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.
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 Dynamic Duo – works just as well as as ammonia on glass, and better than vinegar, without using any chemicals, and also without consumables (except water).
Ammonia 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.