How to Deal With Stinky Cloth Diapers? (Step-by-Step Guide)

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Any laundry item you wear repeatedly is prone to holding onto odor, and cloth diapers are no exception. Cloth diapers, like underwear, go next to your baby’s bum, except they are designed to absorb liquid, meaning they are more prone to stains and odors.

However, if you are dealing with stinky diapers, don’t lose hope! We’ve gathered the top tips on how to clean cloth diapers and rid them of any unfortunate smells. Read on to discover how to get your cloth diapers stink-free again!

Why Do My Cloth Diapers Stink?

Before you can deal with a stinky diaper, you need to know what is causing the stink.

Several issues cause smelly diapers, so it is important to figure out what is happening, or you may waste valuable time and resources trying to get rid of diaper stink.

The most common causes of stinky cloth diapers are hard water, detergent buildup, urine residue, build-up, and improper washing. 

For example, if your diapers smell like ammonia, you have urine build-up or residue. On the other hand, if you have a barnyard stink, it is probably because your diapers are not getting cleaned thoroughly.

Diapers Aren’t Getting Clean Enough

If your cloth diapers are not getting thoroughly cleaned, they are going to smell. If you have smelly cloth diapers even after you’ve washed them several times, the problem could be your water.

Hard water prevents soaps and detergents from performing correctly, which can lead to detergent buildup. Buildup can also prevent your diapers from absorbing at their full capacity leading to leaks. 

If your diapers are not cleaned properly, it can also lead to urine build-up, which will cause your cloth diapers to smell like ammonia. 

It is also possible you are using too much detergent. Too much detergent can cause buildup in your washing machine, contributing to cloth diaper odor. 

Hard Water

Hard water can cause a lot of problems, and diaper odor is one of them. Hard water pertains to the mineral content in your water. The more minerals in the water, the harder the water is considered. 

These minerals can end up as deposits on your laundry and cloth diapers and, over time, prevent your cloth diapers from getting thoroughly cleaned, making your cloth diapers smell. Hard water also prevents detergent from fully activating. 

You can purchase a PH test kit from a hardware store to detect if hard water contributes to your diaper problems. 

To solve the hard water problem, you can install a water softener or purchase a detergent that is uniquely formulated for use with hard water. For example, Rockin Green Hard Rock is a detergent designed with hard water and safe for cloth diapers.

Detergent Buildup

Buildup creates more problems than just a smelly diaper; it can also create a nasty diaper rash on your baby’s bottom. Overusing detergent can lead to stains and excess residue on clothing and diapers.

Too much detergent means too many soap suds, which can prevent dirt from being properly cleaned out. It can also block up your washing machine’s motor and mechanical mechanisms.

Detergent build means that bacteria from feces and urine are being redeposited onto your diapers, causing diaper odor. 

An easy test for detergent buildup is to use a bowl of warm water and a supposedly clean diaper. Submerge the diaper into the bowl and then ring it out. If suds appear, you have detergent buildup. 

To fix a detergent buildup problem, clean your washing machine and perform a strip on your diapers.

Too Little Detergent

The flip side of detergent buildup is using too little detergent. Too little detergent causes the ammonia smell cloth diapers to get from urine buildup.

On the other hand, not using enough detergent means your diaper smell could be coming from leftover feces particles. 

To rid cloth diaper smell caused by using too little detergent, start with a warm prewash.

Next, add the recommended amount of detergent. After the wash, run the rinse cycle twice. If the smell still lingers, run another rinse cycle. 

Urine Residue

Do your diapers smell like ammonia? If this is the case, then you probably have urine buildup in your diapers. Urine residue is usually caused by not using enough detergent or not filling your washing machine with enough water. 

If your machine has an automatic fill, you can add a clean towel or two to trick the machine into adding more water. Then, use the recommended amount of detergent and run an extra rinse cycle or two. 

If, after these steps, your cloth diaper’s ammonia smell hasn’t gone away, you may need to strip your diapers. You can also try soaking them with a scoop of Oxyclean to help with diaper odor control.

Types of Diaper Smells

The three main types of diaper smells include ammonia, barnyard smell, and poop. The ammonia buildup cloth diapers experience is from urine not being thoroughly rinsed out.

If your cloth diapers smell like poop, then feces particles are likely to blame for your cloth diaper stink. The barnyard smell occurs during the drying process as heat activates leftover bacteria in the diapers.


The ammonia smell in diapers is caused by too much urine. Ammonia can either have a strong, fishy smell or a strong chemical smell; sometimes, the smell can be so strong it can make your eyes water. 

An ammonia cloth diaper smell is often caused by dirty diapers that have been left too long, if you are not using enough detergent or if your baby is dehydrated. 

To rid diapers of an ammonia smell, try an enzyme cleaner such as Oxyclean, a bleach soak, pretreating them with baking soda, or striping them. 


The barnyard smell is called thus because it smells a bit like being outside at a farm. The barnyard smell is often noticed after you’ve removed cloth diapers from the dryer.

This is because the heating process of the dryer activates bacteria particles still in your cloth diapers, creating a strong cloth diaper stink.

If you notice a barnyard smell once your diapers have dried, it means they are not thoroughly washed. If you are noticing the barnyard stink, try using a different detergent. If that doesn’t work, strip your diapers. 

If you are still having trouble getting the smell to go away after both those steps, check to see if you have hard water. 


If your smelly cloth diaper problem smells like poop, it is probably because your diapers are not getting clean enough. One trick to try is to hang your cloth diapers in the sun to dry. The sun naturally kills bacteria which causes stains and smells. 

You could also try using a diaper deodorizer or enzyme spray like Bac-Out stain remover before placing them into the diaper pail. 

You could add to your routine a third step: soaking your diapers in cold water before washing them. A hot soak can “cook” the bacteria into the diapers, so always use a cold soak, then a hot wash.

How To Remove The Smell From Diapers?

There are different methods to remove smells and stains from diapers. The most common methods are stripping, bleaching, changing your detergent, and checking and possibly altering your washing routine.

Once you discover what is causing your diapers to smell, you can try one or several of the methods to fix your stinky diaper problem!


Stripping cloth diapers is an efficient way to rid them of any smells or buildup that may occur.

If your cloth diapers are not absorbing, they are probably in need of stripping. Stripping is the process by which you remove all buildup and residue from your diapers.

To strip cloth diapers, start with clean diapers. Set your washer to its highest wash setting and add a detergent such as GroVia mighty bubbles. It is recommended to use one pod for every twenty-four diapers. Next, wash your diapers in hot water.

Once your diapers have finished washing, run an extra rinse cycle. If the diapers still smell, rinse them again before drying. 

Air drying is recommended, particularly in the sunlight, as the sun is a natural bacteria killer.


Bleaching diapers is another way to help if your diapers or your diaper covers smell. To safely bleach cloth diapers, you must use disinfecting bleach. It should have a minimum of 5.25% sodium hypochlorite as the active ingredient. 

You can either use a bathtub or a top-loading washing machine. For a full tub, use ½ c. of bleach. For a large load washer, use ¾ c. of bleach. Use cold water and allow your diapers to soak for 30 minutes. 

Rinse your diapers with hot water and then run them through a regular wash cycle. If your diapers still smell like bleach, then run them through a second rinse cycle. 

Change Your Detergent

Sometimes getting nasty stains and stinky smells out of your cloth diapers is as simple as changing detergents.

But, perhaps the detergent you’re using isn’t meant for cloth diapers, or maybe it’s not suitable for the type of washing machine you have.

Some detergents approved for cloth diapers are Rockin Green, GroVia Mighty Bubbles, Bambino Mio Fresh, and Grab Green Baby Detergent. 

If you have a high-efficiency machine, you must use a detergent explicitly designed for a HE washing machine; otherwise, you could also cause damage to your washer. 

Recheck or Change Your Washing Routine

Changing your wash routine might be all you need to do to rid your diapers of nasty buildup and smells.

But, just like hair that can start to develop buildup from using the same shampoo repeatedly, diapers that are washed every couple of days in the same detergent might need a change.

Try alternating between two different detergents each month. Another option is to do a weekly wash with an enzyme booster like Oxyclean. 

Another option is to run a wash cycle with vinegar and baking soda once every few weeks. 

How to Maintain Fresh Smelling Diapers?

No one wants to say, “my cloth diapers stink,” but unfortunately, it can happen to the best of us. While no solution is full-proof, there are some tricks you can try to keep your diapers smelling fresh and clean.

Change your baby’s diapers regularly. Less poop and pee in the diaper means less build-up to wash out. Wash your cloth diapers every one to two days. Three days is the absolute maximum you should wait. 

Rinse or scrape any poop off diapers before placing them in the diaper laundry bin. Using disposable liners is one way to reduce the amount of poop clean-up.

Always start with a cold rinse cycle and consider adding some vinegar once in a while to neutralize the odor. 

Dry your diapers in the sun to kill bacteria, plus the fresh air will give your diapers a fresh and clean smell naturally. 


How do you get rid of diaper odor?

Try stripping your diapers, washing them with an enzyme booster, or adding vinegar to your rinse cycle to remove diaper odor. You can also dry your diapers out in the sun.

Why do my cloth diapers smell fishy?

A fishy smell usually means ammonia buildup. An ammonia smell is caused by urine buildup. Therefore, you may need to use more water and more detergent when washing.

How do you get the ammonia smell out of cloth diapers?

To rid your diapers of the ammonia smell, try adding more detergent or more water. You can also try an enzyme booster such as OxyClean. 

How do I keep my diaper pail from smelling?

Leave your diaper pail cracked to allow for air circulation. This will stop bacteria from growing. You can also place a stickable air freshener on the pail.

How do you get the poop smell out of cloth diapers?

A diaper stinky due to poop residue needs to be washed more thoroughly. Try soaking them in cold water before your next wash. You can also use a fabric spray to pretreat them.

How do you get the urine smell out of reusable diapers?

You can strip your diapers or try soaking them in bleach to rid them of a strong urine smell. Vinegar is a natural odor neutralizer. Try soaking diapers in cold water with a ¼ c of vinegar overnight.  

How do you deep clean reusable diapers?

To deep clean, your diapers go through the stripping process. Soak them in cold water, run the wash cycle with an extra rinse or two and allow them to air dry in the sun.

What is the best detergent for cloth diapers?

Some of the best detergents for cloth diapers include Rockin Green, GroVia Mighty Bubbles, Bambino Mio Fresh, and Grab Green Baby Detergent.


Laurel Davidson

Laurel brings her passion for parenting and years of problem-solving experiences to ParentingMode. She is the editor of ParentingMode, ensuring that the content is relevant and valuable to the readers. Laurel received her master’s degree in public administration with a certificate in economic development. She is a stay-at-home mom, raising two adorable kiddos, Aurora and Thomas. Laurel enjoys sharing her experience as a parent, traveling, and good food.

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