Is Ammonia Good or Evil?

Is ammonia good or evil?Lots of the “green cleaning” books I have been studying over the past year recommend ammonia.

And, fact sheets on grey water recommend ammonia.

But healthychild.org, among others, say to steer well clear.

So what’s the go? Should we be using ammonia in our DIY cleaning products or not? Well, I’ll come to that in a minute. But firstly —

What is ammonia?

Ammonia is a common ingredient in both commercial and DIY cleaners. It is also used to produce fertilisers, plastics, synthetic fibres, dyes and  pharmaceuticals.

Household ammonia,  bought in the cleaning section of the supermarket, is really a solution of water with 5-10% ammonium hydroxide. Cloudy ammonia is the same thing with a little soap added. Through the rest of this article, when I talk about using ammonia, you can take it as read that I’m talking about that 5-10% solution.

Fact: Ammonia is toxic to humans. Of course, so is dish washing liquid. And tea tree oil. So the simple fact that it is toxic doesn’t necessarily mean we need it out of our house. But, ammonia is more toxic than dish washing liquid, and if you decide to use it, you will definitely want to keep it right out of the reach of children.

So how harmful is ammonia then?

According to the UK’s Health Protection Agency’s (HPA) Compendium of Chemical Hazards (PDF, 260 Kb) “Minor exposures may result in a burning sensation of the eyes and throat and more substantial exposure may cause coughing or breathing difficulties.” Very high exposure can fatal. Keep in mind that they are generally referring ammonia gas or pure ammonium hydroxide rather than the 5-10% solution you would normally buy for cleaning, but the risks are still there.

If splashed on the skin, liquid ammonia can cause burns, and should be immediately washed off with soap and lots of luke warm water.

If ammonia is ingested, it can burn the mouth, throat and stomach. It may be comforting to know that it doesn’t normally result in systemic poisoning though! (Source: NY Department of Health). If ammonia is swallowed it is usually diluted with milk or water (but if that happens, don’t just rely on that, call the poisons hotline!).

If you mix ammonia and chlorine bleach, they will produce the far more toxic chlorine gas. Don’t risk it. Don’t ever use them together, and if you have recently used chlorine bleach or bleach containing detergents in your washing machine, make sure both the machine and the clothes have been washed again before washing with ammonia. Note that oxygen bleach has no chlorine, and is fine to use with ammonia.

Ammonia is not thought to be a carcinogen.

Safety precautions

When using ammonia it’s best to wear rubber gloves and work in a well ventilated space. Don’t use it around children or pets, who may be more sensitive simply due to their size.  According to the HPA, there is no evidence of damage to an unborn child though, if the mother is exposed at levels that won’t hurt her.

If you have asthma or another chronic respiratory condition I would recommend avoiding ammonia altogether, but if you are going to use it, wear a protective mask.

Keep all ammonia or ammonia containing products well out the reach of children. Always label any homemade cleaning products with all ingredients.

Is Ammonia bad for the environment?

When it comes to the levels in your homemade cleaning products, the answer is no. This is why ammonia is usually included  in “green cleaner” lists.

While the large amounts of ammonia resulting from  the decomposition of animal wastes in agriculture arguably are bad for the environment, not to mention the huge amounts of nitrogen fertiliser used in large-scale agriculture, the levels in most home cleaning products are considered safe for grey water systems. In fact, the University of Massachusetts fact sheet ‘Recycling Grey Water for Home Gardens’ explicitly says “When doing your household cleaning, use ammonia, or products that contain ammonia, instead of chlorine as the cleaning agent.” (Sources: Environment Agency (UK) fact sheet (PDF 603 KB); University of Massachusetts factsheet on grey water)

Ammonia is a natural part of the ‘nitrogen cycle’ and is produced in soil from normal bacterial processes, so it is commonly found in soil even when fertiliser hasn’t been applied. It is also produced naturally from the decomposition of  plants, animals and animal wastes. If you have chickens or an indoor cat, you will probably recognise the smell of ammonia!

Again, at high concentrations it can be damaging, particularly to aquatic life. But at the levels you would usually use in your laundry, it breaks down quickly.

How does Ammonia clean?

The short answer is: quite effectively.

When it comes to green cleaners, Ammonia is really the queen. It’s effective against a range of ills, and though I hate to say it, it really is more effective than many less toxic options like vinegar.

Ammonia  is a base which, like lye, reacts with oils and fats to form soap.  The water in house hold ammonia  then washes the soap away. So it’s good for cleaning things that are oily, whether that’s a window or an item of clothing. When it comes to windows and tiles, it leaves a streak free surface, because what’s left after the reaction is ammonium hydroxide, which will completely evaporate.

Of course, vinegar also makes a good glass cleaner, especially when mixed with rubbing alcohol, water, and  – I kid you not – a little corn flour. (See Crunchy Betty for the recipe plus the most entertaining battle of the non-toxic glass cleaners.) I have also read that four parts water to one part vinegar and a little dishwashing liquid (which will help remove any build up from previous commercial cleaners) makes a good glass cleaner (so basically, my DIY spray ‘n’ wipe recipe), but I haven’t tested it yet. Unless you count letting my three year old clean the windows. Which— probably you shouldn’t.

Of course, a high quality microfibre cloth designed for glass cleaning – like the Norwex enviro cloth and window cloth duo – works just as well as as ammonia on glass, and better than vinegar, without using any chemicals, and also without consumables (except water).

Barbara Lord's Green Cleaner: Simple Effective and Cheap Cleaning Alternatives for a Safer and Healthier Home and PlanetAmmonia also neutralises acids, which is why it is effective against acid based stains like tea, coffee and juice. I have found the Ammonia & dish-washing liquid based spray-on stain remover from Barbara Lord’s Green Cleaner to be as effective as a store bought pre-wash stain remover like Preen. (See down the bottom of my natural laundry stain remover post for the recipe.) That’s really the only thing I do use Ammonia for, but Readers Digest (for instance) has a long list of other uses.

Because it’s alkaline, don’t use any recipes that tell you to store ammonia mixed with a lot of vinegar – they will neutralise each other, just as vinegar and bicarb soda (baking soda) do, and you will be left with a salty solution. Sometimes mixing an acid and base can provide a good cleaning reaction in the moment – bicarb and vinegar are often used together this way. But you cannot store them mixed together (though see note below for an exception to this).*

So, is it good or evil? Should you use it?

I know, I started with this question, and I think the answer is clearly – it’s complicated.

It’s an effective alternative to harsher chemical cleaners, especially things like chlorine bleach. And I’d far rather use a homemade cleaner with ammonia in it than a store bought cleaner with who knows what.

Environmentally it’s fine.

But, if you have a respiratory disorder, you should probably steer clear.  Whether you want to have it around your kids or pets (if you have them) is your call. I personally wouldn’t use it to clean floors, for instance, since both my kids and my cat spend a lot of time there, though if you did it while they’re out and it’s dry by the time they get home, it’s probably fine really.

What do you think? Would you use ammonia in your home?

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*Note: you can store an alkaline solution, like a baking soda mix, with a little bit of vinegar mixed in – the vinegar reacts with a tiny bit of the baking soda to produce a salt solution, which can actually help keep your dirt particles and hard water minerals in solution (rather than having them settle back on your clothes). But, if you add a little bicarb to your vinegar, you will be left with just salty water, since vinegar is generally only a 5% acid solution, whereas bicarb soda is pure base.

This post was entered in the Frugal Days | Sustainable ways blog hop.

  16 comments for “Is Ammonia Good or Evil?

  1. July 2, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    Thanks Kirsten, a very informative post. At this point I wouldn’t use ammonia because of the kids (and I’m not too fussed about stains) but I’ll file this away for future use.

    • July 4, 2013 at 8:30 am

      You’re welcome Linda 🙂

    • Scott
      May 30, 2016 at 7:15 pm

      This is the worst site I have seen… All tell you NOT to use Ammonia around children at all because there respiratory is not strong enough to handle it… You may as well be smoking around your child… It’s do less harm.

      Don’t know where this person got there information but they should be Charged with negligence.

  2. July 16, 2013 at 9:12 am

    Very good article. I used it for such a long time and then some misinformed glown at work mixed it with bleach so it would “clean” better. After that incident I have always been a little gun shy.
    Pam @Mommacan recently posted..Home Boosters for Busys Moms – Morning Coffee and Clutter ControlMy Profile

    • Kirsten
      July 16, 2013 at 12:06 pm

      Yes, I can understand why!!

  3. John Countryman-ish
    September 13, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    Old fashioned remedy with what was “Scrubbs Cloudy Household Ammonia” For insect bites such as midge or some mosquito. and drip on cotton wool and dab it on the bite, gets rid of the inflammation and itchiness. Take care with open bites (too much scratching)… I’ve never known it to be harmful… but it can sting for a minute or so.

    Anyway it worked for me as a kid, for my children and, today, for the grandchildren.

  4. December 19, 2013 at 5:34 am

    Ammonia forms into vapor at room temperature and it effect your nostrils and lungs. When it is dissolved in suitable solvents it is the master in application as fertilizer, cleaning agents and coloring agents. It depends on use how we use it rather than ammonia itself.
    Jack recently posted..Reboilers operation, design aspects and applicationsMy Profile

  5. February 10, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    I�ve been browsing online more than 4 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is really valuable stuff. In my view, if all website owners wrote great content as you did, the internet will be a lot more useful than ever

  6. Peggy
    February 13, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Hi I have read this informative article wit interest. I have a Biolytix waste water system. This system has a biopod which uses worms to break down the solids in our waste water. Do you have any information on the use of Cloudy ammonia in waste systems such as this?
    Thanks

    • Kirsten
      February 18, 2014 at 10:32 am

      I’m not sure Peggy, I don’t know anything about your system, but I’d be cautious about using it if it’s going to get to the worms quickly. Once it’s had time to break down it might be fine, but as ammonia, I suspect they wouldn’t like that!

  7. Dianna
    August 12, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    I use ammonia for one thing, and that’s my bathroom. The toilet and floor. I have 4 kids, the oldest 3 are boys, and they’re young… they have terrible aim if you know what I mean. I have tried every single organic, DIY, or relatively safe cleaner out there. It’s the only thing that gets rid of the smell, and yellow color on the grout. I wipe down the bathroom daily with hot water and Castile soap, then once a week I soak it for 15 mins in a ammonia/water combo, then scrub and wipe. Household ammonia is already super diluted, it’s considered a weak solution, and by diluting it again at a 1:2 ratio I figure it’s sorta tame at that point. I also open the window and use a box fan during and for awhile after, for fumes. That being said, once the kids are bigger I’ll be glad to rid myself of it. Although bleach makes me feel sick for days, and ammonia doesn’t bother me if the room is well ventilated.

  8. Pauline Oxford
    September 6, 2015 at 4:48 am

    Many years ago Heloise Hint’s wrote a Spray and Wash recipe: 1 part ammonia, 1 part liquid laundry detergent, 1 part water.
    A gentler combination may be to substitute “Dawn” for laundry detergent.
    After using this cleanser or just plain ammonia, I always spray a rinse of vinegar, it removes slippery residue that can attract soils.

  9. February 22, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Cleaning a car windshield inlovves misting the glass with a glass cleaner, wiping it down with a paper cloth and drying the windshield with a microfiber towel. When cleaning the inside of your vehicle you want to make sure that you use a paper cloth to do the cleaning of the windshield and then a designated glass cleaner, one preferably that does not have any soaps or dyes so that you do not have any streaks to result after the cleaning process. The first step you want to do is lightly mist the windshield. Take your paper towel and using a back and forth motion clean the area where the windshield solvent was applied. And then to dry the windshield you would use a micro-fiber towel and follow in the back and forth motions drying all of the solvent and cleaning the windshield.

  10. Carly
    February 28, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    Looking at a possible link between C/Ammonia usage and parkinson’s disease.. My mother used it most of my life and now has parkinson’s.. any relevent stories / experiences would be appreciated

    • February 29, 2016 at 2:56 pm

      I haven’t heard of a link at all Carly, but I will keep you in mind as I am reading – I’d be interested in hearing about your research too. I’ve really only seen it linked to lung conditions such as chronic bronchitis and asthma in my research.
      Kirsten recently posted..Why Microfibre Instead of Vinegar? And Why Norwex?My Profile

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