the fabric of your diapers. Microfiber, hemp, and thick diapers like fitteds or AIOs with the inserts sewn in tend to trap stink (because it is more difficult to get to all fibers). Bummis has a great article explaining this. Survey respondents with flats and prefolds have much fewer issues.

A few disclaimers: (1) please do not hold me liable for any damage or issues you may have with your diapers, (2) some cloth diaper warranties void if you use certain additives/detergents, so check out those policies first, (3) this is not perfect science discussed here, just general suggestions.

Tara Porter

Tara Porter began using cloth diapers in 2011 when she felt that using disposable diapers was costing too much money. The problem was, a lot of the highly recommended diapers weren’t working for her baby. What she finally discovered was that her baby was skinny and a heavy wetter, and that diapers worked differently for those baby types. Because of her professional work with survey design and statistics, she designed Padded Tush Stats as a way to determine how different cloth diapers worked on different babies.

Tara moved on to other career endeavors in 2014 but can still be found online blogging about health and fitness at Fit Baby Steps.
  • Beth

    Thank you!! This is awesome and we so appreciate you taking the time to put this together!!

    • mom23

      my problem is an he washer I think and aio’s , so will try soaking them in baking soda and washing again. never had this problem before with a regular machine! thanks for this post.

  • http://www.sunshine-and-shadows.com Shannon

    I love this, thank you! I used your article on stripping to help me formulate another plan of attack. The only thing I had to go on before was stripping with Blue Dawn and it was NOT working, so thanks a million!

  • http://www.deetergent.com Dee

    Hi! I think you forgot something I seem to come across frequently and that has been overfilling the washing machine with diapers. If you have a heavy wetter and you overfill the washing machine there is not enough water to dilute the urine enough to rinse it completely out. If this is the case it will not matter how much detergent, softener or additives that you do or don’t use. If there is too much urine and not enough water you will end up with diapers and inserts that smell like ammonia.

    Otherwise, I love it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Tara

      Great point! Let me add that :)

  • http://www.cutiepoopsandbottoms.com Sherri

    Another big problem that people seem too have is not adding enough detergent. I would say that is the problem MOST of the time when talking with all my customers. Everyone seems so afraid of “build up” that they are using a combination of too little detergent and too much water. Filling your machine to the top with water for a small load of diapers and then adding 2 TBSP of detergent will not result in clean diapers. You need to drop the water level down during the actual wash cycle to have a good balance between the amount of water and the amount of detergent. I find by recommending that and/or increasing the detergent people get much better results.

    • Tara

      I agree! Did you see that was one recommendation in there?

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  • Laurann

    Thanks for the flowchart. It will be a very helpful resource.

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  • Heather

    OMG! The stink is gone! I love this website and am SO THANKFUL for all of the great guides and info! I was about to go to disposables!

  • Lisa

    Can someone please clarify what washing soda is? If not, I can try the calgon. Thank you.

  • Juani

    I definitely agree with the poster who said that if you have a heavywater (like i do) too much diapers in one load can cause issues I realize that I had an especially stinky load after several rinses and I realized maybe I should decrease the diapers when they just werent smelling clean at all after the cycle was done and when I did the smell immediately went away when I separated them into two washes. I have hard water. I use Calgon in every waah. I’m afraid to use Tide but I am considering it now because the “barnyard” smell is the perfect description

  • Juani

    I definitely agree with the poster who said that having a heavy wetter like I do and filling the load with too much diapers can cause a smell. when I did this I saw that after the cycle was over they still smelled very dirty and after a few rinses it wasn’t going away so I separated it in half and re-laundered and the smell immediately went away after the cycles were done. I have hard water I have to use calgon every wash but despite my fears I’m considering just trying ride. I’ve heard great things about it and the thing is that even after using less or exact amounts of rocking green hard water formula, the barnyard smell perfectly describes what they smell like if I use my dryer. SO ANNOYING

  • Nicole Paarlberg

    Would you be willing to email me to help with a cloth diaper stink issue I”ve been having? I don’t want to post the whole story of what I’ve tried, etc. etc. to your site. :)

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  • meg

    Hi – I’m still pretty new to cloth diapering. I’m having stink issues. I have read all of your articles and have tried several things but I’m a little overwhelmed on what to try next. Is there a way to contact you directly so I can ask more specific questions? Thanks so much!

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  • Miranda

    Good to know, thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/katie.jurisch Katie Jurisch

    Fantastic information! My family is about to make the CD switch and I’m sure I’ll be referring to this so I bookmarked it. Thank you for taking the time to research and share this!

  • rachel allen

    great graphic!

  • Olivia L

    I have to say, this is awesome! I’ve been sort of fumbling along, just rewashing when my diapers smelled. Thank you for this!

  • NicoleH

    Thanks so much for this article!!! I have battled quite a few different stink issues in my last 4 years with CDs, and I recently realized that Ive been using TOO LITTLE detergent. Thanks for all these great tips, and for all the hard work you do, Tara!

  • Mamamusing

    Wish I read this before I purchased AIO’s. Ah well. I’m going to try some of your suggestions :)

    Visit Mamamusing

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  • mbdb

    this is so helpful! we battled ammonia for so long, and adding more detergent was a big part in solving the issue! along with rinsing before they go in the wet bag and leaving our wet bag open. the washing routine can be the most frustrating part, but this is a great resource.

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  • Cynthia Amber Downer

    Thanks for the flow chart! Haven’t had issues yet(fingers crossed) but will save in case I do!

  • rebekah kane

    Thank you this is very helpful :)

  • Vicki Hall

    Thanks for the tips I switched to Tide original powder and that solved our problems with stink and staining.

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  • Julie

    Thanks for this. It confirms what I was thinking. I just have to wash a little more frequently. I’m so glad I didn’t try Tide though. Especially with all the trouble people have been having with it lately. I figure, part of the reason I’m cloth diapering my baby is to avoid putting chemicals on her most sensitive parts, then why would I add some of those same chemicals back in through a commercial detergent?

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  • Julie

    Still trying to figure out the diaper stink issue. I may switch my detergent to Eco Sprout, Rockin Green or maybe add in some Mighty Bubbles. See how that works.

  • Sarah McKelvy

    This is great!! I NEED to pin this. Thanks.

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  • Gabby S.

    This is so helpful! I send all cd mamas that are having stink problems here. Thank you!

  • Reena

    Amazing. All moms using cloth diapers will love this

  • S&SMum

    I love this! It is so helpful, easy, and quick to use. I’ve referred back to this a couple times and have recommended any moms with issues come here. Thank you!

  • Sarah St Germaine

    Thanks for the flow chart! I’m going to have to go in search of some water softener, I think!

  • Rachel Gitzen

    I love this because so many people think its gross to use cloth diapers because they “stink” but this proves its all about how you treat them! :)

  • mandan914

    Thanks for making this, I love sharing this whenever someone asks

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  • Lisa Petrosino Pruyne

    I have hard water and use Rockin Green Hard Rock. Still have barn smell issues unless I use Funk Rock on a soak at least once a month. Maybe I will try switching detergents. I know a lot of people say Tide is great, but a lot of my diaper companies say that anything other than Cloth Diaper safe detergent will void warranty.

    • http://www.makingitworkblog.com/ Carolyn Russell

      There are lots of other CD-safe detergents you can try, but the problem is that there isn’t really a single wash routine aspect that all the companies will agree upon (some warranties are voided if you use hot instead of warm water, even!) So you do have to decide if you’re going to attempt to abide by all the warranties or not, because that really can change your available options :(

  • holly r.

    thank you so much for this. I have a 3 year old still wearing a diaper for night time, so I guess I am a ‘veteran’ but still sometimes I can’t figure out what the deal is. this is an awesome and truly helpful guide.

  • Hannah

    Great info, thanks!

  • Gramma Robyn

    I am 60 years old. Our daughter has just had a son, and she is using cloth diapers. I am puzzled by all of the hullabaloo about cloth diapers– getting them clean, what to do before washing, what diaper cream to use, etc. My husband and I were “Back-To-The-Landers”, of sorts, in the 1970’s. I baked all my own bread, we didn’t give our child a Cabbage Patch doll, and we heated with wood we cut ourselves and hauled out of the woods (we still do that….). And— we used cloth diapers– big squares of bird’s eye cloth that I folded up. From birth to potty trained, we used 3 dozen cloth diapers that cost us about $25. First, get all the solids out by putting the diaper in the clean toilet, and laving and rinsing till all that is left of poop is a spot of color. I have read that one should never have a diaper pail with water in it. Why??? Because it is a drowning hazard? Come now!! I raised a daughter on the shore of a remote lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I kept my kid out of the lake–surely you can think of some way to keep your kid out of the diaper pail! Try getting a rectangular plastic container and tying the lid on…This diaper pail with water in it also needs 2 Tablespoons of chlorine bleach in it. Yes, I know about the environment. But 2 T of bleach won’t kill it. It just won’t. Here’s how you take care of diapers. Buy Dreft, or a Dreft clone at the grocery store. Wring out your soaked diapers, put them in the washer, let them thrash fast with hot, HOT, water on a long cycle, with two rinses, then dry them on hot with a dryer, hang them in the hot sun, or do what I did in the winter and drape them over the woodstove and “bake” them. I used Desitin and baby cornstarch for diaper rash. HOT water and a long wash will dissolve Desitin residue and get it out. If it doesn’t, then Mom, you need to rub a cake of soap on that spot and scrub it between your hands until it comes out. You knew you signed on for manual labor, RIGHT?? None of this is rocket science, there aren’t a bunch of arcane rules or recipes. It’s simply hard work with attention to hygiene.

  • Barb Gifford

    Great info!! I’ll definitely be sharing in my cloth group!!

  • Dana

    Thanks for the helpful chart! Looks like I should try using a bit more detergent than what I have been using. I read to only use 1/4 of the recommended amount, but the diapers still smell like pee and extra rinses weren’t helping. A little more detergent is probably all I need!!

  • Bekah Kuczenski

    This chart makes diagnosing stink issues so simple! I wish I would have had this chart when I was dealing with an ammonia smell in our diapers!

  • Donna-Lynn Craig

    Love this chart. Makes figuring out diaper stink a little simpler.

  • Abbey R,

    Love this article and chart! I am now contemplating using bacout on my overnight fitted diapers!

  • Kadie

    I love this! Fortunately no stink issues (yet) but I know they are par for the course when you CD and it is SO nice to have resources like this!

  • Amy W

    This chart is a lifesaver. I repeatedly refer to it.

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