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Stinky Stinky Cloth Wipes

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

First, let me say that I religiously read pretty much everything you write on my… lunch break… at work. Thank you – it’s been a blast. And also, you talked me into using cloth wipes. Which now smell like they’ve been in an unfinished basement crawl space for two weeks (I wouldn’t know as I live in a teeny apartment in DC, but this is what I imagine those things smell like). I use the prince lionheart warmer (not the one made for cloth wipes but the other one) and I’ve tried buying a new pad thingy, changing them out everyday, washing everything with vinegar to strip them, etc etc. I only use water in the warmer, but it’s tap water. I just can’t figure out what the problem is, but they constantly smell terrible after just a day. What am I doing wrong? My husband just banned us from using them until I figure it out. The internet keeps telling me to use tea tree oil, which I learned from you is pure evil, so here I am. Any suggestions??

Thanks again for being the awesome sauce on the internet burrito.


Ok! Don’t worry, I’ve got you. We can do this. Easy peasy.

First, though, we need to clear up a little miscommunication here re: tea tree oil. Which is 100% absolutely NOT pure evil. At all! It’s not recommended in large, regular amounts for pregnant women, but that’s it. Tea tree oil is fantastic. It’s a natural anti-fungal, and your best shot (besides bleach) at killing the mold/mildew situation you’ve likely got going on with your wipes. I use it on my nails, my husband uses it for his dry scalp, we use it as a natural lice treatment/repellent on the kids (shudder), it’s great as an acne spot treatment, etc. Go, my child, and use the tea tree oil without fear.

I’m GUESSING you’re mixing tea tree oil up with lavender oil, which I have cautioned against — albeit too harshly, in retrospect. Since the alarm was initially raised that the estrogenic properties of lavender oil in baby products (and let’s be honest, it’s in a TON of baby products) could be causing some bad hormonal changes in boys, there really hasn’t been any further research or study. At least nothing big and significant and peer-reviewed. I am PERSONALLY still cautious about using the stuff IN EXCESS. (I do not believe “natural” ingredients should get any more of a pass from us than stuff created in a lab, especially in an age of pesticides and genetic engineering and the fact that “natural” ingredients can still be processed within an inch of their atoms before they’re actually added to our products.) If my kids are using a shampoo and body wash with lavender in it, I make sure I’m using a lotion that doesn’t. I still prefer NOT to use it in anything diapering related, and since it’s an ingredient that really serves no real purpose besides making things smell nice, it’s pretty easy to find alternatives that work just as well. That said, it’s no longer a knee-jerk deal-breaker for me, since the possible dangers have simply not been definitively proven.  (Update on January 2016: Amalah’s view on lavender oil in baby products has changed and is no longer conservative; you can read an update on why here.)

/end soapbox

Aaaaand now back to your wipes. There are a few things that you might be doing “wrong” here:

1) Polyester in the wipes.

Non-natural fibers — like microfiber, polyester fleece, etc. — retain odors. Natural fibers — like cotton– resist odors. Check the fiber content of your wipes. I like 100% cotton, be it flannel, terry, velour, birdseye, whatever. These fabrics resist the stink! Anything with a percentage of something manmade will be more prone to smelling funky. I’ve pretty much banished anything manmade from my diapering line-up, save for a few old pocket shells (that I stuff with prefolds instead of microfiber) and a couple stay-dry inserts. My stash has never smelled better.

2) Your warmer.

You’re not using a warmer designed for cloth wipes, so maybe it’s not the best choice for cloth wipes? Not that I’m saying rush out and buy the cloth wipe version (if there really is any difference — I honestly don’t know). I used the Prince Lionheart cloth wipes warmer for awhile, and I gotta say, as it aged (like after 6+ months) I experienced a lot of problems with it. It leaked, the pads would turn brown and singe, my wipes smelled musty and weird, etc. (Any of that sound familiar?) I pitched it when Ike was tiny and went old-school with my wipes. Sure, my wipes aren’t AS warm when they were with the warmer, but a) Ike doesn’t seem to mind, and 2) in the end the convenience was being far overrided by the problems.

3) Your wipes-to-water ratio IN the warmer.

If you really think your warmer is functioning fine, it could be that you’re simply trying to store too many wipes in it. As roomy as the warmers are, it’s best NOT to pack it to capacity, because you’re just not going to get through all the wipes fast enough. Thus the ones on the bottom sit in a moistened sauna for a couple days and smelly things start growing. Put enough wipes in it for just one day, then restock at night, after putting your baby to bed. Don’t add too much water, either. You want the wipes to be slightly moistened, not sopping wet. If you have to wring the wipes out before using them, there’s too much water in there. (I always used tap water in my warmer, too, but maybe you should experiment with filtered water as well.)

Oh, duh. I just re-read your letter and realized I missed that you have tried changing the wipes out everyday. Which is good. Keep doing that. (If you decide to keep using the warmer, that is.) But that’s unfortunately not going to undo the stink problem on its own. Wash the wipes on hot with a little tea tree oil. Or bleach. Then double rinse. The smell you’re describing sounds like mildew or mold (as opposed to detergent build-up funk, or poop not rinsing out). Those are living organisms that must be killed dead, so you may need to go nuclear with a little bleach. If the thought of bleaching something that will touch your baby’s bottom wigs you out and the tea tree oil doesn’t do the job, you may need to scrap this stash of wipes and start over. Personally, I don’t think bleaching them once will hurt anything — most of the warnings about bleaching cloth diapers are more related to concerns about fabric damage, which isn’t such a big deal for wipes.

If it is mildew, I’m sorry, but the warmer is your likely culprit. You can certainly try again post-bleach, being more careful about swapping the wipes out each day and adding a drop or two of tea tree oil in there as a preventative measure. I’ve tried a bunch of different cloth wipes set-ups — the warmer, pre-moistened with wipes solution in a regular non-warming container, moistening with a spray bottle as-needed — and I would hesitate to recommend any one specific approach as “best.” Everybody has their own idea about what’s the most convenient and easy and what’s a giant pain in the ass. And everybody’s water and laundry situation (hard/soft, top loading/HE) is another wild card that can mean One Person’s Awesome is Another Person’s Oh My Hell THIS STINKS.

Right now, I keep a stack of dry cotton wipes — some terry, some flannel — in an old disposable wipes container. Once a day or so (whenever I think of it), I fill up a spray bottle with hot tap water. I spritz the wipes as I need them for poop changes only, and at the worst the wipe temperature ends up kind of tepid. To make clean-up more efficient (so I’m not standing there spraying wipe after wipe), I also keep a spray-on wipes solution/bottom cleaner handy that I can spray directly on the butt. I’ve used a bunch of different ones and think they’re all pretty good , EXCEPT for the bumGenius Bottom Cleaner which seems to sting a little, if Ezra is to believed. (NOTE: Ezra is not necessarily to be believed.)

Mostly it comes down to what scents and ingredients you like or dislike. Kissluvs, Homestead, some brand I randomly found at Whole Foods but cannot remember anymore, etc. You can also buy many of these in concentrate form and add them to your wipes container (if you pre-moisten) or to your regular water bottle (just watch out for oil build-up in the fabric). Or you can buy individual oils and make a solution yourself. I’m just kind of lazy, I guess, and like the ready-to-use spray versions best.

For really big messes, I sometimes take a few dry wipes with me to the bathroom when I go to flush solids (making sure baby is buckled to the table!) and run them under the tap for a few seconds. Or I do this before starting the diaper change, since usually I know whether or not I’m dealing with a Bad One. But usually one or two cloth wipes easily handle jobs that used to require five or six disposable wipes, so the spray bottle solution really isn’t as big of a pain as I once imagined. (Which is why I bought the stupid warmer in the first place — I was always about the convenience of ready-to-go wipes, not so much about the TEMPERATURE of said wipes.)

Commenters? Any stinky wipes experiences and solutions to add to the pile?

Photo credit: Thinkstock

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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