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Help! My cloth diapers smell like Ammonia!

Posted by Becca on 9/26/2011 to Troubleshooting
Okay, so the ammonia monster has come and overtaken your cloth diapers—especially the night diapers and you’re starting to fret. Whether they simply smell like ammonia when sitting in your diaper pail as they await the wash, or they maintain the smell after taking a trip through the washing machine, I can understand that this can be an irritating nuisance. The mere smell of ammonia that floats through a room when you open your diaper pail can be enough to knock you out, and any bit of urine that doesn't fully wash out of your diapers may eventually cause irritation on sensitive skin. But have no fear! This is normal and is easily solved!

You have to realize something first—the smell of ammonia is not your diapers' fault. Urine stinks. It just does. And depending on how often your baby urinates and what they eat or drink, that urine may or may not smell strong enough to cause your nostrils to rebel. There are no diapers that can really do anything about that because it has nothing to do with the diapers. Another thing you need to realize is that ammonia does not build up the way detergents do, it leaves residue. Now buildup in your diapers will make the ammonia smell worse, but the ammonia is not the problem. Rash creams, detergents, and fabric softeners are.
So, how can you tell the difference between buildup and residue? Well, buildup will actually cause your diapers to repel moisture and leak.

Ammonia residue is just the old urine left over that didn’t get washed out properly. Unless there is also buildup in your diapers, this residue shouldn’t cause leaking, but it will be stinky (I can tell you this from experience). However, sometimes your diapers have neither ammonia residue nor detergent buildup and will smell frightfully of ammonia once soiled—this is generally due to the way your baby’s producing urine, and/or how long the urine sits before being washed. The good news is, that the steps mentioned below are all helpful for all of these problems! Even detergent buildup will be reduced or eliminated when your diapers are rinsed well enough.

So, if the stink is limited to your diaper pail (in other words, your baby just produces VERY STRONG urine) consider these solutions to keep the scent at bay:
  1. Wash your diapers more frequently. The fewer urine-soaked diapers that sit in the diaper pail, the less ammonia you'll smell. Besides, washing them frequently ensures a lower ammonia: water ratio when they get washed and gives you a better chance of making sure it all gets rinsed out.
  2. Add baking soda to your diaper pail, or some other odor neutralizer.
  3. Make sure your diaper pail or wetbag is air tight between diaper changes.
If the stink persists after the wash, and gets worse when your baby pees, here are a couple of things you can try to get rid of it:
  1. Many moms and dads swear by using vinegar in their wash. It neutralizes the odors and acts like an all natural (and cloth diaper friendly) fabric softener. However, if you have hard water, vinegar will react with your water and make the problem worse, so check that out first before using it.
  2. Rinse your diapers a lot!. Cloth diapers are meant to be super absorbent and thus store lots of urine and stink inside. You need a lot of water to make sure it all gets flushed out. This doesn’t mean adding more rinses to your routine, either. It means adding more water. One rinse with a sufficient amount of water will do fine. Most people suggest HOT WATER rinses if ammonia is your problem. I know cold water is always recommended for diaper rinses, but if ammonia is the problem, then hot water is your best bet to get it out.
  3. You can always strip your diapers by soaking them in Bac Out, dish detergent, oxy clean or your cloth diaper safe laundry detergent. Let them sit in that for at least a couple of hours in your bathtub and then rinse, rinse, rinse before putting them through a regular wash.
  4. Check your water. My town has extremely hard water. When it’s untreated, it’s so bad that when I water my indoor herb garden, the calcium build up starts to leave a white residue that almost looks like snow! About a week ago, I noticed that my diapers were super stinky after the wash for the first time since I started adding water to my loads. I couldn’t figure out why. Then it occurred to me, that we needed to add more salt to our water softener. The stink came on at the exact same time we ran out of salt! Hard water can definitely cause your diapers to hold the urine residue and stink it up, so soften it if you can.
  5. Line dry if you can. Many times, sunning your diapers works wonders at getting the stink out.
That said, there is no need to freak out if your diapers smell like ammonia. The diapers have not failed, you, they are simply doing their job—absorbing urine which happens to have ammonia in it. You can rest assured that they’ll be as good as new as long as they are cleaned and rinsed thoroughly between uses.

Guest Blogger:

Becca G is a guest blogger for the Cloth Diaper Blog. Becca is a part time Spanish Teacher, a part time stay-at-home-mom, and the wife of the best husband imaginable. Becca’s absolute favorite thing to do is to spend time with her little family. She also enjoys doing anything crafty – from making jewelry, to writing, to sewing, to photography.
Support a fellow cloth diapering mom! Becca’s etsy shop: Cloth Diaper Mommy or you can visit her blog, Makin' It.

Comments

Date 7/2/2012 8:15:14 PM
Trish
My problem is that the liners smell too! (I use all-in-one's) I strip regularly with baking soda and vinegar in washing machine. I know using bleach is frowned upon, but it worked wonders for the ammonia problem! A few of my liners however have a lasting stink I can't seem to resolve...any tips?
Date 10/12/2012
Mcqueen
I'm truly enjoying the design and layout of your website. It's a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a developer to create your theme? Outstanding work! types of braces
Date 10/18/2013
Mary S
I'm having issues with one diaper in particular right now: our nighttime OBF. It's just stinky after the wash; mainly the soaker part, the fitted itself isn't really stinky. I'm going to try out some of your tips!
Date 11/15/2013
Jennifer
I am new to the cloth diaper world and my little man is only 11weeks old. I noticed within the past week that his diapers have a horrible ammonia smell after he pees in them only once. I was concerned that it may be his urine, considering I'm exclusively breast feeding, but it only occurs with the oldest bunch of cloth diapers not the new ones. So, today I stripped them for the first time. I am hoping that it worked but if not I will be doing some of the other suggestions you gave. Thank you for making the directions as easy as you did. I will be returning to your website .
Date 4/4/2014
Misty
Hi, How much vinegar do I use in my wash to help eliminate the ammonia smell? Thank you!
Date 7/1/2014
Mikayla
Hey there! I've read so many articles about this problem, and I've tried just about every method. The diapers still smell of ammonia. I use the bum genius soap (usually just one scoop, but I have tried washing with more), we use vinegar and baking soda with each wash (so these diapers go through the washing machine three times before I dry them), and I hang them outside to dry. I haven't tried adding salt yet, but I might. What would you suggest? I loathe the thought of having to use disposable diapers, but my cloth ones give the little one a rash!
Date 9/23/2014
Anel
So if were to soak them in oxiclean, we would use hot water?? Thanks! :)
Date 6/25/2016
Erin
My diapers smell like ammonia specially after one use, help please my water is hard too what can I do?
Date 11/3/2016
Talina
Yay! This site provided a missing piece for me to finally reach a happy wash routine in hard water! The summary is short and to the point about the role of either detergent buildup or urine reisidue! I've been cloth diaper for 1 1/2 years and tried many routines but recently had an ammonia smell battle and subsequently rash on poor son's bum who already has eczema! I have cotton prefolds which are supposed to better about that but obviously not bullet-proof! After weeks of internet searching and experimenting it looks like I finally hit a wash routine that is both strong enough to battle any ammonia smell but gentle enough on his skin without resorting to a more toxic detergent to be "strong enough" just so he wouldn't have a rash :( I hope this helps someone else too. First off, though I did find Bac-Out helped I've been trying to save and wanted to see if I could solve the problem without it. Also at one point it wasn't always enough. Anyway first among my internet se I had gone Fluffloveuniversity.com and I thought it was really helpful in realizing the role of hard water in my diaper stink by depositing minerals that could build up over time and cause issue which I also read about here(http://www.thinking-about-cloth-diapers.com/cleaning-cloth-diapers.html) So I did the stripping method suggested there using Natural Choices Oxy-boost as an Oxygen bleach since it is one the highest concentration Oxygen bleaches I came across by only sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate and no fillers and was reccomended at a cloth diapering site though I can't remember which one. Anyway, though not strong enough in it's own I could add Borax to it amp it and do the stripping without chlorine bleach as instructed on their site. Yay! So far so good but then I wondered... Will I always need to disinfect my diapers? Then I came across this and in a word, unless he/she has an infection then no (http://www.ecobabysteps.com/2009/08/05/do-i-need-to-disinfect-my-cloth-diapers/) They also reccomend a detergent with enzymes which I HAD avoided thinking with his sensitive skin I shouldn't and came across this saying basically don't worry about it! ( https://econutssoap.com/enzymes-mythbusted/ ) If they were going to harm him and live tissue the enzymes in our body would have already eaten us alive which has proven to be true on his skin. So anyway I strippes like it said there and did the routine for a free and clear detergent with a pre wash with 1/2 and heavy duty at 1.5x-2x amount WITH CALGON. After the stripping the diapers to get rid of I'm thinking were at least a lot better but...STIFF which seemed like it would be a problem of detergent residue. I tried this wash routine post-strip ( which I guess with a good wash routine you won't need to do in the first place) and still had some, but not as intense ammonia issues. That's where then THIS site comes in. I like the to-the-point summary of the problem being detergent build-up or urine residue or simply the child's pee! Now on the Flufflove University site they don't reccomend an extra rinse with the thought being that it will redoposit minerals from hard warer. Still what I was doing wasn't working so looking at your site for some reason it just hit me how the detergent not being rinsed out completely could not only make stiffer diapers but intensify pee. So I added Sensi-Clean/Atsko Sports wash ( same thing marketed to different crowds) and now I seem to have finally achieved the wash routine I was searching for that is both non-toxic and effective without always having to buy Bac-Out as getting Sensi-Clean is still more cost-effective though. Sensi.clean is made to actually rinse completely out and take other detergents with it so I had used it for damaged PUL covers I needed to spray Atsko Permanent Water Guard and salvage some covers or leaky Simplex aios with leaky tabs! Anyway so far at least ( I just started this) there has been ammonia smell or irritated bum. My wash routine is now 1/2 Puracy free and clear detergent on cold, 1.5 x Puracy free and clear detergent with 1/4 cap Calgon water softener warm wash, and then a normal wash on warm with at least x1 Sensi-clean with 1/4 cap Calgon and so far soft ammonia free diapers. If that changes I will update! Sorry that was long-winded but it's been a frustrating trial and error to get here and if it helps someone then all that frustration doesn't have to go to waste!
Date 11/5/2016
Talina
How I arrived at my current non-toxic working wash routine! Yay! This site( diaper junction) provided a missing piece for me to finally reach a happy wash routine in hard water! The summary is short and to the point about the role of either detergent buildup or urine reisidue! I've been cloth diaper for 1 1/2 years and tried many routines but recently had an ammonia smell battle and subsequently rash on poor son's bum who already has eczema! I have cotton prefolds which are supposed to better about that but obviously not bullet-proof! After weeks of internet searching and experimenting it looks like I finally hit a wash routine that is both strong enough to battle any ammonia smell but gentle enough on his skin without resorting to a more toxic detergent to be "strong enough" just so he wouldn't have a rash :( I hope this helps someone else too. First off, though I did find Bac-Out helped I've been trying to save and wanted to see if I could solve the problem without it. Also at one point it wasn't always enough. Anyway first among my internet se I had gone Fluffloveuniversity.com and I thought it was really helpful in realizing the role of hard water in my diaper stink by depositing minerals that could build up over time and cause issue which I also read about here(http://www.thinking-about-cloth-diapers.com/cleaning-cloth-diapers.html) They also mentioned problem caused with vinegar in hard water which was my experience as well. So I did the stripping method suggested there using Natural Choices Oxy-boost as an Oxygen bleach since it is one the highest concentration Oxygen bleaches I came across by only sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate and no fillers and was reccomended at a cloth diapering site though I can't remember which one. Anyway, though not strong enough in it's own I could add Borax to it amp it and do the stripping without chlorine bleach as instructed on their site. Yay! So far so good but then I wondered... Will I always need to disinfect my diapers? Then I came across this and in a word, unless he/she has an infection then no (http://www.ecobabysteps.com/2009/08/05/do-i-need-to-disinfect-my-cloth-diapers/) They also reccomend a detergent with enzymes which I HAD avoided thinking with his sensitive skin I shouldn't and came across this saying basically don't worry about it! ( https://econutssoap.com/enzymes-mythbusted/ ) If they were going to harm him and live tissue the enzymes in our body would have already eaten us alive which has proven to be true on his skin. So anyway I stripped like it said there and did the routine for a free and clear detergent with a pre wash with 1/2 and heavy duty at 1.5x-2x amount WITH CALGON. After the stripping the diapers to get rid of minerals they were at least a lot better but...STIFF which seemed like it would be a problem of detergent residue. I tried this wash routine post-strip ( which I guess with a good wash routine you won't need to do in the first place) and still had some, but not as intense ammonia issues. That's where then THIS site comes in. I like the to-the-point summary of the problem being detergent build-up or urine residue or simply the child's pee! Now on the Flufflove University site they don't reccomend an extra rinse with the thought being that it will redoposit minerals from hard warer. Still what I was doing wasn't working so looking at your site for some reason it just hit me how the detergent not being rinsed out completely could not only make stiffer diapers but intensify pee. So I added Sensi-Clean/Atsko Sports wash ( same thing marketed to different crowds) and now I seem to have finally achieved the wash routine I was searching for that is both non-toxic and effective without always having to buy Bac-Out as getting Sensi-Clean is still more cost-effective though. Sensi-clean is made to actually rinse completely out and take other detergents with it so I had used it for damaged PUL covers I needed to spray Atsko Permanent Water Guard and salvage some covers or leaky Simplex aios with leaky tabs! Anyway so far at least ( I just started this) there has been NO ammonia smell or irritated bum. My wash routine is now 1/2 Puracy free and clear detergent prewash on cold, 1.5 x Puracy free and clear detergent with 1/4 cap Calgon water softener on heavy duty warm wash, and then a normal wash on warm with at least x1 Sensi-clean with 1/4 cap Calgon and so far soft, ammonia-free diapers. If that changes I will update! Sorry that was long-winded but it's been a frustrating trial and error to get here and if it helps someone then all that frustration doesn't have to go to waste!

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