Diaper Pails were an area of great confusion for me when first getting going with cloth diapering. I knew where to buy pails for disposable diapers – but couldn’t find a thing meant to accommodate cloth diapers. Envisioning a virtual stink bomb in the baby’s room made me feel panicked! While I still try little diaper pail experiments from time-to time, diaper pails have become a no-stress element of cloth diapering for us. We’ve learned that just about anything works pretty well and that the key to minimizing odors is to remove as much poop as possible from the diapers before they go into the pail, to keep the pail out of direct sunshine and away from heaters, and to regularly wash dirty diapers. Here are some of the things we’ve learned about cleaning dirty diapers and choosing and maintaining a diaper pail.

Removing Poop from Soiled Diapers: It’s amazing how automatic this job is now compared to how dreadful we anticipated it to be before the birth of our first child! Removing solid or illness-related poop is a key element of diaper pail smell control. The first few months are easy – exclusively breastfed baby poop can go directly into your diaper pail along with the diapers, no ‘handling’ required. More solid poops should be removed from the diaper as best as possible – shake what you can directly into the toilet. Some bowel movements are not so ‘shakable’ – and for these I store a cheap, stiff spatula next to our toilet in the toilet brush holder. I use this to scrape poop off of the diaper, knock it into the toilet bowl, and then wipe the spatula clean on the diaper before returning the spatula to the brush holder. We also have a diaper sprayer installed on our toilet – I save this for the ‘really good’ poopy diapers like diarrhea. Some people never scrap or rinse what cannot be shaken – we tried this at first – but were convinced of the necessity of more thorough efforts when corn kernel shells appeared in the dryer after feeding our toddler corn – big yuck.


Dry Pail or Wet Pail Method: We use the dry pail method and have never experimented with a wet pail method. The dry pail works fine for us. A dry pail is pretty self-explanatory – the pail itself is dry, not filled with water – and you put dirty diapers (sans poop) directly into the dry pail. No toilet swirling or rinsing required. I haven’t tried the wet pail method because I dread spilling poopy water. A wet pail is the more traditional method and many people swear by it. If you do use a wet pail please make sure that you have a securely locking lid on your pail to protect your babies from accidental drowning.

Diaper Pails: We use a common plastic 13-gallon, lidded laundry basket purchased for under $12 at our local store. Our current basket has an open woven pattern in the sides intended for ventilation. Previous trials included a very large plastic lidded basket intended for storing soiled cloth diapers that came complimentary from the diaper service we used when our first son was born. We didn’t like it for home use – too big. Our next attempt was a step on metal garbage can with a pullout plastic pail – too small plus I hated scrubbing out the plastic pail. The current one works great as long as we remember to face it with the opening towards the wall to discourage both our toddler and our dog from ‘explorations’ (big yuck!).

Diaper Pail Liners: We are alternating between two different liner bags – one made from a waterproof fabric (PUL) and another that is a normal non-waterproof cotton laundry bag. The liner in use gets dumped directly in the wash with the diapers after being emptied and the other clean liner gets put immediately into the now empty diaper pail. There is definitely a stronger ammonia smell when we use the waterproof bag. The combination of the cotton bag and our diaper pail with ventilation openings has not resulted in a worse smell in the house – but the hot season is just getting started. My advice is to get two bags if you can afford it so that you don’t have to find a place to balance soiled diapers while waiting for your one bag to dry. We went ‘liner less’ for over a year and had great success but changed to a liner when pregnant me got tired of bending over, scrubbing out the diaper pail. When ordering pail liners be careful to order one that is large enough to fit your pail.

Diaper Pail Smell: I am very sensitive to smells and initially worried that dirty diaper smell would be too much – wrong. Unless the weather is very hot or the sun is shining directly on our diaper pail the smell, to me, is tolerable. Some of the tactics I’ve tried successfully to help mitigate diaper pail odors include using Citrus Disks, compressed paper disks impregnated with natural citrus oils; shaking some baking soda into the pail a couple of times a day; putting a cloth rag dabbed with a few drops of tea tree or other pleasant smelling essential oil into the pail; using Diaper Buddies, a wash-additive disk scented with natural essential oils like tea tree, mint, or lavender that combat smells in the pail and then help increase wash efficiency in the washer; and leaving the pail open. I think the more airtight your pail the stronger odor – ventilation works wonders for dissipating smells. All of the above mentioned products are available at many diapering websites.

Wash Frequency: I recommend washing diapers every two to three days if possible. Washing more frequently is fine but will put noticeable wear and tear on your diapers. Washing less frequently results in a stinkier diaper pail, more ammonia and bacteria build-up in your diapers, more diapers to wash, and possible mold and mildew problems. Many people are very successful with longer washday intervals but I’ve found two to three days to be optimal for me.


© 2004, Cathy Cagle. First published in Pandora’s Box Magazine, Spring 2004. May not be reprinted without permission.

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1 Comment on Diaper Basics: Diaper Pails and Dirty Diapers

  1. Big Mama says:

    How would washing diapers every day or so put more wear and tear on them? Sitting saturated with urine and remnants of poo would have its own effect on the fibers.

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