Tackling Stink - Stripping & Restoring Your Cloth Diapers
Once you get the hang of it, cloth diapering is simple and easily worked into your daily routine with your little one. But even the most experienced cloth diapering families run into leaky or stinky cloth diapers every once in a while. There are a number of factors that can contribute to a cloth diaper smell that you just can’t get rid of!
Stinky cloth diapers happen to the best of us… and even disposable diapers have their bad days!
Let’s first talk about common cloth diaper smells. There are two types of smells you might run into – ammonia smell or barnyard smell.
Do your cloth diapers smell like ammonia? This is one of the biggest issues experienced with cloth diapers – so don’t feel like you are failing if you run into this challenge!
- This distinct ammonia smell is easily recognized by a ‘burn your nose hairs’ and ‘make your eyes water’ stench!
- Ammonia is often only noticeable after diapers become wet. They might smell clean fresh out of the wash but as soon as baby wets the diaper, the smell emerges.
- If left untreated, ammonia can cause rashes and chemical burns to baby’s skin.
- Ammonia build-up usually means you should strip cloth diapers, run a bleach soak, and start over with a good wash routine.
So how does ammonia rear its stinky head? When the amount of waste in urine is greater than the amount of fluid, the smell of ammonia occurs. Urea results from the breakdown of proteins in urine. It is this urea that turns into ammonia. Well hydrated people who use the bathroom often rarely run into ammonia problems, since the urea does not have much time to turn into ammonia. But if dehydrated, or if urea is left to sit too long, ammonia begins to form and you get stinky cloth diapers!
Common causes of ammonia include:
- Leaving cloth diapers unwashed for too long. This allows a lot more time for the urea to turn into ammonia. The issue can worsen if your cloth diapers sit in a wet bag or a diaper pail for too long. Washing cloth diapers every 2 to 3 days is recommended to avoid this problem.
- Using too much or too little laundry detergent. Diapers that are not cleaned properly can lead to urea being left behind, increasing your chances of developing ammonia. Too much detergent can result in residue build-up. Too little detergent can mean your diapers aren’t being thoroughly cleaned. There is a sweet spot in using detergent, so always follow the manufacturer recommended amounts for your load size and your type of washing machine. The Best Detergent for Cloth Diapers and Washing 101 provide some great tips to get your cloth diapers super clean!
- Hard water. Hard water has a high mineral content. These minerals can build up on your cloth diapers, causing poor performance of your detergent. Your laundry detergent fights hard to tackle the minerals in your hard water, but as a result can fail to address stains and dirt on your cloths. If your diapers are not being cleaned properly, the urea stays trapped in the fabric and can cause the development of ammonia. There are some simple solutions to tackling hard water, including the addition of a water softener to your regular washing routine. Check out Washing 101 and Hard Water and Cloth Diapers for some tips and tricks to battling hard water and getting your diapers fresh and clean.
- Changes in your baby’s diet and sleep schedule. As your baby gets older and switches from breastmilk or formula to solids, the amount of liquid they take in can change. As liquid intake changes, urine can become a lot more concentrated, resulting in a higher likelihood of urea turning into ammonia. You may also notice the ammonia smell once your baby starts sleeping for longer stretches at night. The concentration of urine that builds up overnight can also result in the development of ammonia. In fact, nighttime diapers are often the biggest cause of ammonia stink. Rinsing your diapers every morning is a good way to prevent the build-up of ammonia until your regular cloth diaper laundry day! See Using Cloth Diapers at Night for some great tips.
What to do if you experience ammonia burn?
You may mistake an ammonia burn for a diaper rash. However, a flat, red, and blotchy irritation is usually a chemical burn caused by ammonia coming into contact with skin. Rarely will blisters or sores appear. Ammonia burns are not only experienced by cloth diapered babies – they can happen with disposable diapers that are left on for too long.
Ammonia burn may be a lot more common with disposable diapers than you might think. There is a tendency to wear disposables for longer periods of time due to the absorptive chemical gels that prevent diapers from feeling wet. Urea is allowed more time to sit and develop into ammonia, especially during overnight stretches. This issue likely goes unreported, as parents and caregivers often mistake a chemical burn for a typical diaper rash.
Treatment for chemical burns is similar to diaper rash. Create a barrier with a thick diaper rash cream. To prevent build-up of diaper rash cream on your cloth diapers, use a biodegradable or disposable liner when treating the burn. Consider cloth-diaper friendly diaper rash creams as well. Nora’s Nursery offers some advice for finding a cloth diaper friendly diaper cream at Diaper Creams and Cloth Diapers.
Always check with your doctor if treatment isn’t effective and the burn lasts for more than a few days. Stripping diapers is essential if your baby is experiencing chemical burns.
Another common cloth diaper smell you might run into is a distinct ‘barnyard’ or ‘cattle truck’ stink. Or maybe stale, fishy. or just plain stinky cloth diapers!
- This smell is most obvious when diapers are warm – if they have just come out of the dryer or a warm wash, for example.
- In severe cases, your cloth diapers may smell even after you have cleaned them and put them away for use.
- This cloth diaper smell is caused by the build-up of bacteria or soil left behind after diapers have been washed.
- If left untreated, the bacteria and dirt can cause persistent rashes.
- Running a deep clean and using a bleach soak may help tackle this issue. Stripping diapers in severe situations may be necessary.
How to Tackle Stinks, Stains and Build-up?
If you are looking to reset your diapers, consider the options that are available to you depending on what you are struggling with. If you have built-up residue and stains, consider a deep cleaning to restore your diapers. For bacteria related stink, you may want to reset your cloth diapers with a deep clean using a bleach soak. For ammonia build-up, consider stripping your cloth diapers. Just remember, get to the root of the problem to figure out your best cleaning approach. Check out Fluff Love University’s Do I Need to Strip or Bleach This for help troubleshooting and coming up with an action plan.
Stripping and bleaching are hard on your cloth diapers and should not be done regularly. Resetting your diapers also means figuring out a good wash routine to avoid a recurring problem.
Before you start, ensure you understand the type of water you have. Is it hard water? Do you have a mechanical water softening system? Choose a detergent that is powerful yet safe for your diapers and gentle on baby’s skin. Also consider the type of washing machine you have - front-loading machines and top-loading machines work differently to clean your clothes. If you are looking for a great overview of choosing a cloth diaper friendly detergent, learning more about your washing machine, and understanding hard water and its impacts on cloth diapering, visit The Best Detergents for Cloth Diapers.
Deep Cleaning and Restoring Your Cloth Diapers
If you are looking for a deep clean to tackle stains, stink or built-up residue, here’s a step-by-step process:
- Start by rinsing your diapers and washing away any solid waste.
- Set your washing machine temperature to hot (140OF or higher).
- Run your cloth diaper inserts through one to three hot water wash cycles. Use a detergent of your choice and a water softener if you have hard water. Don’t overdo it with detergent – follow the manufacturer recommended instructions!
TIP: The shells often don’t hold on to stains and residue build-up the same way the inserts do – and keeping them separate during this stage will help prolong their lifespan.
- If needed, this would be the time to run a bleach soak. For details on using bleach, continue reading below.
- Wash your cloth diaper shells and inserts together one to two times using a hot water setting and a detergent of your choice. This will help remove remaining bleach and combat stains and build-up on your shells.
- Follow this with a short wash or rinse cycle two more times without detergent. Consider adding a water softener during this rinse if you have hard water – this will prevent mineral build-up on your cloth diaper fabric.
- You can throw your cloth diaper shells in the dryer for 10 minutes on high to “re-seal” the PUL covers if necessary.
- Hang everything to dry, or dry on a low setting.
Stripping Cloth Diapers
Stripping cloth diapers may be required occasionally if you are experiencing ammonia or bacteria. Even if you find your cloth diapers are repelling due to extreme build-up of laundry detergent, hard water minerals, or diaper creams, stripping may be a solution. But always remember, to strip cloth diapers is hard on fabrics and should only be done occasionally to correct months of improper washing. Make sure to determine if you need to strip cloth diapers to tackle ammonia, bacteria and severe build-up or if you can run a deep clean instead. Getting a great washing routine will help keep your diapers clean and allow you to avoid stripping diapers on a regular basis.
A quick fix if you aren’t tackling any serious issues is to wash your cloth diapers with a little added baking soda during your regular wash. The high PH in baking soda helps neutralize ammonia smells. This shouldn’t be part of your regular wash routine, however, as baking soda can cause diapers to deteriorate and fail over time.
Stripping cloth diapers usually involves a laundry treatment. Always start with clean diapers and focus on the absorbent parts such as the inserts. Consider using a home-made mineral solution or laundry treatment like RLR Laundry Treatment.
TIP - DIY Mineral Stripping Solution: mix Washing Soda, Borax and Calgon – three tablespoons of each for one stripping session. This mixture can be used as a cleaning and laundry booster as well. If you only have two ingredients, use ¼ cup of each. If using only one of these ingredients, go for a half a cup.
Here is a step by step guide for stripping cloth diapers, adapted from Fluff Love University:
- Fill your bathtub, laundry sink, top-loading washing machine or other container about half full with hot water – the highest hot water setting you can achieve is important here.
- Add your home-made mineral solution or laundry treatment and ensure it dissolves in the hot water.
- Soak your cloth diapers in this solution until the water cools. Ideally, four to six hours is best. Avoid soaking for shorter than two hours and longer than eight hours.
- Stir occasionally.
- Drain and squeeze out remaining water.
- Run your diapers through a cold wash cycle without any detergent.
- You can follow this step with a cold-water bleach soak for about 30 minutes to tackle any leftover bacteria. See below information on bleach soaks.
- Wash your cloth diapers at least 2 times using a good washing routine to rinse away any remaining minerals. Ensure to use a water softener if you have hard water.
- Hang dry or dry on a low setting.
Bleach can be tough on fabrics. Not all bleaches work the same way. For example, scented bleach will not disinfect the way regular bleach will. Bleaches are often not recommended for use with many cloth diaper brands and should only be used when serious ammonia, bacteria, or build-up are causing rashes for your baby or rendering your cloth diapers unusable! Bleach can put pressure on cloth diaper shell fabrics and can cause discolouration.
To safely bleach cloth diapers, focus on the inserts where bacteria and stink primarily live. Throw freshly cleaned diapers into a tub, sink, top-loading washing machine, or other container for a 30-minute cold water bleach soak. About ½ cup of bleach is enough for a top-loading machine filled to medium capacity or an average sized bathtub filled half-way. Less bleach is required for a smaller sink or container – about one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water. After finishing your bleach soak, continue through your deep cleaning or stripping routine.
For bleach free sanitization alternatives, keep reading below for extra tips. Check out bleaching tips from Fluff Love University before you decide to try a bleach soak.
Extra Tips for Deep Cleaning & Stripping Cloth Diapers:
- Generally, you do not need to strip cloth diaper shells or PUL covers as they do not have any absorbent parts. Cloth diaper smells resulting from ammonia and bacteria generally occur in the absorptive diaper inserts.
- Often, tackling leaks and build-up can be addressed through a good wash routine. Key elements of your wash routine include the right amount of detergent, the right amount of water, proper agitation in your washing machine, and the use of liners or cloth diaper friendly diaper creams.
- Get the right ingredients to make your own home-made mineral solution to strip cloth diapers. Home-made solutions are recommended over store bought laundry treatments.
- Staining on cloth diapers is normal! If your diapers are stink-free and do not leak, there is no need to run a harsh stripping or bleach soak. Allowing your cloth diapers some time to dry in the sun may be just what they need to help combat stubborn stains!
- If you want to avoid using bleach to sanitize and tackle ammonia or bacteria, you can use a mixture of Hydrogen Peroxide and Borax (four cups of hydrogen peroxide with one cup of borax in a half-filled bathtub or half-filled top-loading washing machine of cold water). This option may be good for those with high iron content in their water, or when bleach allergies are a concern.