Do your cloth diapers reek with a strange stench that could make your eyes water? You may be dealing with one of the most significant 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.
We know from experience you’ll need 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.
In this article, we’ll discuss the link between ammonia and urine and explain what causes that awful smell. Most importantly, we’ll share the best ways to get your cloth diapers smelling fresh again — and how to prevent the issue in the future.
What Is Ammonia?
The smell of ammonia occurs 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, ammonia will begin to form if someone gets severely dehydrated or urea is left to sit too long — like in a wet cloth diaper.
This is when that awful stench develops.
Causes of Ammonia in Cloth Diapers
Understanding the root causes of ammonia in cloth diapers can help fix the problem and prevent it from happening again.
Here are five 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 be getting fully clean when you wash them, and urea can stay trapped in the diaper.
2. Diapers sitting too long
The longer urea sits, the more likely it will turn into ammonia.
If you’re only washing your diapers every five to seven days, you may be waiting too long in between washes. Diapers left in wet diaper bags or diaper pails are more likely to develop an ammonia smell.
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 clean your diapers thoroughly, leaving detergent residue behind.
This can lead to a detergent buildup in your diapers, with results similar to hard water buildup.
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 remain 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 their nutrients through liquids such as breast milk 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?
You can try a few key things 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 recommend doing a monthly bleach soak to keep ammonia and other buildups at bay.
3. Strip your diapers
If hard water is behind the ammonia smell in your diapers, you will need to bring out the big guns. Stripping your cloth diapers does not need to be a part of your regular diaper routine. However, it can be the golden ticket to creating a blank slate for your diapers if ammonia buildup is a problem.
- 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, then left to soak overnight or for at least six hours. When you are done, run the water through several hot rinses with no detergent until most of the bubbles are gone.
- 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 on to the heaviest wash cycle. Wash the diapers in hot water with no detergent or additives. Once that cycle is complete, run a warm wash followed by a hot rinse. 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
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 before 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 buildup 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 your cloth diapers every five to seven days, they may be simply staying in the pail too long in between washes.
Washing your diapers every two to three days may work better 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 become 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 to wash 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 to keep the stench away.
Water softeners will help prevent mineral buildup 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 your diapers with hot water and wring them out before you put them in the diaper pail.
A Word on Ammonia Burns
Most parents see an ammonia burn and assume it’s a diaper rash. But while these burns are located in the same area, they aren’t a rash at all. Instead, they are a chemical burn caused by ammonia having 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 buildup in your diapers. Although it does contain some petroleum, in my practice, I recommend Triple Paste for the blistering or “open” wound-type of diaper rash.
If you’re using a charcoal cloth diaper insert, you’ll want to avoid creams that use candelilla wax, sesame seed oil, or 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 them, and whether you have hard water.
Bleach soaking your diapers once a month, stripping them when necessary, and taking preventative measures will keep them free of ammonia!