Getting rid of and preventing ammonia build-up

If you’ve ever caught a whiff of a cloth diaper and almost fainted, there’s a good possibility you are smelling a build up of ammonia. These diapers can be tricky, because they smell clean and fresh right out of the washer, dryer, or off the line, but as soon as urine hits them…BAM! The knockout burn-your-nostrils ammonia smell emerges. This occurs because tiny ammonia crystals become trapped within the diaper layers. These crystals are activated by the urine, which is why they smell fine after a wash, but nearly knock you out after baby pees. I am not a chemist, but as I understand it, the urea in urine and ammonia have similar chemical compositions and react with one another. I even read that a single molecule of urea can turn into two molecules of ammonia, leading to a stink fest before you know it.

If this has happened to you, keep reading. I’ll explain how to get rid of it. If this has not happened to you, keep reading. I’ll explain how to avoid it. A general rule of thumb is, if you don’t *know* it is ammonia, it isn’t ammonia.

If you have ammonia, “stripping” your diapers is the first line of defense. The way in which you strip your diapers will depend on the type of diapers, the hardness of your water, and what you personally feel comfortable using. Like most things cloth diaper related, it can take some trial and error to determine what works best in your situation.

Here are a few options for stripping:

1. Repeated hot water washes without detergent – I have heard that people with soft water have successfully removed ammonia crystals by running diapers through 3-4 hot washes of water only. I have not heard of this method being efficient with any other water types.

2. RLR – At only a few dollars per packet, this is a very economical choice. This works for moderate or hard water, but is not suggested for soft water conditions. To us RLR, start with clean diapers. They don’t have to be dry, but I have had the best results when I have used RLR following a wash cycle. Open the packet of RLR and sprinkle it on top of the diapers inside the washer basin. Set your washer for a long, hot wash with extra water. Follow it with several cold rinses. I normally do four. You can check while it’s washing to see if there are a great deal of suds. If you still see suds, keep rinsing. If not, I’d still suggest between 3-5 cold rinses.

3. “Rock the Soak” – This method involves soaking your diapers in Rockin’ Green Soap , preferably overnight, but for at least a few hour minimum. Since I have a front loader that doesn’t allow for easy soaking, I cover my diapers with water in the bathtub and add 6 scoops of Rockin’ Green. I hand rinse them in the tub, then bring them to the washer for my regular wash routine. I follow the wash up with two extra rinses to make sure everything is removed.

4. Funk Rock Soak – Soak up to 20 diapers using 4T of Rockin’ Green Funk Rock. Place the diapers and Funk Rock into the tub or washer as you would if you were “Rocking the Soak.” With this product, the diapers only need to soak for 30-60 minutes instead of overnight. After you use Funk Rock, rinse and wash as normal.

5. Dawn dish soap (the regular blue formula) – I haven’t personally used this method, but I see it recommended frequently. People report that a squirt of Dawn and several rinses removes stinky residue from diapers. I’ve also heard of people soaking them in Dawn and following the procedure outlined above in “Rock the Soak.”

5. Line drying in the sun – I have never found this method to work by itself, even in the Arizona sun in the summer, but adding line drying in after the stripping methods above are performed may certainly work as UV rays are a natural bleach and fresh air is always goof.

Here are ways to avoid ammonia build-up:

1. Use a cloth diaper safe detergent from day one – The chief culprits for ammonia smell are detergent scent and detergent residue. Many cloth diaper stores now sell detergent formulated for cloth diaper washes, but if you want to use a different type, it is a good idea to check the ingredients first to make sure there is nothing listed that may be detrimental to cloth diapers. These are the main offenders to look for:

Enzymes – naturally break down materials, may also cause children to break out
Dyes & Fragrances – harsh chemicals that may lead to skin irritation
Brighteners – leave build-up leading to smell issue
Softeners – waterproof the fibers so that diapers will no longer absorb

2. Use the correct amount of detergent – Most people find that 1T of detergent is good for HE machines, while those with regular top loaders need to use 2T. Once again, finding what works for you may take some trial and error. Remember, clean has no smell. If you are pulling out diapers that smell like detergent, you are probably using too much. If you are pulling out diapers that smell musky or poopy, you are probably using too little. If you see suds at the end of your wash cycle, you are also probably using too much.

3. Find a wash routine that works – We suggest a short cold wash/rinse to get the messes off the diapers. Then wash on HOT with a cloth diaper safe detergent to sanitize, sterilize, kill bacteria, etc. Follow that up wth an additional hot rinse if you see suds in the washer. Then tumble dry or line dry. Other routines may work as well, but this is our suggested method.

4. Pre-rinse or spray all wet diapers – This should be done immediately after they come off baby if possible, or before placing them in your diaper pail or wet bag if you are unable to do it at changing time. You can swish them in the toilet, use a diaper sprayer on them, or rinse them in a sink or tub. This will rinse off most of the urea and prevent it from reacting with the ammonia in your pail, wet bag, or beyond.

5. Add Rockin’ Green Funk Rock to your wash cycle – Used preventatively, this ammonia bouncer helps neutralize the ammonia crystals.

Good luck keeping the stinkies away! Let us know what works for you!

About SusanC

Susan is a cloth diapering, breastfeeding, babywearing, homebirthing,
homeschooling, natural-living mama to four boys. She has enjoyed trying a plethora of cloth diapers, carriers, and other baby products over the past decade and loves to
share her experiences with others.

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