by Jill Bristow
Help! My cloth diapers STINK!
We hear every day from moms and dads having trouble with stinky diapers. In fact, some parents have the crazy idea that stinky diapers are just a part of cloth diapering! Not true! Cloth diapers don’t have to – and SHOULDN’T – smell like anything at all (except detergent if you choose a scented one), especially when they’re clean. If you’re having issues with diapers that smell, we can help you fix them! Let’s look at the why and how of smelly diapers, and then how to solve those problems!
Ammonia and Barnyard
There are two main types of diaper stink – ammonia and barnyard.
- is recognizable by a “burn your nosehairs” smell
- often will become obvious only after diapers are wet (they will smell clean out of the wash)
- is caused by bacteria which convert urea in urine into ammonia
- can cause chemical burns to baby’s skin if left untreated
- often smells like a barn or cattle truck, but can also smell stale, fishy, or just plain stinky
- is more obvious when diapers are warm (if they have just come out of the dryer, for example)
- in severe cases, diapers will smell even when they’re “clean” and on the shelf
- is caused by bacteria and soil left over in the diapers after washing
- can cause persistent rashes
If you have either one of these problems, something is wrong with your wash routine and must be corrected. Remember, the way to get clean diapers is with a good wash routine, NOT through frequent stripping or “deep cleaning”. Even if you get your diapers back to square one, if your wash routine is not corrected, the stink will return sooner or later.
How do I solve the problem?
If your diapers stink, there are two steps to solving your problem:
- Reset your diapers to square one by stripping and/or bleaching.
- Correct your wash routine to get diapers clean EVERY time and prevent stink from coming back.
Stripping and Bleaching Your Cloth Diapers
Stripping diapers of mineral buildup is necessary if your diapers have been washed for an extended period of time (greater than one month or ten washes):
- in hard water without adding a water softener
- in something containing an ingredient that can build up or coat fibers, such as fabric softener, homemade detergent containing soap, soap nuts, or a weak detergent containing sodium cocoate (see our Detergent Index for more info).
- in a detergent that can cause chemical burns, such as Charlie’s Soap **
**please keep in mind that even one wash in Charlie’s is often enough to cause burns. We will leave stripping after only a few washes up to parental discretion, but please consider stripping after any use of Charlie’s or a similar detergent, even if you have not used it for very long.
Bleaching or sanitizing your diapers is necessary whenever you need to kill bacteria living in your diapers, such as:
- when you have just stripped your diapers
- when your diapers have been washed in a weak or homemade detergent and have not been thoroughly cleaned at each washing
- when your diapers have been washed with the proper amount of a recommended detergent, but without enough agitation to clean the deepest layers of fabric
- when you are experiencing smells or rashes, but you have soft water, especially if you have a whole home water softener
Do I Need to Strip or Bleach This?
Stripping diapers is not a gentle process. Although it is a wonderful tool that can be used to thoroughly remove years of buildup from your diapers, stripping when you don’t need to is unnecessarily hard on diapers. Use the following table to determine if you need to strip:
|Diapers washed for a short time in untreated hard water||Diapers have been washed for an extended time in untreated hard water|
|Pocket / AI2 shells / covers||No||Yes||Optional||Yes|
|Inserts (all types)||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Flats and prefolds||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Diapers have been washed for a short time in soap (or similar)||Diapers have been washed for an extended time in soap (or similar)|
|Pocket / AI2 shells / covers||Optional||Only if you strip||Yes||Yes|
|Inserts (all types)||Optional||Only if you strip||Yes||Yes|
|Prefolds and flats||Optional||Only if you strip||Yes||Yes|
|AIOs||Optional||Only if you strip||Yes||Yes|
|Diapers have been purchased used||Baby has a yeast or bacterial infection|
|Pocket / AI2 shells / covers||Optional||Yes||No||Yes|
|Pocket / AI2 shells / covers||Optional||Yes||No||Yes|
|Inserts (all types)||Optional||Yes||No||Yes|
|Prefolds and flats||Optional||Yes||No||Yes|
|Diapers have been washed for a short time in Charlie’s (or similar)||Diapers have been washed for an extended time in Charlie’s (or similar)|
|Pocket / AI2 shells / covers||Optional but highly recommended||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Inserts (all types)||Optional but highly recommended||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Prefolds and flats||Optional but highly recommended||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|AIOs||Optional but highly recommended||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Diapers have been washed for a short time in weak / homemade / “cloth safe” detergent or with poor agitation||Diapers have been washed for an extended time in weak / homemade / “cloth safe” detergent or with poor agitation|
|Pocket / AI2 shells / covers||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|Inserts (all types)||No||Yes||Optional||Yes|
|Flats and prefolds||No||Yes||Optional||Yes|
Things That Don’t (usually) Need Stripping
Stripping is a process that removes mineral buildup from thick, multilayered, absorbent fabric. If the item in question doesn’t have lots of layers or need to absorb anything, then it likely does not need stripping – go straight to bleach! These sorts of items include:
- Pocket shells (not the inserts) – the thin layer of microfleece or suedecloth that touches baby is generally not susceptible to mineral buildup, at least not very quickly. If you do not have issues with repelling but have been washing in untreated hard water, you can most likely skip the strip on your pocket shells. Please note that in extreme hard water or when a lot of soap or fabric softener has been used, a strip of pocket shells may still be necessary. It should not, however, be your first line of defense.
- PUL covers and AI2 shells- these need to be disinfected because the parts of them that touch baby (specifically the elastics) are very susceptible to harboring bacteria. However, no part of the cover is absorbent, and generally a few proper washes will help remove any mineral buildup in the few parts of these items that can have any buildup at all.
- Wool covers – Just don’t. This kind of soaking will destroy your wool and I cannot imagine a time when it would be necessary, since wool is naturally anti-microbial.
So it sounds like I need to strip and/or bleach – now what?
If you need to strip your diapers, head on over to our page on How to STRIP Your Cloth Diapers and follow the directions there. Remember, follow the directions carefully to prevent any damage to your diapers!
If you need to bleach your diapers, check out our page on How to BLEACH Your Cloth Diapers and follow the instructions. Again, following the directions to the letter is important to prevent any damage or fading of your diapers. If you are in a situation where you cannot use bleach, such as iron hard water or an allergy, check out How to Sanitize Without Bleach. If your baby has a yeast infection, don’t forget to follow up with bleach washes, as detailed in Dealing With Yeast in Cloth Diapers.
Then, make sure you have a good, solid wash routine. Check out our pages on How to Properly Clean Your Cloth Diapers in a Standard (non-HE) Machine and How to Properly Clean Your Cloth Diapers in an HE Machine for full instructions on a good wash routine!
OMG! Strip ALL THE THINGS!
Hold on there, Thunder. While stripping diapers is a wonderful tool to help rejuvenate diapers, it is not a gentle process. Extended soaking of diapers is hard on fabric, especially when soaking in such a caustic solution. That’s why we don’t recommend stripping diapers regularly or even frequently. Stripping is not the way you get clean diapers. You get clean diapers with a good wash routine. Stripping is an extreme process used to correct months or years of improper washing, not something you do just for fun. If your diapers are clean out of the wash, there is no need to strip.
One rare outcome of stripping is leaking diapers. Although our survey data reported that 95% of survey respondents experienced no leaking or only temporary leaking, that does not by any means discount the other 5%. As we work to determine the exact cause of the leaks, you should know
- the vast majority of the time, any leaks are temporary and resolved with additional washing with a good wash routine; proper agitation, enough detergent for a heavily soiled load, the proper water level, and using liners or cloth-safe diaper cream are all important to resolving leak issues.
- PUL is water resistant, not water proof. With a strong enough stream of water focused on one spot in the PUL, any diaper will experience leaks, regardless of stripping.
- recently stripped inserts will absorb liquids much more readily than those caked with mineral buildup, coated with scum, or containing unwashed soil. They are also more prone to releasing those liquids more quickly in the form of compression leaks. If you have been double-stuffing diapers prior to stripping, try moving to a single insert to reduce the incidence of compression leaks.
- all normal leaking guidelines apply. Do the diapers fit properly? Is there enough absorbency (are the inserts fully saturated when the leaks occur)? Is the penis pointed down? Have non-cloth-safe creams been used?
- Leaks are far less frequent when our stripping directions are followed to the letter. Soaking for longer than we recommend or adding extra of the strip ingredients puts even more stress on your diapers, and can greatly exacerbate leaking problems.