How To Clean Up Smelly Potty Training Messes

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert, advice columnist and author of The New York Times bestselling book, My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag ... And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha. Her flagship column, "Ask a Clean Person", debuted in 2011. Here on Lifehacker, we've launched a new iteration of it, focusing on parenting and all the messes it brings. 

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OK, having kids is gross. I'm in the middle of toddler toilet-training and losing my GD mind. Not with my kid! I get that this is a huge transition that will take time to fully master. But with my laundry!

I try to rinse all the pants/undies that get peed in immediately, but don't usually wash them the same day (NYC apartment, no washer of my own).

Obviously for poo disasters, I actually scrub the offending clothing immediately using detergent, but again once I've done that "prewash" I don't always do the laundry that day (typing this is making me feel really grossed out, fwiw).

BUT this is obviously not enough, because I've noticed all the compromised clothes smell TERRIBLE after being washed. So, what can I do better? Do I absolutely need to be doing laundry on a daily basis, which I frankly cannot afford, or is there a better pre-treat solution that I could be using to eliminate the stank?

Hope you can help!

I can for sure help! There are basically two ways you can go to treat the problem of a lingering urine odor in laundry: You can either pre-rinse the pants/undies the way you've been doing with the poopy ones, or you can add an odour-eliminating booster to the wash to address the problem.

The second option is going to be the easier one, because it only requires tossing another product in with laundry detergent when you do the wash, but the first one is worth mentioning in the event the dirty laundry is causing a smell problem in the home in between wearing and washing.

While rinsing the pants using any kind of soap will do the trick on fresh urine, Dr Bronner's is a great choice because it's so very good at eliminating strong odours in clothes. You can use the no-fragrance kind or any one of the scents.

You can also use Dr Bronner's directly in the wash in place of regular laundry detergent; the website has a helpful guide to dilution ratios that you should check out if you go that route.

White vinegar: Use half a cup of white vinegar to nuke odours in the wash. Add the vinegar to the rinse cycle of the wash by pouring it into the fabric softener compartment - the machine will dispense it at the right point in the cycle.

Borax: Borax is gentle but quite good as an odour-eliminating laundry booster. As a bonus, it's good on stains and can brighten up white and light-coloured clothes.

One last tip for adjusting your laundering practices: Opt for a lower heat dryer cycle, as high heat will amplify lingering odours in clothing.


We're in the arduous, terrible, far too long process of potty training our three-year-old. He is constantly pee-pants free - including overnight! His bladder is apparently the size of a house! - but poop remains an issue. How big of an issue?

Big enough that yesterday I had the fun job of clean poop off of:

The floor (2x), the toilet seat (3x), the bathroom rug, my sock (the one I was wearing), three-year-old fingers (WHY ARE YOU STICKING YOUR FINGERS UP YOUR BUTT STOP IT), all the doorknobs (so many door knobs), the couch (3x)

Everything is either a hard surface or can go in the washing machine, but the couch? I used an upholstery cleaner on it and there's a faint stain (and some running of the fabric dyes, not super fussed about that, it's a used ugly couch) and worst of all ... an odour. A poo smell.

Sometimes I sleep on this couch. Sometimes we have guests who sleep on this couch. How can I best eradicate the ghosts of couch-crappings past? Other than buying a new couch. That's really my preference but, alas, not within the budget.

Also, simply flipping the couch cushions over is no longer an option because he's pooped on the couch before, albeit in small quantities, and my husband was all PROBLEM SOLVED and flipped the cushions over so we NO LONGER HAVE A CLEAN SIDE. Dude, don't you know you only do the flip before company comes over?

I'm so glad you already have an upholstery cleaning machine, because that's going to be a great weapon for getting the stains out, as well as eliminating the lingering odour of poo from the couch. But there are alternatives for those who don't have such a machine, which I'll cover as well so everyone has options.

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The trick here is to use a different product in conjunction with the machine that will kill the smells. I'm going to go ahead and recommend Dr Bronner's for the job. To use it in a carpet and upholstery cleaning machine, dilute 1 tablespoon of Dr Bronner's in 1L of water and pour it into the chamber for cleaning solution.

The machine can also be used with a stain treatment product to lift those poo shadows. Diluted borax is very good on faecal matter. Apply it directly to the stains, allow it to penetrate for five to 15 minutes, and then go over the area using the machine.

For those who don't have a carpet and upholstery cleaning machine, you can still use those same products to remove stains.

You'll start with the same technique - apply the stain treatment, allow it to sit for a few minutes to penetrate the stains - but instead of going over it with a machine, use a nail or laundry brush dipped in water to gently scrub, working the product into the fabric and helping to lift the stain. Use a clean rag dipped in water to wipe away the product residue and repeat as needed until the stains are gone.

For odours, try a carpet deodoriser (which can also be used on upholstery) or straight bicarbonate of soda for an unscented option.

To use, sprinkle liberally on the couch, allow the powder to sit for 15 minutes or longer (especially if you're using straight bicarbonate of soda), then vacuum it up.

It's worth noting that the perfumed options can be too strong for many people, so if you're sensitive to scents, either use a sparing amount or stick with plain bicarbonate of soda.


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