It's hard to describe the stink that occurs when cloth diapers need to be stripped, but it's unique, and often occurs most noticeably when baby's urine soaks the diaper. Here's how to strip cloth diapers, and how to avoid the need to repeat the process again.
Detergent buildup from insufficient rinsing, buildup from other products such as dryer sheets or fabric softeners, mineral film from water, and creams that you use on your baby can all combine to create a smelly diaper situation that persists even after washing.
It can also cause cloth diapers to repel moisture, which is a bigger problem. Yucky smells are one thing, but diapers really need to hold in the ick instead of repelling it! Whether you've got abnormal diaper stink or less absorbency, stripping your cloth diapers could help. This process helps remove various types of buildup so your dipes smell fresher and absorb like they did when they were new.
Before You Strip Cloth Diapers
It's important to start with clean diapers. You want the stripping wash to remove the extra residue that hasn't rinsed out before. If the detergents or wash water also have to work to clean the diapers of regular soil, stripping won't be very effective. Use your regular cloth diaper washing method before you begin.
You should also contact the cloth diaper manufacturer, or check the manufacturer website for any instructions specific to your diapers. Each company uses different combinations of materials, so there may be a special step you need to take or a type of detergent to avoid.
Stripping With Dawn Dish Detergent
Using liquid Dawn dish detergent is a perennial parent favorite method of stripping diapers. It's easy, works well, and the detergent is available at almost any store. Since Dawn is an excellent degreaser, it does a great job of removing any waxy or oily buildup that could cause repelling.
Since that same buildup also causes stink in many diapers, Dawn dish soap often cures the gross smells, too.
Liquid dish soap makes lots of suds, so you don't need to use very much to strip your cloth diapers. It's always tempting to use a lot of soap so you know the laundry is clean, but this can cause a huge mess in your washer.
For a top-loading washing machine, you'll need to add about a half-Tablespoon of Dawn. If you have a high efficiency washing machine, you only need about a half-teaspoon. You should check your washing machine instructions to be sure you won't void the warranty by using a little bit of dish detergent.
After you've added the Dawn, wash your diapers in hot water. Then set your washer for two or three extra rinses. A popular routine is setting two "speed wash" cycles with warm water, no detergent, after the hot water and Dawn cycle, just to help rinse everything out of the diapers. You can check the rinse water for suds to be sure the diapers have been stripped well enough.
Stripping Diapers With No Detergent
Some parents have good luck just using hot water to strip diapers. If the problem is un-rinsed detergent residue from previous washes, it might be enough to just wash your diapers in very hot water a few times, rinsing well each time.
Again, watching the rinse water for suds will tell you whether or not there's still detergent coming out of your diapers.
Other Diaper Stripping Methods
Very hot water can be used outside of the washer to strip diapers. One method that works well for prefolds is to place them in a pot of boiling water with a bit of Oxiclean. Boiling water can damage some cloth diapers, particularly those with plastic snaps or waterproof laminate layers, so use caution with this method. Check with the manufacturer to see if this method is OK for your diapers.
Some powdered oxygen bleach in your hot water wash can help wash out lingering detergent, as can a scoop of plain baking soda. Adding a half-cup of vinegar to your final rinse also helps break down common stink-causing residues.
Bleach also does a good job of keeping cotton diapers stink-free.
However, bleach isn't recommended by very many cloth diaper manufacturers, so you'll need to check on whether or not using bleach will void your diaper warranty. Microfiber can break down faster when bleach is used, and other kinds of fabrics could be damaged with such a harsh cleaning. If you have really stinky dipes, or a big problem with repelling diapers, and nothing else is working, a small amount of bleach might help.
Reducing the Need
Rinsing your cloth diapers very well in your usual laundry system will help prevent detergent buildup. Adding an extra rinse is almost always a good idea! Regular use of oxygen bleach, baking soda, or a small amount of vinegar also will help rinse your diapers clean. It's much easier to try to address residue before your diapers smell bad or start repelling moisture.
Using a special cloth diaper detergent or natural soap nuts can help clean the diapers properly and avoid residue issues. However, many families use a traditional detergent with great success. Choosing a detergent without added fabric softener, optical brighteners, or fillers is best to help the diaper rinse clean.
Diaper creams can be a major culprit for residue, stink, and repelling. Be sure you choose a cloth-diaper-friendly diaper cream, and consider using a diaper liner to put a little distance between the diaper material and the cream. Residue from traditional diaper creams might require some extra work to remove, even beyond these basic diaper stripping instructions. Contact the cloth diaper manufacturer for specific instructions.