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One of the most common concerns that parents (or their well-meaning relatives) have about cloth diapers is that they will stink up their entire home.
After all, it would kind of make sense for them to smell since you’re collecting used cloth diapers in one place before washing them.
But is it true?
Do you have to accept the fact that cloth diapers just smell?
Your home will not be affected by the smell of used cloth diapers as long as they are stored in a ventilated dry pail until wash day. They should be washed every two to three days with a thorough washing routine.
Read on to learn more about cloth diapers, how to prevent potential smells before they start to occur and what to do if they actually do start to smell.
Do Cloth Diapers Smell?
Unless you decide to smell the inside of the pail or the wet bag very intentionally, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that cloth diapers do not smell as long as they’re being cared for properly.
Used cloth diapers are usually stored inside a dry pail liner or a wet bag (learn how they compare in this separate post I wrote), which are made of PUL. PUL is a water-resistant material that is breathable but does not let the smells escape through the material.
Contrary to what might seem logical the dry pail works better without a lid, where air can circulate freely around the used diapers.
Whether you’ll be using the dry pail with or without the lid, will probably be dependent on any pets or curious babies that might be interested in the content of the dry pail.
Cloth diapers should be washed every two to three days with an initial rinse cycle, main hot wash with enough cloth diaper friendly detergent, and optionally an additional rinse cycle (if you have hard water, avoid the additional rinse cycle as it might facilitate mineral build-up in your diapers which hinders their absorbency).
By now you’ve learned that cloth diapers shouldn’t make any room or even home smell.
You still might wonder what is the best place in your home to keep the used cloth diapers until wash day.
The Best Place in Your Home to Keep Used Cloth Diapers
The best place to keep used cloth diapers is near the changing table, which can be in the bathroom, nursery, bedroom, living room, hall, or laundry room. You can keep the dry pail or a wet bag with used cloth diapers in any room in your home as long as it is well ventilated.
Additionally, make sure that the dry pail or the wet bag is out of reach from small children and pets.
Keep the room you’re storing used cloth diapers in well ventilated.
How to Make Sure Your Cloth Diapers Don’t Start to Smell
To make sure your cloth diapers don’t start giving away any unpleasant fragrances, follow these steps:
- Wash cloth diapers every 2 to 3 days.
- Rinse poopy and nighttime diapers with cold water immediately after you take them off your child. A lot of concentrated urine can start “eating away” the natural fibers, so make sure you dilute it as soon as you can.
- Rinse all dirty cloth diapers with cold water right before the main wash to dilute the urine in the diapers and to wash away as much gunk as possible.
- Use enough quality cloth diaper-friendly detergent (as suggested in the detergent instructions for the dirtiest laundry depending on your water hardness).
- Use a water softener if your water is very hard.
- Have a quality pail liner or wet bag that will keep the unpleasant fragrances away.
- Use a dry pail without a lid if possible – this will allow the air to circulate around dirty diapers and they will be less likely to give away smells.
- Don’t leave used cloth diapers in the hot and humid environment for too long – this might increase the possibility of nasty smells.
What to Do If Your Cloth Diapers Start to Smell?
First, find out when exactly do your cloth diapers start to smell.
Do they smell bad, when you take them out of the washing machine already?
Or do the smells catch your nose as soon as your child wets the diaper (especially at night)?
Maybe the bad odor only appears when the diapers have been sitting in the pail or wet bag for a while.
Either way, the following paragraphs will help you to identify your situation and find the best solution for it.
Cloth Diapers Smell Straight Out of the Washing Machine
If they are freshly washed and they smell, you’re most likely having detergent issues (not strong enough or you use too little of it) or the water is so hard it is causing a mineral build-up in the diapers.
It might also be that the detergent you’re using isn’t suitable for your water hardness, so make sure you know how hard is your water and choose the right detergent for it.
If you’ve been washing your cloth diapers in hard untreated water for more than 1 month, you might need to strip them.
Check out this ultimate guide to stripping cloth diapers if you’re considering doing this.
Cloth Diapers Start to Smell As Soon As They Get Wet
What you’re smelling in this case is ammonia.
When 1 molecule of urea (a urine component that helps with nitrogen excretion) breaks down, two molecules of ammonia emerge from this process.
As you probably know, ammonia has a distinctly unpleasant smell which only grows worse, the longer urea molecules keep falling apart. This means the longer urine stays somewhere without being rinsed away, the worse is it going to smell (source).
So how does this become a problem with cloth diapers?
And why are nighttime diapers affected much more often than daytime diapers?
The answer is in the much larger amount of urine that the nighttime diaper typically absorbs.
Since there is a lot of urine, this also means more urea and – you guessed it – more ammonia. If you don’t rinse nighttime diapers, the urine keeps breaking down to ammonia and it is much harder to thoroughly wash it out than urea right away. A small amount of then always stays inside the diaper and reacts with fresh urine when the child pees.
To solve this problem, rinse the nighttime diaper as much as possible right after you take it off your child, so you get rid of most of the urine.
Additionally, make sure you always do a cold rinse before the main hot wash to thoroughly rinse away as much urine as possible.
Cloth Diapers Start to Smell in the Pail/Wet bag
In this scenario, your cloth diapers probably don’t have a smell when freshly washed and even smell normal after they’re wet but they start to smell really bad when they sit in the pail or a wet bag even after a few hours.
Based on my experience I suggest you try the following things:
- Evaluate the possibility to store the diapers in a dry pail without the lid to allow the air to circulate more.
- Think about how old are your pail liners/wet bags. Is it possible that they might not be of the best quality anymore? Consider replacing one of them with a quality pail liner/wet bag to check if the problem persists. Read here about what to do if your wet bags start leaking.
- Think about the environment you’re storing used cloth diapers. Is the room hot and humid or is it more cold and dry? Try to find a colder and/or less humid place to store the diapers for a while and see if the situation improves.
- Try a diaper pail deodorizer (affiliate link to Amazon). These are great because you can refresh them in the sunlight after using them! Anyhow, if the smell is really bad, find the root cause for it first. A pail deodorizer can only go so far and it won’t actually solve your problem long-term.
I had a similar problem with cloth diapers recently. The diapers started giving away an unpleasant smell after only a couple hours.
At that time the summer had just started and I decided to try and keep the used diapers in an open pail (I always used to close it as much as possible to keep the smells away) and I was very surprised to learn it made such a difference.
If I only knew this before!
I was already thinking about buying a new pail liner because of this and I’m so glad I don’t have to now, which makes the whole cloth diapering experience even more sustainable!