Understanding Ammonia and Cloth Diapers

revised May 28, 2015. While most of the information has remained the same, some of the steps and recommendations have been updated to reflect the most commonly accepted recommendations for dealing with ammonia in your diapers.  Always consult the manufacturer’s recommendations first to ensure you are not going to void their product warranty.

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. –  Calley, 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.

Our Tips for Ammonia:

  • Before switching detergents or stripping be sure to wash your diapers as usual.
  • Are you using enough detergent? Don’t be afraid to use the recommended amount of detergent for your diapers. What does your detergent recommend for your machine type and load size? If you are using a cloth diaper specific detergent (like Rockin’ Green, Eco Sprout, etc), it’s ok to use slightly more than the recommended amount to get your diapers clean.  Try adding 1-2 more scoops at a time until you feel like your diapers are getting clean enough.
  • 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.
  • Is it time to strip? In moderate-to-hard water, RLR Laundry Treatment can be amazing.  While you can add RLR directly to your washing machine (mostly in top loading machines), many families will strip their diapers in a bathtub or other basin of water. Some methods for using RLR recommend soaking for long periods of time; while others only soak for 30-45 minutes. To strip, add 1/2 a packet of RLR to your tub or basin (adjust for your size basin, this is assuming a standard top loader or bathtub is used) with hot water.  Dissolve and add your diapers and inserts.  Covers may not need to be stripped since they do not absorb minerals.  After soaking for 30+ minutes* rinse and wash as usual. *Please note that extended soaking can weaken your diapers and the elastic. 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.
  • Funk Rock, Mighty Bubbles, EcoNuts Ammonia Bouncer and Molly’s Suds All Sport may also be effective at removing ammonia and mineral buildup in your diapers. Please follow the manufacturer’s washing instructions on the back of the product. 
  • Bleach stripping? Bleach can also be used for “stripping” or sanitizing your diapers. If your baby has had a yeast infection you will need to sanitize and bleach your diapers to prevent the yeast from coming back.  Yeast can live in fabrics after they have been washed.  Yeast is most effectively killed at high temperatures and with bleach.  It is also very common to sanitize pre-loved diapers.  For a standard size machine and load of diapers, 1/4 cup of bleach can be diluted with your water in the wash cycle (with detergent). You may want to do an extra rinse to be sure that all of the bleach is rinsed out well. Please note that bleach can wear down natural fibers; such as cotton, hemp, and bamboo, quicker than microfibers.  Always refer to the manufacturer’s recommendations prior to using bleach.
  • 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 (or other ammonia bouncer).  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.

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. Revised May 2015.

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