Bleach 101: How to Safely Clean With Bleach (And Potential Bleach Alternatives)
Bleach is one of the most frequently used cleaning products in the United States. It is a go-to cleaning product for disinfecting surfaces and removing tough stains from laundry. It's also used for removing mildew, killing mold and keeping kitchen and bathroom surfaces free of germs.
It's such a powerful cleaning product that it can be a hazard when not used properly. In homes with small children and pets, bleach must be kept out of the way to avoid potential lethal ingestion. Homeowners who like to use bleach as a part of their regular cleaning routine must learn to use it safely to avoid accidents. Used on the wrong thing, bleach can ruin products, kill plants, poison food and contaminate water sources.
Knowing how to use bleach safely, when to use bleach, how much bleach to use and what can and can't be mixed with bleach can help homeowners keep their house safe. If you keep bleach around the house as most homeowners do, this guide will help.
Table of Contents
- Chlorine-Based Bleach
- Peroxide-Based Bleach
- How to Use Bleach
- Bleach Safety
- Alternatives to Bleach
- The Do's and Dont's of Cleaning with Bleach
- Use Bleach Safely
Bleach can be made from different substances, so when you're buying bleach from the store, you'll have your choice of two different kinds: chlorine bleach and oxygen bleach. Both can usually be found in the laundry aisle.
Liquid chlorine-based bleach is the primary form of bleach used in many households. Chlorine itself is most known for providing clean water for drinking and swimming. Used to create bleach, chlorine produces a powerful disinfectant. It's made from sodium hypochlorite, made by heating lye or calcium hydroxide and then bubbling chlorine gas through the liquid. The chlorine bleach is then diluted to a 5-percent solution.
Chlorine-Based Bleach Storage
Chlorine bleach is not stable. Over time, it loses its effectiveness. It must be stored in a cool, dark place, contained in plastic strong enough to hold caustic materials. After about 6 months, chlorine bleach starts to break down. With each year that passes, it loses its effectiveness by about 20 percent.
When mixed with water in a 10-percent solution, bleach loses its potency in about a day. If you plan to use a diluted solution of bleach for a period longer than a day, a 20-percent solution will last for about a week. Bleach left in a bottle mixed with water for a long time is unlikely to work.
What happens to chlorine bleach when it degrades? It turns into salt water! Chlorine bleach starts off as salt water and eventually turns back into its original state.
Pro tip: When using a bottle of bleach and water for household cleaning purposes, date the bottle the day the bleach is mixed. Throw the bleach out after about a week.
Using Chlorine-Based Bleach
Because chlorine bleach is so caustic, it can eat a hole through metals and other materials. When using chlorine bleach to clean your metal garden tools or stainless steel counters, wipe down those surfaces with water when you're finished. For good measure, dry the surfaces too.
Also known as oxygen bleach, peroxide-based bleach is made from hydrogen peroxide with sodium and sometimes carbon. Whereas chlorine bleach is sold in liquid form, oxygen bleach is sold in powdered form and must be mixed with water to be activated. Oxygen bleach is often used in laundry detergent. It's less caustic and won't degrade material as quickly, so it's also called "color-safe" bleach.
Peroxide-based bleach is quite stable. Check the expiration dates to see how long it can be stored, but unlike chlorine bleach, peroxide-based bleach can be kept for more than a year. Keep it away from water (which activates it), and never store it in metal or in an organic container. Always leave bleach in the container in which it came.
Benefits of Peroxide-Based Over Chlorine
Oxygen bleach has many benefits over chlorine bleach. It's less harmful to the environment and can be exposed to plants or your septic tank without doing damage. It doesn't contain phosphorous or nitrogen, so it's also less harmful to natural water sources.
Many people use oxygen bleach to clean mold and mildew outdoors, either on their wooden deck or on their roof. For these purposes, peroxide-based bleach is preferable to chlorine bleach, because it's effective at killing mold but less likely to kill landscaping.
Does Peroxide Bleach Disinfect?
Yes, peroxide bleach can disinfect just like chlorine bleach, but when diluted in laundry, it may lose its ability to disinfect. If disinfecting your laundry is important to you, use a laundry-specific sanitizer.
How to Use Bleach
Bleach can be used for many purposes. Before you can use bleach in your home, you should know what purposes bleach is used for, and in what quantities. Improper use of bleach is, at best, ineffective. At worst, improper use of bleach can be a hazard to you or other people in your household. Overall, bleach is used for laundry, home cleaning, disinfecting and neutralizing. It can be used in the laundry room, kitchen, bathroom, outside, and inside. Because it is caustic, it can only be used on some surfaces.
It's also important to know what bleach is not used for. It's not used to remove dirt from surfaces, nor is it used to remove stains from hard surfaces like porcelain. It's not used to remove residues, clean dishes, or clean organic materials like foods.
Bleach is used to clean, disinfect and whiten all over the house. Some things to keep in mind before using bleach in your home:
- Use it in small quantities unless experts recommend you to do otherwise.
- Avoid leaving straight bleach sitting on any surface for longer than the recommended amount of time.
- To avoid contact with skin and eyes, use rubber gloves and safety goggles when using bleach.
Use in Laundry
In the washing machine, use bleach mixed in hot water to keep white clothing bright. To avoid uneven distribution of bleach, pour the bleach into the bleach dispenser of your machine.
Avoid using chlorine bleach on any colored materials, as it will bleach the colors from the fabrics. Use chlorine bleach in a ratio of about 1 cup bleach to 20 gallons water to avoid degrading the fabric. Use only on white or very light fabrics, and never use on fabrics that specify in care instructions to not use bleach. Using bleach on fabrics in high concentrations can cause the fabrics to fall apart prematurely.
Use bleach to get rid of mold and mildew in the toilet. Pour about a cup of bleach in your toilet bowl, then swish it around with a toilet brush and leave the bleach in the bowl for about 10 minutes. Finally, scrub the toilet bowl with the scrub brush.
Mold and Mildew
In order to use bleach to clean mold and mildew in the bathroom, mix three-parts bleach with seven-parts water in a bleach-safe spray container, then spray the surface of the mold with the bleach-water mixture. Leave the bleach on the mold/mildew for about ten minutes before scrubbing it clean with a stiff bristle brush. Rinse with fresh water, then pat dry.
Bleach can be used to remove clothing stains, but bleaching clothing is an art. You'll get better at it over time, but you may ruin a few pieces of clothing if you're not careful. The following tips can help you properly use bleach on your clothes.
If possible, start treating a stain as soon as it appears. The sooner you can treat a piece of fabric to remove the staining agent, the easier it will be to remove the color from the clothing. Just spilled ketchup on your shirt? Take off the shirt and soak it in water immediately. The water will stop the stain from setting, making it easier for bleach to do its job.
Use the Pre-Soak Setting on Your Washing Machine
Many washing machines have a pre-soak setting that makes soaking simple. Check your washing machine for this feature, and if it has one, use it.
Know When to Use Peroxide-Based Versus Oxygen
Chlorine bleach can be used safely on many kinds of light-colored fabrics. Peroxide-based bleach, also called color-safe bleach, can be used on many kinds of colored fabrics. Avoid using the wrong bleach on the wrong fabric, and always check the manufacturer's instructions to determine whether bleach - and what kind of bleach - can be safely used on the fabric you need to treat.
Test the Fabric First
Not sure whether bleach can safely be used on a particular material? Test color-safe bleach on a piece of the fabric, in a corner that's not easy to see.
To test the bleach on the fabric, mix a tablespoon of bleach with a quarter cup of water, then use an eye dropper to place one drop of the bleach mixture in an inconspicuous place on the fabric. Wait one minute, then dry it. See no change? Then the fabric can most likely be washed with bleach.
How to Neutralize Chlorine Bleach
Chlorine is extremely effective at what it does. It's so effective that if it's not neutralized after it's applied to a surface, it may cause damage. Left on surfaces like fabric, bleach may cause the fabric to fade or deteriorate. Left on wood, it can cause the wood to lighten in color or break down.
There are several products you can use to neutralize fabric, but the least expensive solution is hydrogen peroxide, 3-percent solution. After bleaching your fabric, rinse it under clear, fresh water, then place your fabric in a solution of one-part hydrogen peroxide and ten-parts water. Soak the fabric in the solution for ten minutes, then rinse.
Wood gets bleached for different reasons. Some people use bleach to lighten wood, while others use bleach to remove stains or sanitize after cutting fresh meat on a board. Different types of bleach accomplish different tasks, so the type of neutralizing agent you use on wood depends on the type of bleach used.
- Oxalic acid (removes stains) - neutralize with two tablespoons baking soda to one cup hot water
- Alkali peroxide (lightens wood) - neutralize with one-part white vinegar to one-part water
- Chlorine bleach (sanitizes wood) - neutralize with distilled water
To neutralize wood that's been cleaned with chlorine bleach, rinse the wood several times with distilled water. To neutralize wood that's been bleached with oxalic acid or alkali peroxide, use a sponge to apply the corresponding neutralizing agent (described above) to the wood, then allow it to dry.
What Not to Use
Never use vinegar to neutralize your chlorine bleach. Vinegar mixes with hypochlorite (the active ingredient in chlorine bleach) into a more dangerous chemical.
Bleach can be dangerous. When mixed with the wrong thing, put on the wrong household material or left to be discovered by the wrong person, bleach can be a very hazardous substance. Knowing how to use bleach safely can help you protect your household appliances, your clothes, and the ones you love. Here's what you need to know about using bleach the right way.
Though it can be used safely, bleach is toxic. Bleach emits fumes on surfaces it has cleaned and is toxic if swallowed. Additionally, bleach can be a danger to children and pets if not properly stored and kept out of their reach. Here are some important tips to follow regarding bleach safety:
- Keep bleach in child-proofed cabinets, or keep bleach in a cabinet out of the reach of children.
- Use bleach in a well-ventilated space.
- Use eye-protection when pouring bleach into a container, in case the bleach splashes.
- Wash bleach off skin immediately with soap and water.
- Do not use chlorine bleach around people who suffer from asthma.
- Contact poison control immediately in the event that someone swallows bleach.
Interaction With Other Household Chemicals and Harmful Effects on the Body
Many people are unaware that bleach can cause harm to the body in various ways. Here is what you need to know.
Avoid Bleach Fumes
Breathing in bleach on a regular basis raises the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) by 32 percent. COPD is a lung disease that can block air flow to the lungs. If left untreated, COPD can even be fatal. How does bleach harm the lungs? Fumes from bleach have the same disinfecting properties that liquid bleach has. Those fumes kill microbes, even if they're found in your lungs. Over time, breathing in too much bleach can do real harm to your body.
However, breathing in bleach once per week for your usual cleaning routine probably won't do too much damage to your body. Talk to your doctor if you have asthma or if you notice ill effects after using bleach. Protect your lungs by opening windows when doing the cleaning. Turn on the ventilation fan in your bathroom and kitchen when cleaning. Avoid using bleach in an enclosed space. If you must work with bleach on a regular basis, use a full-face respirator to protect yourself.
Never Mix Bleach and Ammonia
Bleach and ammonia, when combined, produces chloramine gas. Ammonia is the main ingredient in a very common household cleaner: Windex. Chloramine gas causes irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and airway. While it may not be fatal, exposure to chloramine gas does warrant a trip to the emergency room.
Never Mix Bleach and Vinegar
Combining bleach and vinegar can create chlorine gas. Never combine these two substances.
Some people worry that chlorine bleach is bad for the environment. In all its normal uses, however, bleach is believed to be relatively safe for the environment. Bleach is so unstable that when it enters the water supply, it quickly dilutes and degrades, losing its ability to do harm.
However, chlorine can still do harm to some environments — specifically, indoor environments. Mixed with certain organic compounds, chlorine bleach can create volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs degrade indoor air quality and can contribute to chronic conditions in members of your household. Always be careful not to combine cleaning products unless it's been recommended by an expert.
Alternatives to Bleach
Many people hesitate to use bleach in their home. Parents worry about keeping bleach within reach of their children, and some people worry about contaminating their indoor air quality. Alternatives to bleach can be just as effective as bleach, and some can even be safe to use around food products. If you're not comfortable using bleach in your home, or if you have a sensitivity to bleach fumes, you have other options to consider. Knowing which products are available and what they do best can help you decide which bleach alternatives are right for you.
White vinegar, used in cooking, is also an effective household cleaner. For cleaning, some people use standard white vinegar, the same kind that can be found in salad dressings and recipes. Other people choose to use cleaning vinegar,a specially formulated, extra-strength vinegar that has a higher acidity than standard cooking vinegar. Both are available in large gallon jugs.
What Can You Mix With Vinegar?
There are many cleaning recipes that combine vinegar with water, dish soap, lemon juice or baking soda. All of these natural products can be combined safely. What gets combined with vinegar depends on what you're cleaning. Follow advice from reputable online sources to decide what to use with vinegar. Never mix vinegar with bleach.
How Do You Use Vinegar for Cleaning?
You can use vinegar for cleaning a variety of surfaces. Vinegar can be used to clean grease, grime, dirt and hard water build-up and is famously good for cleaning windows. Vinegar can even be used to clear mild clogs from drains. Most of the time, people use vinegar by applying it straight to the surface being cleaned, or by diluting it with water.
Never use vinegar to clean the following:
- Solid wood
- Messes that involve eggs
Can You Cook With Cleaning Vinegar?
No. You can clean with cooking vinegar, but you can't cook with cleaning vinegar. Cleaning vinegar isn't tested for impurities and could contain toxins.
Can You Use Vinegar in Laundry?
Yes, you can use vinegar to whiten cotton fabrics, similar to bleach. To do this, simply add a cup of cleaning vinegar to a pot of boiling water, then allow your cotton fabrics to soak in the mixture overnight.
While vinegar is an alternative to bleach for cleaning surfaces, baking soda is an alternative to bleach in the laundry. Baking soda is known for removing odors, but it can also be used to turn white clothing brighter, just like bleach. Baking soda even softens clothes and cleans the interior of the washing machine as it's cleaning your laundry.
What Should You Do to Use Baking Soda With Your Laundry?
To use baking soda in the laundry, add one-half cup of baking soda to the clothes in the washing machine. Run the machine like normal.
You can also apply baking soda to water to create a paste, which you can apply to stains. Once the baking soda has dried, wash the baking soda off with water. This works as an effective pre-treatment for stains.
Finally, you can use baking soda and bleach together in your laundry by combining one-half cup of baking soda and one-half cup of bleach and running the cycle. The baking soda and bleach combine to make an effective cleaning team. Best of all, the baking soda covers up the bleach smell!
Hydrogen peroxide can be used to brighten white clothing, remove stains, eliminate odors, disinfect fabrics and your washer, and brighten colors. This oxidizing material can be used on dyed fabrics. Once added to water, hydrogen peroxide breaks down safely, so it is environmentally friendly.
How Can You Use Hydrogen Peroxide in Your Laundry?
To use hydrogen peroxide to clean your laundry, spray the hydrogen peroxide straight onto your stained laundry, or add one cup of hydrogen peroxide to the bleach dispenser in your washing machine when adding a load to your laundry. The hydrogen peroxide should foam when applied to laundry; if it does not, then the hydrogen peroxide may be expired. Hydrogen peroxide whitens and brightens laundry, cleans and disinfects your washing machine, and removes stains from your clothes, just like bleach does.
Hydrogen peroxide is sold in dark containers because it's light-sensitive. It loses its ability to clean when it's transferred to a clear spray bottle. To spray hydrogen peroxide on your clothes, just add a spray nozzle to the dark hydrogen peroxide bottle. This makes it easy to spot-treat stains.
Hydrogen peroxide is most effective when it's just been opened. Eventually, hydrogen peroxide turns back into plain water. Unopened, hydrogen peroxide lasts for about a year. Opened, it has a shelf life of about six months.
The Do's and Dont's of Cleaning with Bleach
Bleach is a fantastic cleaning product when used in some contexts and when used properly. If you plan to use bleach in your house, here's what you need to know about cleaning with bleach.
Don't Use Bleach as an Everyday Cleaner
Bleach is not an everyday cleaner. Used too frequently, bleach can be hazardous to your health, damaging to your clothing and potentially hazardous if it comes into contact with products like ammonia. For everyday applications on countertops, table surfaces and clothing, use gentler cleaners like the alternatives listed above (vinegar, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide).
Don't Use Bleach in DIY Cleaners
When mixed with the wrong thing, bleach can cause dangerous fumes that can do damage to your lungs and may result in a trip to the emergency room. Never mix bleach with vinegar, ammonia, or rubbing alcohol. Only mix bleach with water.
Don't Over-Bleach Your Laundry
Over-bleaching your laundry can cause it to degrade with time. Using bleach too frequently or using a lot of it at one time could result in permanent damage to your laundry. Bleach can cause stains on dark colors, can cause dark colors to fade, and may even burn a hole in your clothing. When bleaching laundry, do so carefully and follow the cleaning instructions provided with the fabric.
Don't Pour Bleach Down the Drain
Bleach is essentially deactivated when it's diluted enough. Before pouring any bleach down the drain, dilute it heavily. Pour bleach down the toilet to dispose of small amounts. If you must throw away large quantities of bleach, contact your sanitation department to get guidance on proper disposal. Never pour bleach down the drain with liquids other than water.
Don't Use Bleach for Grout Lines
It seems counterintuitive, but bleach can discolor light grout lines. Instead of using bleach to clean your grout, create a paste consisting of one-part hydrogen peroxide to two-parts washing soda. Next, smear the paste on the grout and leave it to sit for a few minutes. If the grout is very badly stained, then leave the paste sitting for a long time beneath plastic wrap. After the paste has been sitting for 30 minutes or so, scrub it with a scrub brush and rinse it away with water.
Don't Use Scented Bleach
Some bleach is scented, but if you have lung sensitivities, the artificial scents could agitate your respiratory condition even more. Use unscented bleach in a well-ventilated area.
Do Wear Protective Clothing
Wear protective gloves, a face mask and eye goggles for extra protection when using bleach. Remember that bleach can splatter when you pour it, which could result in serious injuries, if splashes of bleach should come into contact with your face, skin, eyes, hands or mouth. When cleaning with bleach, wear old clothes in case they get damaged.
Do Ventilate Fumes
Ventilation is important when working with bleach. The EPA recommends ventilating your home naturally in as many ways as possible. Most home heating systems do not bring fresh air into the house, so if the goal is to ventilate with fresh air, this is best done by opening doors and windows, running an attic fan, turning on a window fan or running a window air conditioner with vent control open. When cleaning with bleach in the kitchen or bathroom, turn on the exhaust fan to whisk fumes away from the room and into the air over the house.
Use Bleach Safely
Bleach is one of the most useful cleaning products because it is inexpensive, widely available, and multi-purpose. However, bleach must be used safely, sparingly, and only when needed. Because bleach produces fumes and can damage surfaces like metal, organic material, eyes and skin, it must be used wisely.
Understanding how and where to use bleach safely is important. Knowing that alternative cleaning methods exist is also important. Use safer cleaning alternatives whenever they're available. Avoid making mistakes as you clean with bleach, and be sure to follow the best safety practices to keep you and members of your household safe.