Cloth Diapers Stink? Could Be Ammonia!

Cloth Diapers Stink? Could Be Ammonia!

If you’ve never experienced cloth diaper stink yourself, the odds are good you know someone who has. There are two main types of stink that can linger in cloth diapers. The first is barnyard stink. Barnyard stink is sort of a musty smell right out of the dryer. Think hamster cage or, well, a barn. This can usually be resolved by using more detergent. The second type of cloth diaper stink is ammonia. Ammonia is considerably more difficult to eliminate and is much more likely to cause problems for baby’s skin. How do you know you’ve got ammonia and what can you do to get rid of it? That’s exactly what I’m here for. Listen up!

How do you know your diapers have ammonia stink?

Oh you’ll know. It’s STINKY. I’m talking hits you in the face when you walk in the room and burns your nostrils stinky. If you’ve ever taken a good whiff of a ripe cat litter box or noticed the smell of Windex window cleaner, that’s what ammonia smells like. Ammonia stink isn’t usually noticeable after washing and drying the diapers. The diapers will typically only smell once they’ve been peed in.

Why do cloth diapers get ammonia?

Simple. An ineffective wash routine is all it takes. Here’s the thing about ammonia: you’ll be going along cloth diapering with no problems whatsoever for weeks or months, and then one day you’ll go to get your baby first thing in the morning and BAM! Ammonia. Your first instinct might be to blame it on a recent change in baby’s diet, or maybe you assume “toddler pee” is just stronger. The truth is that this “sudden” ammonia stink in your diapers is far from a new development. If your wash routine isn’t working as it should, small amounts of urine will be left behind in the fibres of the diapers after each wash cycle. At first, this isn’t a real concern because you don’t even know it’s happening, but over time that small amount of urine builds and builds in those diapers until one day a single fresh pee hits those “clean” diapers and the smell makes your eyes water.

Why is ammonia a big deal?

The horrendous smell of ammonia in cloth diapers is the least of your worries (if you can believe that). Ammonia is caused by a chemical reaction when the fresh urine hits built up urea in the diapers. Ammonia doesn’t just cause a rash on your baby’s bottom, it can cause a chemical burn. It is serious business and it hurts. If your diapers start to stink like ammonia, you need to do something about it right away. Trust me. Before I knew what I know now, I was there and I can assure you that ammonia burns on your baby are the very last thing you ever want to have happen.

How do you get rid of ammonia?

It takes a little effort to truly get rid of ammonia, but it is well worth it if it prevents the ammonia build up from resulting in a rash or burn on your baby. The first step is to switch baby into disposables right away so you can eliminate the ammonia from all the diapers. Even if you can only smell ammonia in some of your stash, you want to treat all the diapers. Just because you can’t smell it in all your diapers yet, doesn’t mean small amounts of urine haven’t been left behind and are building in the rest of the diapers. Then you want to do a strip of the diapers with RLR or Grovia Mighty Bubbles (click HERE for the instructions). After the strip, you want to do a disinfecting bleach soak on the diapers (click HERE for the instructions). Once you’ve done the bleach soak, you’ll need to tweak your wash routine and may need to consider switching detergents. Although the strip and the bleach together will eliminate the ammonia from the diapers, unless you actually make some changes to the wash routine you’ve been using, the ammonia will return again and again. Remember how I said that ammonia is caused by urine being left behind in the diapers after a wash? Well, you want to make sure that isn’t happening, so a wash routine adjustment is necessary.

If you’re not sure what you can do differently with your wash routine, I’ve got a handy post all about the fundamentals of washing cloth diapers. If you want to try switching to a new detergent, I’ve got a few suggestions of detergents to try HERE.

Is ammonia smell ever okay?

There are a couple of instances where faint ammonia is acceptable (emphasis on the faint). Diapers that have been sitting in a laundry bag/pail for 3 or more days may smell faintly of ammonia before they are washed. If this happens and the diapers do not smell like ammonia AT ALL after coming off the bum, then it’s not a problem and your wash routine is more than capable of handling it. On some occasions there may be a very faint smell of ammonia on overnight diapers after they’ve been on baby for 12+ hours. Let me preface this by saying that Petit Prince’s overnight diapers do not smell like ammonia at all even after they’ve been on for 12 hours. The Heir’s overnight diapers (when he was still in diapers) did not smell after they’d been on for 12+ hours either. However, in some cases a very faint smell of ammonia can be detected in overnight diapers. It’s something you’ll want to pay close attention to. If you can only smell it if you actually take a whiff of the diaper when it comes off and you can not smell it when you walk into baby’s room in the morning or when you open up baby’s sleep sac or pyjamas, then it’s probably okay. If you do get that very faint ammonia in overnight diapers, it’s a good idea to rinse them and wring them out in the sink before putting them in the laundry bag/pail.

Have you ever dealt with ammonia stink in your stash of cloth diapers? Were you able to eliminate it?

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16 Comments on “Cloth Diapers Stink? Could Be Ammonia!

  1. This post is timely. I was going to contact you for tips as I think I need to strip. I was so hoping you were wrong about laundry soda but I should have deferred to your wisdom. Long live the Queen.

  2. Great post! As a cloth diaper-er, there were a lot of things I had to stumble around to figure out and this was one. I love that you have all this info in one post 🙂

  3. My diaper changing days are far behind me, but I will be passing this post on to my family members with babies.

  4. I’ve heard people describe it as a barnyard smell, but I don’t know what that really means. My baby’s diapers smell like skunk when they’re really wet. Could that be ammonia?

  5. Any other suggestions for the barnyard smell? I use line 4 of Tide in my long hot wash and make sure the machine is 2/3 full

    • Are you using line 1 of tide in the short cold cycle? You can go up to line 5 in the long hot cycle. Also make sure you’re only using small items to bulk the drum (don’t use bath sized towels).

      Have you tested your water hardness, and are you adding borax as needed?

      • That seems to have helped 🙂 let’s hope they keep smelling nice and clean!

  6. its been a couple years off of cloth for us. but i only had one stinky diaper baby, even smells now if he has an accident. but happy to refresh my mind about this stuff .

  7. Thank you for this! I’m dealing with ammonia for the first time, and your post is the most clear-cut, logical one I’ve read on the subject. Off to my local cloth diaper store for some RLR now….

  8. Hi! This is the best advice I’ve come across! We’ve been having stink issues for a while and I haven’t been able to fix it. Is it possible to have both? Build up and ammonia? I had no trouble with my eldest but have lots of trouble with my youngest… Could it be I’m letting them sit dirty too long? I’m going to try a strip because I really don’t want to stop, we’ve only got a few months left. Thanks!

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