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.