Help! Why Do My Cloth Diapers Stink?

Why Do my Cloth Diapers Smell?

If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, “My cloth diapers stink, how do fix it?” I’d be able to retire early.

While there can many root causes, cloth diapers stink because because they are still dirty, and the only way to fix them is to get them clean.

Almost everyone who has cloth diapered has had to deal with a stinky diaper now and then, so don’t think that anyone is saying you’re not trying to clean your diapers properly. Just know that while there are many solutions to smelly diapers, the root of the problem is that something is preventing them from getting as clean as you’re trying to get them.

Are stinky diapers really a problem?

Yes! Think about it, if smelly diapers are dirty diapers, and diapers are most often soiled by urine and feces, then dirty diapers hold ammonia and bacteria. If this kind of stuff builds up on your diapers and is left to fester, irritation and rashes may be the next problems you need to battle.

Can I use scent boosters or essential oils in my cloth diaper laundry to help?

You CAN use them, but you REALLY shouldn’t.

First, let me just say that adding perfumes and scents to things you put on your baby (especially that baby’s genitalia) is not something I recommend as their skin is very sensitive.  With that said and out of the way, after hearing from a few dozen cloth diaper moms who have used scent boosters regularly, the consensus is that they don’t cause major issues. I’m not 100% convinced that over the long-term they are not doing damage, but since I never touch the stuff (the insanely strong smell just turns my stomach even though I’m not one of those down-with-perfume people), I have to go with those who have actually used them. They say, you can use them.

Let’s go back to the start, and remember that smelly diapers are dirty diapers. In fact, smell is often the first indication of a washing problem. Covering that warning sign with scents and perfumes means that likely the first indication of a problem you’ll have is a rash on your baby’s private parts. At this point in the problem, you may also need a tougher solution, which will take more of your time and effort.

In my opinion, it’s way better to avoid a rash and more work by letting the natural smell of your diapers let you know if everything is chugging along of if there’s a problem.

As for essential oils, there will be no real big functional problem if you use a few drops here or there, but again, you may be shooting yourself in the foot by masking a problem rather than fixing it.

How do I fix smelly diapers?

If your trying to solve a smelly diaper problem, here are a list of fixes.

Knowing what type of smell you’re battling can help. An amonia smell (not a pee smell, but an actual ammonia, burn your nose hairs off kind of smell) can usually be traced back to a diaper storage or washing frequency problem. A “barnyard” smell on the other hand, usually suggests a detergent or washing routine issue.

But trying all of these fixes in the order that they appear will fix any smell issue at the root. Work down this list and you should land on the solution that gets rid of the problem once and for all, before complicating the issue with more advanced solutions farther down the list.

Wash your diapers again, with detergent.

Sometimes, things happen. Machines glitch, babies get sick and dehydrated, diaper bags are particularly hot and humid that week, etc. and the result is that your diapers didn’t get as clean as they should have with your regular wash. But not every situation needs a major change to your routine.

If your diapers have been fine, but then suddenly and randomly stink one day, try washing them again and see if that solves it. If your diapers come out clean and stay that way for several washes you’re probably ok. An extra wash once in a blue moon will be a lot easier to handle than changing soaps, routines, stripping, etc. so try this first.

Make sure you’re storing your dirty diapers correctly

How you store your diapers can make a big difference in how clean they can get in the wash.

The cooler and dryer you can keep your diapers before wash day, the better. Heat and moisture not only allow for bacteria to breed, but also speed up the decomposition of urine into ammonia.

To keep diapers cool, make sure to keep your wet bag /diaper pail out of direct sunlight and away from vents and other sources of heat.

Keeping your your wet bag open can also help and/or making sure your diaper pail has some ventilation is a good idea.

Evaluate if you’re washing often enough

Even when stored correctly, cloth diapers need to be washed every three days at minimum.

The longer a diaper sits, the more time bacteria can grow, ammonia can set in, and mildew can begin to form.

The more frequent you can wash the better, but ideally you want to wash every one to two days, or as soon as you have a good sized load of laundry to wash. Any longer than three days will lead to problems with smell and/or mildew and mould.

Double-check your detergent choice and how much you’re using

  • Are you using a homemade detergent?
  • Does your detergent have fabric softeners added?
  • If you have an HE machine, is your detergent made for HE machines

All of these detergent choices lead to washing problems for different reasons. If you’re using one of these and getting a smell from your diapers it’s definitely time to consider switching to another detergent.

If however, you’re using a good, strong detergent with no softeners, which is suitable for your machine, it might be time to take a look at the amount of detergent you’re using. Not using enough detergent won’t get your diapers clean, and using too much will prevent detergent from washing off your diapers properly, gunking them up wash after wash, and causing problems too.

In general, use the amount of detergent listed on the bottle/box for your size of cloth diaper load as the baseline. If you have hard water, you may need to add more detergent or a water softener product like Calgon or Borax. Adjust until your diapers are fresh smelling and clean.

If you don’t have a hard water problem and your laundry is very sudsy, even in the final rinse cycle, you may want to reduce the amount of detergent you’re using. If you think you’ve been using too much detergent for awhile, a strip may be needed, but first try running them through a wash cycle with no soap to see if that clears it up.

Hit the reset button

If you’ve given them an extra wash, are using a good detergent in the right quantity, are storing your diapers well and are washing enough but you still have a smell, or if you have just fixed your wash routine and need to fix the damage done, go ahead and reset things back to square one by sanitizing your diapers.

Using oxygen bleach or chlorine bleach, go ahead and sanitize your inserts.

If you use chlorine bleach, do a large load with all your diapers and use ¾ cup for non-HE machines, ½ cup for HE machines or use 1 tablespoon per gallon of water soaking them in the tub or a bucket for about 30 minutes in warm water and follow with a wash cycle.

If you use oxygen bleach, follow the directions on the box.

Use Odor and Stain Prevention Sprays

The very last measure to get rid of diaper smell that I’m going to tell you about is some odor prevention sprays. I am putting this at the very bottom of the list for a very good reason: it should be a last resort.

Odor prevention sprays not only add products into your routine, which ulttimately expose baby to more substances, but these products also void some cloth diaper warranties.

With that said, if you’re backed into a corner and can’t get rid of the smell using the methods above, products like BumGenius Stain & Odor Remover and Biokleen Bac-Out Stain+Odor Remover can be the thing that saves your sanity.

BumGenius Stain & Odor Remover
BumGenius Stain & Odor Remover

According to the bumGenius website, “bumGenius Stain and Odor Remover was created to remove even the toughest stains and messes without harmful chemicals. Natural and effective, this gentle formula can rid your cloth diapers, laundry and home of stubborn stains, dirt, food, and more while leaving everything smelling clean and fresh. Developed in partnership with Better Life. Safe on all fabrics.”

BumGenius Stain and Odor remover is a pre-treatment product, so you spray it directly on the dirty surface of the diaper before you throw it in your diaper pail.  The spray is color safe and is said to leave no residue.

Biokleen Bac-Out Stain+Odor Remover

My personal favorite odor removing spray is Bac-Out by Biokleen. It’s both economical, and works great not only for diapers but for pet odors as well.

Just like the bumGenius spray, Bac-Out is a pretreatment, so you’re going to want to use it after every diaper change, though some do use it in the pre-rinse cycle of their wash routine. If you’re using Bac-Out in your pre-rinse, add about ¼ to a full load of laundry.

According to the Biokleen website, Bac-Out is, ”A unique blend of live enzyme-producing cultures, botanicals, and plant-based surfactants. Great on pet accidents, wine, diapers and pails, laundry, and much more.”

Don’t Panic

My last piece of advice is not to panic when diapers start to smell. There is no smell that can’t be fixed, and it’s not something you have to live with if you want to cloth diaper. If you’re experiencing smell issues, you’re sooo not alone, we’ve ALL been there.

Just to let you know, I literally just had to address smell issues with my toddler’s bedwetting pants due to moving and changing water systems.

If you’re having problems of any kind with your diapers, let me and the rest of the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Facebook community know so we can offer some advice and support. You can find us here.

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