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Ammonia Smell In Cloth Diapers

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
No one wants to deal with an ammonia smell in their cloth diapers. Here's how get them back to normal.

Do your cloth diapers wreak with a strange stench that could make your eyes water?

You may be dealing with one of the biggest issues in the cloth diaper world — ammonia.

It can happen if cloth diapers are left unwashed for too long, if you’re not using enough detergent in the wash, or even if your baby is slightly dehydrated.

One thing’s for sure — you want to deal with the problem as soon as possible. If left untreated, ammonia can not only cause a room-clearing stink, but it can also harm your baby.

What is the link between ammonia and urine? What causes that small? Most importantly, what can we do to get your diapers back to normal — and keep them that way?

What Is Ammonia?

The smell of ammonia occurs in urine when the amount of waste in the urine is greater than the amount of fluid.

When urea, a byproduct of the breakdown of proteins in urine, breaks down further it can turn into ammonia (1).

When a person is well-hydrated and uses the bathroom often, urea does not have time to turn into ammonia. However, if someone gets severely dehydrated, or urea is left to sit too long — like in a wet cloth diaper — ammonia will begin to form.

This is when that smell begins.

Causes Of Ammonia in Cloth Diapers

When handling ammonia diapers, understanding the root causes can help fix the problem and prevent it from happening again.

Here are 5 common causes of ammonia in cloth diapers:

1. Hard Water

Hard water is simply water with high mineral content. The minerals in hard water can build up in your cloth diapers, causing detergent to work less effectively.

This means your diapers may not actually be getting clean when you wash them, and urea is staying trapped in the diaper.

Test Tip

Finding out if you have hard water is easy. You can purchase a water testing strip online, or even use a strip that tests the water in fish tanks. The test takes less than 10 seconds to perform, and can save you a world of headaches.

2. Diapers sitting too long

As we’ve said, the longer urea sits, the more likely it is to turn into ammonia.

If you’re only washing your diapers every 5-7 days, it’s possible you’re waiting too long in between washes. Diapers left in wet diaper bags or diaper pails are more likely to develop an ammonia smell.

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3. Too much detergent

The more detergent you use, the cleaner the diapers, right? Not always.

Using too much detergent can make it difficult for your rinse cycle to thoroughly wash your diapers, leaving detergent residue behind.

This can lead to a detergent buildup in your diapers, with results similar to hard water build-up.

4. Not using enough detergent

Yes, not using enough detergent can also cause ammonia problems in your cloth diapers.

This is because using too little detergent could mean your diapers aren’t being cleaned well enough. This can cause urea to be left in your diapers, even after washing.

The trick is to find the measured sweet spot and follow the instructions on the package.

5. Your baby’s growing up

Young infants typically get all of their nutrients through liquids such as breastmilk or formula. This ensures they’re hydrated and keeps their urine very dilute. However, as they get older and start to eat solids, their urine will become more concentrated. This could cause a slight ammonia smell.

Also, as your baby gets older, they’ll begin to sleep for longer stretches, even through nighttime wetting. The longer your baby’s diaper sits out, and the more urine is in it, the more it will smell like ammonia in the morning.

This is why nighttime diapers seem to be the biggest ammonia culprits.

3 Ways To Eliminate Ammonia Smell

Once you’ve figured out what’s causing the ammonia smell in your diapers, how can you get rid of it once and for all?

There are a few key things you can try to get rid of that signature stench.

1. Try an enzyme cleaner

Enzyme cleaners, such as Bac-Out by Biokleen, work to eat the bacteria causing odor in your diapers.

Try spraying the diaper with an enzyme cleaner before putting them in your diaper pail as a preventative measure. You can also try using the pre-treatment 15 minutes before washes to help eliminate the ammonia smell.

2. Try a bleach soak

If an enzyme treatment doesn’t get the smell out of your diapers, and hard water is not an issue, the next step is to bleach soak your diapers. This sanitizes them and further breaks down the ammonia (2).

To do a bleach soak, place your diapers in cold water with bleach and let them sit for 30-45 minutes.

Then follow with a regular hot wash, including the regular amount of detergent, in your washing machine. Some cloth diaper manufacturers actually recommend doing a monthly bleach soak to keep ammonia and other buildups at bay.

Bleach Note

You need to use regular bleach for a bleach soak. Splashless bleaches will not work to kill the ammonia, and your diapers will still smell when the soak is over.

3. Strip your diapers

If hard water is behind the ammonia smell in your diapers, you are going to need to bring out the big guns. While stripping your cloth diapers does not need to be apart of your regular diaper routine, it can be the golden ticket to creating a blank slate for your diapers if the buildup is a problem.

To strip your cloth diapers you can use either RLR Laundry Treatment or GroVia Mighty Bubbles.

  1. With RLR, you will add one packet for every 30 diapers you are stripping to a bathtub or top loading washing machine filled with hot water (3). The diapers should be agitated slightly, and then left to soak overnight, or at least 6 hours. When you are done, run the water through several hot rinses with no detergent until the majority of the bubbles are gone.
  2. To strip with GroVia Mighty Bubbles, divide your diapers into groups of 24. Throw one pod into the washing machine along with one set of 24 diapers, then turn the machine onto the heaviest wash cycle. Wash the diapers in hot water with no detergent or additives. Once that cycle is done, you will do one warm wash, followed by a hot rinse. Then, you can check to see if the smell is still there. If you still smell any ammonia, it might be necessary to repeat this process a second time.

Bulk Diaper Note

If you have more than 24 diapers you’ll need to do more than one wash.

4. Pre-treat with Baking Soda

Stubborn odors may need an additional pre-treatment, baking soda is a natural deodorizer. Applying a water-baking soda mixture prior to laundering may do the trick (4).

Can Ammonia Smell Be Prevented?

Once you’ve gotten your diapers back to square one, you can take measures to prevent ammonia build up in the future.

Depending on your issue, it might take more than one of these measures to keep ammonia from reoccurring.

It can be trial and error but don’t fret — with persistence and patience, you’ll come out on top.

1. Wash diapers more often

If you’re only washing cloth diapers every 5-7 days, it’s possible that they’re simply staying in the pail too long in between washes.

Washing your diapers every 2-3 days may work better in order to keep the urea from turning into ammonia while your diapers are in the pail.

2. Keep your baby hydrated

As your baby gets older and is eating more solids, it’s important to make sure they’re still getting an adequate amount of fluids. If they begin to get dehydrated, their urine will be more concentrated and have a stronger smell.

You may also notice orange streaks on the urine-soaked areas of the diaper. These are uric acid crystals that form when very concentrated urine dries on the cloth surface.

3. Use natural fiber inserts

Microfiber is a very tight-knit material that easily traps ammonia and makes it hard for it to be washed out properly. The thicker the microfiber is in the diaper, the more difficult it will be for you to get clean.

Natural fiber diapers or inserts, such as cotton and bamboo, have looser knits made from smoother strands. This makes it harder for ammonia to become trapped in the diaper, and easier for you to clean effectively.

4. Add a water softener

If your ammonia smell was caused by hard water, you’re going to need to add a water softener, such as Calgon or borax, to your wash cycles in order to keep the stench away.

Water softeners will help prevent the buildup of minerals in your diapers and allow them to get cleaned properly in the wash.

5. Do a pre-rinse

If the ammonia smell is due to your baby’s urine not being diluted enough, or by your baby urinating in excess at night, it might be a good idea to rinse out your diapers with hot water before you put them in the diaper pail.

Rinse them out with hot water and then wring them dry to prevent the ammonia from building up as they sit in the pail waiting to be washed.

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A Word On Ammonia Burns

Ammonia burns are generally considered a diaper rash but, while they’re in the diaper area, they really aren’t a rash at all. Instead, they are a chemical burn caused when ammonia has too much contact with your baby’s skin.

The rash is flat, red, and blotchy, and it’s not uncommon for blisters or open, raw skin to appear (5).

Ammonia burns can also happen to babies who wear disposable diapers and are more common in little ones who sleep through the night.

The most important thing you can do to treat ammonia burns is to create a barrier between your baby’s skin and their diaper. With cloth diapers, you want to use a thick diaper rash cream that doesn’t contain petroleum, as this can cause build up in your diapers. Although it does contain some petroleum, clinically, I find that Triple Paste works best for the blistering or “open” wound-type of diaper rash.

If you’re using a charcoal insert, you also want to avoid creams that use candelilla wax, sesame seed oil, and microcrystalline because they can cause the inserts to repel liquid and result in leaks.

Carefully monitor your baby’s condition, and, if the burn does not seem to clear up or improve within a few days, contact your family doctor.

The Ammonia Diaper Struggle

No one wants to deal with ammonia in their cloth diapers, but the problem is more common than you think. Cloth diapers are a challenge, but they are eco and budget-friendly, and can be worth the effort. Your cloth diaper experience will vary depending on the types of diapers you use, how often you wash your them, and whether or not you have hard water.

Bleach soaking your diapers once a month, stripping them when necessary, and taking preventative measures will keep them ammonia free!

Headshot of Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Leah Alexander, M.D. FAAP is board certified in General Pediatrics and began practicing pediatrics at Elizabeth Pediatric Group of New Jersey in 2000. She has been an independently contracted pediatrician with Medical Doctors Associates at Pediatricare Associates of New Jersey since 2005. Outside of the field of medicine, she has an interest in culinary arts. Leah Alexander has been featured on Healthline, Verywell Fit, Romper, and other high profile publications.