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Choosing reusable cloth diapers is a big decision that can lead to a rewarding journey for you and your baby. But where do you start? Here are the most commonly asked questions on how to start your cloth diaper journey.

Nicki's Diapers is a family business founded by Nicki and later joined by her husband Jesse. As a husband and wife team, they worked together to ensure the highest quality products while following responsible environmental and social business practices. The company is now located in Akron, Ohio.

My Cloth Diapers Smell Like Ammonia | How to Get Rid of Ammonia Smell in Cloth Diapers

Ammonia Stinks - But Your Cloth Diapers Don’t Have to Smell Like Ammonia! 

Hi! Rachel here! I am writing as a guest on the Nicki's Diapers Switch to Sustainable Blog and I am so excited to discuss the topic of preventing ammonia in cloth diapers with you!

This topic is near to me because stinky diapers kept me from cloth diapering my firstborn. And let's face it, Ammonia Stinks!  

While I was pregnant with my eldest, my husband and I volunteered in our church’s nursery and there was a little toddler who was cloth diapered - and his diapers always smelled plain awful.

cloth diaper laundry

It was my first experience with cloth so I thought cloth meant diaper stink! I swore off cloth diapers because I did not want to have the problem of constantly smelly diapers. It was a sad and unfair first exposure to cloth diapering.  

Fast forward to my second child and I dabbled in cloth to be sustainable.

I was apprehensive at first, but was also determined that I could successfully cloth diaper without having the stinky diaper syndrome.

I’m three kids and 6 ½ years in on my cloth diapering journey and can confidently say that it is completely possible to cloth diaper - stink free! I’ve even had people compliment me on how fresh my kids' diapers smell when they change them!

Looking back now, I wish I could reach through time and help that kid’s sweet mama troubleshoot her wash routine - because diaper stink is completely avoidable - and 100% repairable on the occasion that it sneaks up.  

So, let's talk about ammonia. Whatis ammonia?

Pee + Time + Bacteria = Ammonia. Don’t fret about the bacteria part though, it is everywhere and it truly can not be avoided.

Ammonia is a waste product made by the body during the digestion of protein. It is then broken down in the liver and changed to urea, or pee. Pee, or urine, used to be ammonia, and can change back to ammonia when it chemically breaks down again after it is expelled. 

cloth diaper flats hanging out to air dry

Urine does not generally smell like ammonia until it has sat on the fabrics of a diaper for some time. That is whytime is part of the equation. 

Aside from an unpleasant laundry day experience, ammonia buildup can cause burns (like a sunburn on the diapered area) and burns are something we all want to avoid!

So let’s go over some things that will help prevent this from happening. Prevention is always better than troubleshooting.  

Nicki's Diapers Cloth Diaper Wash Instructions

Nicki's Diapers ultimate all in one cloth diaper

Before we start troubleshooting, let's take a look at what Nicki's recommended wash routine is: 

  1. Remove solids: Knock solids into toilet, dunk and swish, or use a diaper sprayer to help.
  2. Remove any snapped in or stuffed absorbency materials before washing, and unfasten any diapers so that they are completely open.
    1. If any diapers are hook & loop, fold the tabs over to avoid damaging anything else in the same load.
  3. We recommend running a rinse cycle on cold before the main wash. This will rinse out any urine and solid residue.
    1. Do not use detergent for this cycle.
    2. If you have hard water, rinse with warm water.
    3. Do not soak any diaper products for extended periods of time.
  4. Run a full cycle wash on warm/hot with additive-free detergent. We recommend the use of powdered Tide detergent.
    1. We recommend not using liquid detergent, it can leave behind residue that impacts absorbency.
    2. Do not use detergents with added softeners or stain removers.
    3. Do not use dryer sheets, fabric softeners, or other additives.
    4. Check out our wash and care instructions for more detailed detergent recommendations.
    5. Repeated hot washes between uses may affect the longevity of your diapers. For best longevity, only hot wash once between uses.
  5. For best results, run one more rinse cycle on cold. This will rinse out any detergent left in the diapers.
    1. If you have hard water, skip this step. Doing this step can cause mineral buildup and cause diapers to leak.
  6. How to Dry Cloth Diapers: Line dry or tumble dry on low heat.
    1. Dry towels or dryer balls can shorten the drying time.
    2. For best longevity, line dry any products containing PUL.
    3. Drying on hot settings will affect the longevity of your diapers over time.

Simple Steps to Take to Help Prevent Ammonia Smells in Cloth Diapers

washing cloth diapers

1. A consistent routine will help! 

Aim to wash your diapers every 2-3 days. This will reduce the time the urine has to break down, and giving it less time will give it less opportunity to turn into foul smelling ammonia.

Pushing laundry day much past the 2-3 day mark is an invitation for the breakdown of urea - which, if you remember, urea breaking down turns it back into ammonia. 

2. Rinsing diapers

Especially overnight diapers that have already been sitting for 12 hours on the bum! Rinsing will help flush out most of the urine and give it less opportunity to break down in your diapers.

This is a quick and simple fix to reduce the time urine has to break down while still in your diapers. Itmighteven buy you an extra day before laundry day.

Just a quick rinse, then ring it out and toss it in the hamper! You can even drape the wrung out diaper over the edge of the hamper to air out a bit before placing it inside. 

3. Sunshine!! 

You know that refreshed feeling you get after spending a few minutes outside in the sunshine? Well, your diapers will feel that too! When you've got some sunshiny rays, use them to your advantage!

Dry those diapers out in the sunshine. Sunlight will help disinfect, eliminate odors and bleach out pesky stains.

4. Air flow! 

Allowing your dirty diapers to get a consistent flow of air circulating can reduce stagnant smells. Open hampers are best at keeping smells down. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but trust me, air helps. 

5. Hydration

Yep. Pee is made up mostly of water. It rarely has a powerful scent, but the less hydrated someone is, the stronger the urine smell will be.

Simply put, hydrating your little one a bit more will help reduce the smells of their urine, both fresh off the bum and a day later in the hamper. Stink issues often start happening once a little one eats a little more solid food and drinks a little less - say, maybe around one year, or toddlerhood.

There is no doubt about it, toddler pee can stink! Adding a little more water a little more often will not only help the smell of your dirty diapers, but there are plenty of benefits for your tot with a little more H2O! 

6. A good wash routine

I will go over the basics of wash routines in a minute, but knowing whether you’ve got hard or soft water, using the correct amount of water, and the right detergent will help keep any type of stink issues at bay.  

Thanks, now I know how to prevent ammonia stink from happening - But, um, what if I’m already dealing with an ammonia smell?

How do I fix it?

Good questions! If you're already dealing with ammonia smell and/or ammonia burns, it's time to get that build up out of those diapers!

baby in cloth diaper

Let’s keep those bums fresh and smelling great! Troubleshoot the simple way first. Avoid using hard-core treatment of your diapers as a first option. Always try simple methods first. 

Knowing whether you have soft or hard water is important to know so you can troubleshoot the best way possible. Ammonia stink can happen because of minerals from hard water or detergent being stuck in your diapers, causing them to stink after being soiled.

It is recommended to test the water directly from your washing machine because water softness can vary from tap to tap within a home.  

When treating diapers for ammonia stink, it is unnecessary to treat diaper covers and diaper shells, as they are not absorbent and do not contribute to the issue.

Covers and shells can be spared the extra washing to help extend their life. Just treat your inserts, flats, prefolds, fitteds etc. as follows: 

How to Strip Cloth Diapers of Ammonia with Regular or Soft Water: 

Start with clean diapers, then run a hot wash with a full cap of mainstream detergent like tide or gain. Follow this with two more full hot washes with no detergent to ensure all detergent is rinsed out.

clean and folded cloth diaper laundry

This should get your diapers back to square one. If you smell ammonia on your diapers still, repeat the process and make sure there are no bubbles in the water during the last cycle.

Be sure to stay on top of urine or ammonia build up by following a manufacturer approved wash routine.   

Nicki’s Diapers recommends this routine for regular or soft water: Warm rinse, hot wash with Tide or Gain filled to the 3rd line on the cap, warm or cold rinse, additional rinse.

If you are using an HE washer, you will want to ensure that your washer is using enough water to fully rinse your diapers. Detergent amount may vary depending on the softness of your water. 

How to Strip Cloth Diapers of Ammonia with Hard Water:  

Start with clean diapers then run a hot wash with a full cap of mainstream detergent like Tide or Gain and the bottle’s suggested amount of Calgon (Calgon is an in-laundry water softener and will become your best friend for cloth diapering with hard water.)

“Pause” your washing machine for at least 30 minutes to allow the diapers to soak and help break up any minerals before the spin and drain cycle begins. Follow with one more full hot wash with Calgon (no other detergent) to ensure all urine and detergent is rinsed out.

If you smell ammonia on your diapers still, repeat the process and make sure there are no bubbles in the water during the last cycle. This should return your diapers to “square one.”

Be sure to stay on top of urine or ammonia build up by following a manufacturer approved wash routine. 

Nicki’s Cloth Diaper Wash Recommendations for Ammonia Smells

hang drying cloth diaper flats and prefolds

Nicki’s Diapers recommends one like this for hard water: Warm rinse, hot wash with Tide filled up to the 3rd line on the cap plus Calgon in laundry water softener, warm or cold rinse.

There isn’t a suggestion for extra rinse when you have hard water because it can add minerals to your diapers. If you still see suds or have continual stink issues, you can do the extra rinse.

Just add Calgon again to that final rinse. If you are using an HE washer, you will want to ensure that your washer is using enough water to fully rinse your diapers. 

Nicki's Diapers do not recommend heavy treatment of diapers. Treating your diapers with additives and methods outside of the above guidelines may void your manufacturer warranty.  

What to do About Severe Ammonia Smell Buildup on Cloth Diapers

If you have persistent smells after following the above guidelines, you might have a severe buildup issue. It's imperative to know if you're working with hard or soft water to fix this and move forward.

kids helping do the laundry with cloth diapers

Hard water means you're likely dealing with a build-up of minerals, which is causing urine to get trapped and smell bad.

Soft water means you're likely dealing with a build-up of detergent because it's not being rinsed well enough due to water softness and causing urine to get trapped and smell bad.  

Treating a buildup of minerals will differ from treating a build up of detergent. If the above method didn’t solve your problem and you have mineral buildup, it will need to be treated by starting with clean diapers and a hot soak with a little mainstream detergent, Calgon and Grovia Mighty Bubbles.

You can soak for up to 4 hours to help break down the minerals. Leave your shells and covers out of this process! Then you will want to follow this with 2+ hot washes and add Calgon, but no detergent.

The last cycle should give you clear water and no suds. You will want to make sure that moving forward you use enough detergent and in laundry water softener, like Calgon, to consistently break up the water minerals to prevent this from happening again.  

Detergent build up with soft water happens because soft water has a hard time breaking down the detergent and rising it out.

You will want to start with clean diapers and a hot soak. Make sure to leave covers and shells out of this process! Follow the initial soak with 2+ hot washes. The last cycle should give you clear water and no suds.

nicki's diapers wool dryer balls

Moving forward once your diapers are reset, you may need to adjust the amount of detergent used per load because you don't need as much detergent with soft water and the build up likely happened from using too much detergent.  Also make sure you're using the best detergent for cloth diapers.

A good rule of thumb is on the last rinse cycle of a regular diaper load, you should see very little to no suds once the water has stopped agitating. 

Don't worry if you're new to cloth diapering and this all sounds a little overwhelming. It's usually not an issue, and following our guide on cloth diapers for beginners will help you start out on the right foot.

Now that you are feeling confident about your wash routine and keeping pesky smells at bay, you can feel confident that your little one’s diapers will always be the freshest around, and that is something to feel good about!