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Removing Smells from Cloth Wipes

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

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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  • Brigid Keely

    February 1, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    If you possibly can, hang the wipes to dry in sunlight. Sunlight is THE BANE of mildew/mold. If you can get them good and clean and non-stinking, let the sun bleach them. This is true for any cloth item that has mold or mildew. Wash them, then dry them in the sun.

    If you’re adding tea tree oil to your wipes liquid, remember that it’s very powerful. Follow dilution guidelines carefully and watch for irritation of your child’s skin. I use a dilute form of tea tree oil on my face and even diluted it often stings. That’s something you can totally adjust the dilution of, but babies have delicate skin.

    Good luck solving this issue!

  • Hannah

    February 1, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    I gave up on pre-wetting my cloth wipes, and now just keep them, dry, in a stack with a spray bottle of water next to them. When I need one, I spray it (or child) with water and then wipe. Okay, so they’re not warm but she doesn’t care, and it saves time, thought and energy (none of which I have in great supply, let’s be honest).

  • JCF

    February 1, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    After 4.5 years of cloth diapering and 3 kids, the best solution we’ve found for wipes is to keep a basket of dry wipes in our bathroom.  I get 1-2 wipes wet in the sink before changing a diaper, and that works pretty well for us.  We do have a small house and only one bathroom, so the wipes are never far away from wherever I’m doing the diaper change though, so I realize that might not work well for some people based on the layout of the house.  

  • Christine

    February 1, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    I had this exact same problem, and I high tailed it over to my local hippie mom cloth diaper mecca (I’m in Ann Arbor, we have a couple of these places, we like to be hippies), and the super experienced cloth diapering staff told me pretty much exactly what Amy said above, though they recommended something that I haven’t seen anywhere else on-line but I LOVE.

    It’s these little things:

    The honey chunks are little bits of homemade soap and essential oils that are made just for this.  I put 2 chunks in a little pitcher of just boiled (and still warm) water, and that’s what I put on my wipes.  One of those $6 bags lasts about 4 months, BTW.  It’s the perfect ratio of oils and soap to water, so no more smell, things wipe up easily, and I don’t need to rinse off my baby.  

    They also have a foamer, which we’ll use directly on my daughter when she’s had a big poo and we want to REALLY make her clean.  1 pump, wipe up with a dry wipe.

  • Ashley

    February 1, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    I would bleach your stash and then hang in the sun to dry. That should kill anything in there!
    I just used the cheap gerber wash rags as wipes. I would pack an old disposable wipes container full and then pour wipe solution over them. I would let it sit for awhile to cool down then wring the wipes out. Never had a problem with them. For the wipe solution I would fill a jar with about 20 oz of hot water, add a tbsp of coconut oil, 10 drops of a blend of lavender tea tree oil, and 2 squirts of California Baby wash, then shake to combine. Lavender oil actually is also anti bacterial in addition to smelling really good!

  • Kate

    February 1, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I also use the Prince Lionheart regular (non-cloth) warmer for my cloth wipes and don’t have issues. I do notice a yucky smell when I use plain water, though, so I highly recommend using a wipes solution. Any wipes solution will have something in it that is anti-microbial, either TTO or Lavender (I believe Lavender is anti-microbial and doesn’t just smell nice but… could be wrong). Anyway, I use this one: I love it and, Bonus! it doubles as a delicious smelling baby shampoo. I find it easier to use than the little cubes since this is a liquid. The cubes are so fussy — they never completely dissolve IME. Also, I’ve never once used the little pad that you’re supposed to in the warmer and never have problems. I actually don’t really understand what the pad does??

  • Isabel


    February 1, 2012 at 4:41 pm


    you are made of awesome!

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  • Becca

    February 1, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Hi  I use cheeky wipes ( ) and they are all kinds of awesome. I use the tee tree and chamomile oil and it seems to be fine. Did have a brief stinky episode (damp wipes + bottom of the plastic laundry hamper = yuk) A regular cycle just didn’t cut it. I set my machine to prewash with just the cloth nappy sanitiser (1tbsp), full wash with 2tbsp detergent 1 tbsp sanitiser at 60C and then double rinse. Seems to have done the trick, also worked when I had a build up of random cloth nappy stink. Good luck.

  • MR

    February 1, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    I am behind the times! I have never heard of all these uses for tea tree oil. A natural lice repellant? Sign me up!! My 3.5 year old recently started preschool, and after she got life from daycare at a little over a year old, we had to shave her head. I don’t think she’d let me do that again. Lol. And now I have two little girls with pretty hair and I want to keep the lice the heck away!!

  • Lisa

    February 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    We store our wipes dry and wet them in the sink before each diaper change. One wipe for a pee-pee diaper, two for a poopy. No wipe solutions or oils or anything fancy, just plain ol’ water. Simple and effective! We’ve been doing this for two years now, and I’ve never had stinky wipes and my little guy has never had a rash.

  • Corinne

    February 1, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    Our cloth wipe set up: We started with the non-cloth wipe Prince Lionheart warmer (apparently like everyone else). Same problems as everyone else too. So we tried the spray bottle/dry wipe thing. That never worked super well for us, it was hard to get the wipes wet enough, fast enough for my liking. So now we keep a small bowl of plain tap water next to the pile of dry wipes. Dunk, squeeze out excess water = ready to go. We clean out the water bowl about once a week to take care of any build up (we have hard water).

  • Jean

    February 1, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Amy, what do you mean, “I’ve pretty much banished anything manmade from my diapering line-up…”?!? Does that include PUL?  I know I’ve had some issues with PUL stink but I don’t think the daycare would accept wool covers if I had them.  I need to order next size up soon (my son is 15 lbs) and I’m having trouble making up my mind.  I think we need an updated list of your go-to stash!  Also, any luck finding an overnight solution?

    As for the cloth wipes, I keep mine dry, and put some warm water from the sink in a small Tupperware container that I bring to the changing table each time.  I find it easier to dip the wipe into a container of water than use a spray bottle.  I have a small bottle of diluted baby wash for the messy diapers – or just wash that little butt off straight in the sink!

  • Karen

    February 1, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    Besides bleaching, you can also boil the wipes for 15 min, that will also work to kill the mold/mildew. We do that with our dishcloths every so often to keep them smelling fresh. We also just do dry wipes with a spray bottle of water if they need to be wet. Soooo much easier.

  • Kate Sommers

    February 1, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Why not use a discarded/used bottle warmer to keep the spray bottle contents warm and be done with it?  Or a coffee or candle warmer?  I’m planning on using cloth wipes when out little ones (twin boys) come to town in a few months, but the idea of keeping anything wet and warm sounds like a perfect excuse for gross things to grow!

  • Katie

    February 2, 2012 at 12:18 am

    I use the cloth Prince Lionheart warmer–but I view it as an 18 month purchase, after which I will need to replace it.  I figure that it has more than paid for itself after that amount of time.

    The only time I had an issue was when I was really lazy about rising the pad thing and changing out wipes.  I try to always add clean wipes to the bottom of the stack, and once a week wipe it out with a clorox wipe (followed by a “rinse” with a damp washcloth).  Whenever I strip my inserts (and yes, I’ve been known to use clorox) I throw the wipes in too.  
    That seems to keep any issues at bay–like Amy said, all of my wipes are natural fibers–cotton and hemp mostly, which I think helps a lot.

    Anyways, if you don’t want to give up on the idea of a warmer (and I wouldn’t!) that’s what works for us.

  • Whozat

    February 2, 2012 at 1:16 am

    We never pre-wetted our cloth wipes and never used anything other than water. 

    (wow, 3 months potty trained and it’s still weird to talk about diapering in the past-tense!) 

    For a good while, I kept a squirt (not spray) bottle of water on the changing table (I used my peri bottle from the hospital) and a smaller squirt bottle in the diaper bag. 

    Over time, both bottles disappeared / were chewed up by our toddler, even though *I* never let her play with them – ahem – so we just went to running a cloth under the sink. 

    Easy peasy. 

    We never had any specialty “cloth wipes” but just used baby washcloths and then, as those wore out (and boy did they!) I just bought a couple of yards of a not-too-rough-or-thick terry cloth and cut it up. 

    Those were GREAT for dirty diapers – especially toddler poop – because of the thickness and texture. 

    We eventually threw out all the other “washies” (as we call them) and kept only the terries, and that’s what we still use for bathing, etc. 

  • Jen

    February 2, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Wait, tea tree oil is bad during pregnancy? I use Jason Tea tree oil body wash every day, and was spraying my dog for some very itchy skin with a natural spray that also contained tea tree oil. I’m 14 weeks, should I be afraid?

    Editor: Amalah discussed tea tree oil use in pregnancy and more specifically in tea tree oil in shampoo back in 2010:, so please read her thought there. But, as always, you should feel comfortable asking your health care provider questions about everything including tea tree oils if that is your current concern.

  • Leigh

    February 2, 2012 at 10:54 am

    You can also boil the wipes once to get them really clean and kill just about anything (it is a great chemical free nuclear option).

  • eden

    February 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    I killed the mildew using tea tree oil in my mix. around 6 or so drops. i keep them in the warmer(non-cloth warmer) for two days and they no longer smell mildew-y.

  • Jessica

    February 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    So first of all, how exciting that my question got answered!!! I am ready and willing to try some suggestions. My main question is this: if I mix tea tree oil (very diluted) into my mixture, can I still wash this with my cloth diapers? We’re a prefold PUL kinda family and I just don’t want to do anything that could cause oil build up on the diapers. But I would hate to have to wash my wipes separately.

    Thanks again for addressing this and all the advice. I’m really thankful to have all this feedback to work with (if a little overwhelmed). 

  • Carrie

    February 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Hi. My name is Carrie and I am with Prince Lionheart. It is really important to use distilled water in your Warmer if you hare having problems. Water quality and sources can vary greatly so in your case we recommended distilled water. It is also really important to replace the pillow at the bottom of the warmer every 90 days. If it browns prior to 90 days, it can always be washed in the washer. The browning is much like the browning of an apple due to oxidization. It is ok for the pillow to brown, it just doesn’t look as pretty but causes absolutely no harm to your baby. It is also important not to over pack the Warmer. We recommend no more than 12 non-disposable cloths at a time. We also recommend our bamboo disposable wipes as the nature of bamboo has an anti-microbial quality. Please feel free to call us at any time. We are always available to answer questions and problem solve should any issues ever arise. I hope we can get you onto the bamboo wipes so please give us a call.

  • Christine

    February 3, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    So many great tips here!
    Jessica, I actually use tea tree oil in my pre-wash rinse every time (recommended by my Ann Arbor store, I’m the Christine way above), it’s fine with the PUL.  I put about 5-8 drops in the rinse water to help kill stuff off and just make it smell better.

    Carrie, thanks for your input!  I had no idea that the pillow could be washed!  I’ve had mine brown just a bit, though with some aggressive rinsing/squeezing in the sink it gets much better.  I’ve been using the non-CD Prince Lionheart warmer for over a year with no issues (other than a few stinky wipes, likely my fault since I had so many in there), I love it!

  • Liz

    February 3, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Great question!  Jessica, I also use tea tree oil with every round of diaper washes (I have pocket bumGenius and Fuzzibunz diapers).  It helps keep yeast infections at bay, which my daughter is prone to.  I add 2 drops to the cold pre-wash rinse cycle.  I’m also a fan of dry wipes with a squirt bottle of tap water.  I started with a spray bottle, but couldn’t get the wipes wet fast enough, so I switched to a squirt bottle.  I love the system, and feel good knowing the wipes aren’t sitting in liquid around the clock.
    Good luck!

  • Grammy

    February 4, 2012 at 12:47 am

    Oh, gosh. My son was born right around the time the very first disposable diapers came on the market, and they were sold as “for travel” and, in any event, were expensive, so I never used one. Cloth diapers were what we all used nearly fifty years ago. And wipes? We used soft old wash cloths and wet them before use with warm water from the bathroom sink. Any that were used for diapering duty were then washed with the diapers. Never had a problem.

    Now my grandson is diapered with disposable diapers and his parents use those wipes you all seem to use (and they have a warmer, which astounds me that such a thing exists). I have finally learned to use the disposable diapers (which I detest, but it’s not my call) but at my house his delicate little butt doesn’t get scented warm wipes. He seems to survive fine without that part.

    Just wanted to let everyone know that plain old warm water on a soft cloth just before you diaper works fine, and if you’re using cloth diapers (yay — I see that most of you are) just throw the wipes in with the diapers at laundry time. It saves you time and money.