Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tell-it Tuesday: Troubleshoot the cloth diaper STINK! (part 1)

I know many of us have gone through or are currently dealing with cloth diaper stinkies. Stink and leaks are the two most common complaints that cloth diapering families have. In this post I will help you try to determine what is causing the stinkies with some basic cloth diapering troubleshooting and Megan and I will go over our wash routines with you. If you have any questions or need help feel free to email me

The very first thing to ask yourself while trouble shooting stink is...

-When do I notice the stink? 
For some families they notice that their diapers don't smell clean after washing and for others their diapers smell fine until their child pees or poops in them. Generally, the diapers that smell coming out of the laundry aren't getting clean for whatever reason and the ones that stink when peed or pooped in have a residue of some sort on them. Clean cloth diapers should not smell like anything, not even the scent of your detergent. If they smell like your detergent that means that your detergent is leaving a residue on them and residue is one of the leading causes of stinkies, absorbency and repellency issues.

In part 1 we're going to go over issues that could be causing your diapers to not smell clean after laundering. In part 2 we'll discuss what part residue and build-up issues can play in cloth diaper stink issues and troubleshoot those issues.

You pull them out of the washer or dryer, expecting crisp clean diapers but instead get a disgusting poop or musty whiff-no matter what you smell exactly-the diapers just don't smell clean (like nothing) or they smell clean until your child pees and them and then the smell is so strong it turns your stomach. Ask yourself:

-How am I storing them and for how long?
The longer you store your dirty diapers before washing the longer the urine and poop sits the harder it is to rinse out and wash out because urine crystallizes. It causes issues similar to those that people with hard water suffer from with hard water mineral build-up. 

Some people try Borax (which I do not recommend, see "What detergent am I washing with?" for the reason why, white vinegar, and/or Baking soda to help neutralize the urine and help to remove odor. Chances are if you're using a powdered detergent it already has some form of baking soda (Sodium Bicarbonate) in it. However, as I learned as a hard water tester for Lulu's in the Fluff Glamour Wash, there different ways that Sodium Bicarbonate can be processed and those different methods can make it either less or more effective in cleaning and deodorizing. 

I highly suggest removing the poop (unless it's poop from an exclusively breast-fed baby, then it's water soluble and doesn't need to be removed, unless you want to) as soon after you can and definitely before you put the diaper in the dirty laundry. There are a number of different ways you can remove the poop. Some people do the shake and swirl, others use spatulas, and others spray it off somehow. It doesn't matter how you get it off so find something that works well for you. If you're looking for sprayer recommendations, I personally use a Sigma Diaper Sprayer and love it, but other cloth diapering families use pet sprayers widely available in hardware stores.The pet sprayers can be less money than actual "diaper sprayers" but you'll need to have your shower and toilet right next to each other.

Regarding how the diapers are stored, if you store in a closed environment (no air flow) like closed diaper pail and notice stink open the pail or try changing your method to a storage sac, which is breathable and not dark. Lots of nasty, stink things love to grow in the warm, dark, moist environment of a closed diaper pail. I use hanging storage sacs only, no pails whatsoever. 

I do not recommend storing in a wet pail at all. If you need to do a soak I suggest soaking in the washer barrel (if you have a top loader) or soaking in the bath tub and locking the door or gating the bathroom to keep young ones out. Under no circumstances will I suggest using a wet pail. It's not good for your diapers, often times it makes stink issues much much worse, wet pails can be messy, and they can be a hazard for young children. There are other, much more effective ways, of storing your dirty diapers.

-What kind of washer am I using? 
Some people with front loading machines (HE) have an issue with the diapers just not smelling clean after the wash cycle. This is usually due to the low amount of water used in the HE machines. If that is your issue look for an option that increases water out put in the washing cycles. 

-How many diapers and accessories am I washing at once?
In order to get completely clean the diapers and accessories need room to agitate. If you're stuffing your washing to the max that's being counterproductive-you're washing more diapers at once but they're not coming clean. If you notice that your diapers still smell dirty, smell musty, or just don't smell clean after the end of your wash cycle I would try dividing one load in half (for example if you're washing 22 diapers at a time try 11 the next wash) and see if that resolves the issue. If it does, you can add a couple diapers here and there and see what your washer's max diaper load is for optimum clean. It's also possible that you need to use more water, so if you're washing using a middle of the road water level try increasing it.

-What temperature water am I washing with?
Cold and warm water just doesn't do it. A cold water rinse or short cycle to get the poop loose or rinse out the pee is good for that purpose but as far as actual cleaning leave that to the hot water. If you think your hot water may not be hot enough try boiling a pot of hot water and adding it to the load.

-What detergent am I washing with?
Let's face it-some detergents just aren't conducive to a good, clean cloth diapering experience, but more important than that is there is no one right detergent for everyone. Some cloth diapering families have great luck with Tide, others swear by something else, and then you have people like me that have tried (and had issues with) half a dozen different detergents before settling on something that actually works for us. To read about our cloth diaper detergent experiences read HERE.

Some detergents cause build-up because they don't rinse completely and others have scents that stink around long after they're dry. That's great if you're washing bed sheets but bad if you're washing cloth diapers. If you're noticing any scent after you wash, even if it's a pleasant smell, take that as a sign that your detergent is leaving residue on your diapers. That residue can contribute to the stink issue. See more about residue and build-up in part 2.

One thing that I feel is very important to point out is that there is a homemade detergent recipe floating around that uses Borax and Fels Naptha. Borax is not good for elastic and should not be used on a regular basis on cloth diapers. Fels Naptha is NOT natural, I feel that is important to say because some of the sites I've come across regarding this particular detergent recipe imply that because it's homemade it's natural and that is just not the case. I highly suggest not using Borax or Fels Naptha on cloth diaper laundry. I will go over more about residue and build-up shortly in part 2.

-What additives am I using during cloth diapering and/or laundering process?
Many people don't realize that those essential or fragrance oils in many of their favorite diaper area cleaners or detergents can cause stink issues. I've personally had issues with the scents in Crunchy Clean, baby oil and a handful of essential oils (used in a recipe for home made diaper area cleaner. If you have issues with stink I suggest cutting out all additives (diaper area cleaners, white vinegar, Lemon Juice, scented dryer balls, fabric softener, etc.) for the first wash. If there's no more stink add something back in. If there's still no stink add something else back in, repeat that process until you get stink and you'll have the culprit. 

-Do I have hard water?
A good portion of the U.S. has issues with hard water, myself included. According to "Clothes washed in hard water often look dingy and feel harsh and scratchy. The hardness minerals combine with some soils to form insoluble salts, making them difficult to remove." From my experience, having hard well water at all three places we have lived in New York, hard water has made it difficult to get our diapers completely clean, has made them look dingy/dull, and has made them stiff. 

It's very easy to tell if you have hard water by looking at your fixtures, though figuring out how hard your water is and which minerals are contributing the most to your hard water can be more complicated. I suggest reviewing this site for more information about hard water and then deciding if you'd like to try testing yourself or call a company to test it for you. 

If you know you have hard water it's not the end of your cloth diapering world, like those with HE machines you may need to play around with your detergents and washing routines until you find something that works well for your water and your family. Calgon Water Softener is one solution which is mentioned time and time again in the cloth diapering world. You can find the MSDS for Calgon Water Softener products HERE.

There are cloth diapering safe detergents that have special 'hard water" formulas-Rockin' Green, Crunchy Clean, Lulu's in the Fluff all have hard water formulas available. I personally, use Lulu's in the Fluff hard water version (if you want to know, read about my CD laundry ordeals here) and have not had to use any additives since.

-How am I drying? Are my diapers drying completely that way?
If your diapers smell clean out of the washer but musty after they dry it's possible that your diapers are not drying completely. If you notice this is a recurring issue with certain diapers, like fitteds or AIOs for example, it could very well be that they are not drying thoroughly. If that's the case there are a few things you could try.1-Tumble dry (or hang) them longer. 2-Sun them. The sun is a wonderful sanitizer/germ killer. Sunning the diapers will help to kill the mustiness while helping them to dry completely (and as a bonus remove stains if you have any). You do not have to have a line in your back yard to sun! You can hang them in a sunny window in the house or even take them with you when you go out somewhere, park in a sunny location and put them on the dash. 3-Try a few wool dryer balls. In addition to helping reduce static cling and softening, "The balls bounce in the dryer allowing the air to circulate more efficiently." (A big thanks to Erin at Wooltopia for letting me steal that little tid-bit from her FAQs!) I use four, unscented, undyed, Wooltopia dryer balls when I tumble dry my cloth diaper laundry.

That concludes part 1 of troubleshooting the cloth diaper stink. Check back next week when I will discuss residue build-up and offer questions and methods for trouble shooting. Until then, as I said above, if you have any questions or issues with stinkies or need help further troubleshooting feel free to leave a comment here or email me. Although Megan and I do review the comments, if you need a prompt response please email me

You can also view our washing routines in THIS post.

This article was originally published on the Cow Patties Cloth Diapers blog at on 11/09/10 and may not be reproduced in whole or in part with the author’s ( ) or blog owner’s ( ) expressed written permission.


  1. omg love it...can't wait to read next week!

  2. Interesting... I was searching this info for my uncle. He will be happy for such a great info. Thanks for sharing...
    water softening