I want to thank our reader, Megan, for posing an excellent question regarding lingering smell issues on our post about how to wash cloth diapers. It made me realized I've never posted here about how and when to strip cloth diapers! Goodness. Please forgive me.
If you’ve ever hunted for information about cloth diapering (especially when you're looking for help to troubleshoot an issue or problem), you’ve likely run across the instruction to “strip your diapers.” Some sources make stripping sound like a dire emergency, while other sources dismiss it completely. But really, it's neither, so let's take a quick look at what stripping is and when it’s useful.
First of all, what causes funky smells?
Funky smells come from lingering residue. That residue can be from numerous things: leftover moisture, lingering detergent residue, or even lingering uric acid that wasn't fully washed off.
You can troubleshoot these fairly easily by classifying the smell:
- Your diapers just don't smell fresh and clean, even when they're totally dry and have just been washed
- Your diapers smell musty, even after a number of washes.
- Your eyes water when you open up the diaper to change your baby due to the strong scent of ammonia
Basically, if your diapers are just lacking freshness when they're totally dry, that means there's a detergent build-up on the cloth. It can also be related to mineral build-up if you've got hard water. This typically means there hasn't been enough water or time present during the rinse cycle.
If your diapers smell musty, that's generally a sign of moisture residue, which either means there wasn't enough water or time in the wash cycle or the diapers didn't dry fully.
Lastly, if your diapers smell fine when they're dry, but your eyes water and your toes curl up when you open the diaper after your baby has soiled it, that's the sign of ammonia residue, which is caused by not enough water getting through the diapers during the wash cycle. Those uric acid crystals can be stubborn little cling-ons, so you want to make sure there's plenty of agitation during the wash and a long rinse to get rid of them sufficiently.
So, all of those can help you tweak your wash routine in the long-term, but it doesn't necessarily help in the short term when you're facing down a hamper full of diapers that aren't quite right.
Thankfully, one quick and simple fix to these is simply a loooooooong, hot wash with nothing but water. However, sometimes that doesn't quite do the trick, so enter…. stripping.
What is Stripping?
“Stripping” merely refers to the process that strips any lingering residues from the surface of your diapers. Residues can build up if you use a detergent that has additives or fabric softeners, if diapers aren’t fully rinsed after each wash, or if you have hard water in your area.
(Side note: Jennifer Labit recently wrote a fabulous little article on the science of detergent residue on fabrics from a manufacturer's point of view. It's a FASCINATING quick read, if you're a cloth diaper geek like me. 🙂 )
Stripping isn’t a routine maintenance sort of thing – it’s only something you need to do if your diapers are suddenly leaking or if there’s an undesirable odor that lingers in your diapers even after they’ve been washed and dried. Some cloth diapering parents report that they've never stripped their diapers, while others do it about every six months. Both are normal, as there are often factors outside your control (such as the hardness of your water) that can contribute to the need to strip, so don't feel any guilt if you find yourself needing to strip your diapers.
(You will want to take a look at your wash routine, however, just to determine you're washing and rinsing sufficiently.)
PLEASE NOTE: Please check all warranties before you strip!
- If your diapers are still under warranty, washing them on a hot cycle may void the warranty.
- If your washer is still under warranty, using the Dawn soap option may void the warranty.
- For either, using a detergent other than the one recommended by the manufacturer may void the warranty.
- For that matter, singing while you load the washing machine, especially if your song is cheery, may also void the warranty.
Obviously, I kid on the last one, but I must do my due diligence to remind you that checking the warranties of your machine is YOUR responsibility and even though these methods have worked successfully without issue for thousands upon thousands of families, you would be wise to know your warranty's clauses and fine print BEFORE you begin.
How to Strip Cloth Diapers
In order to strip your diapers effectively, you just need to loosen the residues and rinse them with copious amounts of hot water.
There are various methods for stripping your diapers depending on your type of machine. Do your normal wash and dry first, as in order to strip effectively, you need to start with clean, dry diapers.
Also, with any of these methods, you will need to add 1/4 – 1/2 cup water softener if you have hard water – just to make sure minerals aren't continuing to cling to the fabrics with all the extra rinses.
HOT water with no detergent (top-loader)
Wash your diapers in the longest cycle your machine will allow using the HOT wash cycle (not SANITIZE, as it may damage your fabrics) and either HOT or WARM rinse (and remember, NO detergent).
Lift the lid every once in a while to check for soap bubbles – you need to rinse until you no longer see soap bubbles or a film on top of the water during the rinse, which may take as many as 3-4 rinses. But once the soap bubbles no longer appear, your diapers are fresh and fully stripped!
Rock-a-Soak (top-loader & HE)
I typically make it a practice to not mention specific brands in posts unless I have very good reason to do so (as posts are often read years after they're written and brands come and go quickly!) However, in this case, I want to mention Rockin' Green Funk Rock, as I've had hundreds of cloth diaper families that I've counseled come back to say Funk Rock really does rock the funk. (And no, I'm not getting paid to tell you that. I'm up-front about our paid promotions and this isn't one of them!)
Soaking your diapers for just an hour or two with Funk Rock or even just plain washing soda can be a super-effective way to get rid of lingering funk and residues. This isn't the old-fashioned “soak” where you leave your diapers in water in your diaper pail while they wait to be washed, but this is a short, intentional soak designed specifically to loosen residues and prepare them for wash.
To do a soak in a top-loader, fill the tub with hot water, add 3-4 tablespoons of Funk Rock or plain washing soda, toss in your diapers, and let them sit for an hour or so. After the soak, run them through a hot wash and rinse cycle 2-3 times.
In a front-loader, add your diapers to the basket and put 3-4 tablespoons of Funk Rock or washing soda in the detergent area of the detergent drawer. Start a quick wash cycle and hit “stop” or “pause” as soon as you notice that the Funk Rock has been washed into the basket and the water has been added in the cycle. Let this sit for an hour or so, then start a long, hot wash and rinse without adding anything else. You will likely need to wash and rinse 2-3 times.
Vinegar (top-loader & HE)
You can also add 1/4 – 1/2 cup of vinegar to one of the rinse cycles. This is a gentle way to neutralize the acids and odors lingering on your diapers and it will help lift away the residues. You can add this via the detergent drawer or if you have a fabric softener ball that releases the liquid during the rinse cycle, just place the vinegar inside and toss it in on top of the diapers.
Dawn dishwashing liquid (top-loader only)
In a top-loader, you may also add one EXTREMELY SMALL squirt of Original Dawn dishwashing liquid to the wash cycle. Note: Check your warranty first!
Dawn has been formulated as a degreaser, so it does very well in lifting off fatty or protein-rich residues, which can indeed exist on diapers. (Also, if your child has recently discovered Vaseline or petroleum-based diaper creams and smeared them all over his or her diapers, Dawn is also a very effective way to deal with that laundry issue!)
Dawn creates lots of suds, however, so although some manufacturers say it's ok to use Dawn in your washer, dish soap is not designed for use in the washer and can cause damage to the machine. If you prefer not to put Dawn in your washing machine or want to use this method with a front-loader, just handwash them with the Dawn first, then rinse and wring them as much as you can before placing them in the washer to start the strip.
As with all the other methods, once the diapers are in the machine, wash on hot and – you guessed it – rinse, rinse, rinse.
That's It, Folks
So, as you can see, stripping your diapers doesn’t take much more effort than a regular load of laundry and doesn’t need to happen often. The only key is rinse, rinse, rinse! And the best way to prevent needing to strip in the first place is just to make sure you’re using a long rinse in your normal wash routine or by occasionally adding a second rinse to your routine.
So, there's the quick and not-so-dirty rundown on how to strip cloth diapers.