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I have been using cloth diapers (this kind: https://www.amazon.com/Leekalos-Diapers-Reusable-Inserts-Undersea/dp/B08PBHP749/ref=sr_1_2) for about 8 months on my 10 month old and the diapers are really starting to smell. When they're fresh out of the dryer, they smell. When I air dry the inserts they smell up the room with mustiness. When she pees in them they reek powerfully, I believe of ammonia. We wash the diapers every day. About 15 diapers get washed a day and I have about 36 diapers on rotation.

We have hard water. I use All Free Clear detergent on the diapers. When washing, first I put them on a cycle without soap and two rinses with cold water (to save on warm water), next a wash cycle with detergent and warm water. Then the inserts go in the dryer in a laundry bag to tumble dry a while before air drying more later, while the covers air dry.

I believe my problem is detergent buildup on the diapers. I have researched and come across all types of hearsay info online about what's wrong with my wash routine and how to properly strip my smelly diapers. I haven't been able to find reliable info.

Help?

Thank you in advance!

Edit: I'm studying all of the answers and comments and experimenting with washing variables daily. Thank you everyone! I hope to post updates soon.

Sep 27: Apparently our washer is only running cold water no matter the temperature setting I select... no wonder the diapers aren't getting clean.

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  • 2
    Not enough to say for a full answer, but it's possible that you are using too much detergent. You could try a stripping wash to thoroughly clean them and then revise your washing routine to use 1/2 or 1/3 of your current dose. Sep 18, 2023 at 20:53
  • At what temperature do you wash?
    – Mast
    Sep 21, 2023 at 17:29
  • @Mast I usually wash on "warm" but I don't know what temperature that is. The last two days I've tried "hot". We have our water heater set at 120F / 50C max so it's not super hot.
    – Kilobyte
    Sep 22, 2023 at 13:42
  • @cecilian-MonicaWasMistreated Interesting. What is a stripping wash? So far in my experimenting I tried doubling the detergent amount and it took 10 rinse cycles to get those suds out so I suspect you're on to something.
    – Kilobyte
    Sep 22, 2023 at 13:44
  • @Kilobyte I ended up adding an answer as I found out that there was no English language equivalent to the resources I wanted to link :) Sep 25, 2023 at 21:33

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When I was young, when nappies were still made from cotton, they would be boiled, literally, in soapy water, then rinsed in water + vinegar. Ammonia is produced when bacteria break down urea in the urine, and it is basic, aka alkaline, and vinegar reacts with it, presumably to form ammonium acetate, which neutralises the smell, if any is left after the boiling. Vinegar is also a good conditioner that softens the water and makes the cloth softer. My mother would even use it after washing her hair, which probably made her feel like a pickle.

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    I know another reason why the vinegar rinse helped. Is the diapers were boiled in soapy water, especially if the water was hard, the soap and the minerals in hard water form a kind of scum, which is broken down with weak acids. That's why hard water deposits on shower walls, etc., are so well removed by an acid (my choice is citric acid, common in lemons,etc.) Sep 20, 2023 at 12:31
  • I always put white vinegar in the pre-wash and in the fabric softener tray and wash at 60°C. This works like a charm. Also since I put vinegar in the fabric softener tray, jeans that used to smell after drying don't smell anymore. So just replace fabric softener with vinegar.
    – Lehue
    Sep 21, 2023 at 5:59
  • I have seriously considered switching to cotton prefolds for this very reason. Boiling sounds like such a simple fix! I strongly suspect my pocket diapers comprised of bamboo/microfiber inserts and polyester/PUL covers couldn't handle it. I would readily switch to cotton prefolds and I have them lying around, they're just a lot harder to get on a wriggling baby in my experience. And she wriggles a lot! Maybe there's a knack to it I'm missing.
    – Kilobyte
    Sep 22, 2023 at 13:49
  • I'm using cotton prefolds from the start and my baby is now 17 months old. What helps if she wriggles too much is giving her something to occupy her while putting on the diaper (e.g. a toy, a sock, anything that's lying around and might be interessting). If the baby wants to stand up close the cover in the widest option, place the prefold inside, let her step in and tighten the cover around her.
    – Lehue
    Sep 27, 2023 at 7:23
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Ammonia is a bacterial end product of the urea in urine. I haven't looked online about detergents, but if you have hard water, detergents don't work as well. Also, as ammonia is a cation and hard water is caused by an excess of cations, rinsing the diapers (with hard water) will not flush out the ammonia as well as if the water were "soft".

If the product can withstand it, the diapers should be washed in very hot water (kills some bacteria) and the water should be softened by the addition of Borax to the load. It's cheap and effective.

Instead of pre-rinsing (which isn't doing much to help), try a pre-wash and regular wash cycle on the highest temperature possible, and add an extra rinse (or two) at the end. Hopefully you'll see a difference after the first or second time doing this.

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  • You can buy water softener if your water is hard Sep 19, 2023 at 4:57
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    @DannyBeckett I don't think water softeners are good for people or the planet. There are actually medical benefits to hard water. If the problem lies in the diapers, better to soften the water where it's needed. If scale is clogging pipes, that's another story. Sep 19, 2023 at 7:05
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    Borax has been banned in the EU and the UK
    – D Duck
    Sep 19, 2023 at 22:03
  • @DDuck - I didn't know that! Thanks for letting me know. I can't comment on vinegar because I have no experience with it. The part about washing with very hot water shouldn't pose a problem, though. Sep 20, 2023 at 0:17
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A traditional treatment for smelly diapers is to run a rinse or an entire cycle with vinegar. I don't know the mechanism by which this works. It seems plausible that vinegar, being a mild acid, is able to dissolve hard water deposits that have accumulated in the diapers. I have no idea why that would make them smell better. Whether it's that or something else happening, my experience is that it does indeed work.

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  • Interesting, though I don't understand it either. I can understand vinegar removing calcium and magnesium from the diaper, but not how the accumulation of the minerals would cause ammonia smell. Sep 19, 2023 at 1:38
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    Could be something similar to uric scale, which builds up in toilets in hard water areas. In any case, acidic wash sounds like worth trying.
    – jpa
    Sep 19, 2023 at 6:20
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    As mentioned by @j4nd3r53n, vinegar lowers the pH (which in clearer terms just means adding more H+ to the solution), which will convert some ammonia (NH3) to odorless aqueous ammonium (NH4+) or ammonium salts (like ammonium acetate, NH4+ CH3COO–). Sep 19, 2023 at 16:19
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    Depending on your machine, using a food acid in powder form might be easier. Citric acid (home brewing, preserving) and tartaric acid (baking) are quite readily available. I use citric acid for descaling sometimes
    – Chris H
    Sep 20, 2023 at 8:51
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ah, the ammonia stink. We are thankfully no longer washing nappies, but we had some issues.

We did: A long rinse, as long as your machine can do, with no detergent. We did cold. A long, hot (40-60C was suitable for us but you can probably do an odd 90C with no issue) wash, with a LOT of high quality, powder, detergent. The side of the box should indicate dosage for 'very dirty' and hard water. Use that to start with. Follow with more rinses. Until there are no suds/soap bubbles left.

The detergent quality was what made the biggest difference for us, using a store own brand just was not as effective as using a 'big name' brand.

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At the risk of repeating many of the things other posters have said, you should try changing some of these variables. Eventually you should settle on something that just works! Best thing to do might be to ask the parents (or grandparents) in your area because every town's hard water is slightly different.

  • Rinse time:
    Extra rinse cycles could be working against you if you have issues with hard water - reference here - a tradesperson selling water softening kits. Extra rinse cycles in soft water work differently.

  • Water softening:
    Water softening in general could help, because soft water cleans things more effectively in general. Hard water specifically has problems when washing things like diapers - reference. Aside from using commercial water softener or installing some mechanical system in your house, you could experiment with adding acid (vinegar) or base (baking soda/washing soda).

  • Acids / Bases:
    Using acids (like vinegar) or bases (like soda) in washing can be done in a few ways - pre-soaking before wash, addition during wash, or addition during rinse. Experiment with all of them if you're game. In your particular case, figuring out how to add soda to both the wash and the rinse cycle could help (see previous ref). That possibly requires micromanagement. For my machine, in order to add soda during the rinse cycle, I'd have to run a separate rinse cycle where I add soda to the detergent dispenser.

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Your problem sounds like it might be due to detergent buildup, which can happen especially in conjunction with hard water. The mixture of scale and detergent on the fibers may become a breeding ground for microorganisms, hence the smell.

There are two aspects of the problem: (1) solving the current situation, and (2) revising your washing routine so that it doesn't happen again.

To address (1) my suggestion is to run a so-called "stripping" washing, as follows:

  • start with clean diapers (so after your normal wash cycle). You only need to strip the inserts, not the covers
  • start a long, warm/hot wash program (the max temperature allowed by your diapers) without detergent, but add a natural descaling agent e.g. citric acid or vinegar
  • when the machine is full of hot water pause the program and let the diapers soak in hot water for up to 1h
  • if the problem is detergent buildup, you will see foam in the water at this stage
  • resume the program and let it run to the end You should check the water in the last rinse, if there is still some foam you may run another full washing cycle without detergent (it is not necessary to pause the second time)

The gist of it is simply to do one or two washing cycles without detergent and with descaling agent to strip away the substances that have attached themselves to the fibers. The stripping washing however is not something you should do too often as it reduces the diapers life. So if the stripping does indeed solve the smell issue this time you should take care of (2) revising your washing routine.

There have been some good suggestions already, based on personal experience I can recommend the following:

  • use low doses of detergent, if your diapers allow it a 60C wash from time to time (unless there are special reasons I usually do one in three washes at 60C, the other two at 40C) is enough for cleaning them without using too much soap
  • never forget the descaling agent especially if your water is hard
  • rinse the diapers once before every wash and run a program which uses plenty of water (there's usually a "sensitive" option on most machines which adds an extra rinse)

Good luck!

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