Help! Why Do My Cloth Diapers Stink?

By April Duffy •  Updated: 07/02/24 •  8 min read

Why Do My Cloth Diapers Smell?

Stinky cloth diapers are not normal, but it does happen frequently, especially cloth diaper newbies are just starting to figure things out.

So why do your cloth diapers smell?

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong. Almost everyone who has cloth diapered has had to deal with diaper smell at least once or twice since there are an endless list of things that could go wrong now and then to throw things off just enough. Just know that while there are many causes and 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, stinky cloth diapers 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?

Knowing what type of smell you’re battling can help. An ammonia smell (not a pee smell, but actual ammonia, which is a smell that feels as though it could burn your nose hairs off) can either medical, or if it’s wash related, most often a detergent amount problem. A “barnyard” smell on the other hand, usually suggests a storage or washing routine issue.

For help with Ammonia smells, click here to read a post all about it’s causes and fixes.

If it’s barnyard stink that’s your problem, keep reading.

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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Evaluate if you’re washing often enough

Even when stored correctly, cloth diapers need to be washed every three to four days at minimum, and even less when stored in a container that’s airtight (like a Diaper Dekor or other enclosed diaper pail).

The longer a diaper sits, the more time bacteria can grow 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 enough of a load of laundry to meet your washer’s minimum capacity. Any longer than three days will lead to problems with smell and/or mildew and mold.

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

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.

To figure out how much detergent to use, jump to the How to Wash Cloth Diapers page, and build your personalized wash routine.

5. 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.

Here’s how to sanitize your diapers:

Ingredients: Use cold or lukewarm water and bleach with at least 5.25% sodium hypochlorite as the active ingredient.

Average bathtub – 1/2 cup of bleach to water filled to the half-way point (from the top of the tub)

Other containers (including washer)- 1 Tbs of bleach to 1 gallon (about 4 litres) of water

Process: Soak diapers in the bleach solution for at least 30 minutes, but no longer than an hour. Rinse the diapers with hot water, followed by a regular (warm water) cycle in the washing machine, complete with detergent to completely break down the bleach.

If you still smell bleach on the diapers after washing, you can do an additional wash to be safe, but the bleach should be broken down and rinsed clean if used in the right proportions

Dry as normal.

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, at the time of the first draft of this article, I’d just had to address smell issues with my toddler’s bedwetting pants due to moving and changing water systems.

And 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.

April Duffy

April is the founder of Cloth Diapers for Beginners and author of The Cloth Diaper Wash & Care Handbook. Since 2015, April has helped well over 75,000 parents and caregivers cloth diaper their children through this website, her book, her YouTube Channel, and the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Facebook Group.