Categorized | Washing Cloth Diapers

Ammonia- Causes, Treatment, and Prevention.

This post may contain affiliate links.
225 Flares Twitter 1 Facebook 107 Pin It Share 113 Google+ 4 Filament.io Made with Flare More Info'> 225 Flares ×

ammonia

is the most feared word in the cloth diaper community.  It is the scourge of the earth, a menace to society, some even call it a “beast” because it is so hard to get rid of.

Ammonia is unmistakable, and if you aren’t sure if you have build-up in your diapers all you need to do is take a whiff of a wet diaper.  If a diaper that has been urinated in smells strongly, and singes your nose hairs, it is ammonia.  Ammonia is used in cleaning products like window cleaner  (and can be purchased in pure form) so you have that smell to compare it to.

There are acceptable amounts of ammonia and if your diapers only smell strongly after a few days in your wetbag or pail then this is quite normal, though you may want to increase the frequency of your washing to prevent a problem.  When the smell is acrid and “knock you over” strong this should be addressed as soon as possible.

Other than just an offensive odor, ammonia can cause topical rashes that often present as flat and red, though in severe cases they can leave open sores. Ammonia “burn” is the worst presentation of the rash and is a chemical burn on the skin that is very painful.

I am not a chemist or a laundry scientist and I won’t start spouting off a lot of chemical explanations of why and how ammonia builds up in cloth diapers.  There are many resources for that, including this one from Rockin’ Green.

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 9.53.49 PM

advertisement from 1929

Ammonia in diapers is a problem that is as old as cloth diapers themselves.  Instances referring to the “ammoniacal diaper” go back to the early 1900′s in newspaper advice columns, baby care handbooks, and advertisements.  There was even a study done on why and how ammonia builds up in cloth diapers done in the 1920′s.  Many products were designed to wash the ammonia from the diaper, and some ads for washing machines even claimed to prevent ammonia build-up!  This problem has been around so long and yet no one has created a magical cure, which goes along with my stance that there is not a single method for washing diapers that works for everyone.

For those of you with younger infants you may not experience this issue.  This is for several reasons

  • Younger babies are changed more frequently.
  • Younger babies are on pure breastmilk or formula
  • Younger babies have less concentrated urine due to their diets of pure liquids and they drink often.

The older the baby, the more ammonia… One you begin introducing solid foods and your baby starts sleeping for longer stretches at night you may notice the increasing odor of ammonia creeping in.  The diapers used overnight are the biggest offenders, and babies who sleep all night are usually not changed so by the morning the diaper can reek of the scent!

All diapers are not created equal

Now that you understand why ammonia builds up (concentrated urine, longer times before changing, varied diets and older babies/toddlers) you should also know that all diapers are not created equal in how they wash.  This can greatly affect your chances of success and your method of attacking the ammonia.

Microfiber is the cheapest absorbent material and therefore a popular one for cloth diapers.  Pocket diapers often come with microfiber inserts and some All-in-Ones or All-in-Two’s use this material as well.  Very few fitteds use them but a couple come to mind.  The thicker the microfiber the harder it is to get clean.  Microfiber strands, when looked at under a microscope, will explain why they hold onto the ammonia so effectively.  The same design that makes them so absorbent is their weakness.  Avoiding diapers with super thick layers of microfiber, or microfiber that is sandwiched under a stay dry synthetic layer and sewn down is good advice when you consider what a pain the ass butt it is to wash the ammonia out.  The highest amount of agitation is needed.

That being said, the thicker the layers of any diaper and the inability to wash and clean them throughly, the more likely you are to have odor/ammonia build up.  If you are up for the challenge (and the immense rewards) you can opt to use flat cloth diapers.  These are one layer and fold to various diaper shapes or rectangular diaper inserts.  Being made from natural materials, and a single layer, means the chances of ammonia build-up are practically impossible with an effective wash routine.

microfiber_naturalfibers_closeup

Natural fibers (cotton, bamboo, hemp) have smoother strands, making the ammonia build-up less likely.  I’m not saying diapers with natural fibers won’t experience ammonia, but if they do, ridding it will be easier than microfiber diapers. If at all possible, using natural fibers at night is a wise choice for many reasons.

Treatment This becomes a touchy subject because some treatments that I may suggest, and that are often effective, may void the manufacturer’s warranty on your diapers.  Please be aware of this fact and check the warranty (if you still have one) before trying any of these methods.  Also know that I cannot be responsible for the results of your efforts and this is strictly advice.  

Oh I wish, I wish I could solve all of your problems with ammonia.  I myself have never truly been able to cure it, though many times I was able to keep it at bay.  I can offer tips that are based on my experiences, the experiences of others, and other literature.

Chlorine Bleach is effective against ammonia.  Some brands, like bumGenius, suggest using bleach regularly.  1/4 cup added to the wash once a month.  In my experience, bleach can work, especially when nothing else will.  If you use microfiber diapers you may want to use it monthly to prevent ammonia.  If you are treating diapers with severe build-up strip them first, then bleach and wash again.

Stripping your diapers with many hot washes (no detergent) and using a laundry additive designed for removal of ammonia like Funk Rock is another option.  Usually you will need to let the diapers soak in the Funk Rock for several hours or overnight, then do many hot washes with no detergent.  Soaking will allow the Funk Rock to penetrate into the thicker diapers.

RLR is another laundry additive used for stripping.  If you suspect the ammonia is trapped thanks to other build-ups in your diapers (minerals from hard water or laundry soaps) the RLR soak will remove the build-up. (You can find RLR at many cloth diaper retailers including DDL affiliate Kelly’s Closet)

Eco Nuts makes something called “Ammonia Bouncer” that I’m just giving a try.  It does remove ammonia from the test swatches immediately (when I first saw it at an expo, a swatch was soaked in pure ammonia and the product was added to the soak and the odor was gone!) but will it work on diapers?  I hope so.

Switching detergents can help too.  As much as I hate to say it, one of the ways we got rid of ammonia odor after moving states and changing water types was switching to Tide Original.  Sometimes that switch is all it takes, and then I switched back to a more natural detergent after the ammonia was gone.  Using the Tide on occasion worked best for us.  I wouldn’t use it full-time since in previous years that led to repelling issues.

Prevention

If you know your baby is prone to ammoniacal diapers you can try a few things to prevent the build up.

Pre-rinse the wet diapers (or just overnight diapers if you know that is the main issue) with the diaper sprayer or in the sink and put them in the pail after a squeeze.  Rinsing the urine away before letting it sit until wash day can prevent more ammonia from occurring.

Make sure your baby is well hydrated!  Let them drink plenty of water.  The less concentrated the urine, the less ammonia will be present.

Be sure the diapers are well rinsed after washing.  Removing any alkali already present or bacteria will reduce the chance of ammonia building in the diapers.

Very hot washes will kill ammonia and bacteria (unless there is already build-up).  You may consider temporarily raising the temperature on your hot water heater to 135 or above for washing the diapers.

Spraying the wet diaper inserts with a solution called “Bac-Out” before placing in the pail/wet bag has been testified to work by several friends.  Bac-Out contains an enzyme and could potentially irritate the baby’s skin.  Bac-out is often found in natural food stores or on Amazon.com.

Ammonia is a bitch (we are all adults here…).  I understand why many cloth diapering parents take breaks when this problem arises, or quit altogether.  There is almost a science to washing cloth diapers and finding the right method can be downright impossible.

That being said, you have invested a lot of money into your cloth diapers!  Taking steps to get rid of the problem, even if you take a break while doing so, will ensure you continue cloth diapering for many months or years to come.

Have you had an ammonia problem and been successful at getting rid of it?  Please share in the comments and include your type of washer and water if you can!
Disclosure: I am not a scientist.  Please use this post as a guide, not a guarantee, and take any advice at your own risk.  

 

Pin It
The following two tabs change content below.
Kim Rosas began Dirty Diaper Laundry in 2009 out of a desire to help more parents understand modern cloth diapers. She lives in Florida with her husband of 5 years and her two boys. Even though none of her boys wear diapers anymore she is still just as committed to promoting them. In her spare time Kim enjoys video editing, photography, and coffee.
  • Traci Weatherford-Brown

    I use a dry pail, so adding a warm/warm wash cycle with auto soak selected and no detergent (basically a long pre-rinse) has also helped keep ammonia away at our house. (Two big boys in nighttime cloth pull-ups and a baby in full-time cloth.)

  • Jeanie Payne

    I got ammonia in my toddlers night time diapers. We were using Fuzzi Bunz with microfiber and hemp inserts. I battled it for a while trying various things, including bleach, which would work for a while but the ammonia would always come back. Then I tried Tide. The ammonia went away and with my next baby, who was cloth diapered from birth to three years, I never had any ammonia issues. We have an older top loader and I do a prerinse on cold, hot wash with Tide to the appropriate line for the load size, and two rinses.

  • Jessica Cardwell

    This is very helpful! Now that my baby is getting older this has become a problem and I wasn’t sure what to do. Thank you!

  • Brianna M

    I have been having horrible ammonia problems. I have tried stripping the diapers, bleach, and just purchased ammonia bouncer. I am still having problems. After reading how microfiber can be so prone to ammonia I am going to replace my inserts w/ cotton, or bamboo prefolds and see if that helps.

  • Jen H

    oh gosh im so glad you had this…. my son has been smelling like an underpass everytime he pees in certain diapers! thanks for the info!!!

  • Alyssa Jones

    I’ve recently had some ammonia smell with my 20wk old BG’s diapers. The smell is only noticeable after the diapers have been in the wetbag for a couple days, but I was concerned this might be the start of a problem. They come out of the wash smelling clean, but I wasn’t sure. This information is GREAT! I’m sure I will reference it later when I need to get the funk out!

  • Kristi Knight

    It is so easy to prevent ammonia. All these special products to rid ammonia are a waste of money cause they don’t fix the problem permanently. They get rid of ammonia then but if you have ammonia then your your wash routine needs to be tweaked or you aren’t using enough detergent or your not using a good detergent. Ammonia happens because pee gets left behind in the diapers after the wash. If you have ammonia then your diapers are not getting clean. Its a super simple fix. Use an actual detergent. The so called CD safe detergents are really crappy and most really arent detergents cause they lack the ingredients to be a detergent. These so called detergents consist of water softeners and laundry boosters. There isn’t anything that actually cleans the diapers. The so called CD safe detergents are just a scam to get your money. Cloth diapers are not like fine china, they are heavily soiled laundry. So use a real detergent like Gain or Tide or Purex. Tide powder is the best and strongest! Its the most popular detergent among cding families! You can use any detergent you buy at a Walmart or target or a grocery store. The key is to use the recommended amount. Cd’s are considered to be heavily soiled and the detergent container suggest using the max amount which is usually line 3. Don’t be afraid to use plenty of detergent. We are talking about cleaning pee and poop here. If you have a good wash routine and have the correct water level when you wash diapers that is important. A good routine would be to do a prerinse then do a hot heavy duty cycle with a full scoop of detergent. No extra rinses. It just waste water. Detergents do not build up. They can’t because they are designed to rinse out. Now if your water is hard you must use a water softener in with your detergent. I highly recommend calgon water softener . If your water is hard and you want to do extra rinses then you must add a water softener to reach and every rinse you do. You should never need to do thing like crazy soaks in this or that. All you have to do is use a good detergent, and use enough detergent use the correct water level, which most think more water is better but its not. It can work against you. Washing diapers is easy and simple. Too many times people just complicate it. I am a very experienced cloth diapering momma of 3. I spend several hours a day helping moms fix their wash routines. We do things today in our wash routine that are backed by facts and science. Anyway if anyone has any questions please email me! I love to help and I don’t mind at all! Kristi2babies@gmail.com

    Kristi

  • Jayna

    Why would you recommend using bleach to fight ammonia? Both bleach and ammonia are alkaline substances. In order to neutralize ammonia, you need to treat it with an acid, not with another alkaline. Furthermore, google bleach and ammonia together. They are a HUGe no-no to mix together, so I am totally confused as to why you would tell someone to mix bleach with diapers that have ammonia buildup. Nope, bad advice. Shame on you.

    • kimrosas

      Shame on me? Lol. This is a method that can work and is suggested by several manufacturers. It isn’t always effective but being that ammonia is a beast it is hard to get rid of.
      Now we aren’t talking about mixing ammonia in a bottle with bleach… that’s different.
      Please excuse typos and brevity. Sent from my iPhone

  • Aaron S

    I have a solution that will prevent any chemical residue that could be possibly left behind in the fabric of a cloth diaper that will save the parent time and money, it’s ecofriendly, and has health benefits that will prevent the child from getting diaper rashes. The Wash It is a detergent-less laundry solution, the Wash It does electronically what laundry detergent does chemically to the laundry water. The Wash It will clean cloth diapers, kill any harmful bacteria that could be in the fabric, and will remove any chemical residue that could be in the fabric which can cause diaper rashes. The Wash It system provides a safer alternative to cleaning cloth diapers than any kind of laundry detergent has to offer. I would recommend looking into this ecofriendly product that has many health benefits as well.


Bummis Duo-Brite,
DDLbutton
225 Flares Twitter 1 Facebook 107 Pin It Share 113 Google+ 4 Filament.io 225 Flares ×