Part 1: Washing Cloth Diapers
(Added 01/30/12) What follows below is some updated information with past articles put into one article. This week we are tackling washing problem number 1:
My diapers stink out of the dryer, or stink like stale urine once freshly peed in.
I would like to begin this article by saying
1) If your wash routine is fine, disregard what I write below. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
2) What I am writing about below is what we see working for the majority of our customers, there will always be examples of a wash routine being very different but it will work for that customer, however we feel the need to put into words what we see working for most of our customers who cannot get their diapers clean.
Clean diapers are more than just a “want”, if you have stinky diapers you have bacteria lingering behind, which can cause skin issues that can be troublesome to fix.
Wash problems generally fall into two categories, tonight we are tackling the problem of the diapers smelling out of the dryer. This is usually caused by one of two problems
1) Wrong detergent or 2) Not enough detergent.
Let’s start with number one, the wrong detergent. Here are some cliff notes for choosing a detergent:
- Powders generally rinse out easier than liquid
- The more natural the detergent, generally the less effective it will be with very few exceptions
- Free and clears, especially liquid ones, can be notorious for buildup.
- Mainstream powders and liquids are *fine* to use, you do not have to use a cloth diaper detergent to get your diapers clean.
Over 9 years of troubleshooting wash issues with thousands of clients, and our own 6 babies, we find one detergent leading the pack over and over again. Tide.
Tide? Before you shoot the idea down completely, take a peek at who else recommends Tide:
Fuzzi Bunz (recommends Tide Free, over 10 years in the business):
Tiny Tush (over 10 years in the business):
Rumparooz (over 5 years in the business):
GroVia (over 10+ years in the business):
And for giggles, back when we opened in 2004 we started to advise Tide:
That being said, if you hate the idea of Tide, try another mainstream store powder, even a generic one if it fits the budget better. Worst case scenario, you strip and start over.
The second part of this equation is using enough detergent. Unless you are using Rockin Green or Thirsties super wash, 1-2 tablespoons will not cut it. You have to use enough detergent to get them clean ( I use to the 3 line on my Tide powder ultra scoop for a load of diapers).
On January 24th, Bummis (over 20 years in the biz) had on their Facebook page:
Had a wonderful discussion with Steve “the detergent guru” again. We discussed how many people recommend using so little detergent and recommend Dawn to strip detergent residues from “suede cloth”, microfiber and other synthetics.
He does not believe it is a “detergent” residue that is causing repelling or stink in these synthetics. He believes what is really happening is that consumers are crea…ting a self-filling prophecy by not using enough detergent. This leads to microscopic soil being left behind. In fecal matter there are oils/fats from digestion. Polyester loves fats and oils and forms a chemical bond with them. If you are using too little detergent to release this soil, you will then get a microscopic build up of oils on the surface of the fabric eventually causing it to repel or stink.
While great at releasing grease on solid surfaces (think dishes) Dawn is not super effective on fabric. Hence it would work with a mild build up of oils causing repelling/stink but not on all cases. Best to avoid oily build up by using enough detergent to release oils from synthetics and enough rinsing/water to get rid of all detergent/soils left behind in the wash cycle.
Make sure you are using enough, remember that seeing suds does not mean you are using too much. Some detergents are more sudsy than others, unless you have odors with the diapers out of the dryer or once freshly peed in, don’t sweat the suds! Really, if you don’t smell anything, don’t lift the lid, don’t even peek at the rinse cycle. If they smell great out of the dryer, and once freshly peed in, don’t worry about suds.
The best routine we have found for diapers is
-Warm or hot pre-rinse (see notes below)
-Hot wash with good amount of detergent (not the sanitary cycle, your regular hot cycle, your water heater should be set to 120 degrees F)
-2 cold rinses. Your machine will do one automatically, add another if you can.
For years we actually advised doing a hot pre-rinse, the reason for hot being that many water heaters didn’t get up to 120 in the pre-rinse, so setting it to warm gave you room temperature water, setting it to hot gave you the higher temperature that is needed. In recent years with more sophisticated machines, we are adjusting our advice to say warm pre-rinse, not hot or cold.
Bummis recently had this article as well for some of the science behind the warm prerinse:
In our practical experience and lots of testing with our customers, we found the cold pre-rinse set in stains and make it much harder to wash the fresh feces and urine out of the diapers. Switch your pre-rinse, see if it helps. If your water heater doesn’t get very hot, consider doing a hot prerinse to boost those temps a little.
If you don’t have the option for a warm or hot pre-rinse, you can do a little trial and error to see if your water conditions make it better to skip the pre-rinse completely ( I would advise using a diaper sprayer to rinse the poopy diapers individually before going in the pail if that is the case), or using a cold pre-rinse. Depending on how “pre-cleaned” the diapers are from your sprayer, many customers found they could eliminate this step completely, however if you don’t have that option or are running into issues getting them cleaned, opt for the cold. I would say for HE machines, go with the cold over opting out of the prerinse, if your machine is water efficient using as many rinse cycles as you can will help in the water-efficient wash cycle.
Bummis recently had this article as well for some of the science behind the warm prerinse:
In our experience, the cold prerinse set in stains and make it much harder to wash the fresh feces and urine out of the diapers. Switch your prerinse, see if it helps. If your water heater doesn’t get very hot, consider doing a hot prerinse to boost those temps a little.
Stripping: We are going to cover how to strip the diapers.
Stripping refers to an action of doing something to the diapers to disinfect or strip them from detergent buildup, ointment buildup, old feces or urine buildup, fabric softener, basically anything that is hindering absorbency. Today I am going to review what does need to be stripped versus what doesn’t.
Many times, truly most times, when a customer thinks the diaper needs to be stripped, it is actually a scenario where more absorbency is needed, or the fit is incorrect for the baby. You do NOT need to strip if:
- The diapers leak, but more than 30-60 minutes has passed
- The diapers leak, but the entire diaper/fitted or insert is wet
- The diapers leak but do not have odors to them
If you are having leaking but find that the above fits, you likely have an absorbency or fit issue, not a need to strip. Very, very rarely will buildup occur without an accompanying odor. If you have enough buildup left to hinder absorbency, you will be trapping old feces and urine, and it will stink. What may be a cause a need to strip is:
- Odors out of the dryer, or once freshly peed in.
- Leaking within the first few minutes of the diaper being on.
- Leaking and the diaper is wet in spots only.
- Use of creams, and you can see and smell spots where ointment has been.
- Use of the wrong detergent, this is also evident when you take the diapers out and they have a sticky or tacky feel to them, almost like they are coated with something.
I like to highlight the odor key in all of this, remember you cannot ever mask the smell of poop. You can spray perfume on it, put bleach spray on it, it will smell like perfumed and bleached poo. It is incredibly rare when we see buildup not accompanying odors, it can happen, but really is very rare. If you suspect buildup and do not have any odors, we will first go the route of more absorbency/checking the fit. If you strip and it is an absorbency or fit issue, you won’t solve anything and be right back where you started with leaky diapers.
I do want to throw one more tidbit in,I see websites promoting the “water drip test” to see if your diapers are repelling. The idea being you dribble a few drops of water on the diaper, if it doesn’t sink in right away the diapers need to be stripped. The truth is I can do this on my perfectly fine pocket diapers and you won’t see it sink in, the pressure of the baby against the diaper pushes urine into it, so don’t rely on that test to see if you have buildup and need to strip.
There was a method that was very popular a few years ago in stripping, and I sincerely hope it has completely died out but I know some still recommend it. It involves using your dishwasher to strip the diapers. Now, this is a fire hazard, and will render your snaps and elastic pretty useless, so under no circumstances should you ever put your diapers in the dishwasher, please please please.
Another popular method is to put Dawn dish soap in the washing machine. We don’t recommend this either, your washing machine wasn’t made for dish soap, it is high sudsing and can clog the hoses. If you have a new washer under warranty you could void it. We have had customers who used Dawn, and when their machine broke and the repairman came, it was very easy to tell soap had been used, and the warranty was voided, so please take note of those problems if you go the Dawn route.
What is safer for you and the machine, is to bleach the diapers if you have buildup. 1/3 cup of chlorox in the detergent cycle with clean cloth diapers, and hot water, will take care of the problem. If you have cotton print diapers, dyed fitteds or prefolds, or cotton outer wet bags, you can use color safe bleach. That is the best method to strip, and safe for your machine. For disinfecting purposes, color safe bleach may not be appropriate as it uses hydrogen peroxide rather than chlorine to bleach, but for residue purposes it can work.
Make sure the diapers have been washed and dried, if they are soiled the bleach won’t do much. Once in a blue moon bleach is fine on your diapers, it is when it is used on a regular basis that you see premature wear and tear, just like you would on your clothing. PUL is dye fast and will not bleed from bleach.
Next week we will chat about the problem of “they smell fine out of the dryer, but stink when freshly peed in” issue, since hopefully we have conquered the “they smell out of the dryer” issue.
Don’t just “put up” with stink, doing so can lead to health problems and rash problems that you don’t want against your child’s skin. If your toddler threw up on a tee shirt, you wash it and it still smells like puke, there is no way you would put it back on the child. Diapers have to be treated the same way, (except even worse because you are putting old poop and urine back up against their genital areas). Don’t tolerate stink, truly, shoot me an email and we will figure it out!
We don’t stand to profit on your smelly diapers, most of our customer service is in regards to fixing wash routines. My first goal is to make sure your baby’s skin is healthy, and my secondary goal is to make your wash routine easy. When you have to do 3 wash cycles or add more ingredients than you do making cookies, it really sucks the fun and ease out of using cloth diapers. With those two goals in mind, we are always working on trying to get as close to a uniform wash routine as possible. If you still have odor issues, email me with a “tried it, still have stink at x,y and z” and we will troubleshoot what needs to change.
Part 2: Dealing with urine, ammonia and other strong mystery odors.
(Added 02/06/12) This week is a comprehensive look at the “my diapers smell fine out of the dryer but smell like stale urine once freshly urinated in.”
This is one of two problems, too much detergent, or not the right detergent to begin with. Make sure you read our first article to see if your detergent is the right kind (powder over liquid if possible, not a free and clear if it can be helped, not the more natural detergents).
How to tell if you are using too much? Remember, last week(part 1) we said “don’t sweat the suds IF you have no odors issues”, and we stand by that advice. If everything is fine and smells like clean fabric, don’t worry about checking for suds at any point in your wash routine. However, if you have this problem of stink when peed in, check your suds. To do this with a front loader, clean the diapers as usual, then do a hot wash cycle with no detergent and then…
- If you have an HE machine, look at the glass during the wash cycle, do you see bubbles coming out?
- If you have a top loader, wait until you hear it going in the wash cycle (past the filling stage, then you hear it agitating everything around), then open the lid. Do you see bubbles formed (give it a minute or two to get washing)
If you see some soapy bubbles (not just little air bubbles from swishing fabric around), then you may have buildup. There are a few ways to strip diapers with this kind of buildup:
- If they aren’t too bad (and hopefully you can catch this early so you don’t get a lot of bacteria built up), doing 2-3 wash cycles with just hot water on CLEAN diapers (make sure you wash them first and then do this), should strip out the residue. Don’t do any cold pre-rinses, try to hit them with as much hot water as possible.If they are really stenchy, you may need bleach to strip them. Again, that link above has proper stripping techniques, please do not use Dawn dish soap to strip.
- Once they have been stripped of the detergent buildup, reductions in detergent are needed or a new detergent. IF you have very soft water, you CAN use an HE detergent in a regular machine. You can never use regular detergent in an HE machine, but you can use HE detergent in a regular machine with soft water, it is formulated to be low sudsing for HE machines, and will rinse easier. You have to be careful with detergent levels, too high and you get buildup, too low and you will get that bacteria left behind/stink out of the dryer problem. If you want help finding the right level of detergent or the right detergent, give us an email at AbbysLane@aol.com
Part of this problem also embraces ammonia. Old detergent buildup can trap old feces and urine, which can lead to ammonia odors. That being said…. There are two times when ammonia can be normal:
- 1) in the diaper pail, when you lift the lid, ammonia wafting can be normal.
- 2)in the morning diaper. When a diaper has been on for 8+ hours, it can smell of ammonia in the morning.
Remember, our bodies cannot tolerate ammonia internally, so we convert it to other byproducts. When urine leaves our body and meets air, it will start to convert back to ammonia salts (with or without bacteria present). If your baby pees early in the night, that is 8+ hours of urine salts sitting in a nice, warm, moist environment, so it will smell in the morning. Adding absorbency to break down the concentration will help, but especially as your baby ages that morning smell is normal. If your diapers smell fresh out of the dryer, and do not smell of stale urine within the first hour of being worn, your wash routine is otherwise fine.
Ammonia burn or chafing is *never* acceptable, it is something we work with many customers to fix, usually by fixing the wash routine or increasing absorbency/breathability depending on why the child is sensitive to the urine.
Ammonia isn’t present in urine until it leaves the body and meets air. The Urea that it is converted to internally is sterile until oxygen will start to convert it to ammonia, bacteria doesn’t always have to be present. We have had many customers who had ammonia odors in disposables they used, which obviously didn’t have detergent buildup and hadn’t been in play with bacteria long enough to build it up. There are lots of factors that can cause that “ammonia” smell, some will never encounter it at all unless these factors are in play. Heavy wetters will be more prone to the odor, if you have had a light wetter versus a heavy wetter, you know the difference between the volumes. When you start adding half an ounce of urine to each diaper change, or more, you are really increasing the urea output. Toddler urine is more complicated as well, more going into it, more coming out.
Additionally, if your baby pees when you put them down and it is a big one, you are getting several hours of a head start on this whole process, so the odors will be much stronger.
Imagine peeing on a tee shirt (fitted/prefolds), wrapping it in a plastic bag (cover) then leaving it for 8 hours, it would stink to high heaven when you opened the bag, on the flip side, if your had your 2 month old pee in a little tee shirt and did the same thing for 3 hours, the stench wouldn’t be nearly as much, hence the volume/concentration/age factors.
For the pail, it can vary based on lots of things, if you keep an open pail in a broom closet and wash toddler diapers every 3-4 days, your odors will be very different from a closed pail in a larger ventilated room washing every 1-2 days. Clean diapers will still do this in pails, it doesn’t matter how clean they are going in, if you have the right combination of volume and age in urine, it can produce the same effect. Additionally, remember a closed lid pail isn’t airtight, unless you vacuum seal it after each time you put a diaper in, you allow lots of air flow in the pail to open and close the lid every 90 minutes to a few hours, plus the lid itself doesn’t seal air out, so it is fine to have a closed-lid pail (this is beneficial for other reasons than containing odors, like keeping out bugs-yes it does happen-and exploring little children)
Nothing that harms a baby’s skin is ever normal, and needs to be corrected. If the wash routine is otherwise fine and you have stripped the diapers, sometimes increasing the absorbency does the trick, breaking down the concentration of urea leaving the body makes it less volatile on the skin. For some, they need more breathable options, since air still gets into PUL diapers you never have an airtight diapering system, but for some babies the extra air flow to their skin is what it needs to tolerate that old urine breathing back onto their skin.
For some babies, you need to explore eczema and other skin sensitivities, if you have skin that is already compromised to begin with, adding urine breathing onto it for 8+ hours is too much. Middle of the night changes, eczema ointments,other options can help. For “yeasty” babies cornstarch is great as a preventative measure (not during an outbreak, as it will feed the yeast, but on healed skin to prevent it is great), plus lots of air flow/naked time so the fungus has a hard time growing without the moist and dark conditions.
We relay this to our customers who have perfectly fresh diapers out of the dryer (meaning nothing bacterial is left behind from feces), and the diapers do not smell of stale urine when freshly peed in (indicates buildup and need to be stripped), and the only time they smell the ammonia odors, or “strong urine” odors is in the pail when they lift the lid to toss in a newly soiled diaper, or the morning diaper on from 8 hours prior. Remember, rashes or burns are not normal, please email us if you need help with these issues!
Some fun urine resource sites-LOL: