Cloth Diaper Troubleshooting

So you have The Stench. Maybe your diapers are leaking all of a sudden. This happens.

Dont panic


Step 1: Figure out if you have a residue problem or not.

You can differentiate between a detergent/diaper cream residue and an organic residue by putting a bit of water on a stinky/leaky but clean diaper.

  • Does the water bead or absorb really slowly? Then you have a detergent residue.
  • Does the water absorb quickly but activate The Stench? Then you have an organic residue (which is a nice way of saying a pee or poop build up).

If this water test yields negative results, but you have leaks, skip to here.

Step 2: Stripping

Wash your diapers in hot water with NO detergent. Do this 2-3 times, then dry. Do the water test again, checking for beading or release of The Stench. If, after the third time, you still have problems, add a little bit of oxygenated (not chlorinated) bleach to the hot wash. For organic residues, try Funk Rock, a special treatment designed to deal with ammonia build up (but not detergent residue).

Stripping means an occasional special treatment of CLEAN diapers, outside of regular washing, to get rid of any type of residue. There are many versions, but we recommend starting with the most basic version, listed above.
“But what about Blue Dawn / Vinegar / boiling? Aren’t these stripping?”

Make sure to check the washing instructions of your specific brand of inserts. Contact the manufacturer if you’re not sure if your inserts can withstand hot washing.


Step 3: Prevent residues

This is why determining whether your residue is detergent based or organic based is important.

  • To prevent a detergent residue, be sure you’re using a clean rinsing detergent that is appropriate for the fabrics you are using, and that you’re not using too much. Check out Bummis’ Detergent List. Also, check your bum cream and make sure it doesn’t contain zinc or petroleum (Vaseline). These two are harder to get rid of than that beeswax/coconut oil/olive oil based options out there.
  • To prevent an organic residue, make sure you’re using ENOUGH detergent. Funk Rock can also be used preventatively, with just a small amount added to each wash.
  • For both types of residue, you want to use the maximum amount of water you can; high efficiency machines are more likely to result in residues because they use less water than the older top loaders.

Temperature matters as well. Most bacteria will die when you hit the 140-150 degree mark. If you’re washing in cold, you may just be giving the bacteria a nice, refreshing dip in the pool. How hot is 140? You won’t be able to happily leave your hand in it. This will also help dissolve any bum cream oils left on the diaper. Check out Rockin Green’s 5 Variables of Washing for more info as well as this guide to Water Temperature.

Be sure to check the washing instructions on your covers. Not all covers are meant for high temperature washing as high heat can break down elastic and plasticized (PUL) covers. Always follow the guidelines of your specific brand.

Blue Dawn / Vinegar / Boiling

These are all things people try when the basic stripping listed above doesn’t work.

Blue Dawn is great for removing oil / waxy buildups, but it will FOAM in your washing machine like crazy, and in some cases, void your machine’s and your diapers’ warranty. If you want to spot treat and rinse well before throwing in the machine, go for it (blue dawn and hydrogen peroxide in a 1:2 ratio is a fantastic stain treatment for all kinds of laundry). Just be aware that it’s only the original Blue Dawn that you should be using. Most of the other types have some sort of antibacterial properties and are harsher.

Vinegar is often used when people have particularly alkaline (or hard) water, to balance the PH of the water. This is a good and bad thing. If you have soft water (like here in Vancouver), don’t use vinegar. You would be treating a problem we don’t have. If you have hard water, vinegar may help in the short term, but can actually react with minerals in your water and increase the mineral deposits, especially on polyester fabrics. Gauging the correct amount of vinegar to add to a load to neutralize the water is difficult without PH strips; you don’t want to end up washing in an acidic environment either. If you want to use it in your hard water, use it sparingly and occasionally. The best case scenario is to find a detergent that is specifically for hard water issues or use a small amount of water softening additive. But be aware that if you’ve artificially softened your water, you need to reduce the amount of detergent.

Boiling diapers is an old standby because it’s what previous generations did to reset the diapers. It’s messy and you never quite trust that stock pot again. It does work because of the high heat applied to the diapers. However, this method is NOT for synthetics or covers, as the high heat will just melt them. This may shrink your inserts quite a bit, depending on the fabric as well.

If you are fed up, or you don’t want to bother, check with your local cloth diaper services. Many offer professional stripping services, usually under $100. They often have larger machines with higher water levels and it’s their business to sanitize diapers.

Negative Water Test

Congratulations! You don’t have a residue! But you have leaks so I’m sorry!
Your diaper cover may not fit your babe’s legs, resulting in gaps. Look for a diaper cover with leg gussets, like the Nuggles Tuck Wrap and Go, pictured (and available at Room for 2), as this stretchy little extra bit will help close those pesky thigh gaps.

Nuggles Tuck Wrap & Go
If your cover is a perfect fit, you may need to increase the absorbency inside your diaper, even if your diapers *used* to work just fine. Your babe may just be peeing less often but more heavily as their tiny bladder becomes bigger. Try adding in a booster like AMP’s hemp booster, or switching to a more absorbent fabric.
In general, if you had exactly the same amount of fabric by weight, the absorbency is

cotton < bamboo < hemp < microfiber

Microfiber is the most absorbent fabric commonly used, as you get a good amount of absorbency in a relatively thin and trim insert. However, the downside is that microfiber shouldn’t be used directly against the skin (which is why it’s a popular choice for pocket diapers) and once saturated, it is prone to compression leaks, more so than natural fibers. Think of microfiber like a sponge. It weighs barely anything and can hold many times its weight in water. But if you squeeze that sponge, all that water comes right out. Hemp is extremely absorbent and hangs onto liquids better than microfiber, but is much bulkier.

You may need to try a few combinations to find your new solution, but the good news is that boosters are generally inexpensive and can be added to any type of cloth diaper.

Visit our friends over at Bummis for some extra tips.


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