Chemical Profile: Ammonia & Ammonium Compounds

Chemical Profile Ammonia Ammonium Compounds MADE SAFE Blog

Why It Matters

As the saying goes, too much of anything is a bad thing – and that certainly applies to the consumer use of manufactured ammonia and ammonium compounds, contributing to its prevalence in the ecosystem. Although naturally-occurring, ammonia in excess can be harmful to aquatic environments and is known to be toxic to aquatic life. When inhaled, ammonia can cause respiratory irritation, a relevant concern considering its prevalence in consumer cleaning products.

What Is It?

Ammonia is a clear gas that readily dissolves in liquid. It is abundantly naturally-occurring and is a product of the breakdown of animal and plant matter. Ammonium hydroxide is the form ammonia takes on when it is dissolved in water. Ammonia is often mixed with other chemical ingredients to create ammonium compounds, which are the forms of the chemical that are most often used as personal care product ingredients. Ammonium hydroxide, ammonium chloride, and ammonium glycyrrhizate are three common ammonium compounds used in personal care products.

Chemical Profile Ammonia Ammonium Compounds Infographic MADE SAFE Blog

Where It's Found

Ammonia is manufactured for use in detergents, cleaning products, fertilizer, hair dyes, as well as other industrial purposes. [1]

The Health Concern

Ammonia can cause severe eye and respiratory irritation, and even bronchitis and/or pneumonia. [1] At high levels, ammonia can cause health effects in occupational settings. [1] Chronic exposures to low levels of ammonia may also be associated with short-term, reversible decreases in lung function and/or permanent lung damage in occupational settings. [4] At low levels, ammonia can cause problems in individuals with asthma or who are sensitive. [1]

When ammonia comes in contact with the skin, it dissolves in the water present in the skin and transforms into ammonium hydroxide. Ammonium hydroxide is a chemical capable of causing necrosis of whatever tissue it comes into contact with. [1] [4] It is also an asthmagen and a sensitizer. [2]

While contact of the skin with ammonia can result in severe burns and blisters, there is little scientific information on the neurological, reproductive, and developmental effects of dermal exposure. [1] Exposure via inhalation is the most dangerous route of exposure.

Ammonia is also well-known to be toxic to aquatic life, impairing physiological functions like growth and reproduction. [7] [3] Although ammonia and other forms of nitrogen compounds are naturally-occurring in the environment, toxic levels of ammonia can build up in aquatic ecosystems as a result of pollution. Eighty percent of manufactured ammonia is used in fertilizers, which can enter aquatic ecosystems in the form of stormwater runoff. [3]

Once ammonia enters an aquatic system, factors like pH and temperature can impact the ratio of harmful ammonia to non-harmful ammonium ions. Additionally, this ammonia can potentially contribute to eutrophication or dissolved oxygen depletion. [6] Eutrophication is when excess nutrients enter a water system and cause algae to overgrow, in turn blocking sunlight from penetrating beneath the water’s surface or using up oxygen that other aquatic life need to survive. In some instances, these algae can release harmful toxins, in what is referred to as a harmful algal bloom. For this reason, being mindful of fertilizer use could be beneficial in preventing an overabundance of ammonia in nearby waterways.

How to Avoid It

If you must use products that contain ammonium compounds, be sure you’re in an area that is well-ventilated. Use gloves to avoid contact with the skin, and proceed with caution to avoid any spills. Never mix ammonia-containing products with bleach-containing products, as this can create toxic chloramine gases. [5]

Avoid applying fertilizer, when possible, especially within close proximity to waterways or storm drains or before a rainy day.

Seek out the many alternatives to personal care products containing ammonium compounds, and also:

  • Read labels on products like detergents, cleaners, and hair dyes.
  • Remember there are multiple types of ammonium compounds, so avoid any ingredients with “ammonia” or “ammonium” in the name.
  •  Shop MADE SAFE Certified products


[1] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, (ATSDR). (2004). Toxicological profile for ammonia. Centers for Disease Control.

[2] Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics. (2012). Exposure code lookup. Accessed August 26, 2022.

[3] Camargo, J.A. and Alonso, A. (2006). Ecological and toxicological effects of inorganic nitrogen pollution in aquatic ecosystems: A global assessment. Environment International. 32: 831-849.

[4] Neghab, M., Mirzaei, A., Kargar Shouroki, F., Jahangiri, M., Zare, M., Yousefinejad, S. (2018). Ventilatory disorders associated with occupational inhalation exposure to nitrogen trihydride (ammonia). Industrial Health. 56: 427-435.

[5] Pascuzzi, T.A. and Storrow, A.B. (1998). Mass Casualties from Acute Inhalation of Chloramine Gas. Military Medicine. 163 (2): 102-104.

[6] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2022). Ammonia

[7] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2013). Aquatic life ambient water quality criteria for ammonia – freshwater.

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