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Is it safe to use bleaches in cleaning products?

If you search for the use of bleaches in cleaning products, you’ll often read conflicting confusing advice – some of which based on nothing more than rumor and heresy.  Clickbait.

In true Safe Household Cleaning fashion, I thought it high time to look into this topic, get an understanding of the types of bleaches used in cleaning products, research the benefits and risks of using them and, essentially, give you the information you need to make an informed decision on your usage of bleach. 

Are there different types of bleach?

There are several types of bleach.  These different kinds of bleaches are used for different purposes, including sterilizing medical equipment; decolorizing wood; decontaminating sewage/swimming pools and used in household cleaning products. The three most common types of bleach are [1]:

  1. Chlorinated-Bleaches (e.g. sodium hypochlorite)
    • The most common household bleach. Often the ingredient referred to as ‘bleach’. Normally found in kitchen and bathroom cleaners.
  2. Peroxide or Oxygen-Bleaches (e.g. hydrogen peroxide, sodium percarbonate)
    • Commonly found in laundry detergents to remove whiten clothes and remove stains.
  3. Reducing Bleaches (e.g. sodium dithionite, thiourea dioxide)
    • These sulfur bleaches are used for more specialized purposes, such as: decolorizing wood. They are often more toxic, and so rarely used in the home.

Why are bleaches added to cleaning products?

There are two main reasons to add a bleach to household cleaning products. Firstly, in kitchen and bathroom cleaners, chlorine bleaches help to kill microorganisms by disrupting the structure of essential proteins – disinfecting surfaces.

Another use for household bleaches is in laundry detergents to directly alter the structure of colored stains (chromophores), so they no longer absorb visible light. Making them appear whiter and brighter.

It’s worth noting that chlorine bleaches can fade clothes, damage colors, yellow whites and also damage fabrics.  It’s why the use of oxygen and peroxide bleaches has increased exponentially in fabric treatment in recent years.

Of course, and finally, all forms of bleach kill bacteria and deodorize clothes.

There are many great reasons to include bleaches in cleaning products.  It’s a versatile and widely used ingredient.  But what are the risks of using bleaches?

Household bleaches can be harmful to those with asthma and skin conditions (e.g. eczema), or on frequent exposure. It’s estimated that indoor exposure to chemicals such as bleach are responsible for around 15% of all asthma attacks [2]. Inhaling Hydrogen Peroxide can cause narrowing of the airways and laryngospasm.  Both chlorine and peroxide bleaches can form irritant volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – including carbon tetrachloride [3].

So our advice is simple, all forms of household cleaning bleach should be used in well-ventilated areas.

In addition, the bleaches found in household cleaning products are strongly corrosive. The ‘slippery’ feeling of bleaches is due to the conversion of fatty acids in the skin to soap derivatives (saponification), which is why it’s essential to thoroughly rinse exposed skin. Interestingly, very low concentration sodium hypochlorite baths (0.005%) have been shown to reduce the severity of Staphylococcus aureus infections in children with atopic dermatitis [4].

So there are reasons to be cautious when using bleaches on health grounds.  Are there any environmental impacts in using bleaches?

In addition to the health concerns associated with household bleaches, their contamination into water systems is often stated as a concern.

While there is no such thing as a truly green cleaning product, there are stark differences between the different types of household bleaches here.

Hydrogen Peroxide breaks down to oxygen and water.

Sodium Percarbonate breaks down to Hydrogen Peroxide and Soda Ash.

The environmental impact of these two ingredients is negligible.

Chorine Bleaches, on the other hand, are unstable.  Long-term accumulation of bleach on the environment is unlikely. In fact, both the EU and EPA consider the environmental risk of bleaches in normal use, even at relatively high concentrations, as negligible [5].

That said, it’s often overlooked that Chlorine Bleaches are from the organochlorine family of chemicals.  These compounds take centuries to decompose and Greenpeace has called for a complete end to organochlorine production.

How do I identify bleaches on the product ingredients label?

As with most cleaning products, trying to identify bleach on ingredient labels is often complex and unclear. Manufacturers often don’t disclose their ingredients.  Labels often state ‘chlorine-bleach’ (sodium hypochlorite) or ‘oxygen-based bleaching agents’ (hydrogen peroxide or sodium percarbonate), without listing the chemical ingredient.

Of course, we’ll keep you informed of the use and type of bleaches in cleaning products, and we only ever review products where we have full disclosure of the ingredients!

Are there any safer alternatives to the usual household bleaches?

There are several household ingredients that can have mild bleaching effects, without containing a bleach. These are usually mild acids, and help to remove stains in a comparable way to bleaches (they just take a lot longer), including:

  • Acetic acid (white vinegar)
  • Citric acid (lemon juice)

It’s important to make a dilute solution, with water and the acid, and carefully wash the acid away after cleaning. As these acids act as mild bleaches, they can also decolorize, and so make sure to test a small area before starting.

[Note: Never mix bleach-containing cleaning products with household acids, as this will result in the formation of harmful chlorine gas.]

What type of bleach do you prefer?

Each bleach has its own strengths and weaknesses.  And again, it must be noted that none of them are fully safe or green.

All of them should only be used in well-ventilated areas as they can exacerbate asthma and eczema.

From an environmental perspective, Hydrogen Peroxide and Sodium Percarbonate have negligible effects on the environment, whereas chlorine has some questionable manufacturing overheads.

From a performance perspective – I’d go for Sodium Percarbonate or Hydrogen Peroxide every time if I as whitening my clothes.  Chlorine-based bleaches damage clothes long term.

As a disinfectant, all three are effective anti-bacterial agents.

So with this in mind, I’ve personally stopped using chlorine bleaches altogether and I go for Hydrogen Peroxide or Sodium Percarbonate bleaches every time.   And only use these rarely on clothes.

How about you?    Leave your preferences in the comments below.

References

[1] Bianchetti, G. O., Devlin, C. L., & Seddon, K. R. (2015). Bleaching systems in domestic laundry detergents: a review. RSC Advances, 5(80), 65365-65384.

[2] UpToDate. (2018). Patient education: Trigger avoidance in asthma. www.uptodate.com

[3] Odabasi, M. (2008). Halogenated volatile organic compounds from the use of chlorine-bleach-containing household products. Environmental Science & Technology, 42(5), 1445-1451.

[4] Huang, J. T., Abrams, M., Tlougan, B., Rademaker, A., & Paller, A. S. (2009). Treatment of Staphylococcus aureus colonization in atopic dermatitis decreases disease severity. Pediatrics, 123(5), e808-e814.

[5] Pitanga, F. L. (2011). The effect of sodium hypochlorite in different aquatic organisms. Universidade de Aveiro.

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