Bleach is one of the most popular disinfectants on Earth, but many people don’t understand how to use bleach correctly. This is dangerous since incorrectly using bleach for cleaning can cause dangerous chemicals as by-products.
Bleach is effective for cleaning and disinfecting a variety of different materials including clothing and hard surfaces. Users should avoid mixing bleach with other chemicals. Bleach should also be diluted to make it safer to use.
Bleach can be one of the staples of any housekeeper’s arsenal, but it helps to know what you’re doing with it to get the most out of it. Read on to learn more about bleach and how it is used in cleaning.
What Is Bleach?
Bleach isn’t a brand name for a cleaner, even though many consumers associate it with Chlorox. Instead, bleach is a term that refers to any industrial chemical that is used to lighten (or bleach) fabrics. The liquid bleach that is used in most household applications is sodium hypochlorite.
Bleach has been used since the 1600s to lighten fabrics, but it wasn’t until 1820 in France when the chemist Antoine Germain Labbaraque discovered that hypochlorites could be used for disinfectant purposes as well.
There are many different applications for bleach other than disinfecting surfaces and bleaching fabrics, such as the following:
- Reducing excess dyes and pigments in industrial processes
- Development of photography
Bleach has had a major impact on many industries across the world since it was first used for lightening fabrics in bleachfields. From hospitals to slaughterhouses, sanitary conditions in many industries are maintained almost singlehandedly by this industrial cleaner.
Why Should You Be Careful With Bleach?
Even though bleach is a great cleaner for many applications, bleach can also be dangerous when it’s misused. This is for two major reasons:
- Bleach is poisonous if ingested. The chlorine in bleach can be toxic when introduced to the bloodstream, and bleach can cause severe burns in the stomach and esophagus.
- Bleach can damage clothing and other items. Bleach is designed to whiten fabrics, so if it is splashed on dark fabrics in a concentrated form it can cause lightened stains. Over time, bleach exposure can cause fabric to degrade and become frayed.
- Bleach forms dangerous chemicals when mixed with other cleaners such as ammonia. One of these chemicals is chloramine gas, also known as mustard gas. Mustard gas is a caustic chemical that was used in WWI as a chemical warfare agent. Mustard gas causes severe blistering of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes.
Diluted bleach used in cleaners isn’t strong enough to hurt people in most cases, and the chances of bleach damaging your belongings are higher than your chance of accidentally ingesting bleach.
The biggest risk of using bleach is the risk of accidentally mixing it with other chemicals. Many people accidentally mix bleach and ammonia without realizing that the resulting chemical reaction could potentially harm or even kill them. In severe cases, mustard gas exposure can cause airways to close up, leading to suffocation.
Why Is Bleach Used in So Many Cleaning Products?
Even though it can be caustic in concentration, bleach is commonly used as an additive to other cleaning solutions because of its disinfectant qualities. The antimicrobial properties of bleach make it an effective way to combat the spread of bacteria and viruses.
The other major application of bleach in cleaning products is to lighten fabrics. Bleach is usually applied to detergents designed to be used on white fabrics. There are also color-safe versions of bleach that can be used to sanitize darker fabrics without causing a lightening effect.
Mixing Bleach With Other Chemicals
Mixing bleach with ammonia makes dangerous chloramine gas, but bleach can be dangerous when mixed with other types of chemicals too. Here is a list of the chemicals you should avoid mixing with bleach:
- Vinegar: When bleach is mixed with vinegar, it forms chlorine gas. Chlorine gas is poisonous to breathe and can cause significant irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory system.
(Source: Missouri Poison Center)
- Rubbing alcohol: When bleach is mixed with rubbing alcohol, it forms chloroform. Chloroform is a chemical that can cause unconsciousness.
Mixing bleach with other chemicals may seem tempting to get extra cleaning power, but it isn’t worth the risk of dangerous chemical reactions. To avoid accidentally mixing bleach with other cleaners, observe the following safety rules:
- Make sure that all cleaning products are clearly labeled, and that cleaners containing bleach are marked.
- Don’t add bleach to jugs or bottles that have contained other cleaning agents.
- Only use one cleaning solution at a time and make sure it is completely dried or rinsed away before introducing additional cleaners.
- As long as some basic safety precautions are taken, bleach can be used safely in the home without the danger of it mixing with other chemicals.
Should Bleach Be Diluted?
When using bleach for cleaning applications around the house, it’s always a good idea to dilute the bleach if you’re using bleach concentrate. This is because bleach is still a highly effective cleaner at a weak dilution, but it’s much safer at a weak dilution too. The caustic properties of bleach are largely reduced if it’s diluted with water.
If you get a multipurpose cleaner that incorporates bleach, this means that the bleach has already been diluted with water and shouldn’t be diluted further.
Does Bleach Go Bad?
Bleach is antibacterial, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t go bad. Bleach has a six-month shelf life for optimal performance. The chemicals in bleach break down over time, and bleach becomes 20% less effective with each year that goes by.
When bleach is added to water, it has an even shorter half-life. Bleach diluted with water is chemically unstable, and will only retain its antimicrobial and cleaning properties for around twenty-four hours after being introduced to water.
Can Bleach Remove Blood Stains?
One of the reasons bleach is a popular cleaner is that it’s one of the few cleaners that is known to be effective at removing bloodstains. To use bleach to remove a bloodstain, follow this procedure:
- Spot test the bleach cleaner in an inconspicuous place to make sure that the bleach doesn’t discolor the fabric you’re using it on. Keep in mind that bleach at full strength can eat a hole in some weaker fabrics.
- If the blood is fresh and hasn’t had a chance to set, the bloodstained fabric can be soaked in a sink or bucket of bleach. Bleach should be diluted with cold water at a ratio of one to ten parts. After the bleach breaks down the bloodstain, the cloth can be washed in the normal laundry cycle to remove any bleach residue.
- If a bloodstain is already set into the fabric, follow the same procedure but leave the fabric to soak in bleached cold water for 5-6 hours. It can be helpful to periodically scratch at the stain gently with a fingernail to help lift some of the top layers of the stain and encourage penetration. Don’t scrub at bloodstains to avoid spreading the stain to a larger area.
- The major risk of using bleach to remove bloodstains is that it can discolor the fabric it’s applied to. Because of this, other chemicals that are less likely to bleach fabric that may also be able to get bloodstains out of fabric. Here are the cleaners other than bleach you can use to get out bloodstains (Source: Tuft and Needle):
- Hydrogen peroxide
- White vinegar
- Baking soda and lemon juice
Bleach can be used for bloodstains, but the risks of using bleach for blood often outweigh the benefits of using it for this kind of stain.
Can You Make Homemade Bleach?
Homemade bleach can be created with a combination of the following ingredients:
- Caustic soda
Since the process of making homemade bleach involves using chlorine gas, it isn’t typically undertaken. Commercial and industrial bleach are widely available and are usually not expensive, so most people don’t go through the dangerous process of handling chlorine to make their own bleach.
Should You Use Bleach as a General Cleaner?
While bleach is effective at removing stains, lightening fabrics, and sanitizing hard surfaces, it is not a good choice as a general cleaner for most household tasks. The harsh fumes associated with traditional bleach make it uncomfortable to work with and it is more likely to irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system than more mild cleaners.
For general household cleaning, it’s a better option to use a commercial multisurface cleaner. It’s also possible to create an effective cleaning solution using white vinegar and essential oils such as peppermint. These milder chemicals are capable of cleaning just as well as bleach without introducing noxious fumes or residue to the area you’re trying to clean.
Do You Need to Rinse After Using Bleach?
Whether you rinse after using bleach or not depends on the form of bleach you’re using to clean. If you using concentrated liquid bleach in a diluted solution to clean hard surfaces or fabrics, these materials should be rinsed to remove any bleach residue that remains.
Bleach used in sanitizing solutions like dishwashing detergent is not present at the levels that require extra rinsing. Most of these cleaning agents are designed for the products being cleaned to be air-dried after being cleaned, so rinsing isn’t necessary.
What Shouldn’t Be Cleaned With Bleach
While many different materials can be cleaned with bleach, there are also some things that shouldn’t ever be cleaned with bleach. Here are the things you should avoid cleaning with bleach:
- Wood: Bleach is a caustic agent on wood and can cause the fibers in wood to break down. This not only discolors the wood, it also makes it weaker and susceptible to splintering. (Source: Family Handyman)
- Metal: Bleach shouldn’t be used on metals such as copper or stainless steel. The chemicals in bleach are capable of having a chemical reaction with metals to create corrosion or stains. Bleach should also not be used to remove rust stains since it can cause rust stains to set.
- Granite: Granite should not be cleaned with bleach since bleach can dull the finish of a granite countertop. Bleach will wear away the finish on granite, and it will typically wear it away in uneven patches that have an obvious impact on the granite’s appearance. (Source: AARP)
- Food: Food should not be cleaned with bleach because bleach residue can be ingested. Not only is bleach toxic for consumption, it can also give food a tainted smell and flavor. It’s much better to wash food thoroughly with water.
Bleach may be practical for many cleaning applications, but it isn’t a good choice for everything. Knowing what bleach can safely clean and what it may damage can go a long way towards preventing accidental damage to your household goods.
Can You Use Bleach to Clean Your Body?
Bleach should not be used to clean the body because of its caustic properties. While it isn’t strong enough to be toxic when applied to the skin, in higher concentrations it can still irritate the eyes and skin. There are other types of soaps that are designed to be used on human skin that are much gentler and safer to use than household bleach.
The only time that bleach is used to disinfect the human body is in the case of extreme skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema. In severe cases, bleach baths are used to decrease the incidence of bacterial infection and reduce inflammatory symptoms. (Source: AAAAI)
Bleach baths are created by mixing a fourth cup to a half-cup of bleach in a full bathtub (approximately forty gallons). Bleach baths should only be applied for ten minutes and should only be used twice a week at the maximum to decrease the amount of irritation caused by the bleach.
Can You Use Bleach Straight Out of the Bottle?
Bleach can be used straight out of the bottle, but this is usually a waste of bleach. In reality, bleach is more effective when it’s used in a solution since this increases its surface area without degrading its ability to sanitize.
The other major reason that bleach should typically be diluted is that it’s more economical. If you use diluted bleach, your jug of liquid bleach concentrate will go much further for your money while giving you the same cleaning results.
How to Safely Use Bleach
Bleach can be potentially dangerous to work with, but there are several techniques you can use when you use it to clean to make it safer. Bleach is only a threat when it’s mishandled by people who don’t respect its chemical properties.
Here are a few ways you can make using bleach safer:
- Make sure to dilute bleach to the proper levels. Using concentrated bleach or bleach that hasn’t been diluted enough can lead to chemical irritation and burns. Bleach should always be mixed at one part bleach to nine parts water to keep it at a proper dilution.
- Leave the bleach in contact with surfaces. Bleach needs to be in contact with a surface for at least five minutes to disinfect the area. This means spraying bleach on a countertop and immediately wiping it away doesn’t clean the surface nearly as well as letting it sit.
- Keep bleach away from food and drinks. Bleach is often used in the kitchen, but all household cleaners should be kept well away from anything edible. If bleach is carried home with other food-related groceries, it should be bagged separately to prevent any leaks from causing contamination.
- Make sure bleach (and all household cleaners) are clearly labeled. Unlabeled cleaners are one of the biggest risks for creating an adverse chemical reaction between cleaning products. Make sure that even if you mix up bleach and water in a spray bottle that the bottle has BLEACH written on it.
- Keep household cleaners away from children and pets. For children that are toddlers or older, household cleaners should be kept in a locked cabinet to prevent accidental ingestion. Bleach should also keep stored away so that dogs and cats can’t get into it. Even though the likelihood of a fatal accident is slim, ingesting bleach can still cause serious medical problems.
- Use protective clothing. Rubber kitchen gloves provide a good barrier between a person’s bare hands and caustic household cleaners like bleach. When using strong chemicals, always be sure to wear protective clothing to guard against direct contact. If you anticipate splashing or you’re using particularly strong cleaners, safety goggles can also be a good idea.
- These simple rules can allow you to store and use bleach safely in your home without having to worry about an accident.
How to Prevent Bleach Poisoning
If bleach is ingested, the elapsed time from ingestion is important. Poison Control should be called immediately to determine if the person has swallowed a dangerous amount of bleach.
In some cases, diluted bleach is not strong enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room if the person who ingested it only ingested a small amount. Taking a swig of bleach by accident may irritate the inside of your mouth and throat, but it’s usually not enough to warrant hospitalization.
If a person has ingested a large amount of bleach or has ingested concentrated bleach, they should immediately be to the hospital so that the bleach can be neutralized and removed. If left untreated, concentrated bleach can cause burns and internal bleeding of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach.
If A Person Gets Bleach in Their Eyes
A more common emergency than accidental bleach ingestion that happens during cleaning is that bleach is either splashed into someone’s eyes or accidentally sprayed into them.
The good news is that if you accidentally spray diluted bleach in your eyes, it’s usually diluted enough to prevent serious damage. The bad news is that if you splash concentrated industrial bleach in your eyes, you’re going to have a bad time.
To treat an eye that has been splashed with bleach, hold the eye open, and run cool water over the surface of the eye for fifteen to twenty minutes. This helps ensure that no bleach residue is left in the eye that could cause damage over time.
If a person’s eye continues to burn, swell, or experience irritation even after eye washing, Poison Control should be consulted and the person should be taken to a medical clinic for further evaluation.
How to React to a Bleach Spill
Spilled bleach can cause a panic if you end up spilling it on a surface or area that you weren’t intending to bleach. This is especially true if you spill a large amount of concentrated liquid bleach since it can work quickly to erode any vulnerable surface you spill it on.
To remove a bleach spot before it has a chance to lighten the surface it’s on, you have to act fast. Mix dish soap into hot water and soak the affected area to dilute the bleach. Dab up the soapy water and reapply as many times as necessary until the bleach has been thoroughly diluted.
The main thing to remember when dealing with a bleach spot, especially in an area like a rug or carpet, is that scrubbing the bleach spot will make it worse. This only works the bleach deeper into the fibers of the carpet where it’s harder to remove and more likely to cause a lightening effect over time.
Keep in mind when dealing with a bleach spill that the longer you leave the bleach to soak in, the more chance there is of permanent lightening or damage to the affected area. Spilled bleach should be cleaned as quickly as possible to avoid as much permanent damage as you can.
Tips for Working with Bleach
Even though bleach isn’t the most versatile cleanser a person can own, it’s still a handy chemical to use for several household applications. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of working with bleach:
Save It for Hard Surfaces
While bleach is integrated into many laundry detergents, concentrated bleach meant to be used in a solution should be saved for hard surfaces. This is because the lightening properties of bleach can do serious damage to fabrics such as the ones found on drapery and furniture.
Work in a Well-Ventilated AreaEven if you dilute bleach with water, it will still have a potent smell that can make you feel lightheaded or even nauseous in a small enclosed space. To minimize your exposure to bleach fumes, be sure to throw open a window or get a fan going so that air circulation is maintained.
Store Bleach Out of SunlightHeat and light can cause bleach to undergo chemical reactions, so it should always be kept in a cool dark place until use. Bleach on its own should not combust, but concentrated bleach added to rags or other combustible materials can start a fire. For this reason, bleached rags should be stored in a plastic container after use. (Source: Clean It Supply)
Follow the Instructions
Manufacturer’s instructions should be clearly labeled on any bottle of bleach you purchase, so be sure to read them thoroughly before you begin to use it. Bleach is incorporated into many types of cleaners that work in different ways, so reading the instructions can prevent you from misusing the product.
Scrub Things Down Before BleachingEven though bleach can effectively sanitize an area, bleach by itself or in a water solution does not act as an effective cleaner. A multipurpose cleaner should be used before bleaching to leave the area truly clean.
Use Oxygen Bleach to Make a Homemade Stain RemoverWhen mixed with warm water, powdered oxygen bleach can be used to spot-clean stains. Simply add the bleach solution to cold water and then let the stained fabric stay submerged in this mixture overnight until the stain dissolves.
Use Bleach OutdoorsBleach solution can have many valuable applications in outdoor house chores such as removing mildew from decks or moss from masonry and walkways. Be sure when rinsing bleached outdoor areas that water is not allowed to run off into nearby flower beds since residual bleach may harm the plants there.
Sponges Are Better Than Spray Bottles for BleachMost spray bottles feature metal mechanisms and components that the bleach inside will eventually corrode. This can cause rust to discolor the bleach or diminish its effectiveness.
If You’re Out of Dish Detergent, Use BleachTo use bleach to sanitize dishes, wash dishes by hand as normal before soaking them in a solution of 2 teaspoons bleach for every 1 gallon of water.
Bleach has a reputation for being a hazardous chemical, but many of the risks of using it can be reduced dramatically just by using it as intended.
Be Careful With Bleach
Bleach is great for many different applications, but it’s also a chemical that many people take for granted. If you follow the guidelines written above, you should be able to use bleach in ways that are both safe and effective around the home.