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When Cloth Diapers Just Plain STINK

Dec01

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesHi Amy!

Awhile back, when my now 13 month old was about 5 months I emailed you about low-dose birth control and PPD. I realized I never gave you an update! After going off of the “mini-pill” and speaking with my doctor, signing up for my first triathlon and committing to a MOMS Club in my area for desperately needed support, I felt a million times better!!! My OB thinks the pill definitely exacerbated what are common mood swings that occur during the sleep deprivation that comes with a young baby. She doesn’t think I had full blown PPD but now we know what we’re looking for should this happen again this time because yep, I went off the pill and promptly got pregnant. Then miscarried. Then got a diaphragm, and well, got pregnant AGAIN. (Not that I am knocking this, I read about infertility and it is heartbreaking. I lost a baby, and though he/she wasn’t planned it was awful, I can not imagine going through that again, or through the disappointment that must come with never conceiving. Every time I have seen two pink lines I have smiled. I wish every woman could smile like that….)

I digress from the issue I am writing about, but wanted to let you know that, I am doing really well. I have an amazing support system now (my family lives states away and are great, but you know, you need local people…), and two of my close friends are all up to date on my craziness that happened when my little boy was young. I had a lot of heart to hearts with people. They know I may need a little extra help from time to time. So I feel more…..empowered….? with this pregnancy. Certainly more prepared for postpartum though I know it will be an WHOLE NEW bag of tricks with two under 17 months old under one roof. The good news is, we’re planning to move home closer to family after a year. So I get the sense we can do this, and hey, if I get overwhelmed I have people. Good wonderful loving people. Thank goodness for that :)

SO! Phew! You mentioned you like updates, sorry for the rambling one…

Cloth diapers. Love them. Have been using them since the munchkin was 3 months old. And now, well they smell like ammonia. Once, in my pregnant and tired state I accidentally just rinsed and spun them, and then dried them. (never washed) So the urine smell seems to be BAKED into these things. I wash them with Charlie’s Soap which is amazing and always did the trick before with the smell, but after this one crazy cycle, I am wondering, is there any miracle cure for ammonia baked in scent?! When the little man wets his diaper just a little bit it smells like someone has squirted Windex up my nose. It’s awful. And to make matters worse, he never ever ever used to get diaper rash in cloth, but now he does. I am thinking this might be related.

Can I just buy new inserts for my bum genius’s (Did you see they make them with snaps now?! So exciting. No more freaking velcro!) Or should I get all new diapers. Is there something I can do to them as is that may make the smell go away? I want to cloth diaper the second little one as well, so re-buying all of the munch’s diapers and about 12-13 new pairs for the wee one is very very daunting…..and really expensive….

Thank you so much! Sorry for the long rambly recap and totally unrelated question!!

“Now longer quite crazy just really freaking tired so I ruined my diapers.”

Yes! We do love updates! Especially ones that include news about feeling better! And great! And empowered! And definitely (planned or not) new babies! I’m super-thrilled to hear that you’re taking care of yourself — and allowing others to care for you when you need it — and just…well, YAY FOR EVERYTHING.

But! BOO TO STINKY DIAPERS. Nobody wants that, though rest assured, you’re not the first one to encounter the nasal assault of Windex every time you change a diaper. We’ve had it happen on a few occasions too — usually when a mistake gets made in the washing process. (Every time we visit my in-laws, my MIL super-helpfully insists on immediately washing each and every diaper we use, but unfortunately never follows our instructions about water temperature or soaking or detergent, and the diapers end up stinking to high heaven EVERY TIME.) And sometimes it just…happens after awhile, for no “real” reason. I put “real” in quotes because all the cloth diaper sites out there OF COURSE like to insist that cloth diapers will only smell if you use the wrong detergent or have super hard (or soft) water or something, but I won’t lie to you like that: Sometimes cloth diapers start smelling like pee simply because you are reusing something THAT YOUR BABY PEES IN.

But! Really! There is NO NEED to replace your diapers. NO NEED to even replace the inserts. No no no no no no. You just need to strip them.

“Diaper stripping” sounds kind of scary and damaging, but it’s just weird cloth diaper lingo for washing the everloving hell out of your diapers. This page has pretty much everything you need to know about stripping processes and options, and I suggest you go read it there rather than have me simply copy and paraphrase the instructions. That’s where I go when I’m looking for solutions. (You now know my secrets! I type stuff into Google and click the top search result! MADNESS!)

When our diapers start stinking, we usually go with the simplest, most straightforward stripping process: Lots and lots of hot water washes in a row, with no detergent, until we can open the top of our washer and confirm that there are no more “bubbles” (from leftover detergent or additives or whatever) forming during the rinse cycle. Then I run it one more time, with either some white vinegar or baking soda and rinse, rinse, rinse again. (Note that you should always wash your diapers WITH a generous amount of detergent once before stripping them — if you try to strip unwashed poopy diapers you will end up with permanent brown stains. I usually use extra detergent before stripping just to get them extra clean, and because I know I’ll be washing and rinsing them enough to prevent any residue build-up.) Toss them in the dryer and afterwards, you should end up with soft, fluffy diapers that smell like nothing but clean.

The site I linked to has other options, from Dawn dish soap to Oxyclean, that may work better for your particular brand of stink if hot water alone doesn’t do the trick, along with alternative washing methods like…your dishwasher (NOT recommended because it’s a fire hazard) or a commercial laundromat. You would only need to consider these options if you don’t think your washer is heating the water hot enough — you really want it HOT HOT HOT. You can also boil water on your stove and add that to your washer, though I would probably only do this if I was stripping the inserts only — pure boiling water could melt or warp the plastic snaps on the covers.

Stripping is a pain, no doubt, and I certainly don’t like using all that extra energy to heat the water and run the washer that many times, but we’ve only had to do it maybe two or three times. Probably the fault of our crappy water, frequent trips to the in-laws and the very first-world problem of our babysitter being SO NICE and HELPFUL and INSISTING on making diaper washing part of her job…but then constantly forgetting to check the water temperature setting before starting a load. Oh yes, life is very difficult sometimes. (Sarcasm! Don’t pelt me with dirty cloth wipes! Ew!)

One last recommendation, if even the regular ammonia smell of unwashed wet diapers is starting to become unbearable for your pregnant self, get the bumGenius odor remover spray. That stuff WORKS SO GREAT for minimizing diaper pail smell AND for saving you from that knock-your-ass-over wave of stink that you get while transferring diapers from pail to washer. Oh my God. The instructions say to saturate every cover, insert AND wipe but that’s overkill (and will necessitate a new bottle every couple weeks, hmmmmmmmm). I use it mostly on the first morning diaper and inserts and then selectively during the day on the Really Serious Ones. I never bother with the wipes or mildly wet or dirty diapers. Oh, and it’s also way better than Febreze for freshening up the inside of your diaper bag and wet bags and such.

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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37 Responses to “When Cloth Diapers Just Plain STINK”

  1. Sharon Dec 01 at 6:24 pm Reply Reply

    Yes! Strip them!

    And then… tell me… how do I strip them well in a front-loader?

  2. Karen Dec 01 at 6:33 pm Reply Reply

    We have a ongoing mild ammonia problem with our dipes too. On the recommendation of a friend, I bought a solution that is used to remove ammonia from fish tanks (fishies… in water… pee?). It’s a natural ammonia neutralizer. Every so often, I soak the clean diapers in a couple tablespoons of this stuff (bought at pet store) and then rinse. That kicks the ammonia smell way down and has zero effect on diapers or my 15 month old’s butt. Has anyone else tried this? And, not to get into the “which detergent is better?” question, but…we use Charlie’s too and are doing a trial run of Rockin’ Green since they make major anti-stink claims. First load is at home waiting to be folded – and waiting to be sniffed for ammonia scent.

  3. Melissa Dec 01 at 7:40 pm Reply Reply

    Just an FYI for all you non cloth diapering readers….That diaper stripping process also works on towels. You know those towels that start to smell musty, especially in the summer when nothing seems to dry well? Rinse rinse rinse all the residual detergent out….wash with white vinegar & baking soda….rinse again and dry. Fluffy clean towels again!

  4. Kate in the Shade Dec 01 at 7:50 pm Reply Reply

    I also recommend stripping the diapers, but I would suggest the Dawn process that BumGenius outlines (which you can find on their website or on cottonbabies.com).  We’ve done this twice and it works wonders and doesn’t use LOTS AND LOTS of water (maybe three full washes, which still feels like a lot, but doesn’t take too much longer than a regular diaper wash).  
    Also, I would really recommend AGAINST using any more detergent than usual before stripping, since what causes the need to strip sometimes is a buildup of detergent.  
    Good luck!

  5. Jen K. Dec 01 at 8:30 pm Reply Reply

    When we start to get the stinks, I wash them to get the poop/pee out, and then I soak them in a bucket with 2 tablespoons of Rockin’ Green detergent and super-hot water for a couple hours. Then I dump the whole thing into my washer and run a hot wash cycle with no additional detergent.

  6. Sarah Dec 01 at 8:48 pm Reply Reply

    I was going to mention the thing that Karen did – I bought some of that fish tank stuff, and used it. I also did a crazy super-bleach cycle on the inserts only, and that did the trick. During the summer we were able to dry them outside, and the sun got rid of all the smells

    For us, it was detergent build up. (I love my husband, but he seems to think that more soap = cleaner). I had to rinse and rinse and rinse, and finally there were no bubbles. After that I did the bleach, and the diapers have been fine since then. They are over a year old, and I’ve only had to do that once though.

    If you ever feel like giving up on the inserts, you can buy microfiber cloths at walmart or somewhere similar. the square ones folded in three are the same as a standard insert – the rectangle ones folded in half, and then folded in three are the same as double inserts. They will cost usually less than a dollar a piece.

  7. Rachael Dec 01 at 8:56 pm Reply Reply

    I have front-loaders!! And I cloth diaper too! Woo!

    I wash with 1 tsp of Dawn on the Sanitary cycle (I have LG TROMM’s if this helps to know) and… wait for it… bleach! (GASP!) Huzzah! Then I basically spend the rest of the day running rinse & spin cycles – at least 4 – until when I open up the door I don’t smell the bleach smell anymore. I know that EVERYONE (EVERYONE!!!) will say NOT to use bleach, but yeah. Meh. It works – is the only thing I found that actually works with my front-loaders, in fact. My diapers were used to begin with (got them from a friend who had used them for about 2 years) and I’m 9 months in now… I’ve had to strip twice so far. No lasting damage from the bleach whatsoever. ZERO rash on the kiddo.

    (Yes I tried vinegar. No it did not kill the stink.)

    So that’s what I do for what it’s worth. Good old fashioned Clorox. If you’re one of those people who tries to avoid all chlorine or something, then obviously don’t try my method… but yep, it’ll work! :)

  8. Margie Dec 01 at 9:01 pm Reply Reply

    We use Fuzzi Bunz, and the combination of hard well water and an he front loader has meant we’ve had build up issues more than usual. I tried Dawn first, but it gave my kiddo an awful rash (and that wasn’t just not enough rinsing of the yuck out – anywhere Dawn touches her skin she breaks out), and the same with Rockin’ Green, which makes me sad because I love their fun scents. I then tried the Oxyclean and vinegar soak, which worked well. However, the second time I did it, I accidentally left them soaking for closer to a whole day, and that caused the PUL to separate, ruining a couple and damaging the rest. We’re limping along, hoping to make it to undies soon enough that these will last, but I vowed, while kicking myself in the shin for this very costly mistake, to warn others. Do not do what I have done!

  9. HereWeGoAJen Dec 01 at 9:12 pm Reply Reply

    Rockin’ Green just came out with a specific detergent just for ammonia problems. It’s called Funk Rock. I tried it and it worked really well.

    And just lots and lots of water. Drying in the sun can help take some of the stink out too.

  10. Kathleen Dec 01 at 11:15 pm Reply Reply

    Front loaders- do exactly what Amalah said. Wash with nothing in hot. Over and over again, until the bubbles and the stink disappear. Nothing else needed.

    @Melissa, thanks for that tip! I HATE that smell…

  11. lindswing Dec 02 at 12:37 am Reply Reply

    I used to have to strip my diapers with Dawn and bleach monthly.  THEN, I switched to Rockin’ Green detergent in July.  I haven’t stripped since July, and I’m just starting to notice a strong ammonia scent coming from the dirty diapers.  Of course, this may just be the dreaded toddler ammonia, but I’m planning to do a Dawn strip anyway just to try it.

    Stripping frequently was really harsh on my diapers (especially the velcro), so I cannot recommend Rockin’ Green enough.  I’m also considering getting their funk rock or whatever it’s called instead of the Dawn strip.  I was at a very frustrated cloth diaper stage before I bought my first bag of Rockin’ Green.  I swear that I do not work for the company, I just really love it. :)

  12. Caitlin Dec 02 at 2:57 am Reply Reply

    I live in a rainy place so all winter it’s difficult to use the sun to get the diapers nice and fresh. But Oxyclean and bleach (not together) both worked for me to get rid of the stink. I have a front loader that is not all that great (I think), so it’s hard to do nice big soaks in there. I soak with Oxyclean in my diaper pail then lots of washes with nothing.
    What I found is that once this starts to happen, you can remove it by stripping for a while, but it will come back. I got used diapers from a friend and they were stink free for a long time, but really started to funk it up after about 1 year of use. We’re into undies now, but for the next baby I imagine I’ll be stripping more often.

  13. sam Dec 02 at 3:32 am Reply Reply

    Dry them in the sun. Or dry them and then put them in the sun. Gets rid of poop stains as well. For front loaders add extra water in each cycle. No stripping/bleach/standing on your head wearing a flaming tutu. 22 months with cloth diapers here, mostly prefolds but also Fuzzi Bunz, Bum Genius, etc. SUNSHINE. It’s free. And easy.

  14. alexa Dec 02 at 6:18 am Reply Reply

    I used to have to strip my diapers once a month, but I’ve switched up the washing routine and now I haven’t stripped in almost a year. I simply do a vinegar soak before running my wash cycle. Basically I put in a cup or two of vinegar, hit washing machines soak cycle and then wash them with detergent when its done. II read somewhere the ph of pee makes detergent not work as well and the vinegar changes the ph.

    Hope this is helpful. I used to HATE stripping diapers. It was such a pain. And that ammonia smell…it can knock you flat.

  15. Julianne Dec 02 at 8:05 am Reply Reply

    As someone else had said, everyone says do not bleach your diapers.  BUT, I bleached mine once a month to get rid of the ammonia smell and it worked just fine.  I just added an extra rinse or two afterwards to make sure all the bleach was out.

  16. Olivia Dec 02 at 8:19 am Reply Reply

    I also found that Rockin Green took the amonia out really well. I’ve been using the unscented for almost a year and haven’t had to strip them at all. I also recently bought some of the Rockin Green diaper pail deodorizer and it works really well. I think it’s a little cheaper than Charlie’s, too.

  17. Courtney Dec 02 at 8:40 am Reply Reply

    Definitely second/third/whatever the Rockin Green. We use the Soft Rock (my son has sensitive skin). When the diapers start to stink, we put them in the washer, fill it up with hot water and some RG detergent, and let them soak (you can do 1/2 hour to overnight). Then let the cycle complete, do another cycle of cold with no detergent, and dry. Works like a charm.

    Rockin Green makes a big point of the fact that they are clean rinsing – most of the time (since we use a laundry room) we don’t even do a second rinse when we do regular washes, and it works fine.

  18. Kelly Dec 02 at 10:09 am Reply Reply

    I tried out Charlies and it gave my baby bad diaper rash and also made my diapers smell ammonia-ny. We switched back to Country Save and haven’t had a problem with diaper rash since. Now, the only diaper that smells like ammonia is the morning one, but it washes out in the regular diaper wash cycle (cold rinse, hot wash/ cold rinse on high water level).

  19. Brooke Dec 02 at 10:38 am Reply Reply

    In a front loader, you can add a bath towel that is totally soaked. It will make your load weigh more and trick the machine into adding more water.

  20. Emily Dec 02 at 12:56 pm Reply Reply

    BEST ADVICE EVER came from DiaperSwappers.com. Put dipes in a bucket/basin and fill to covered with vinegar (yes, straight vinegar – you can buy a huge container for cheapt at Walmart). Then, add a scoop of OxyClean(or two, depending on how big the load is). It will foam up big-time. Let it sit for 4-6 hours. Send through a rinse cycle in your washer and then wash as usual. I’ve only ever had to do this ONCE, with dipes I got used that smelled of ammonia when they arrived. My daughter has been using them for months without the problem returning. Seriously, easy as pie, and will take care of the issue.

  21. EmilyG Dec 02 at 1:08 pm Reply Reply

    I boiled all of our prefolds the other weekend. I washed them, boiled them, and then ran one cycle with vinegar in our front loader. It got rid of the stink and my son’s yeasty diaper rash. Totally worth it! It really didn’t take that long (1.5 hours), but it was fairly labor-intensive.

  22. Katie Dec 02 at 1:33 pm Reply Reply

    After knock-you-out-when-you-open-the-pail stink build up with Nellie’s, I switched to Rockin Green hard rock, and it does the trick. Cold rinse (I run an “express wash” on my frontloader), 30 minute warm soak with 1 scoop of RnG, and a “heavy duty” cycle (includes an extra rinse) with one more scoop of RnG. For basic stripping, I also go with the “wash the everloving heck out of everything on hot” routine. If I’m feeling extra ambitious, I’ll pull the covers out, and add a tablespoon of bleach to the last wash load of inserts only.

  23. Emily Dec 02 at 2:00 pm Reply Reply

    but exactly how often do you strip? Or just when you notice a smell? Cause I sorta would like to avoid the smell altogether!
    I like the boiling them idea – how long did you boil them? 15 mins?

  24. Emily Dec 02 at 2:03 pm Reply Reply

    oh.. and I usually wash in cold to avoid stains. Do you guys always wash in hot or warm or what? I have started using a precycle because the stains don’t always come out, but I don’t dry in the dryer with hopes that I can just sun bleach them.

  25. Diaper Lady Dec 02 at 2:03 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you thank you thank you for all of the advice!!! I did like three cycles in a row this week and presoaked the diapers in Oxyclean Baby, but I have never heard of stripping or Rockin Green. Can not wait to try it! 

    This is why I love this site. So helpful and wonderful and thank you so much Amy and everyone else!

  26. Julie Dec 02 at 2:39 pm Reply Reply

    The only thing I have to add to the rest of the comments is that if you seem to need to strip the diapers frequently, try a different detergent. Everyone has their own brand that they swear by, but what works for one person may not work for another. It’s going to depend on your local water chemistry, your washer, the sensitivity of your kid’s skin, etc.
    For me, I had to try a few different detergents and found that Charlie’s Soap worked great for us – no odor build up and no more diaper rash. But if the odor comes back quickly after stripping, you may have to try a different brand. Keep experimenting till you find something that works!

  27. Ms. K Dec 02 at 2:56 pm Reply Reply

    @Emily

    Diapers don’t necessarily stink…we have been cloth diapering with pre-folds for 23 months now and have never had a problem. We’ve used a variety of detergents, but lately it’s been Safeway’s Green unscented store brand stuff. It’s uber-concentrated and we use just a little bit in each wash. No stink build-up, ever.

    Then again, I recently found out that the nanny will sometimes wash the diapers once, leave them in the washer but throw in all my kid’s regular clothes, and then run a second wash…so maybe it’s the double-washing every so often that does the trick?

  28. Wallydraigle Dec 02 at 5:08 pm Reply Reply

    I rinse them with white vinegar before every wash. And I never dry them in the dryer. Okay, a couple of times I have, like when I realize midday that I completely forgot to wash last night’s diapers, and I’m down to the three diapers I really hate. That seems to keep them from getting stinky very fast.

  29. Lizzie Dec 02 at 11:20 pm Reply Reply

    Just to add my 2 cents…I did the cloth diaper trial from Jillian’s Drawers and at the same time tried the detergent sampler pack which included a sample of Sensi Clean. I have a front loader so also feel have problems getting the diapers soaked enough and the super soaked overnight ones don’t take long to smell like ammonia. I used the Sensi Clean and it worked great!!! I ended up buying a bottle and use it any time I notice smell building up.

    Also I occasionally notice that my actual WASHING MACHINE smells faintly ammonia-ish and have started running cleaning cycles once in a while with this Clorox washing machine cleaner. It gets out all the ammonia/musty/funky whatever your machine has going on!!!

  30. Michele Dec 03 at 10:49 am Reply Reply

    We used to use Charlie’s but had to stop due to ammonia burn on my baby’s sensitive skin. Now we use Allens Naturally sometimes and Thirsties pre-/super-wash sometimes (this works great if the diapers are extra stinky). And you can buy extra inserts as well — we got some for travel. I handwash the pocket part and let it dry overnight, then put in a clean insert in the morning. Much cheaper and takes up less space than buying more diapers. :)

  31. EmilyG Dec 03 at 3:26 pm Reply Reply

    I boiled the diapers for about 10 minutes, mainly to ensure that the yeast were dead. We’ve been using the prefolds for about 6 months, so I don’t think you should have to strip them more often than that if your wash cycle is working reasonably well.

  32. Cara Dec 03 at 9:12 pm Reply Reply

    For a front-loader: I had good success with Oxyclean and then sun drying for my ammonia-stink prefolds.  (Sunning also bleaches out the stains.)

  33. Sarah Dec 04 at 3:50 pm Reply Reply

    Bleach!

  34. Liz Dec 06 at 9:41 am Reply Reply

    Vinegar in the rinse cycle worked for us.

  35. Hillary Dec 06 at 11:38 am Reply Reply

    When you’re doing the stripping, turn up your water heater. Then you won’t need to boil the diapers and you probably won’t need to run as many cycles on hot. Just remember to turn it down again afterward!

  36. Diaper Lady Dec 06 at 8:12 pm Reply Reply

    I followed the stripping directions on the link that Amy sent me to and IT WORKED. IT TOTALLY FREAKING WORKED!!! Took 6 cycles :)

  37. Jessi Dec 14 at 10:55 am Reply Reply

    I’ve been clot diapering for a year and a half and I’ve tried all sorts of detergents. What works for one may not work for another. I now use Dropps (the baby version) and it works great for me. I also add a cup of vinegar to the soak wash (cold water, highest water level, no soap). I firmly believe this neutralizes the ph in the water. But it may not work for you and your water.

    Definitely strip the inserts. It’ll make a big difference.

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