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Diaper Pail Stink Wars

Diaper Pail Stink Wars

By Amalah

Hi Amalah,

You’ve helped us before with our 7 month old who wouldn’t nap and your advice was great, so I’m back. This time about cloth diapers. And I know you probably feel like you’ve written the Bible on cloth diapers, but I can’t find a good answer to my question in all my googling and looking at your past resources. And since reading all of your advice the first time around was why we cloth diapered in the first place, I figured you were the right person to come to for help. So, we did CD our first who is now three. At first we used a regular old diaper pail, but when we discovered it would only hold about three cloth diapers, we switched to a plain old plastic kitchen garbage can. (With a plastic garbage bag because my husband refused to buy a pail liner when it’s so much more expensive than a garbage bag.) That worked great for a while, but eventually started to seriously stink up our house. So, we put that in the garage, and though inconvenient it worked as my baby was older and I wasn’t changing 8 diapers a day.

Fast forward a couple of years. Now I have TWINS! EEK! And the diaper pail/garbage can in the garage is no longer working with TWO babies. So I got one of those nice hanging pail liners for the back of the door and I LOVED it. It was so much more convenient, I loved the zipper at the bottom so I didn’t have to touch anything to put it in the washer. But after about a week my husband started complaining of the smell. Which never bugged me. He’s also concerned about the ammonia smell from the dirty diaper in the twins’ room causing problems. Our girls were preemies, born at 26 weeks, spent 3 months in the NICU, so I get it, even if I don’t necessarily share the concern. So, that went to the garage too. So, basically now how it works is that all of the diapers end up stacked on the changing table until I can finally get around to taking them all to the garage at the end of the day.

So, how do we find a compromise? Something I can keep in the room with the twins but won’t drive my husband nuts with the smell or make him worry that it is causing harm to our girl’s lungs? (Now they’re 13 months, 10 months adjusted and have no health problems, they’re just super small!) Since we have a 3 year old and a dog an open pail is not going to work (plus there’s no way my husband would agree to that). We use AIOs and have no issues with stink otherwise, it’s just when they’re dirty and waiting to be washed every 2-3 days. Help? Ideas? Give up and just accept that the garage is the best solution?


So I’m curious as to which hanging pail liner you’re using…if a product isn’t working as intended feel free to CALL IT OUT by name.

I personally came up completely dry on any Google-fu about any possible health concerns re: diaper odor. I mean, if breathing in the smell of baby poop and pee were harmful, most of us would be suffering from whatever ill effects it caused. (MAYBE I AM.) It’s unpleasant, of course, but healthy human urine is a pretty harmless substance, and breathing in the smell of it is NOT the same as breathing in a harsh chemical ammonia cleanser.

That said, ain’t nobody want their house smelling like pee.

So. Here’s what I’d ask about your current/past setup, for troubleshooting purposes. First, I’m assuming your diapers smell fine when they come out of the wash and we’re not dealing with a case of diaper build-up stink from a washing issue. (If so, please refer to this column.)

Second, plastic garbage bags are NOT ideal for storing cloth diapers and trapping the…unique odors they produce. A one-time investment in a proper resuable pail liner or two would have probably solved some of your stink issues with the regular ol’ garbage can. We used a $15 metal pail with a lid from IKEA, with Planet Wise pail liners — the kind with elastic on on top to hook around the pail. Super simple, and at $16 a liner, only a couple bucks more than a single box of deodorizing kitchen trash bags, of which I’m sure you went through plenty of. We NEVER had an odor problem unless we really slacked on the laundry cycle, or on the steps I’ll cover next.

The OTHER thing you don’t mention is how often either of your pail setups (garbage can or hanging pail) were/are washed and deodorized. Our metal pail was taken outside and hosed off and thoroughly scrubbed with an all-purpose cleanser every once in awhile. Maybe about once a month? Usually whenever I felt like there was some moisture building up on the pail itself. I also regularly sprinkled a little baking soda in the bottom of the pail to further fight off odors. (You can get those fancy little baking soda nursery fresheners and toss one of those in the bottom of your pail/trash can, but I never thought those ever worked as well as a shake or two of the Real Stuff. They are less messy though.)

And my reusable liners went in the wash with the diapers…EVERY TIME. You mention your current pail has a zipper for easy unloading, and it kind of sounds like you only bought one and you’re emptying it and then immediately rehanging it up. So you’re maybe not washing it as often as you wash the diapers. That will DEFINITELY cause an odor build up pretty quickly. If you’re not washing that thing every few days (while letting more dirty diapers pile up inside it), I’d say the liner/bag itself is probably the main source of your odor issue. They do a good job trapping and sealing the odors but they DO take on some of the urine/ammonia smell eventually. So I found it best to just dump the liner upside-down to unload the diapers, then toss it on top and wash it all together. Then I relined the pail with my second (fresh and recently laundered) liner.  Back and forth, over and over, right on through potty training.

So my advice would be to either 1) buy second/back-up hanging liner and start washing them along with the diaper load, OR 2) bring back the garbage can but invest in two proper reusable liners (that you also wash), AND be sure to scrub out the can once in awhile AND add baking soda to the bottom.

(I’ve read that the Diaper Dekor Plus works really well for cloth, but since you guys don’t strike me as fans of extra fancy baby gear investments, I say just spring for the good liners and leave it at that.)

Typically the pail liners can be washed the exact same way as cloth diapers (though obviously check manufacturer instructions) but not all of them can go in the dryer — I totally ruined my very first Planet Wise bag this way because the plastic-y inside layer cracked and kind of melted. Whoops. Hang those up to dry! (They dry super quickly anyway.)

Another great tool for diaper odor warfare is Biokleen Bac-Out. It’s a natural (plant-based) and diaper/nursery safe spray that  we would spritz on every diaper before we tossed it in the pail. I’d also open the pail and give whatever was sitting in there a couple freshening sprays every now and then. We still use it for pet odors/stains, stinky shoes, etc. Add that to the rotation above and you should stay virtually odor free.

(Although I can’t help you if your husband is just one of those people whose brain tells him things smell bad because he simply knows there’s something nearby that might smell bad. I can tell him there’s no real imminent health danger to smelling the dirty diapers of healthy humans, properly stored for a couple days in a properly ventilated room, but he might not believe me. Either way, your pail shouldn’t be a big source of stink, and should totally be somewhere CONVENIENT because I don’t have twin babies or ANY babies right now and oh my God, carrying diapers out to the garage every time sounds exhausting.)

Published October 12, 2015. Last updated October 29, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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