Even after multiple washings, these cloth diapers still stink.
June 19, 2012 5:48 AM   Subscribe

Our cloth diapers have a permanent stink and lots of orange stains. What further laundry solutions should we try?

Our son is 10 weeks old and is fed only breastmilk. We use a combination of prefolds (both bleached and unbleached cotton) with Thirsties covers and FuzziBunz with a variety of microfiber, hemp, and minky inserts. For several weeks now, as soon as we put them on the baby and he starts to wet them, they all start to smell very funky, like stale old pee, though they smelled fine after coming out of the laundry. Also, there are lots of set-in orange stains on the diapers--we don't especially care what they look like now, but we will want the stains out if we ever try to resell them, and perhaps the fact that they're not coming out now is another indicator that our laundry routine is not working.

Our laundry routine:
- Drop used diapers in a dry pail with a liner; poop diapers only are first sprayed with Bac-Out
- Approximately every other day, dump contents of pail and liner in washing machine (front loader)
- Presoak with cold water
- Wash on heavy cycle with hot water, detergent, and white vinegar in the fabric softener dispenser
- Dry everything on medium heat for half an hour; remove covers and FuzziBunz shells to drying rack, and finish prefolds and inserts in dryer for another hour

We were using Allen's laundry soap but have switched to Seventh Generation Free & Clear detergent, which yields slightly better results but definitely doesn't solve the stink problem completely. We've also tried using Baby OxyClean in the washing machine and running an extra rinse cycle after the wash. I can't say we've been very scientific with those experiments, but at least initially they didn't seem to make any difference.

We seem to have fairly hard water, and some online sources suggest that this could be our culprit. Any particular tips for combating its stink effects?

Note that a wet pail is not a particularly viable option for us given the setup of our house. Also, we don't have access to a lot of direct sunlight for drying diapers outside.
posted by bigboggle to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My routine with Bum Genius is that we spray bac out on ALL the diapers before throwing in the pail. We presoak them in cold water for about 4 hours with more bac out, then wash. 2nd wash in hot water with tide free and clear. Then 2 or 3 rinse cycles. Every month or so we will drop a drop of dish soap in the 2nd wash to freshen and strip the diapers, and after that wash we will rinse extra. We have zero stains, and no smell build up (especially after using the dish soap). Our son will be 2 soon, so they are well used diapers!

It seems like the washer is running forever on diaper days, but it's worth it. I have also heard that leaving them in the sun to dry helps with stains, but that's not an option for us apartment dwellers :) Good luck!
posted by katypickle at 5:54 AM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

My water is very hard but I got ride of most of the stink and stains by drying outside. Do you have any crunchy friends or family nearby that will let you come for a long visit and hang the diapers in their backyard? I lived in a tiny apartment with my first and also used the sun coming through the window to dry indoors, rotating among the three nappies that fit in the patch of sunlight.
posted by saucysault at 5:55 AM on June 19, 2012

Find a way to leave them in the sun. Seriously. That sun is miracle stuff.
posted by striker at 5:56 AM on June 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

We've had this problem with our front-loader as well - it's water-efficient, but doesn't do as good a job on some stuff, particularly cloth diapers.

Our solution is to soak them in a bucket of water with a generous dose of oxyclean in it overnight before putting them in the wash, and when possible to let them air dry outside; works pretty well.

Cloth diapers periodically need to be "stripped" of buildup, so you may find it helpful to wash them with a water softening soap (Calgon, others) and a bit of vinegar and then rinsing them out thoroughly every six or eight weeks.
posted by mhoye at 6:07 AM on June 19, 2012

A soak in borax should eliminate the smell.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:11 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hang them to dry in direct sun, UV is a great sanitizer and bleacher, you diapers might feel a bit rough after it but a quick tumble in the dryer can resoften them if that's a problem for you, I find they are more absorbent fresh off the clothes line. You can get racks pretty cheap.

Also depending on your views on chemicals rinse off any solids, soak in oxyclean and warm water and then wash as normal.
posted by wwax at 6:12 AM on June 19, 2012

this problem with our front-loader

From the color of the stains, it sounds like a rear-loader issue. Wait...

Seriously, though, I think stained diapers is just kind of a thing. You're lucky if you can get your kid's stains out, but from what our associates claim, most people can't. Our first baby's poo always washed out; the new one's never does. Have you tried OxyClean? I think my wife used that on the first baby's--so maybe that was part of it--but I think she quit caring on baby two.
posted by resurrexit at 6:14 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know you said you don't have access to much space to sun them, but can you put them in the back window of your car when you park in the sun? That worked well for us. A bit weird, but, eh.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 6:18 AM on June 19, 2012

mefi mail sent
posted by zombieApoc at 6:24 AM on June 19, 2012

Nthing the sun. Also, pre-soak with more than just water. My stepmom tried a bunch of stuff - borax and vineagar and at least one or two other soaps that I can't remember - and my baby sister is 16 so you'll forgive me for not remembering what worked best. ;)

But the sun works especially well on yellowish human-fluid stains, in my experience. And also on residual stinks.
posted by SMPA at 6:24 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

You may need to strip them again before doing anything else. To strip mine (prefolds, thirstie covers and BGs) I boil them in water with 2-3 drops of BLUE DAWN for 15mins. Then I washed them without any detergent for about 5 cycles. That'll give you a new start.

Once they are stripped again to get rid of the ammonia smell that is already there you should probably reconsider your washing routine. Is your water hard? I ask because if it is hard than you might want to try a different detergent. I use 1/4 of recommended amount of Planet or Nellies. First wash is cold with cold rinse. Repeat without detergent. Next is hot wash with dtergent and hot rinse. Repeat without detergent.

If you can, line dry it all in the sun. It will bleach everything.
posted by teamnap at 6:27 AM on June 19, 2012

sio42: "my friends who cloth diaper swear by the sun. no kidding."

Supposedly the UV converts some of the water to hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), which is a terrific, cloth-safe bleach.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:33 AM on June 19, 2012

Almost definitely a front-loading washing machine issue. Find any way you can to get that thing using as much water as possible- I had to read my manual to find the optimal settings because it wasn't intuitive, and some of the standard "tricks" didn't work. Sometimes just adding a wet towel will help, but my machine doesn't rely entirely on weight to adjust water level. Yours might!

Also try adding a second cold rinse after the usual hot wash cycle.

If you don't have a lot of outside sun, sunning through a window can still be effective.
posted by sunshinesky at 6:35 AM on June 19, 2012

Sunlight will probably help your stain problem (although as an apartment dweller I know that's easier said than done!) but not so much with the stink. For that you will need more water and possibly more detergent in your wash routine. Here is a link from Bummis that might help, scroll down to the Urine Residue section. I think front loaders are notorious for this; I have a top loader and still have a hard time getting that urine stink out of my son's super-thick microfiber night diapers. FYI, I've heard mixed things about the Seventh Generation detergent but Allen's should be fine. I use Rockin' Green and it usually works, but I have to use about twice as much as they recommend to get things really clean. I've read a lot about this (waaay too much) and it seems like everyone has their own unique solution to diaper wash problems (on preview--see every answer here). You really just have to fiddle around with detergents, additives, water level and temps, etc until you find your own sweet spot.
posted by Jemstar at 6:36 AM on June 19, 2012

I agree with the stripping recommended by teamnap.

I have extremely hard water, though I never had an issue with smells. I bought a new front loader as we got into the baby phase, made sure it had a sanitize cycle.

I don't remember my whole routine, but at least once a week for each set of diapers (I kept two stashes in rotation because I dry-pailed at daycare and had to keep alot rotating) I'd toss in borax. I exclusively used Charlie's Soap and white vinegar on everything (not just diapers). In fact, my machines have never had "regular" laundry soap or fabric softener in there except All Free and Clear when I have company and they don't want to us CS, or when I'm washing out clothes that have been dunked in fabric softener.

I am lucky enough to have fencing, so I simply strung a few lines and line-dried diapers once a month (twice a month in two batches). Now we are out of diapers, but I invested in a folding umbrella dryer and stand. When I had a diaper or two "acting up", I just put them on a table outside with a couple of rocks holding them down.
posted by tilde at 6:40 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try doing your first rinse in warm water instead of cold. This link might help too. And nth-ing the sun for stain removal. Find a way.
posted by chiababe at 6:43 AM on June 19, 2012

Charlies soap is good. We never used bac-out, only charlies soap powder and occasionally vinegar if needed, but most of the heavy lifting was done by the hot water.

I'd suggest you try holding off on the vinegar if you use it in every load, and try running a few loads with baking soda instead. I read somewhere that using enough vinegar can start to add an odor, and stopping the vinegar for a while can eliminate that, with the baking soda to help remove some odors and to help neutralize the vinegar.

I'd also suggest running them through another hot water wash at the end, without the soap. It may be in your washer they just need some more time in the hot water.
posted by markblasco at 7:19 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also 'stripped' by boiling them with a bit of dish detergent and that worked well and...re-set the funk clock. But, sun, even in a window... Miraculous. You might resolve to ignore the stains until such time as you do wish to sell them, and then borrow somebody's clothesline or something for an extended sun-bleaching?
posted by kmennie at 7:31 AM on June 19, 2012

My friend recently mentioned that she had great success talking with he folks at Rockin Green Soap about the same problem. They tested her water and have her a regiman to follow and she's really happy with the results.
posted by k8lin at 7:40 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Old school: boiling them for a while will get rid of a lot of nastiness. Our grandmas used to do it this way....
posted by Yavsy at 7:43 AM on June 19, 2012

When ours would stink, I'd use baking soda in the final rinse. Worked great. Yes, sun for stains.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:43 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Old school boiling can destroy (prematurely age) snaps and elastic and may not be good for the PUL. Save that for the flats/prefolds and inserts.

One thing I intimated but didn't post directly (forgot!) was you might have to strip your washer. I had an older washer to start (front load) and a top loader for a while (when I was doing cloth part time on the weekends only) and part of the problem was build up in the washer from years of fabric softener and scented detergent use. A lot of hot washes with baking soda and vinegar (I did borax once in a while, now that I look through my old notes - baking soda and vinegar every wash - BS in the tub, Vin in the fabric softener cup) and towels (for weight/volume) with a spot of Dawn (blue nothing with fancy crap) to strip the washer.

Aside from running the diapers through a sterilize cycle (heats water up to really hot) once a week, I also did (and still do, this is Florida and mold is the state flower) run the "wash the washer" cycle on the machine at least once a month, using tons of vinegar instead of bleach (not a fan).
posted by tilde at 7:48 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are they poo stains or mildew stains? We started getting some stains in our baby's diaper around the same time, and there were two different kind of stains. One kind was just straight-up where the poo had been sitting on the diaper, and the other was like a coral hue dispersed through the thicker part of the pre-fold. We live in an area (Seattle metro) where there is a common mildew that is that same color. (I had never seen "pink" mildew before I moved here a few years ago.)

The poo stains seemed to correlate to when I (the breastfeeding mother) ate a lot of peanut butter. Right - I didn't put a lot of stock into the school of thought that breastmilk is very similar to the mom's food - but once I dialed back the peanut butter consumption we stopped having any problems with poo stains.

In response I tried using Bac-out, but our baby has a very sensitive bum and is prone to rashes. The use of bac-out seemed to make it much, much worse. And it didn't really do much about the mildew. So I rejiggered our washing system to minimize the use of potentially irritating cleaning agents. We have a top-loader, and this is how it goes:
Soak diapers for 3-4 hours in cold water.
Let that same load with the soaking water go through an entire "heavy" wash cycle
Add detergent (Planet) and do another heavy wash cycle, this time with hot water
One more wash cycle with hot water
Dry, dry, dry

It's water- and energy-intensive. But, no more funky stains (or odors).

Another option is to try out some flat diapers, but that is super old-school and requires some extra time for folding. I use these sometimes. They are so thin when not folded, that it's really easy to wash all the gunk and funk out.
posted by stowaway at 7:51 AM on June 19, 2012

I used Rock N Green for hard water for diapers. This was my deal:

1 cold rinse
2-3 hot wash with Rock N Green
1-2 cold rinse

Then every few months, I striped the diapers with Dawn. Occasionally I'd throw some vinegar in with the wash.

We also dried our diapers on a rack - not outside, but on a rack.

We also did a wet bag.

This worked for us for 3 years.

Do you have an efficiency or front loader? If so, they just don't work as well.
posted by k8t at 8:39 AM on June 19, 2012

Sun for stains for sure. Works well for clothes, bibs (food stains) too.

For smell, I recently discovered a new trick. (I also have a frontloader). I do a prewash cycle and in it I use a little bit of our regular detergent (Purex). For the main wash, I use the baby free n clear detergent. Using a bit of the regular detergent in there really helps! I often do an extra rinse as well.
posted by kirst27 at 8:39 AM on June 19, 2012

Oh, also are you using any diaper cream? That can do a number on the diapers! We got some weird orange stains after using Butt Paste.
posted by k8t at 8:40 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have very hard water, but I have a top-loader so I don't know if that makes a difference.

Here is my routine:

First wash: Poop diapers only
Arm & Hammer powder detergent
Fill the washer with warm/hot water and all the ingredients, let soak for 1/2 hour before starting the agitation
Vinegar in the rinse cycle (hot rinse)

Second wash: add pee diapers to the mix
Ecos liquid detergent
Warm/hot first cycle, hot rinse

Dry on hot

No stains, no stink! I tried a lot of combinations before coming up with this. Occasionally I will substitute Oxi-Clean for the vinegar in the second wash.

I will add, though, that I have Bumkins all-in-ones which seem to hold less stink than those BumGenius inserts. I think those inserts just hold the stink no matter what you do (I have some BG but I don't use them much these days, because the Bumkins are so damn convenient.)

Also, yeah, sunlight! Even if you can only do two diapers in the window at a time. I live in the Pacific NW so this is really only an option for me in the summer months. :(
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:44 AM on June 19, 2012

Oh, PS: occasional bleach will probably work wonders for you. I'm on a septic system so I can't use it, but I think if I could, I would.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:45 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hard water sucks. We have the hardest water I've ever encountered at our new house (calcium buildup in on the brand new showerhead in just a couple weeks!!). Here is my anti-stink routine: full length cold wash with a cup or so of vinegar (I put vinegar in every laundry load and never use any fabric softener), very hot full length wash with 3/4 scoop of Country Save (sometimes stink is due to too little detergent, not too much), then another full length cold wash. Once every few weeks I do a cold soak overnight with a scoop of Funk Rock, then my regular routine with an extra full length rinse tacked on the end. I always line dry the covers with PUL and unless I am having a major stink issue, I dry the inserts and prefolds in the dryer. I don't like crunchy inserts.

To soften your water, I understand that Calgon has a powdered water softener available- I haven't tried it, but I hear it works well. I think it's available at Wal-mart. Rock n Green has a hard water specific detergent, but Country Save is cheaper and I think it works just as well.

To get the orange stains out, rub half a lemon on the stain then set the diaper in the sun. It's magic- my own EBF baby left some terrible stains in her first few weeks. It doesn't take very long, so even if you have a short window of opportunity, it will still work. Obviously, you should wash a lemony diaper before using it.

Stink is due to one of a couple things: some kind of buildup from inadequate rinsing... Or yeah, that. Rinse rinse rinse. Does your machine need a strip with CLR? Have you put the famous blue dawn into it, ever? Blue dawn, while good for many things, should not go into a washing machine, especially not a front loader. Run an empty cycle, or one with just a towel in it and see if you get any suds. If so, you need to do some cleaning.

Do you use fabric softener or dryer sheets? Stop! They leave a chemical buildup on everything. Put some vinegar in every wash load and quit using fabric softener- its cheaper, cleaner, and no nasty fake fragrance on everything.

Finally, is tere a local cloth diaper store you can turn to for advice? I've found that my local store is dialed in to the local water conditions and how to get around them without stink.

Good luck!
posted by LyndsayMW at 8:48 AM on June 19, 2012

I am a cloth diaper bleach evangelist.

I have read everything there is to read about stinky cloth diapers. The stripping, the complicated front-loader routines to get extra water in the system, the churn through indie cloth-diaper-only soaps... All of that can help. But in my opinion, when you are dealing with stinky diapers right after washing, what you probably have is a bacterial load in the diapers that remains even after they've been through the wash.

I imagine this sounds so alarming that people often don't want to think that this is what's happening and would like it to be "build-up" or whatever. But really, I think the stink is simply because the diapers don't get clean from wash to wash, there's a bunch of old bacteria in the diapers, after a wash and a dry everything temporarily seems okay, but pee hits it and pheeeewwww. (I think this is largely a front-loader+synthetics issue, but not exclusively.)

So here's what I would do. I would go buy some Tide. (Yes, outrageous.) And I would buy some bleach. And I would do one round with Tide, bleach (a couple tablespoons should do), and an extra rinse. I would see what happened. I would expect to see really significant improvement in the stink issue. If not, I would repeat. After that, I would keep diapering my kid as normal, with my ordinary laundry routine, and do one round of laundry like this every so often, maybe a couple of months.

And like everybody else says, sunlight will destroy the poop stains. It's like magic. I've done it through window glass, even, which seems like maybe it shouldn't work, but did.

Good luck!
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:06 AM on June 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I use a front loader and live in a hard water area, I've been told to use one third to half the amount of detergent per load that you'd usually use. Nthing the sun action - even if it's just for a bit either while drying or even once dry.
This Bummis UK page has some info about getting rid of the problem you describe.
posted by kumonoi at 12:00 PM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pre-wash with hot water and regular detergent; wash with hot water, bleach, regular laundry detergent, two rinses (1st with vinegar). From someone with two babies who used cloth diapers recently.
posted by fifilaru at 10:29 PM on June 19, 2012

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