Understanding Ammonia and Cloth Diapers

Ammonia Woes and What To Do When Your Nose Burns


People often ask, “How do I know if it’s ammonia?”  and the answer is, if you don’t KNOW it’s ammonia, it most likely isn’t.  When your diapers smell like ammonia, you’ll know it.  There’s not a way to describe the smell unless you’ve smelled it.  It burns your nose.  In diapers, you’ll often smell this when the diapers have sat for a while- you may get a whiff in the overnight diaper, or smell it at the bottom of your diaper pail when you dump the diapers in the washer.  Ammonia builds up over time.

Want a full lesson in how ammonia and urine react?  Rockin’ Green Soap has a great article called “Why do overnight diapers stink?” that you should read.  Here is an exert from their article: 
Ammonia and urea are very close cousins…siblings even. With a similar chemical composition, they can share and trade molecules pretty freely. They can turn from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in a matter of hours.
In normal concentrations- like you drink plenty of water, and urinate often- the urea doesn’t have much time to convert back to ammonia and is pretty diluted. But if left sitting around, exposed to air and moisture it can quickly change its tune and turn into ammonia.What makes it even worse, is one molecule of urea can turn into 2 molecules of ammonia. Which means that things can get potent quickly!

What else indicates ammonia buildup?  Diapers that smell good out of the washer, good when out of the dryer or off the line, but they smell like ammonia as soon as the urine hits them most likely have ammonia buildup.  Inside the diapers there will be little ammonia salts/crystals trapped in the layers of the diapers.  You can’t see these, and you can’t smell them.  They are only activated when the urine hits them, so you can assume that your clean diapers are actually ammonia-free until you’ve tried them out.

Synthetics can also play a bit of a trick on you.  Microfiber is actually hollow, and can hold and trap moisture inside the crevices and it takes quite a bit of agitation and water to get it back out! – Kim Webb, Rockin’ Green Soap

The thicker the diaper/insert, the more likely it is to develop buildup in the inner layers.  If your diapers are prone to ammonia, you may consider using thinner inserts.  Cotton flats and thin hemp or bamboo inserts are far less prone to developing ammonia salts and stink. – Stacy, DiaperShops.com Facebook Moderator

Okay, so you have ammonia.  Now what?  Well, it will depend on the types of diapers you have and what water type you have, too.  And also what you feel most comfortable using.  Unfortunately, not every method works for every person’s washer/water/diapers.  It can take some trial and error, but usually when you find what works, it will continue to work the next time, too.

Stacy’s Washing Tips:

  • If you have soft water, you can often do 3-4 hot water washes without any detergent, and this is enough to get the ammonia salts out of the diapers.
  • In moderate-to-hard water, RLR Laundry Treatment can be amazing.  Using 1/3 of a packet in a front-loader is good, or using 1/2 to a full packet in a top-loader.  You may have to do a second hot wash without detergent to get the rest of the bubbles out.  This product causes a lot of suds and bubbles, so we don’t recommend using it in soft water, as it can be hard to wash out.
  • For your bumGenius, Flip, and Econobum products; Cotton Babies recommends using Dawn and bleach for ammonia.  This can work well, but not all brands of diapers recommend using bleach.  We also don’t recommend using Dawn in a front-loading washer, as the suds are not good for the machine.
  • There is Bi-O-Kleen Bac-Out, which can work for inserts/prefolds/flats/fitteds.  We wouldn’t recommend using this product with pockets, AIOs, or covers, as the Bac-Out is an enzyme cleaner, and most brands recommend against using these products on PUL/TPU fabrics.  
  • Hot water washes can work in hard water, too.  But if doing the hot washes, I recommend adding Calgon Water Softener to each load to prevent hard water mineral buildup on the diapers.

What about vinegar and/or baking soda?  Vinegar can react with hard water and actually cause MORE issues with stink.  It’s also not recommended to use vinegar on any PUL/TPU fabrics or elastic.  We have had some success with vinegar on hemp fabrics but the other methods listed above work better for most fabrics.

Tips to Prevent Ammonia Build Up!

  1. Pre-rinse your diapers.  As soon as you remove the diaper from your baby send the inserts for a little swim in the toilet (sink or basin) and pre-rinse the urine out of the fabric.  This will wash out most of the urea and prevent ammonia from taking over your diaper pail.
  2. Add a little Funk Rock.  When doing your warm pre-wash cycle add a little Rockin’ Green Funk Rock (ammonia bouncer) to your water to help neutralize the ammonia crystals.
  3. Hydrate!  Make sure you keep your baby hydrated so that their urine will be more dilute.

Are you battling ammonia?  Have a tip you want to share?  Contact us or visit us on Facebook to share your tips with others.  


Disclaimer: Kelly’s Closet, Inc and DiaperShops.com cannot be held liable for any loss or damage arising directly or indirectly from the use of the information provided. This is for informational and reference purposes only and every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and safety of the information provided.

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