Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Our Dirty Little Cloth-Diapering Secret: Ammonia Problems


As anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows, I am a huge proponent of cloth diapers.  I have found them to be superior to disposables in every way (except that disposables come out a little ahead in the "convenience" department).  So when I finally had to admit to myself several months ago that our cloth diapers were definitely the cause of a nasty recurring rash that Sly had been getting, I just stayed quiet about it.  I didn't want anyone to start doubting the greatness of cloth diapers, or to be even more intimidated about giving them a try!

But now that I've finally managed to tackle the problem, it's time for me to come clean (just as our diaper stash, after two grueling months of experimental laundry treatments has finally "come clean"!).

I first noticed a problem when Sly began breaking out in all these little bumps in his "diaper area".  They looked pretty unpleasant, and when they got really bad, would crack and bleed.  He was not a happy little man.  I consulted several pediatricians about it, was given various diagnoses and medications which didn't work.  Finally, we were sent to a pediatric dermatologist.  He was certain he knew what it was, and gave us a really expensive medication mixture to use.  But that didn't work either.  When the rash got really bad, I began switching Sly to disposables for a few days just so I could use Desitin on the area (which you aren't supposed to use with cloth diapers, since it clogs up the pores and reduces their absorbancy), and the rash would always clear right up.  As soon as we switched back to cloth, it would return. 

I realized that modern doctors really don't have much experience with cloth diapers, and if the issue was being caused by that, I would need to consult an "expert" in that field.  So I went to my local awesome cloth diaper store.  I described the rash Sly had, and the owner immediately recognized my problem: "ammonia burn".  Yikes.

He asked whether our diapers smelled like ammonia when they were wet, and Tom and I both shouted, "YES!"  That has been an issue for us for a long time now, and we both just assumed Sly had developed really strong pee or something.  But apparently, they aren't supposed to smell like that...haha.

It was explained that when urine dries in a diaper, it can leave behind uric acid crystals which don't get washed out in the laundry.  When the baby pees in the diaper again, these crystals get reactivated, creating immediate ammonia.  As anyone who's used it to clean with knows, ammonia is pretty nasty stuff.  The problem, though, is that ammonia issues can also sometimes be caused by build-up of detergent in the diapers or by bacteria.  So in order to fix it, you really need to approach it from all three fronts.


So then began my long crusade to get rid of the problem.  I hope someone can find this little guide useful.

If ammonia is caused by...

Uric Acid Build-up
To prevent: Pre-soak or spray all wet diapers before throwing them into your laundry bin.  We had only been doing this for poopy diapers in the past.
To get rid of: Strip all diapers (several wash cycles in a row using the hottest water possible).  Try a product such as Funk Rock to blast the ammonia.

Detergent Build-up
To prevent: Use less detergent (see directions on your package - you usally need less than you think), or switch brands.  The water quality in different parts of the country can really affect the ability of different brands to effectively clean your diapers.  Most people need to try a few different ones before they find the right fit.  Also, add a second hot rinse after washing/rinsing the diapers.
To get rid of: Strip all diapers [see above].

Bacteria
To prevent: Follow proper wash routines - a cold pre-wash, a hot wash/rinse using your detergent, and another hot rinse.  About once a month, you can add a Tablespoon of bleach (check diaper instructions and warranties first!) to your hot wash.
To get rid of:  This is the last thing I tried, and the one that finally took care of the ammonia once and for all.  I had to just blast the diapers with bleach.  I poured in about a quarter cup while it ran on hot, then rinsed twice.  Make sure diapers are already clean before you start, and do not put any PUL covers in - JUST the cloth.  The bleach can degrade the water-proofing material on the covers.


The process was frustrating, and required several more phone-calls to the cloth diaper store for suggestions.  But finally, the ammonia is GONE, and now, thankfully, I know how to prevent it.  No more yucky rash for my baby.  No more nostril-burning ammonia smell for us. 

35 comments:

  1. I used to soak all diapers in a combination of Dreft and Biz. I always use less detergent in the washer than the manufacturer recommends. A washer repair man told me years ago detergent manufacturers recommend more detergent in the wash so they can sell more. I hung them out to dry as often as possible (as opposed to using the dryer). We used cloth diapers for all 4 kids, using disposables only when we traveled. Diaper rash was never much of a problem. I did use Desitin (didn't know it wasn't good for cloth diapers) but two powders, Caldescene, or Bismoline turned out to be excellent for occasional diaper rash.

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  2. Thanks for posting this, Christine. I've been thinking our diapers are due for a stripping, and you gave me the incentive to do it! I know what you mean on the use less detergent one. It's amazing how little you actually need! My P&G informant tells me the recommended amount on the box assumes very dirty laundry being washed in hard water. I use about a quarter of what the box says for regular laundry, more for diaper pre-wash. We have one of those high efficency machines, and one "80 load" box of powdered Tide has lasted me about a year now! I do a load a day, on average. If you think you are using too much, you can test it by running an extra rinse cycle and see/smell if any suds come out with the waste water.

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  3. SO glad you figured it out. We had ammonia stink like that with DD1. Awful stuff. Our problem did not resolve until we moved. We knew we had hard water and I'd always put a cap full of liquid Calgon in each load, but the mineral build-up in our diapers just clung to EVERYTHING. Our key to a good routine(as it has been since that move): Tide powder detergent up to the -1- line, add a splash of bleach to the first rinse, then run it through an extra rinse. Perfection, every time, ever since we got rid of that blasted super hard water.

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  4. im so glad you were able to get a handle on it. ammonia burn is especially bad for boys as it can actually cause major problems for their little boy parts!!! it was one of the reasons i stopped using cloth. we could NOT get rid of all the ammonia thanks to the water here. im so glad you found a solution that works for you!!!!!!

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  5. Isn't it funny how ignorant doctors can be (and I don't mean that as a slam, but as a case of them truly just not knowing)? So glad you were able to get everything cleaned up, especially for Sly's sake! We were using bleach once a month because they were really starting to smell, but it randomly stopped. I have no idea why, and I wondered if it was related to using the diaper sprayer more? Who knows, but good riddance!

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  6. I dont have a local cloth diaper store and our local stores do not sell them. Any recommendations on where to order them online? I have never used them before and I have 2 in diapers right now with another on the way.

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  7. Sorry, I don't really have experience buying them online, since I try to patronize the local business. I know when researching types of diapers, though, I've come across MANY retailer sites. I think you could just do a Google search, and compare prices at some of the major sites.

    If this is your first time trying cloth diapers, I would suggest something similar to the Bumgenius 4.0's. They cost about $18 per diaper (which seems like a lot, I know - but it pays off in the long run!). You just stick a cloth pad into a pocket inside the diaper, and it's ready to go - they're as quick and easy to use as disposables. I would recommend diapers that close with snaps, rather than Velcro, as they last longer. But if you want to go for economy, pre-folds (~$3 a diaper) with waterproof covers (~$12 each) are your best bet (that's what we mostly use). You can check out this post for more info: http://ourordinarylifeextraordinary.blogspot.com/2011/01/cloth-diapering-part-ii-hows.html

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  8. Thank you so much for writing this! We are in the EXACT same situation, and I hadn't found any good info about how to take care of it. The Poopster doesn't seem to mind the burns on her bum, but we do, and the smell bothers me a lot. We'll be switching our methods today!

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  9. I've been dealing with teeny tiny orange spots on my daughters diapers for over a month now.. They've been building up for about 8 months now and finally I couldn't ignore it. Thinking it was mold at first, I even tossed two... And then rust?! It's totally letting soaked diapers dry before washing. I've got a load in the wash right now, so ill try washing the living day lights out of them, lol. Thanks for the post!

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    1. What were the tiny orange spots? Was it mold? Rust? Why did you get them?

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  10. thanks for the info! ive been having this exactly problem. question: what can be used to spray dipes to prevent the uric acid build up? soaking them isn't really an option for me :)

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    1. We have a diaper sprayer hooked up to the toilet, and we spray every diaper down before throwing it into a bin. (This looks like the one we have: http://www.amazon.com/Fuzzibunz-Diaper-Tiolet-Sprayer-Diapers-White/dp/B005G0GLFM/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1370013050&sr=8-9&keywords=diaper+sprayer)

      They are really helpful for pre-rinsing everything before the wash. They cost about $40, but I think it's worth it.

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  11. Thank you so much for writing this post. The ammonia smell was terrible, our daughter's diaper area was blistering and red, and our cloth was repelling. We are the only people we know that cloth diaper, so until I stumbled across this post, I was frantic. We tackled from all three sides last night and have noticed a significant difference in just less than 12 hours. Thank you so much for posting!

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    1. I'm so glad it helped! That's exactly why I wrote this post!

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    2. I'm doing the routine right now on my daughter's cloth "pull ups."
      I'm sure what she has is burn from pee/ammonia.

      Thanks for the tips!!!!!!!

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  12. Quick question about the bleach treatment, you mention not doing that with the PUL covers, is it safe to assume I can't do that with my AIOs then? Since there's no way to separate the absorbency from the cover?

    Thanks so much for this, BTW, my son had a horrible red rash/burn on his skin tonight after he pooped in his diaper. It seemed very painful, he was crying before I changed his diaper and then he didn't want me to wipe him because his skin was so irritated. It just happened very suddenly, he was fine one diaper change and then the next BAM, redness and irritation everywhere on his bum. I wonder if that particular diaper maybe had buildup in it?

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    1. It's going to depend on the brand. I know Bumgenius actually recommends adding a little bleach to the wash once a month. Check with the company about bleaching with your AIOs. I hope these suggestions work for you! Ammonia rashes are the worst.

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  13. The only diaper I notice ammonia with is in the morning after my daughter has worn the diaper for 8-10 hours. I didn't think it was a big issue, until she started getting some irritation a few days ago (enter my MIL who decided to put diaper rash cream on it, without a liner, in my BG 4.0. I. WAS. SO. MAD) Anyway. This morning she woke up with a MAJOR rash. And so I put some coconut oil on it but I'm considering switching her to disposable at nights (she's 2.5 years, so I don't want to wake her up and change her in the middle of the night). And hopefully she'll be potty trained soon, and then I may just use cloth at night (and hope it doesn't cause issues). Any recommendations for the ammonia (or the rash?) from nighttime? I use different diapers, some fitted, some hemp fitted, some BG with inserts. So I don't think my diapers have the ammonia issue, more just that she's in them for so long. UGH.

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    1. It probably wouldn't hurt to try stripping and/or bleaching your diapers (BG actually recommends a once-a-month small addition of bleach to your laundry). If you smell ammonia at all, that means there's some in the diapers.

      As for dealing with the rash, they make a number of cloth-diaper-safe creams and oils (coconut oil among them). I have found that these can help with minor rashes, but when things get really bad, I break out the big guns: Desitin, Butt Paste, etc. You definitely don't want those in contact with your diapers, though, so make sure you put in some sort of barrier. I've used everything from a cloth wipe to a paper towel! After a few days with those, the rash is usually almost cleared, and I can use the cloth-friendly creams until it's all gone.

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  14. The only time I smell ammonia is after she's worn the diaper overnight. Which makes me think its not the diapers, but the length of time. So then stripping wouldn't fix it. That's why I am considering switching nighttime to disposable........

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    1. You're right about it being an amount of time issue. What happens overnight is that they pee, it dries a little (forming uric acid crystals) and then they pee again which activates the ammonia smell from the uric acid crystals. Since this tends to happen multiple times in a night it can get pretty bad. I finally started soaking the inserts from the overnight diapers in a small tub for a few hours hours and then rinsing them really well before putting them in the pail with the rest of the dirty diapers which helped a lot. We weren't dealing with a rash issue though, just an unpleasant smell.

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  15. Thank you SO much for this post. This just started happening to us and none of my other cloth diaper moms seemed to have this issue (at least not with the rash). I'm going to try all of these and see what happens. I've been putting off getting a diaper sprayer but am going to get on that pronto as well!

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  16. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Did I say thank you? I have been trying SO many different methods to get rid of the ammonia. I followed your advice, and it's gone. No more smell, no more red behind and other unmentionables, and no more husband telling me cloth diapering was a flop! Thank you!

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  17. Thanks a lot for a very comprehensive info on the subject. I am since yesterday in the process of stripping our nappies, but I hadn't found anything about how to avoid building up ammonia again. Just need to be sure about your wash routine: when you say prewash cold, do you mean in your washing machine or is it just the spraying or soaking of your nappies before they go in the bucket until you wash them? Thanks again! Muriel

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  18. I do spray the diapers before they go in the bucket, but when they get dumped in the washing machine, the first cycle I do is a "cold rinse."

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  19. I know this is an old post but thank you so much!! I am having the exact same problem and was almost at my wits end - We'd switch to sposies to clear the rash up and as soon as my daughter is in cloth it comes back. I was just getting ready to throw in the towel on cloth. I'm going to be stripping them tonight!

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  20. I am very happy to read your articles it’s very useful for me, 
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  21. This post is one of the top results when searching for info on ammonia in cloth diapers. Unfortunately it contains some incorrect info based on common CD-world myths. Detergent doesn't build up, and extra rinses will make the problem worse in all but the softest water. The strip instructions you provide are unlikely to resolve the problem (as you discovered), and usually MORE detergent, not less, is needed for diaper laundry. It's the dirtiest stuff you put in the washer -- full of the body's waste!! The type of detergent used makes a big difference too.

    Have you heard of the a Fluff Love & CD Science group? Check out the website http://fluffloveuniversity.com As a former science teacher, I'm sure you'll be able to quickly read and understand the tons of great info they've collected there. If you could update this page, it would be a huge help to cloth diapering families struggling with ammonia as you did.

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    1. How can you get rid of ammonia issues in fitted diapers? Would bleach ruin them? Particularly cute prints? 😕

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  22. My 6 month old woke up with an angry red rash that I'm assuming is ammonia burn. It's obviously very painful for him and is making diaper changes terrible. I have him in sposies now which I am not thrilled about. I was having ammonia smell a few months ago so I did a strip using only hot water. Didn't work. So I switched to the Fluff Love strip and wash guidelines just 3 weeks ago. I had the ammonia smell before but never an actual rash until changing my wash routine. I know this post is old but would love any advice/suggestions you (or your readers), could offe.

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    1. Im wondering if switching your wash routine brought up old gunk that could've caused the burn? Perhaps a bleach soak?

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    2. Or maybe your baby is even allergic to the new stuff? I've never tried that brand, so I can't answer to its effectiveness. I would definitely try some bleach - I usually find that's the most effective treatment for ammonia.

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