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
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 dirty diapers to stink, but many people have issues with their cloth diapers still smelling bad after being washed, or smelling particularly bad after being peed in (and not just a normal pee smell, but either a strong ammonia or unusual other odor).
This is a very common problem, one which I have battled myself, so I wanted to take the time to walk you through the series of questions I normally ask people when troubleshooting their cloth diaper stink issues. (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).
Flow Chart For Troubleshooting Why Your Cloth Diapers Stink
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 as water that is TOO hot can damage your diapers.
What Is Causing Your Cloth Diaper Stink?
There are lots of possible reasons for why your cloth diapers stink, but the two most common are:
- Detergent buildup
- The diapers aren’t getting cleaned enough
The two most common kinds of stink are:
Ammonia is a chemical reaction between detergent buildup and pee. The pee hits the diaper and the layer of detergent buildup crystallizes on contact, becoming a stench so strong is would make your window cleaner cry.
Your first reaction is to use less detergent then, right? NOT SO FAST!
Oftentimes detergent buildup happens when the diaper is actually NOT getting clean enough.
If a diaper isn’t getting clean enough, then the bacteria present in the diaper is providing a defensive barrier against detergent so the detergent has nothing better to do than 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?
- They’re generally difficult to clean because there are so many layers in order to be absorbent enough to last all night.
- Your baby is wearing the diaper for an extended period of time, and his/her nice warm body is essentially incubating it. (Gross, I know. But this happens with any diaper, so don’t go running to disposables!)
Barnyard smell is usually (though not always) most obvious when you are pulling the diapers out of the dryer. It generally smells just like it sounds (kind of a musty manure odor) 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.
Barnyard stink is caused by diapers that are not getting clean enough. (The reason you usually smell it when the diapers come out of the dryer is that the heat has warmed up the microscopic particles of pee and poop still present in the diaper. EW!)
The Importance Of Knowing Your Water Type
The kind of water you have plays a large role in how you need to tweak your laundry routine to eliminate cloth diaper stink.
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.
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 (you can use our Detergent Statistics to find one that respondents say works well in hard water conditions).
- Use the recommended detergent amount. I know many respondents use LESS than the recommended amount, but I say start off with the recommended amount and if you start to get buildup (i.e. tons of leaks), then decrease the detergent.
- If you aren’t using Tide (or another commercial detergent), 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 or other water softening agents.
For soft water users, you are more likely to be fighting detergent buildup because you are using too much of it.
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.
Here are my suggestions for you:
- Strip your diapers, but with less detergent than you normally use. You can see an article here on stripping. DON’T use blue Dawn.
- Change your detergent (you can use our Detergent Statistics to find one that respondents say works well in soft water conditions).
- 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.
If you have normal water I would lean towards doing the steps indicated for 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, so that you are starting with a blank slate.
Other Factors to Consider
- Washing on hot may help you get diapers more clean–just note that doing so may void diaper warranty and could lead to damage.
- 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.
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Tara moved on to other career endeavors in 2014 but can still be found online blogging about health and fitness at Fit Baby Steps.
Latest posts by Tara Porter (see all)
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