Ammonia in cloth diapers is a problem no cloth diapering parent wants to encounter. It’s presence in urine can mean big medical problems, and it’s presence in diapers can be challenging to remove. When urine smells like ammonia it can indicate dehydration, bacterial infection, liver disease, metabolic disorders, sexually transmitted diseases and diabetes, or it can simply be related to a diet high in greens, protein or vitamins (1, 2).
Urine is typically not harmful and primarily made up of water, however it also contains inorganic salts and organic compounds, including proteins, hormones, and a wide range of metabolites, varying by what is introduced into the body such as through diet (4). How does urine translate into Ammonia? How does it happen, how can it be prevented and how can it be removed?
There is an actual science to this fermentation process and some people purposely ferment human urine for use in gardening! Urine breaks down into a naturally occurring nitrogen-rich component found in fertilizers that can be in such high concentrations it can actually burn plants (5,6). If you’re interested in this, google it, there are lots of sites with instructions for making your own urine fertilizer. While I won’t be putting fermented urine on my tomatoes anytime soon, it does shed new light on the uses and components of something we deal with several times a day; pee!
Why is ammonia in cloth diapers bad? In addition to the potent smell, it can cause a rash on baby and is commonly referred to as “ammonia burn ” because it is a corrosive compound and the rash can be fiery red (7). If you notice ammonia occurring in your diapers, it’s important to address the issue before rashes and increased odor develop. While washing ammonia scented diapers with regular cleaners initially seems to remove the problem/odor…it may simply remove the odor but does not remove the crystals which are the root of the problem. With these crystals still present, the ammonia smell will be reactivated when baby pees in the “clean” diaper (9). How do you remove this residue? The most effective method I have found is with the use of washing soda. Common products like washing soda contain enzymes that break down the uric acid crystals…and when done properly, remove the buildup (10).
So how does this work? To be honest I had to ask an organic chemist, 3 in fact. I was told “it ends the process of urea breakdown completely, which ammonia is a byproduct of…the other stuff just covers it up…sodium carbonate reacts with (neutralizes) the uric acid crystals and produces more environmentally safe compounds than the ammonia. To put it simply, it allows it to leave the diaper.”
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So there you have it! Does your brain hurt now? How did I even start down this path? It was summer, our washing machine broke and the warranty we had from H.H. Gregg was not being fulfilled by the company. We didn’t have a washer for 20 days!!!!! It took phone calls, a call to the attorney general’s office and lots of wasted time speaking with both H.H. Gregg and the warranty company they sold us a warranty to. Needless to say, our diapers sat (in summer heat) for two more days than I typically leave them and after a few days I headed to Grandma’s.
I knew right away they had ammonia, the smell burned my eyes! I had to take them to Grandma’s and thought I’d pre-wash in our bath tub. I couldn’t find my regular detergent (which had already failed to fix the problem), and used some Rockin Green soap. I was surprised at how quickly the odor went away, and they were even clean after a regular wash. I looked at the package and saw that sodium carbonate (washing soda) was a primary ingredient. I started researching and speaking to people in the chemistry field about this discovery and…now a box of plain washing soda sits on top of my machine. Sodium Carbonate/Washing soda is the ingredient found in RLR and many natural laundry detergents. I’ve found many uses for it and incorporated it into my cleaning routine.
Here are some tips for preventing ammonia in cloth diapers and also removing the problem once it exists.
- Wash diapers on a regular schedule
- Pre-rinse diapers if needed
- Keep baby hydrated
- Lean towards natural as opposed to microfiber (contains pockets crystals can hide in)
- Make sure diapers are coming clean in the wash
- Keep a product containing sodium carbonate on hand!
I had read over and over that microfiber was inferior to natural fibers. I never understood, considering some of my inserts were 2 years old, until I developed ammonia. Not only was it more difficult to get out of these inserts, but they smelled the most pungent! While my natural fiber prefolds bounced back the fastest…some of my microfiber inserts will ever be the same. If you develop ammonia, I wish you luck in removing it. I’ve read several other methods, but washing soda worked so well for us I’m sticking with it! There are many great diaper resources to help troubleshoot any issues, and should you encounter this rare problem…I wish you luck.
After learning about this, and testing my water to find out that I have moderately hard water, I have added sodium carbonate to my regular wash routine. In addition, every so often I soak our diapers in the bath tub with a scoop. While some may refer to this as stripping cloth diapers, to me it’s just general and necessary care for my diapers + my water type.
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