So your nappies are stinky? Why and how to strip cloth nappies

Cloth Nappies, Top Tips

Have your hitherto reliable nappies begun leaking unexpectedly, or coming out of the wash a bit stinky? While stripping your cloth nappies isn’t always the right solution, sometimes it might give your nappies a whole new lease of life. Read on to find out when you might need to strip your nappies, how to go about it, and how to avoid ever having to do it again.

Why strip nappies?

There are two reasons you might need to strip cloth nappies:

  1. They’re less absorbent than they used to be (you’re getting leaks).
  2. They don’t smell clean after being washed.

As a rule, you shouldn’t need to strip cloth nappies; it’s not part of a regular washing routine. So if you do need to strip them, it’s worth taking the opportunity to tweak your day to day wash as well. See the end of this article for some tips.

If your cloth nappies are leaking, before you jump to stripping them, check that the elastic is still tight around your child’s legs, and consider whether you might need to add an extra absorbent layer as your child gets bigger, or just change a little more frequently. You can also check absorption directly. Hold a nappy under a dripping tap and see whether the water soaks in (all OK) or beads and rolls off (time to strip).

Absorption problems confirmed? The most likely culprits are barrier creams and fabric softener. If you’re using a barrier cream, you’re best off using a disposable liner. The stuff that makes the cream do its job creates a waterproof barrier on the nappy if it’s in direct contact with the fabric. Fabric softener does a similar thing (although a little more slowly) and shouldn’t be used with cloth nappies. If your nappies have a build-up of either barrier cream or fabric softener, stripping them should solve the problem — then try to avoid it happening again!

If your nappies are still absorbing fine, but seem to be coming out of the wash a little stinky, then you might be experiencing some detergent build-up, or your washing machine might not be doing a very effective job. “Super-wash” stripping should do the job. Once they’re smelling sweet again, take a look at some of the washing routine tips at the end of this article to avoid a repeat.

Stripping cloth nappies: before you start

First of all, check whether the manufacturer of your nappies has anything on their website about the best ways to strip their nappies. They’re the experts on their own type of nappy.

You shouldn’t strip PUL shells or covers; only strip the absorbent parts of your nappies. If you have all-in-one nappies, or any other nappy where the absorbent part and the PUL are permanently attached, then you’ll need to use a PUL-friendly method.

If you think your problems may be down to detergent build-up, run a maintenance cycle on your washing machine (hottest cycle, empty machine, no detergent) before you start, and check that there isn’t any build-up in the drawer.

Finally, before you start, put the nappies through a regular (60o) wash, making sure they’re clean before you start dealing with any residue.

Super-Wash Method

If your problem is detergent buildup or other washing routine issues, this should fix the issue:

  • Rinse cycle without any powder.
  • 60o cycle with a full dose of detergent. If possible use a long cycle, and hit the “extra rinse” button.
  • Same 60o long cycle with extra rinse, but this time without detergent.
  • Rinse cycle without detergent, repeated until all the bubbles have gone.
  • Dry the nappies outside in the sun if possible; if not, air-dry indoors.

This is going to take pretty much the whole day, but is fairly low-effort. Just keep starting the machine again every time it stops, until all those bubbles are gone.

Dishwashing liquid and dishwasher tablet stripping

Dishwashing liquid or dishwasher tablets are another option for stripping cloth nappies. All detergents work on a similar principle: they break up oil and dirt, and wash them away. Laundry powder, laundry liquid, hand-dishwashing liquid, and dishwasher powder/tablets all have a slightly different mix of surfactants and other stain-removing substances and a slightly different pH, and they create different quantities of suds. One of the advantages of using dishwashing liquid (which creates lots of suds) may simply be the number of times you will need to rinse the nappies through afterwards — all that rinsing thoroughly clears away any residue.

As a rule, laundry liquid is the best stuff for washing fabric, including nappies. However, if you’ve got a buildup of barrier cream or fabric softener, the different action of dishwashing liquid or dishwasher tablets may be what you need to get rid of it.

The very easy version:

  • Put the nappies on for a regular wash at 60o, but don’t add detergent. Instead, put a dishwasher tablet in the drum of the machine and set it going.
  • Run at least one extra rinse cycle afterwards (you may want to run a couple).

This is PUL-friendly, and it’s very low-effort, though again, it will take a while to get through the extra washes.

The fairly easy version:

  • Soak the nappies in the bath/sink/bucket overnight, in water with a bit of dishwashing liquid added.
  • Wash in the machine the next morning, on a normal 60o cycle.
  • Rinse and keep rinsing until all the bubbles have gone.

This is slightly more effort, but again it’s mostly about returning to the washing machine every couple of hours until the water is running clean. Use dishwashing liquid with no moisturisers as these may get in the way of the cleaning action.

The (very) hard work version:

  • Soak the nappies in the bath/sink/bucket overnight, in water with a bit of dishwashing liquid added.
  • Take each nappy, and rub in a bit of dishwashing liquid — or, for the really high-effort version, scrub with a scrubbing brush.
  • Wash in the machine on a normal 60 degree cycle.
  • Rinse and keep rinsing until all the bubbles have gone.

This is very, very hard work, and takes ages. However, according to one person on the Cloth Nappy Tree forum, it absolutely does the job. Unless you enjoy scrubbing nappies with a scrubbing brush (?!) I would save this for if you’re truly desperate. I suspect that it’s the scrubbing, not the type of soap, that is the crucial part.

Vinegar stripping

This is only good for white terry cotton nappies; avoid it with PUL, nappies with elastic, or bamboo nappies. If you have hard water, you may want to avoid this — washing with vinegar can make buildup worse as the vinegar binds to the minerals in the water.

  • Soak overnight in a mixture of 7/8 water and 1/8 white vinegar.
  • Wash on 60o, with detergent.
  • Rinse until the vinegar smell is gone.

Alternatively, you can throw half a cup of white vinegar into the machine on a regular wash. After that you’ll need to do a second wash with no detergent. Again, avoid this with PUL or elastic.

After stripping: avoid a repeat!

The two most important points to remember when using and cleaning cloth nappies are:

  1. Use flushable liners if you’re using a barrier cream, to keep it away from your nappies.
  2. Don’t use fabric softener on your nappies!

When you’re cleaning your nappies on their regular wash, it seems that gel detergent may leave more residue inside the washing machine pipes than powder does. (Many cloth nappy websites recommend powder as better than liquid, and Which? reviews in general also come out in favour of powders.) So if you use gels, it’s worth doing a service wash (run your machine on the hottest cycle available, empty, without detergent) every so often. While you’re there, check whether the drawer needs a scrub. (I just checked mine. Oops.)

There’s some debate about whether you should use a normal amount of detergent, or less than you would with a regular load. Bear in mind that a nappy wash is often smaller than a regular “full load” as nappies tend to be washed more often. Take a look the next time you start a nappy wash — if your machine is only half-full you should use less than a full dose of detergent. Other than that, experiment a bit. You need more detergent in hard water areas than in soft water areas, and washing machines vary in efficiency. If you’re experiencing detergent buildup and you’ve been using a full measure of detergent, try reducing it a bit and see how you go.

Buildup can also indicate that the nappies aren’t being rinsed thoroughly when you’re cleaning them. Eco-wash cycles use less water so are not a good idea when washing nappies. Adding an ‘extra rinse’ to the cycle may help, especially if you live in a soft water area. Try doing an extra rinse cycle after your next nappy wash, and take a look to see if there are bubbles in there. If there are, try using a bit less detergent next time, or start routinely doing an extra rinse.

Once you’ve got your washing routine working, and you’re not using barrier creams or fabric softener, you shouldn’t need to strip your nappies again. They’ll stay clean and absorbent on your baby’s bum for their (long) lifetime.

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