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How Diaper Pails Work to Keep Odors at Bay

Aug 26, 2023

Some of the most popular brands, including Diaper Genie, Munchkin, and Ubbi, do the job in different ways

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Most parents with babies or toddlers in diapers have walked past their diaper pail only to get a whiff of something they wish they didn't. A mainstay of baby registries, diaper pails have long held a place in the list of must-haves. But aside from whether they match the nursery colors, most people don't analyze which pail they are choosing, as long as it does its basic job—eliminating odor. With babies using several diapers daily, diaper pails have their work cut out for them.

That's where things get murky. Not all diaper pails, or the bags that go with them, use the same technology, systems, or materials, and some, like the popular Ubbi, don't use specialized bags at all. Here's what experts had to say about the science behind the diaper pail, and how parents can choose a setup to breathe a little easier.

Diaper pail critics might say that it's just an overpriced, glorified trash can that looks better in a baby room. But some diaper pails, and their bags, offer much more than that.

"The main function of a good diaper pail is to ‘seal’ away the odors from soiled diapers," says Smart Design Engineering Director Vincent Valderrama, who previously was a design engineer for eight years at Diaper Genie Elite and Diaper Genie Complete. "A good diaper pail will reduce odors while inserting a diaper, while the unit is sitting full of soiled diapers, and while a caretaker empties the pail."

People have questioned whether the secret to diaper pail odor prevention is in the bag, the pail, or both. Kevin Johnson, senior director of product development at Munchkin Diaper Pails, inventor, and owner of several patents in this space, says the bag is of equal importance to the pail.

"There are many diaper pails on the market with varying technologies. Pails with multiple layers of security outperform those with less," Johnson says. "The odor-controlling technology in pails varies from spring-loaded clamps and hinged doors to . . . twisting mechanisms that twist the bag closed like you would use to twist a bag of bread closed." He says the seven-layer bag technology minimizes the transmission of water vapor and oxygen to lock in the malodors.

The Secondary ClosureA high-performing bag is great, unless you go to open the diaper pail and there isn't a barrier between your nose and the bag's contents. Johnson says a "secondary closure," is a must if you don't want an unpleasant surprise when you open the pail.

"The most important factor is to ensure the diaper pail doesn't allow odor to escape, especially when opened and when emptying it out," he says. Another odor barrier is the way the bag itself is sealed after use. Some brands, including Munchkin, use "single-use bags that do not require cutting or tying of knots once the bag is filled," says Johnson. "This avoids additional odor escaping, which can happen if one is not meticulous during the bag removal."

Using a Different Type of BagIf you plan on using a regular trash bag, you might have more options but won't benefit from the technology in the specialized bags.

"Certain brands use proprietary bags that are specifically designed to work seamlessly together with that branded pail to ensure the maximum amount of odor-blocking ability," says Lina Racaniello, vice president of global marketing at Angelcare Group, which includes Diaper Genie. "That's certainly the case with Diaper Genie technology."

Valderrama explains further that bags are all about "barrier film technology."

"These blown films [in the bags] are multi-layered. Each of these layers has a functional purpose. The most relevant are layers that block the transmission of oxygen, and layers that block the transmission of moisture. These are the two attributes that typically carry odors. So blocking them reduces the transmission of odor," he says. That's all engineering talk for the fact that a great bag means you probably won't be smelling days-old diapers when you walk past, especially if the pail also clamps effectively.

"The pails that I have worked on typically involve mechanical systems that are designed to clamp and open the pail chamber as needed to seal away the contents of the pail during use," he says.

In addition, bags should be on the thicker side, Racaniello says, to help reduce odors from seeping through.

Some parents opt to put the diapers in a separate bag first, before placing it in the larger bag in the pail, and even have used dog poop bags that come in a roll. However, Valderrama says this might not help. "My general take is that double bagging diapers in any monolayer bag won't stop the permeating odors from escaping. I believe most dog poop or things like produce or the old school disposable plastic grocery bags are single layer and thin, and won't do much in terms of keeping in odors," he says. "While they can be useful in keeping a full diaper from unraveling. A better way to keep the smells down is to frequently empty your diaper pail."

Where to Buy Diaper Pail Brands Mentioned in This Article Munchkin: Amazon, Munchkin, Target, WalmartPrice: Starting at $70.99

Diaper Genie: Amazon, Target, WalmartPrice: Starting at $47.99

Ubbi: Amazon, Target, Ubbi, WalmartPrice: Starting at $69.99

Sure, some of the responsibility is on the pail and the bag to work their magic. But caregivers can take concrete steps to ensure pails work as effectively as possible too, our experts explain. These include:

• Wrap a dirty diaper tightly before inserting it into a pail, Johnson says. "A tightly wrapped diaper can withstand the opposing force when pushed through the sealing mechanism and into the pail."

• Lean toward tubes of film vs. bags, pails that seal fully, and multilayer films, Valderrama says.

• Empty the pail as soon as it is full, or when an exceptionally smelly diaper is in there, or every two to three days, Valderrama says.

In the end, whichever pail and bag works best for you is the one that eliminates odor and minimizes the stress of changing nasty blowouts.

"Having a baby is one of the highlights of one's life, and it's important that joy isn't minimized by the smell of stinky diapers," Johnson says. "Purchasing the right diaper pail is an easy way for parents to keep diaper odors at bay, allowing them to focus on what's important: raising their new little family member."

Alexandra Frost

Alexandra Frost is a journalist and content marketing writer. Her work has appeared in such publications as HuffPost, The Washington Post, Glamour, Forbes, Parents, Women's Health, Reader's Digest, Popular Science, and Today's Parent.

The Secondary Closure Using a Different Type of Bag Where to Buy Diaper Pail Brands Mentioned in This Article Munchkin: Price: Diaper Genie: Price: Ubbi: Price: