Many Americans grew up thinking of bleach as the perfect disinfectant, but that isn't exactly the case. Like any chemical compound, it needs to be used properly, in both the correct amount and the correct situations.
Making any sweeping claims about its impact gets into complicated scientific territory and you should always do your own research into the scientific evidence for your specific use cases, but we've tried our best to give you an approximate and scientifically accurate overview.
What Is Bleach?
"Bleach" the generic cleaning term usually refers to various chemical products that are used to remove color or stains. Most liquid household bleach specifically contains diluted sodium hypochlorite as its active ingredient.
For the purposes of this article, we'll be focusing on sodium hypochlorite liquid bleach. It's mainly known for its stain removal properties as well as disinfecting and sanitizing uses.
However, when we're talking about this type of deep cleaning, it's important to keep in mind the differences between cleaning and disinfecting. You have to clean, or remove physical dirt particles, first. If you don't clean first, then you can't disinfect properly, because the germs are just hiding underneath the dirt. This is why fogging as a disinfecting technique doesn't necessarily work in a dirty space: The fog can't get to the germs.
What Are the Dangers of Bleach?
"That's nice, but I came here because I want to know if bleach is toxic," you may be thinking.
If you want to know if it's potentially harmful to you, your pets, and the environment? Yes, the poison and toxic aspects of bleach make it something that should be avoided and used rarely if ever in the home—especially if used improperly or if you're looking at the larger-scale impacts of chemical manufacturing. You certainly can't consume it, and shouldn't be breathing it in.
Whether you're just not using it correctly, leaving it out for accidental consumption, or accidentally creating toxic gas in your bathtub, bleach needs to be used carefully and correctly. Otherwise, you're potentially setting yourself up for disaster.
Here we encounter the classic fail point of "not reading the directions". In most cases, for bleach to work properly, the bleached surface has to be kept sopping wet for roughly 10–20 minutes. A quick swipe of a Clorox wipe on the counter isn't going to cut it.
Bleach also needs to be heavily diluted with water for use during in-home cleaning, and many users may not know the correct ratios and may be using far too much bleach, setting themselves up for higher exposure than is recommended.
Sodium hypochlorite can have hazardous interactions with other common household cleaning products, specifically products that contain ammonia and acids. Mixing bleach with these products creates chloramines with the former or chlorine gas with the latter, which has previously been used as a biological weapon. Not something you want to accidentally create in your kitchen. There have been multiple documented instances of fatal accidents in cleaning product mishaps.
Ammonia can be found in products such as glass and window cleaners and some paints. It's also found in urine, which is why you shouldn't use bleach to clean diaper pails or your cat's litter box. Meanwhile, vinegar and some glass cleaners, dishwasher detergents, toilet bowl cleaners, drain cleaners, lime or calcium removal products, and brick and concrete cleaners can all contain acids. Limonene, which is usually used for scent in some citrus-based cleaning products, can also have a negative interaction with bleach.
Don't combine bleach with anything else other than water, basically, and even then it might be dicey depending on what you're cleaning.
We're going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you know better than to consume bleach on purpose, no matter how diluted it is. Definitely don't do that.
But sometimes the smaller members of your household might see a fun blue bottle and want to try it out. National Capital Poison Center reported in their 2018 statistics that household cleaning substances were the second-most-common substances in pediatric poison exposures, accounting for 10.7% of exposures in children under 6 (and 5.5% of exposures in adults over age 20, interestingly).
What Are the Side Effects of Bleach?
Bleach isn't a medication, so it doesn't have "side effects" per se. But coming in contact with it can lead to some unpleasantness, especially if used incorrectly. Whenever you're cleaning with bleach, you should make sure you're in a well-ventilated area and appropriately garbed with protective gear.
Mucous Membrane Irritation
Bleach is corrosive by nature and can irritate or burn your skin or eyes, as well as particularly sensitive mucous membranes like those inside your mouth, nose, and lungs. When working with bleach, you need to be in a well-ventilated area and using protective coverings, especially if you're sensitive to respiratory irritants, such as face masks, goggles, and gloves. If bleach comes in contact with your skin or eyes, be sure to wash them immediately.
This follows naturally from potential side effect number one. People with asthma and other respiratory ailments are likely to be particularly susceptible to the potential side effects of bleach inhalation.
The American Lung Association reports that:
VOCs and other chemicals released when using cleaning supplies contribute to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions and headaches. Studies are underway to assess how these chemicals affect people who have asthma and other respiratory illnesses. However, past studies link exposure to chemicals from cleaning supplies to occupational asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
A different study, published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine and reported on by Medical Daily, found that passive exposure to bleach in the home was "associated with a higher chance of childhood respiratory illness and other infections" such as the flu, tonsillitis, and bronchitis.
What Are the Environmental Effects of Bleach?
If it's not great for you, you can imagine it's probably not great for animals to come in contact with either. Anything that gets washed down your drain can end up in the water supply, while substances that evaporate then leave particles circulating in the air. (If you think back to your high school science lessons, you'll remember that matter is never created or destroyed, it just changes form.)
Again, a key here is proper use and following the instructions for things like dilution ratios and proper disposal at all times.
In the Water
As bleach enters the water supply and breaks down, its component particles can combine with other elements that are already in the water and become potentially more hazardous (or sometimes less). There's also plenty of hazardous runoff from the chemical manufacturing industry in general that ends up in groundwater. These compounds, once formed, can be harmful to local wildlife.
It's important to note here that in some use cases bleach actually purifies drinking water and is sometimes used to maintain the bacterial levels within municipal water supplies. It's a complicated question.
In the Air
We've established that bleach is bad for indoor air quality, but what about the outdoors? Many factories can emit bleach byproducts into the air that will eventually reach the ozone layer and potentially contribute to ozone depletion. Realistically, the small amount of bleach used in home cleaning probably won't contribute significantly here on its own, but its purchase does contribute to chemical factory outputs and industry profits. Don't support those guys.
What Can I Use Instead?
Natural Alternatives to Bleach
Luckily, you have plenty of alternatives if you're stressed about bleach now.
- Vinegar: White vinegar is an all-star of the natural cleaning scene, useful for cleaning, deodorizing, and more.
- Baking soda: Need a little extra scrubbing power? Baking soda can provide an extra level of mild abrasion to make your scrubbing more effective. And it has a fun and harmless science fair volcano interaction with vinegar for extra purging power.
- Regular soap and water: If it's good enough for washing your hands, which touch so many appalling things, it should be good enough for washing your house—and it's ALA approved.
- Steam vapor: Our favorite option. Keep reading for more info on this one.
Clean and Disinfect With Steam Vapor
Some good news to end on: There is a disinfecting alternative and it uses something you’re already comfortable with and even already ingesting.
Dry steam vapor cleaning uses your home tap water within a device like Advap's residential Ladybug systems or commercial systems and heats it to a vapor that's hot enough to clean, disinfect, and sanitize when combined with Advap's proprietary TANCS technology. Proved in peer-reviewed studies from the University of Michigan, a TANCS-equipped Advap system kills more germs in three seconds than bleach does in 20 minutes.
"Even strong chemical disinfectants such as bleach when allowed 20 minutes of dwell time did not achieve the same degree of kill that the TANCS unit accomplished in three seconds," said Chuanwu Xi, Ph.D., Department of Environmental Health at the University of Michigan.
Since the system only uses water, you don't need to ask any questions about ingredients, chemical interactions, environmental impact, or your health. It's just water (albeit very hot and specifically channeled water) run through the highly effective revolutionary TANCS system.
Is it bad to clean with bleach?
Yes, given that bleach puts you, your children, your pets, and the environment at risk and the fact that natural alternatives exist. Vapor kills more germs in 3 seconds than bleach can in 20 minutes. And just as importantly, steam vapor is 100% non-toxic.
Does bleach need to be rinsed off?
Eventually, though when exactly to rinse it depends on what you're using it on. Any chemical cleaning agent should be rinsed off so that the residue doesn't serve as a food source for new microbial growth. However, bleach usually needs to sit on a surface for a while (at least 10-20 minutes) to fully achieve disinfection and then can be rinsed; do your research to figure out the best strategy for your specific cleaning job.
Is bleach a carcinogen?
Per reporting done by HowStuffWorks, the U.S. EPA "has evaluated multiple scientific studies on the effects of chlorinated drinking water, and the organization's found no evidence of risk for cancer, reproductive problems or birth defects." The European Commission also "determined that there is no evidence of negative health effects due to long-term exposure to small amounts of chlorine bleach."
Does bleach kill bacteria?
Yes. But it has to sit wet on a surface for up to twenty minutes, which is impossible to do with a vertical surface, and it has to be able to get to the bacteria first, so make sure whatever you're bleaching has been cleaned thoroughly.
Can the smell of bleach make you sick?
Possibly. Because it's considered a pesticide whose job is to kill microbes, bleach can be harmful to your lungs and might irritate your respiratory tract. And, if you have a particularly sensitive nose or stomach, the smell of bleach could make you feel sick.
This is also assuming you haven't combined it with any other cleaning products and accidentally created a chemical weapon. If you've made chlorine gas in your bathroom, that is indeed a problem and can have serious, potentially fatal side effects.
Can you let bleach air dry?
Yes. And in fact, you frequently should, as it needs to sit for a while on a surface to fully disinfect it.
Is vinegar as effective as bleach for disinfecting?
No. Bleach kills basically everything, vinegar just kills a few things and doesn't do it as efficiently. And you need to allow vinegar at least 30 minutes of contact time.
If you are going to use bleach, be sure to follow all instructions and never combine it with other cleaning products. But as you can probably tell, bleach use raises some complicated questions and requires significant caution. So why bother?
Advap's residential and commercial systems all use the same highly effective, speedy, and extremely benign technology to provide hospital-grade disinfectant with significantly less ambiguity. We'll be sticking with steam for this one.