Keeping Your Cloth Diaper Pail Smelling Fresh

By Steve Graham, Hometalk

Cloth diapers can save money (despite a substantial initial investment) and reduce landfill waste, but cleaning them requires effort. All diapers smell, almost by definition. However, the smell of cloth diapers can linger long beyond trash day and spread far beyond the nursery if the diapers aren’t washed and handled properly. I have been using cloth diapers and following most of these rules for the first 11 months of my baby’s life, and I’m happy to say that they work and they are easy to follow.

  • Change diapers regularly during the day. Soiled diapers should be changed immediately, both to avoid diaper rash and reduce odors. Wet diapers should be changed every two to three hours. This will keep baby more comfortable, and will avoid stale urine smells. Babies urinate about 20 times a day. Fresh urine should smell very little, but the salts in urine gradually break down into pungent ammonia.
  • Change the baby once at night. After a few months, babies no longer regularly poop at night, but you could still have 12 hours of pee building up and breaking down into ammonia in an overnight diaper (assuming you are blessed with a good sleeper). Keep the lights dim, and a quick overnight change will barely awaken baby. Full disclosure: this is one rule I do not follow. I don’t think it’s worth the trouble, and I use an overnight double liner to keep baby’s bum dry. To be sure, the smell of his overnight diaper really wakes me up in the morning, but I take care of the smell fairly quickly.
  • Rinse diapers. Scrape or rinse all solid waste out of diapers. Some parents spray off urine into the toilet, but most put wet diapers straight into the pail and use a rinse cycle (see more below).
  • Use an open diaper pail or bag. It may seem counterintuitive, but leaving the diaper pail lid cracked will allow more air circulation and reduce smells. Also wipe out the pail with a non-toxic disinfectant regularly, and air out the pail in disinfecting sunshine while washing diapers, if possible.

  • Wash cloth diapers every two days. Washing every day will really cut down odors, but is impractical. Don’t overload the machine, or the diapers won’t get clean. Likewise, if the machine is less than half full, add a soaked towel or two to “trick” the washing machine into using more water. Modern washers calibrate water levels to the amount of laundry they “sense” in the tub.
  • Start with a cold-water rinse cycle. You needn’t use any detergent in this cycle, but if the diapers smell strongly of ammonia, try washing in vinegar, then rinsing the diapers well. Just never mix vinegar and bleach, as they combine to form a deadly gas. High-efficiency washers that minimize water and energy use may require two or three rinse cycles.
  • Wash in hot water with a small amount of “natural” detergent that doesn’t have dyes, enzymes, softeners or fabric enhancers. I recommend Mountain Green Baby Free & Clear detergent. Start by washing diapers with half the recommended amount of detergent for a regular load, and adjust as needed. Detergent residue often causes diaper odors, as well as rashes and leaks.
  • For serious lingering odors, add a small amount of bleach to the hot wash cycle, and rinse thoroughly.
  • Line dry diapers. Don’t underestimate the disinfecting power of the sun. This will also significantly reduce the environmental impact of using cloth diapers.

This cleaning routine should reduce diaper odors. It may seem overly complicated, but it will quickly become second nature.

You may need to revisit the routine, and even the decision to use cloth diapers, after baby starts eating solid foods. One couple I know ditched the cloth for disposables after their baby turned one, his diet turned more diverse and his diapers turned more stinky. Of course, used disposable diapers are far from unscented, but several of these rules still apply. Changing disposables regularly, and using an open diaper pail and a deodorizer should help take care of diaper smells.

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Image: lifan/stock.xchng

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jane richmond
jane richmond4 years ago


Elisabeth T.
Elisabeth T.4 years ago

Our kids dirty diapers were kept in a diaper pail until they got washed and line dried. Loved seeing all the diapers flapping in the breeze. Then they got folded as I took them off the line...
Thanks for the article...

Tiffany D.
Tiffany D.4 years ago

My mom says to keep soiled diapers in a pail of water until washed, and then dry in the sunshine for natural whitening. She's a smart lady--with a lot of kids according to US standards :)

If I ever have a kid its cloth diapers and breastfeeding all the way. My BF agrees :)

Annemarie W.
Annemarie L.4 years ago

Definitely plan on using disposables when I have my children! They are cute too :)

KrassiAWAY B.
Krasimira B.4 years ago

Noted with interest.

Bernadette P.
Berny p.4 years ago

I wonder how we ever managed years ago????

Elizabeth Brawn
Elizabeth Brawn4 years ago

thank you so much! i will definitly use these tips

Carole F.
Carole f.4 years ago

Thanks for the updates for those of us who were reminiscing. I'll have to check out the snaps and velcro closers. But folding was a quiet time for me that I relished and that made me feel happy to be doing something so good for my baby. Of course, no one else wanted to do it anyway!
Again, thanks.

Vanria W.
Vanria W.4 years ago

I am a mother to be and thinking about cloth diaper. Thanks for each of your input.

Elena Arutiunova
Elena Arutiunova4 years ago

Thx for the article!