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Why are my cloth diapers and covers stinky?

Image: 25 DSQ unbleached prefolds prepped and ready to go. I've been told that these are imported by Green Earth. By snarky_momma

Green Earth DSQ unbleached prefolds
prepped and ready to go.

Dear Catherine;
I just washed up a lovely pile of cloth diapers, and pull them to my face for a good whiff of nice, clean diapers. But what did I smell instead? E-e-w-w! Stinky diapers!! What went wrong???

Several things can lead clean diapers to smell - vinegar in the rinse, A+H detergent, too long between washing, soaking in poopy water, hot rinses, too much laundry detergent, dirty diapers not unrolled, polyester, hard water, washing soda, overloading the washer and diaper rash remedies.

Let's talk about these different factors:

1. Vinegar rinse:

• Some parents find that if they use vinegar in the rinse water, everything stinks! According to a recent poll, it seems not to matter whether you have hard or soft water, vinegar can still cause or solve your problem. There didn't seem to be more one than the other. Vinegar seems to work in some water conditions, but not others. It could also depend on what other minerals are in your water. For example, there could be a lot of iron in your water, but another family could have higher sulphur.

Your best bet is that if you are currently using vinegar, and have stinky diapers, stop and see if it makes a difference? If you aren't using vinegar and have stinky diapers, give it a try.

If you ARE using vinegar, 1/4 to 1/2 cup is all you need. Adding too much vinegar might be your stinky diaper problem!

Image: Church+Dwight Arm+Hammer Super Washing Soda

Arm + Hammer Super Washing Soda
Click for more info: US | CDN | UK

2. Arm and Hammer detergent:

• It contains too much washing soda, which is causing problems for many parents with very hard water. Arm and Hammer recently changed their ingredients. Not only are parents suddenly complaining that their diapers stink after washing, but moms of little boys are finding terrible rashes on their baby's privates.

3. Too Long Between Washing:

• Diapers really need to be washed about every two to three days. If that isn't possible for you, it would be better if you rinsed out at least the poopy diapers, or used diaper liners.

If you are soaking in a diaper pail, make sure to change the soak water every day. If you can only wash once a week, try rinsing even the pee diapers before storing.

Image: Tommee Tippee Simplee Diaper Pail

Tommee Tippee Simplee Diaper Pail
Click for more info: US | CDN | UK

4. Soaking in Poopy Water:

• If you are soaking un-rinsed poopy diapers in a diaper pail, doing a long soak in the washer, or washing the diapers in the soak water - you are probably soaking the stink right into the diaper fabric! If you are soaking your diapers, don't add your polyester diaper covers. Store and wash them separately.
The best thing would be to rinse out all poopy diapers before putting them into the pail.

If you can't, try to wash your diapers every other day, or every day, if possible. Rinse out the soak water before running the diapers through a pre-wash.

5. Hot Rinses:

• Hot water not only can set stains, but it can lock in the smell too. Try a cold pre-wash, a hot wash, then a cold rinse to clean your diapers thoroughly.

Image: Handy Spray Diaper Sprayer - Easy Self Installation

Handy Spray Diaper Sprayer
Click for more info: US | CDN | UK

6. Too Much Laundry Detergent:

• Most detergent companies advise you to use way more detergent than you really need. If the detergent is not thoroughly rinsed out, it holds onto smells, and when baby pees - look out! That combination of too much detergent, old urine and new is a eye-tearing knock-out!

If this is your problem, run your diapers through several wash cycles, without adding ANYTHING to the water. Keep washing till the water runs clear - no bubbles. (No need to dry them in-between.)

After you get your diapers completely detergent-free (you may be shocked at how many washes it will take!), cut back to at least half the amount of detergent you were previously using, even 1/4 if you feel brave enough. You only need to break the water surface, not create a mountain of bubbles!

7. Dirty Diapers Not Unrolled:

• Do you roll your diapers up into a tight ball, and then toss them into the diaper pail? Unless you take each diaper and snap them open as you load the washing machine, they may not be opening up inside the washer. As a result the diapers are not being properly cleaned, through all the layers. This is especially important with thick fitted and all-in-one diapers.

8. Polyester:

• Polyester is famous for holding in smells. Check to see if your diapers or covers have polyester in them. Even a small amount can be a problem. Mother-ease diapers and covers and Bummis Super Whisper Wraps are often the stinky diapers and covers in question.

Here's what Betsy, manufacturer of Bummis, says: We advise people with stinky diapers and covers is wash them with a hydrogen peroxide based product - it neutralizes the acidity which is the main problem with stinky diapers and covers. Older kids have really acidic urine - and it stinks!! Vinegar is acidic as well, so it will only exacerbate the problem.

9. Hard Water:

Dr. Bonners, or other vegetable-based soaps don't seem to be working for some with very hard water. Many users have complained that their diapers are just not coming clean!

It seems that some with hard water need to avoid vinegar in the rinse water, and find that baking soda works better for getting rid of smells. According to a recent poll, vinegar can still cause or solve your problem, so you will need to experiment. (See Vinegar above)

Image: Rockin' Green Laundry Detergent Classic Rock Unscented

Rockin' Green Cloth Diaper and Laundry Detergent
Click for more info: US | CDN | UK

10. Washing Soda:

• This may only apply to those with very hard water, I have heard over and over that washing soda will ruin your diapers. If you feel you must using it, just 1/8 to 1/4 cup per wash load is all you need. A+H Baking soda works great for helping odors and freshening things up.

11. Overloading the washing machine:

• Make sure you aren't overloading your washer. Those diapers need lots of room to move around to get clean. An optimal load is 24 diapers, plus any wash-able liners, doublers and cloth wipes. Too many diapers stuffed in there and your diapers just won't come clean.

12. Diaper Rash Remedies:

Desitin diaper cream contains cod liver oil and is often the culprit when diapers smell fishy! Penaten, plain zinc oxide or Balmex works great. Plain zinc oxide doesn't stain or create stinky diapers, and it will wash right out.

If you already have a problem with Desitin damage on your diapers, soak in the diapers in a strong detergent solution for a few days. Then wash with detergent and 1 cup of baking soda. Dry your diapers in the sun for a day or so, and wash them again as you normally would.


Hope that helps! Write again to if you have a diapering question you would like answered.


This article compliments of Born to Love.

The Diaper Facts column:

How Do I Get Started With Cloth Diapering?
Cloth Diapering With A Diaper Service
How Do I Wash Cloth Diapers?
Expensive to Wash Cloth Diapers?
The STINK on Stinky Diapers
Why are my cloth diapers and covers stinky?
Here's my Stinky Diaper Solution!
Why are my cloth diapers and/or diaper covers leaking?!?
How Do I Make My Diaper Covers Last?

Other articles that might be of interest:

How to Choose the Perfect Cloth Diapering System
Feeling Confused About Your Cloth Diapering Decision?
Diapering Expert Shares Secrets!
Do Cloth Diapers Seem Too Expensive?
Frugal Diaper Washing
Frugal Diapering
Frugal Baby Tips: Make Your Own Baby Bum Sweaters!
Your Choice Does Make a Difference!
What's Wrong With 'Disposable' Single-Use Diapers?
Environmental Concerns - What Do They Mean For You and Your Baby?
Environmental Concerns II - Looking at Both Sides of the Issue


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Last updated - February 8, 2017