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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.