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Ammonia & Cloth Diapers – What It Is And What To Do About It

Ammonia smell and cloth diapers can sometimes seem almost synonymous.  Seems like everyone these days is complaining about it, having a rash from it or dealing with smells from it.  What is this epidemic and how do we fix it?

We’re glad you asked!  There’s a number of things you can do to get rid of ammonia in your cloth diapers and keep it gone for good.

But first, let’s clear something up.  Do you really have ammonia in the first place?  Sometimes ‘ammonia’ is a blanket term people mistakenly use to  label any smell or rash when it comes to cloth diapers when in reality ammonia is really a very specific thing.  Ammonia is different from smelly toddler pee, different from strong concentrated urine smell and different from a ‘barnyard’ type aroma.  Ammonia is a super strong, knock your socks off, your eyes will literally be watering, burning in your nose kind of smell like nothing else.  It is an unbearably strong smell and if present in your diapers can cause a very bad rash on babies very quickly on every bit of skin touching the wet diaper.  Ammonia is most often present in nap or overnight diapers that are on the bum for long periods of time.

Okay, with that said.  Do you have real ammonia?  If so, read on.

What’s happening anyway?  Where does the ammonia come from?
Great question.  Time for a chemistry lesson.  Ammonia comes from the break down of urine.  So, some ammonia will always happen when you’re leaving wet diapers in a wet bag between washes.  That’s not a problem in small concentrations.  But a few things speed up the breakdown of urine to ammonia (like heat, a closed diaper pail and bacteria).  What ultimately happens though, is that the soiled diapers are not being completely cleaned in the wash and that biological residue (I mean pee and poo) that didn’t get fully washed and rinsed away reacts with minerals in the water and with new urine and feces when they go back on the bum creating the recipe for those nasty rashes.  Eeew right?

So, logically, what do we need to do?  Get the diapers clean at wash time!  How do we do this?  First, we need to deal with the ammonia ASAP.  Funk Rock is a product specifically meant to neutralize ammonia.  Strip your clean diapers using Funk Rock.  Use the directions on the package or the directions here.  Next, and most importantly, you need to change your wash routine to ensure your diapers get fully and properly cleaned at each and every wash to prevent it from coming back.  This means making sure you are using enough detergent and enough water for the size of your diaper load.  We can always help you with troubleshooting here, but generally this means switching to a better detergent and/or often using more detergent.  Calgon can sometimes also be useful to help soften water and increase the effectiveness of the detergent in areas where harder water is of concern (ie. most of Canada unless you know for sure you have soft well water, a water softener etc.).  Calgon can be purchased in the laundry aisle at most supermarkets and should be used at a rate of 1/4 cup added along with the detergent.

Next, some things that will help keep ammonia at bay once you get rid of your acute case:
1) Keep your wet bag away from direct sunlight and heat.  Heat hastens the decomposition of urine to ammonia.
2) Wash your diapers every 1-2 days following this wash routine.
3) Have an open diaper pail or keep your wet bag unzipped and open to the air.  Wet diapers that dry out won’t smell as much as they wait for wash time.  Soiled diapers that are very wet and closed-in stew in the humidity and breed bacteria which makes ammonia worse.  This situation is also hard on fabrics and your diapers will break down sooner.
3) Rinse diapers before putting them in the wet bag between washes.  This can help a lot by diluting and removing some urine prior to washing.  Less urine = less ammonia potential.  Even if you only rinse nap and night ones you’ll notice a difference.
4) When you wash your diapers use a cold initial rinse before your hot wash with detergent.  Heat encourages ammonia, so cold on that first rinse is better if you have the option on your washer.
6) Keep baby hydrated.  The more diluted the urine, the less ammonia can be created in the first place.

Keep these things in mind and ammonia problems will be a distant memory.

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How Do I ‘Strip’ My Cloth Diapers?

Basically ‘stripping’ just means removing any build up in your diapers which might be causing repelling, smell, leaking etc.  Note that here is no need to strip your diapers unless you are having issues and a proper wash routine can prevent you from having to do it at all.

Long story short, there are a number of ways to do it, but this is what we like to do. You can also do this periodically as part of your regular diaper maintenance to prevent problems as well and prolong the life of your diapers (aprox. every few months) if you want.

RLR Strip
Most commonly used to remove mineral buildup and whiten diapers especially in Canada where harder water is common even in cities.  RLR is an additive that helps suspend residue in the wash water so that it can rinse away instead of re-depositing on the diapers. Best for sprucing up older, dingy diapers or those whose absorbency has been compromised do to mineral buildup in the fabric.  RLR may help for smell issues, but Funk Rock is usually better for this (see stripping with Funk Rock below).

– Simply add the packet of RLR to a clean load of diapers (12-16 diapers) and do a hot wash followed by several rinses with no detergent.

*Alternatively for a deeper clean, put clean diapers in the bathtub, add hot water to cover them.  Add the packet and mix around to dissolve.  Leave to soak 3-4hrs or overnight.  Transfer diapers to washing machine.  Do a hot wash or rinse with no detergent until they rinse clean. Dry as usual.

Simple, Fast & Cheap
Before spending money on any stripping method.  First try a few hot wash cycles with no detergent followed by drying as usual.  This can often help a lot of cloth diapering issues, especially if baby is having rashes because of detergent left behind on the fabric that they are sensitive to.  In this case, change detergents after stripping and make sure you’re using the correct amount for the load size you are washing.

Funk Rock Strip
For ammonia buildup, and smell issues.

– Follow the package directions and add the recommended amount of Funk Rock to clean diapers in a bathtub similar to doing an RLR strip.  Then transfer diapers to your washing machine and wash on hot WITH detergent.  Rinse until no bubbles, dry as usual.

Oxiclean Strip
Good for a deep clean once in a while.  Doesn’t treat any particular problem specifically.

– Put your clean diapers in the wash and run a hot soak or rinse cycle with NO detergent of any kind.
– Then add 4-5 scoops of Oxiclean Regular or another oxygen bleach (NOT the Oxiclean Free and NOT chlorine bleach) and run a hot cycle. (Use the Oxiclean that comes in powder form). Dry your diapers as usual.

Blue Dawn Strip
This is one I don’t often recommend, but it is rampant on internet message boards and is often thrown around as a ‘cure all’.  Read more about it here.

Remember, you shouldn’t have to strip your diapers all the time.  If you’re needing to strip for any reason more than every 3 months or so, it’s time to look at changing your wash routine to be more effective.  A simple, effective wash routine should minimize or eliminate the need to strip in the first place.  And PLEASE make sure you are using a good quality detergent in the correct amount recommended on the package for the size of your load to wash your dirty diapers.  And as usual.  Contact us if you have questions.