Cloth Diaper Care: Smelly Diapers

This is part three of a four-part series.  The last post will run next Thursday where I’ll host a cloth diaper Q&A and cloth diaper link-up.

Mama is proud to have this Cloth Diaper Care series sponsored by Cloth Diapers Rock: the unique cloth diaper matching service.


There are a few reasons why people stop using cloth diapers.  One of the biggest reasons?

Smelly diapers.

I don’t mean that they are smelly when you’re putting them in the washing machine.  They are supposed to be smelly then.

I mean that they are stinky when they are clean.  And diapers should just smell fresh and heavenly when they’re clean, not stinky.

A lot can be said about smelly diapers and help in getting them back to their normal, lovely state.  I’ll try and encompass most of the stink issues in this post.



Why Clean Cloth Diapers Smell

There can be several reasons why your cloth diapers are smelly:

  • Detergent build-up on diapers
    If you battle hard water, it can be horribly difficult to wash all of the detergent from your diapers.  You might even have to do 3 or 4 rinses after the normal wash cycle to rid your dipes of detergent.  If you are constantly heavy-handed with detergent, you’ll inevitably have build-up.  Lastly, if you are using a front-loading washer to launder your diapers, you’ll more likely have build-up since they use a decreased amount of detergent.
  • Using too much detergent
    Using too much detergent with each washing can cause stinky dipes also.  Even if you don’t have actual detergent build-up, it can cause smelly diapers.  So make sure you use only the recommended amount of detergent for cloth diapers, which is 1/4-1/2 of the amount you’d pour in a usual load of clothes. 
  • Not using enough detergent
    There is a fine line of how much detergent you should use in diapers.  If you don’t use enough, your diapers will come out of the washing machine smelling gross.  If your diapers are clean they shouldn’t smell gross.  Believe me:  5 drops of detergent is not, I repeat is not enough to get your diapers clean!
  • Not using a detergent that works well for cloth diapers
    When choosing a detergent to use with your dipes, make sure it is something low-sudsing and doesn’t have added fabric softeners.  The fewer the ingredients, the better.  I covered choosing a detergent in the post on how to wash cloth diapers, so head over there if you need detergent help.
  • Diapers need to be washed more frequently
    Bacteria can make diapers smell absolutely disgusting.  If your cloth diapers are sitting in the diaper pail for more than 3 days, it will be hard to keep them smelling nice and fresh.  The longer they sit, the more gross they are.  If you are battling stink, for whatever the reason, try washing every other day and see if that improves your stink issues.  Think about it:  those diapers contain the waste products of your baby’s body.  And they’ve been sitting in a hot, humid diaper pail for 6 days.  Of course it stinks.  So wash frequently.





How to Get Rid of Smelly Diapers

Getting to the crux of why your diapers smell bad is the only way you’ll cure the stink once and for all. 

Experiment with only one variable at the time.  If you believe it might be your detergent, then change only your detergent.  Either increase or decrease the amount based on your issue. 

If you have detergent build-up in your diapers, you’ll need to strip them.  I’ve written a comprehensive guide to stripping cloth diapers that is easy to follow.  If your diapers have a lot of build-up or if you use a front-loader, you might need to strip them 2-4 times to get them back to their clean-smelling state.  It won’t hurt the diapers to strip them multiple times, it will just be time consuming.



How to Maintain Fresh Smelling Diapers

So you’ve stripped your diapers and they smell fabulous, just like when you first bought them.  Now the question becomes:

How do I keep them this way?

Consistency is the key.

Consistently wash them every 2-3 days.  Consistently use the same type and the amount of detergent that works best for your washing machine and water type.  Consistently use the same wash routine.

Once you figure out the ‘perfect’ method for your diapers, don’t vary from it! 

Don’t get discouraged in trying to figure out what actually is the perfect cleaning routine for your diapers.  You’ll get it down pat with a little bit of work and experimentation.


Diapers drying on rack outside




A Little Stinky Diaper Q&A

I’ve stripped my diapers and they still smell awful.  What do I do now?

Strip them again and then again if necessary.  If they are exceptionally bad, it will take multiple times to get the build-up out.  Don’t be scared – just do it.  And definitely dry them in the sun.

If they still smell after stripping a couple of times, you might need to use a little chlorine bleach.  For a top-loader use 3/4 cup of bleach and for a front-loader use 1/4 cup of bleach.  I promise that using this small amount of bleach to get your diapers back in shape will not hurt them or the elastic.  There are a few times in laundry where you have to pull out the big guns.  Now is the time if you can’t get your diapers stripped well enough using Blue Dawn, a ton of rinses and sunshine.


What should my diapers smell like when they are clean?

You really shouldn’t smell anything.  Do this test:  When taking your diapers out of the washing machine (they’ll be wet of course), give them a big sniff.  Do they smell like detergent, even a tiny bit?  If so, they still have detergent in them and need to be rinsed again.  Do they smell like ammonia or just general ick?  If so, they needed more detergent in the wash cycle.  Run them through another wash cycle adding more detergent this time.  Can you not really smell anything at all?  That’s perfect.  Whatever you did with detergent is the correct method for your dipes.  Don’t change a thing.


My inserts for my pocket diapers smell awful.  How come?

Microfiber inserts and occasionally hemp just don’t rinse as cleanly as cotton prefolds.  Just chalk it up to the nature of the fabrics.  If you are looking for easy diapers to wash and maintain, cotton prefolds should be your top choice.  Microfiber and hemp have their definite pros though, so it’s a choice of what you’d like to deal with: diapers that potentially stink more often and are less bulky or clean rinsing diapers that are a little more bulky.


My diapers smell like ammonia and they smell awful as soon as the baby wets in them.  How do I get rid of that?

The ammonia smell is likely due to detergent build-up.  Try stripping the diapers and make sure you aren’t using too much detergent in your usual wash routine.


What is your best maintenance tip for keeping cloth diapers smelling fresh?

I have two actually:
– Dry diapers in the sun as often as possible.  The sun has fabulous smell-killing properties, so dry in the sun liberally.
– Even if you have enough diapers to diaper your baby for 10 straight days (some of you do!), wash every 3 days at the very most.   You’re asking for stink trouble if you wait much longer.


Smelly diapers can be horribly frustrating, but they can smell clean again.  What are your questions about stinky diapers?  Ask away in the comments or send me an email.



Please visit the sponsor of Mama’s Cloth Diaper Care Series: Cloth Diapers Rock

Cloth Diapers Rock is a unique cloth diaper matching service.  If you need cloth diapers, they’ll match you with a great product and distributor.  Cloth Diapers Rock offers information on styles of cloth diapers, sew-your-own diaper tutorials and more!


  1. Lindsey Cowen says:

    I am in the thinking process of going to cloth diapers. We are currently TTC, and I know with our next one we will definitely do cloth diapers. I even have a friend that is willing to share some with me to get me started. I currently have 2 daughters that are completely potty trained except for at night, so we just do pull-ups on them then. I’m thinking it would be better to use the cloth diapers, especially if they’re being given to me for free. My question is, as far as the wash them every other day rule, would it be worth it to do a whole load for 4 diapers, or could I throw them in with my other whites/lights?

    • mamalaundry says:


      I definitely think it is necessary to wash the diapers in their own load. Since cloth diapers are washed so differently (meaning their own routine, must get suds out, etc) and since they will be soaked from being worn all night, they should be washed separately. You could probably stretch it to washing every 3rd day, so a total of 6 dipes.

      Also, for a smaller load like that I would designate an old towel or two to wash with them every time. A medium to large size load will wash much cleaner than such a small load of diapers.

      Let me know if you have questions! 🙂


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