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Cloth Diaper Troubleshooting: The Dreaded Poop Stink

Mar25

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Hi All-Knowing-About-Cloth-Diapers-Amalah!

Ok, so I’ve followed your column since like, Noah was born, and I’ll admit that had it not been for you, I would not likely have tried, let alone known about, cloth diapers. So, I’ve already tried the things you mention in your other troubleshooting articles, as well as things recommended by the manufacturer(s), and I still need someone to shoot my trouble! My son’s diapers STINK! They don’t smell ammonia-y, they smell like poop. Bad.

I soak in hot water, I wash in hot water with a cold rinse. I double rinse. Triple rinse. I’ve even tried 4 rinse cycles. I’ve stripped with vinegar, and bleach, and they’re all pearly white and look brand new! I’ve tried Rockin’ Green (a mix of scented & unscented), Tide Free, Method Free, and Charlie’s (which may or may not have caused a wicked case of diaper rash each time, so that one I think is out, unless it was just an unfortunate coinky-dink.).

Now, my son is only 4 months old, and we’ve been using cloth diapers pretty much since Day 1, and now that he’s bigger and they fit, he’s in them almost exclusively unless I run out of clean ones before I can wash them again. Which, I only use 18 diapers, so that happens about every 36 hours anyway, so it’s not like they’re sitting for a long time before washing or anything. He’s exclusively breastfed, and his poop tends to be crazy acidic causing, although I think we’re finally figuring out a routine that helps with that. So his poops aren’t solid yet, so the diapers pretty much go straight into the wash as-is when they come off his bottom. Is that what I’m doing wrong? Because if I need to rinse them each and every time I change him, I do not see the cloth-diaper & me relationship working out too well.

Not sure if it matters, but here’s what I’ve got: 12 BumGenius 4.0s, 6 BumGenius Freetime (LOVE THESE, considering buying more, it’s so nice to not have to fish out a disgusting insert), 6 FuzziBunz (HATE and not using. They leak EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. I apparently have a super-peer I guess, I don’t know. But the long inserts work great for breast pads in a sports bra, so at least they’re getting some use.) And we’re between sizes of gDiapers, so we aren’t currently using those at the moment, but I do love those. The BG 4.0s are the worst offenders BY FAR. Yes, I’m taking the insert out to wash, and I’m even unsnapping it, just to make sure no germies are hiding in the folded-over part. Also not sure if it matters, but I dry them on low heat twice, just to make sure they’re good and dry. I’ve also tried washing them two or three times in a row with extra rinse cycles (with and without soap, because I CAN’T FIGURE THIS OUT.) and nothing helps. I’m pretty sure my washer gets hot enough, it’s not an HE, it’s your standard top-loader that probably cost about $500 for the set 11 years ago or so. And our water heater puts out water hot enough to actually burn skin if you aren’t careful, but who knows. Maybe this is the problem?

HALP MEEEEE PLEASE! If you have any further questions, and I somehow missed something, just let me know.

Thank you soooo much!

Mom to a stinky-butt boy

Cold soak. COLD soak.

COLDSOAK COLDSOAK COLDSOAK!

I know that there are probably about a million different suggested cloth diaper laundering processes out there and they ALL somehow manage to contradict each other, but this is the one that I have followed for years and have been served very well by: Soak soiled diapers in COLD, not hot. Super-hot water can basically “cook” the poop and odor into your diapers, resulting in a super-persistent, hard-to-get-rid-of stink problem. ESPECIALLY for manmade fabrics like microfiber, suedecloth and fleece. Cold soak, hot wash with detergent, extra rinse. Done.

So I would wager the hot soak is the source of most of your issues, especially if your water gets as hot as you claim. You’ve essentially been undoing everything you’re doing “right” — small, frequent loads; plenty of water and a non-HE washer to properly agitate; good detergents, extra rinses, etc. — by baking the poop stains and odors in from the get-go.

That’s not to say that soaking in cold from now on will be like, immediate clouds parting, angels singing and diapers that smell like fresh mountain air. You’ve got four months of poop baked into manmade fabrics, and that’s a tough mess to comeback from. You may need to repeat some of the stuff you’ve already tried. You may even want to start fresh with some new inserts — perhaps a lower-maintenance fabric like cotton prefolds or hemp/bamboo inserts. Or even try going with a new part-time batch of those bumGenius Freetimes (supplemented with disposables) while you wait for the stink to fade — for some stink issues I’ve found that a temporary retirement can work wonders, for reasons I cannot fully explain. Time? Air? Mysteries of the cloth-diapering universe!

If I were you, I’d probably attack the problem like so:

1) Soak the whole lot in a sinkful of Dawn. Yes, the dish soap. This is a very popular catch-all fix of last resort that people swear by. Fill a sink with hot water and a tablespoon of blue Dawn liquid. Swish and agitate and then let them soak for a few hours. (If you don’t have a big utility sink, do the diapers in batches of five or six covers at a time to avoid overcrowding. Do the inserts and doublers on their own, or just bleach or boil them.) Then wash your diapers as usual with no detergent and rinse until there are no suds and the water is draining clean and clear.

2) Line-dry in the sun at least once, if possible. Personally, I’ve only ever done the line-dry when my 100% cotton diapers get really, really stained and I want them white again. Not so much for persistent microfiber/suedecloth stank. But they DO smell fantastic afterwards. Fresh and neutral. So worth a shot for your stinky stash, even if all you can do is drag a laundry drying rack out on a balcony or backyard.

3) Pick a detergent and stick with it. Preferably NOT one of the “free and clear” options, as those still often contain brightening agents that leave residue (which can lead to stink, but more often repelling/leaking) and aren’t really recommended too highly for cloth. Try using whatever detergent you choose on all your laundry for awhile, to make sure your machine is rinsing cleanly and your diapers aren’t being affected by stuff in your clothes’ detergent. (Note that MOST of the time it’s perfectly fine to use different detergents for diapers and clothing — hell, we use about four different laundry products depending on what we’re washing. This is a temporary troubleshooting step only, just to cover ALL the bases.)

4) Use Bac-Out before you wash. Hit those diapers with a generous spritzing of Bac-Out before you put them in the pail. It really, REALLY helps with odors, both preventing and killing the deep-down stuff. Sometimes I’ll dump a load of diapers in the washer and spray Bac-Out into the tub before the soak cycle, just for an extra boost of stink-murder.

5) Get a diaper sprayer. No, you absolutely SHOULDN’T have to give each breastmilk poopy diaper an individual rinse. That’s a high-maintenance bridge too damn far. BUT: Let’s say your son’s poop is especially acidic and that level of acidity is reacting poorly to something in your water. (Is your water super soft? Hot? Well water? Also wildcards to consider for your future Googling needs.) It is best then, to get as much of it off the diaper before you toss it in the pail or washer. Diaper sprayer to the rescue. We bought a cheap one off Amazon and its perfectly serviceable.

My advice for using a diaper sprayer, by the way, is as follows: Get one with a separate water on/off switch (I think they almost all have one?). Lift the toilet lid and lower the diaper as far in as you can without touching the water. Start spraying INTO the water to get a handle on the pressure, then slowwwwwly lift up and spray the diaper to avoid water blasting off the diaper and onto you. Toss diaper directly into pail or wet bag, if possible, or else use a cheap burp rag or towel to catch drips while you run back to the pail. Turn the sprayer OFF, then spray into the toilet one last time to get any residual water out of the hose before you replace the nozzle.

(That probably Completely Obvious Advice is courtesy of me, The Idiot, who initially aimed the sprayer directly at a poopy diaper, hit it full blast and sent poop shards ALL OVER THE PLACE.)

Once you start soaking in cold and using Bac-Out, I HOPE you’ll start noticing a marked difference in the smell of your diapers. Keep washing on hot and adding an extra rinse. But like I said, you may need to strip again. If your water is particularly soft or hard, make note that things like vinegar, baking soda, Borax or OxyClean may actually work against you if paired with the wrong water type. I have hard water and vinegar makes stink so much worse, and I need to use a lot less baking soda and Oxy than the usual recommendation unless I want to add like, four extra rinse cycles before the suds are fully gone. (And yes, I’m laughing at myself for using the phrase “usual recommendation” in reference to cloth diapers. THERE IS NO SUCH THING THERE IS ONLY CONTRADICTORY MADNESS BWA HA HAAAA.)

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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25 Responses to “Cloth Diaper Troubleshooting: The Dreaded Poop Stink”

  1. Janette Mar 25 at 2:02 pm Reply Reply

    Try BioKleen detergent! I am on my cloth-diapered baby (same diapers for all three), and I have used several different all-natural detergents. I switched to BioKleen about six months ago and AM SO IMPRESSED. My diapers have NO odor and no stains. LOVE IT.

  2. Dana Mar 25 at 2:16 pm Reply Reply

    OP – tip to avoid touching poop: I don’t pull my inserts out until AFTER the first cold cycle. This way I’m not touching poop. Also BumGenius recommends a little bleach once a month. Maybe that will help?

    • Myriam Mar 25 at 5:16 pm Reply Reply

      I have BumGenius 4.0, and I simply hold the diaper by the front, and “shake-shake-shake” pretty gently and the inserts come tumbling down, and into the pail!

  3. Kacy Mar 25 at 2:35 pm Reply Reply

    Try purchasing some Calgon water softener. Put your diapers in the wash with hot water and a capful of Calgon. Open the lid once it has been agitating for a couple of minutes. Are there soap bubbles? I learned the hard way that hard water can trap minerals and soap (=stinkiness) in diapers that no amount of bleaching, stripping with Dawn, or boiling could fix. Also, the minky FB inserts are useless. If you buy a couple of hemp inserts, your FB will be usable again. Hope this helps!

    • Amy Mar 25 at 5:56 pm Reply Reply

      I was just going to mention Calgon.  It has changed my laundry for the so good.  We don’t cloth diaper, but when my son started potty training the stench of his urine was unbearable.  Just awful.  I mean make the rest of the laundry would stink bad.  Hot rinse; cold rinse; super duper detergent; Charlies Soap; all with vinegar didn’t take away the stink.  Line drying didn’t take away the stench.  I finally saw online that sometimes vinegar can make things worse, and I switched to Calgon.  Amazing!  I add some powdered Calgon to the washer, and if I feel like it, I add some liquid Calgon to the fabric softener dispenser to soften the water for the rinse.  Our water is hard hard hard.  Calgon took it all away.  You can sometimes find it in the laundry aisle. Not all stores carry it.  I think some have luck finding it at Walmart.

    • Olivia Mar 26 at 2:37 pm Reply Reply

      I use the “shake, shake, shake” method with my fuzzi bunz, too. 

  4. Anne Mar 25 at 3:01 pm Reply Reply

    In my experience, the BG inserts just stink. Have you tried washing them in a little bleach (the inserts only)? We replaced some of ours with hemp, and that made our diapers way less stinky. But the BG microfiber just smells terrible for us.

  5. Melissa Mar 25 at 4:13 pm Reply Reply

    I had the BG stinkies too (yes of POOP, ugh), until I figured out something.

    1) NO soak at first. I do a cold wash, no detergent first. No soaking. Basically you are soaking your diapers in poopy water, cold or hot…either way. Poop water. Would you feel cleaner after soaking in poop water? No.

    2) Then I do a hot soak (my machine has a 30 minute auto soak timer), then it automatically washes. This one is with detergent (I use Charlies but it sounds like you may want to try a different brand). Sometimes I throw in OxyClean or every few months I throw in some bleach.

    3) My machine has a double rinse setting, so I use that for the rinsing. Then in the dryer or outside to sun.

    This stopped my horrific poop diaper smell. I really think NOT soaking on the first pass is the key. Poop water just made everything turn into poop stink. So gross.

    Also, this has nothing to do with stink, but I stopped taking out the damn inserts. That’s right, don’t bother anymore and with a top loader that agitates, they swish right on out by themselves. Maybe different machines handle this differently, but might be worth a shot to see if they just come out on their own. I read about this on a BumGenius UK site that said you didn’t have to remove them first. I tried it and holy moly, it worked.

    The only time I take out the inserts is if I’ve stuffed the pockets with multiple inserts, like at night time. I take out all of them so they wash properly. Over packed pockets don’t seem to empty well on their own.

    Good luck!

    • Olivia Mar 26 at 2:41 pm Reply Reply

      I don’t soak my diapers either because my washer doesn’t have that setting. I just do a cold rinse, then wash and another rinse at the end.

  6. Whozat Mar 25 at 4:44 pm Reply Reply

    I can’t add any more to the stink answers, but re removing BG inserts, we never ever removed them ourselves, and in almost 3 years of use, I think we had maybe three times that an insert came all the way through the wash inside the diaper. Other than that, they always came out in the washer. 

  7. Corinne Mar 25 at 8:41 pm Reply Reply

    Honestly, I would ditch the microfiber.  I HATED our microfiber inserts – they never seemed to smell clean, I had repelling issues all the time, it was a huge pain. I started stuffing my pockets with infant sized prefolds (I like the GMD yellow edge) – with a Thirsties hemp doubler if I know he’ll be in the diaper for more than an hour-ish (we also have a super pee-er).  Solved the poop stink issue.  

    Another possible solution is to use more detergent.  You may not be using enough detergent to get the diapers clean, especially if you have hard water.  Honestly, if you have hard water, the above advice holds even more – hard water+microfiber = awful in my experience. 

    • Susan Mar 28 at 1:21 am Reply Reply

      Oh, I hear you on that one!  I finally said “hells no!” to the microfiber inserts and now I use the GMD green edge prefolds in my 2 year olds’ FBs and BGs as well as the Thirsties covers. Life is so much easier now…

      Unsolicited assvice alert – OP, turn down your water heater before that little preshus (or you) gets scalded – it shouldn’t be above 120 degrees (unless you live in an apartment or somewhere you have no control over the temperature, in which case, carry on). 

  8. autumn Mar 25 at 11:53 pm Reply Reply

    The only thing I could add is maybe you need a bit more “stuff” in the wash.  I wash every other day so I never have a huge load.  I have 2 old towels which join every load of diapers to bulk up  the volume.  It really makes a difference for us.  We have an HE machine but it couldn’t hurt to try. . . and those are probably the cleanest towels in the house.

    We use Grovia all in 2s/hybrids with the cotton liners.  I also keep a box of baking soda at my changing station, and after a especially stinky offering by my daughter, some baking soda goes into the bag too.  Keeps her room smelling better at least.

  9. Janine Mar 26 at 2:44 am Reply Reply

    You might try planet detergent! Like you, I tried nearly every recommended detergent for cloth diapers, but my son was so sensitive that many of them caused a rash (tide and Charlie’s, in particular.) planet is the only one that hasn’t caused buildup in my diapers or caused a rash. You can get it at cottonbabies.com which has free shipping!

  10. Liz Mar 26 at 6:25 am Reply Reply

    Hate to throw in yet another regimen, but here’s what’s magic for us, as told to us by the cloth diaper gods at The Little Seedling:
    Cold wash with no detergent and 2 drops tea tree oil (for antibacterial properties, we use the Aura Cacia brand).
    Hot wash with one pump (1/4 oz) Allens Naturally detergent.

    I don’t use a diaper sprayer, but would give the breastmilk-poop one quick swipe with a square of toilet paper before throwing it in the wetbag.

    Allens Naturally is magic, I like it worlds better than Charlie’s or Rockin Green!  Good luck to you.  Lots of suggestions here, I hope you find a good solution!

  11. Ang Mar 27 at 10:29 am Reply Reply

    Rock’n Green has solved ALL Of our cloth diaper washing issues (we have VERY hard water and i had tried everything!!) I never use anything else – no dawn, oxi-clean, bleach etc required anymore! Total Life-saver!!!

  12. Ang Mar 27 at 10:30 am Reply Reply

    Oops just realized you already tried that!

  13. AmyM Mar 27 at 12:08 pm Reply Reply

    When we did a soak before a wash we ended up with a gunky ring in our washer. Yuck! Warm prewash, with a tad of detergent. Then start hot wash with regular amount of detergent (old fashioned powdered Tide is amazing) and Calgon if you need it. Once filled and agitated a little turn it off and let it soak for a while. Finish the wash/rinse cycle. Add another cold rinse and you’re good to go. We loved bac-out for the poppy diapers but we did have the pul crack on every single BG diaper after about a year, so use on inserts only unless absolutely necessary. I think occasional use is ok. I was spraying poopy covers with Bac out every time. We hated and loved our FB and BG at different times – they fit differently at different stages. We have a skinny guy and the newer style of FB doesn’t fit great around the legs. But the pul on the FB is still in great shape after all the abuse. We tried rockin green and it never worked well for us. And I’ve heard of wicked reactions to Charlie’s.

  14. AliG Mar 28 at 1:10 pm Reply Reply

    Sunshine. It seriously solves ALL our problems. Stains, stink, whatever. Doesn’t seem to work as well after the diapers are dry (or even partially so). So we go straight from the washer to the laundry rack. And yeah, the cold soak. We screwed that one up for a while too.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve found that cloth gets easier and quicker as they get bigger. We use BG, FB, and Rumparooz. Only the latter work at night or in the car seat for our heavy wetter.

  15. Miriam Mar 29 at 11:07 pm Reply Reply

    My youngest is 8, i never used cloth diapers, and yet i read your diaper advice through to the end every time. Just can’t help myself. What is that about???

    • Isabel Kallman
      Isabel Mar 29 at 11:23 pm Reply Reply

      that’s because Amy can make store receipts interesting! :)

  16. Kate Mar 31 at 10:09 pm Reply Reply

    As for FuzziBunz, I recommend double stuffing with a short & long insert.  Makes them just about as bulky as a bumgenius and works wonders.  If they’re STILL leaking (we usually leak at nap/bedtime but have resorted to a third hemp/hemp-cotton insert.  If that’s still not working, you may need to adjust the leg opening size.  We just did this recently for our skinny 11 month olds (making it loser) and it worked wonders.  

  17. Rebecca Cullers Apr 02 at 10:12 am Reply Reply

    We have been doing EC since the start with the cloth diapers and he almost never poops in them, because it’s easy to catch a poop and hold him over the toilet while he goes. Maybe if you tried EC for the poops at least, he wouldn’t poop in them and you wouldn’t have a stink! 

    Also, I’ve found sunlight is excellent for bleaching/removing smells, when you can.

    Also, in a few months, he’ll start having only a few BMs a day and they’ll be much more solid. It’s coming very soon! 

  18. Shannon Reed Apr 06 at 6:30 pm Reply Reply

    I like the bumgenius inserts pretty well- haven’t had any issues. I absolutely agree that the diaper sprayer is a life saver! And YES to Sunshine =)

  19. Erin@TheWellGirl Apr 12 at 10:26 pm Reply Reply

    Yes on the soak! We’ve done it twice with great results, except in the TUB overnight. I drained and re-filled the tub and let them go a few more hours, actually. Just water, no soap. Yes, it all contradicts, haha. Good luck!

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