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Why Do My Cloth Diapers Smell Like Ammonia?

  • Post category:Wash Care

Cloth diapers that smell like ammonia indicate a washing problem. Running your diapers through several hot washes without detergent until no bubbles appear may solve your problem if they are only mildly smelly.

I have had ammonia buildup problems before with my cloth diapers. We have incredibly hard water where I live, which leads to mineral buildup even with a great wash routine, leading to ammonia buildup. Problems generally started when solids started, and my grandbaby was no different. But as his pee got more concentrated, our diapers started reeking of ammonia.

I thought back to when I was cloth diapering my kids. I tried so many things to fix it. I sunned my diapers more even though I was already doing this any time the sun was out and they were wet. I ran the diapers through three hot washes with no soap. I tried many different detergents because ammonia buildup was usually caused and/or complicated by soap buildup. I tried more soap. I tried less soap. I tried vinegar (which I later learned isn’t recommended in hard water.) I tried adding in boiling water to increase my water temps. I tried Funk Rock, which temporarily fixed the problem, but the ammonia returned. As a last-ditch resort, I even went so far as to use bleach with my diapers which worked for about two weeks until the ammonia came back.

bleaching cloth diapers

It got so bad that my grandbaby was getting rashes caused by the ammonia, and my daughter nearly quit cloth diapering. Luckily I am the most stubborn person and refused to be defeated by ammonia. 

So after trying things from when I cloth diapered my children, much advice, scouring internet articles, and trial and error, I came up with a few tips and tricks that helped mainly eliminate our ammonia woes. I still occasionally can catch a whiff of ammonia in his overnight diapers, but it isn’t strong at all, and I can live with this as long as it isn’t every diaper or causing rashes. He does wear those diapers for 12+ hours, so I assume this is normal.


“Stripping” cloth diapers refer to any deep-cleaning method that goes above and beyond your regular wash routine. Stripping may be necessary for several reasons:

  1. You’ve accidentally used a detergent with fabric softener, fragrance, optical brighteners, or soap (such as Fels-Naptha in homemade laundry soap concoctions) and your diapers have residue lingering in the fibers. This can cause a loss of absorbency (repelling) or rashes on your baby’s bottom.
  2. You’ve used a thick, greasy diaper ointment without a liner, causing repelling.
  3. Your diapers have a “barnyard” smell, indicating that your current wash routine isn’t getting them fully clean.

If you need to strip your diapers more frequently than every few months or so, we recommend tweaking your regular laundry routine. Once you’ve established a good laundry routine with the right amount of detergent and water for your washer, you should be able to go months and months without needing to strip your diapers!

  • I found rinsing all diapers, even just the pee ones, helps. Secondly, I no longer zip my wet bag closed but leave it open 24/7 to let oxygen circulate and help prevent ammonia from building up. If one of his overnight diapers smells strong, I will let the inserts soak in water in my bathroom sink for a while. So basically, rinse, rinse, rinse. 
  • Then you repeat the rinse, rinse, rinse while washing. (To read my washing routine in detail, click here.) I do a warm rinse first. Warm seems to work much better than a cold rinse at getting extra urine/ammonia out of the diapers. I was concerned with staining my diapers from the warm rinse, but I found that it isn’t anything that a good sunning won’t take out. I then do an extra wash cycle with a hot wash/cold rinse as the final rinse.

Calgon Water Softener Liquid (Amazon link) is a lifesaver, and I add half a cap in the hot wash and half a cap in the hot rinse. I didn’t think this was helping until I stopped using it, and the ammonia got worse again. It makes a huge difference, even if it isn’t super noticeable at first. This is especially true if hard water is causing your ammonia woes.

A final product that I have to recommend is Grovia mighty bubbles soap. I will use this every month or so for a wash or two to reduce the buildup from the hard water. It seems to help as I notice fewer odors immediately after using it. You throw a pack of it in place of your regular detergent.

I hope these tips and tricks help you battle your ammonia woes. You know, until something else comes up and I realize cloth diapering is always a learning experience. After 30+ years, I’m still learning and grateful for my cloth diapering community!

Once your cloth diapers are back to normal, ask yourself the following questions to see what may have caused the cloth diaper to stink in the first place.

How much detergent are you using?

The right amount depends on your washer and the detergent instructions. I usually use about a teaspoon in an HE front loader. Detergent can cause buildup in your cloth diapers, causing smelly diapers and even leading to the baby having a rash. Try using a bit less or a bit more detergent.

Are you washing your cloth diapers often enough?

Diapers need to be washed every 2-3 days to prevent ammonia and bacteria from building upon them. Regular cleaning is key to successful cloth diapering. I’ve waited too long a few times and had to spend an afternoon stripping and once even temporarily switched to disposables.

What laundry detergent are you using for your clothing? Is it cloth diaper safe as well? Do you share a laundry tub?

Sometimes, the detergent you are using can coat the washing machine and stick onto your cloth diapers. You can deal with this situation in one of two ways:

A) Wipe out the tub

B) easier option: use the same detergent as you do with the cloth diapers on everything. Cloth diaper detergents are an excellent choice for all your laundry, and this issue will be ruled out.


You know you have perfected your laundry routine by these signs: NO bubbles, NO smell when fresh out of the laundry, and when baby pees, there shouldn’t be a strong smell on the diapers, ONLY the smell of pee/poo.