Chlorine bleach is a mainstay in most laundry rooms. We use it to whiten clothes, remove stains, and disinfect laundry. With the growth in sales of high-efficiency washers that use less water to flush away soil, chlorine bleach sales have also soared to disinfect washers and help remove foul odors from front-load washers. But are you sure you're using chlorine bleach correctly, safely, and getting the most bang for your money and efforts?
Tip #1: Test Items Before Bleaching
Before you use chlorine bleach on a garment, you should test to see how the fabric will react to the bleach. First, mix one teaspoon of bleach with two teaspoons of warm water. Find an inconspicuous spot on the garment like an inside seam or interior pocket of the same fabric. Use a cotton swab dipped in the bleach and water solution to dab the fabric. Allow the spot to dry completely before moving forward. If you see any change in color on the fabric or a transfer of color to the swab, do not use chlorine bleach on this fabric. It is not colorfast or dye-fast.
This is particularly important for clothes made of polyester, nylon, or any man-made fibers. Chlorine bleach can actually cause white polyester to turn yellow. The bleach eats away the outer coating of the threads and reveals the inner core that is yellow.
Tip #2: Never Mix Bleaches or Bleach and Ammonia
Never mix chlorine bleach and oxygen bleach (often called all-fabric or color-safe bleach). You can cause a chemical reaction that is harmful to your clothing and, more importantly, your lungs.
The biggest problem comes if you mix chlorine bleach and household ammonia. The two form a toxic reaction of chloramine vapors and liquid hydrazine. Both cause respiratory problems and can cause death.
Tip #3: Dilute for Best Results
Chlorine bleach should NEVER be poured directly on clothing even if you want the bleached out look. It can cause weakening of fibers, eat holes in the fabric, and cause extensive color removal. Instead, mix one cup of bleach in one quart of warm water before adding it to any washer drum or soaking tub. Begin filling the drum with more water before adding the dirty laundry.
If you are using an automatic dispenser in a washer, the bleach will be added to the washer tub after it is filled with water. This automatically dilutes the bleach to protect your fabrics.
Tip #4: Wait to Add the Bleach
To allow the enzymes in the laundry detergent time to do their job of breaking down stains and soil, wait about five minutes after the wash cycle begins to add the diluted bleach. Adding chlorine bleach at the beginning of the wash cycle can actually hinder the effectiveness of the detergent.
Automatic bleach dispensers in washers will add the bleach to the wash cycle at the correct time.
Tip #5: Make It Hot, Hot, Hot
If you aren't getting the whitening results you want with chlorine bleach, change the water temperature you're using. Chlorine bleach works most effectively in hot water. It can be used in warm and cold water but you may not see the results you expect.
Tip #6: Keep It Fresh
Chlorine bleach is both light- and temperature-sensitive. That's why liquid chlorine bleach is always sold in an opaque bottle to prevent exposure to light. Excessive heat also affects the stability; so it is important to store chlorine bleach around 70 degrees F. Skip the hot garage.
Whether the bottle is opened or not, it will lose potency within six to 12 months after purchase. It will not "go bad" and cause excessive harm. It just won't be as effective at disinfecting and cleaning. If you are using old chlorine bleach, you're just adding more water to the wash.
What Is Chlorine Bleach?
Household laundry chlorine bleach is a 5.25% solution of sodium hypochlorite and water. Even as a 5.25% solution, it is quite powerful and must be diluted with water for safe use on most fabrics. When chlorine bleach is used for laundry, the chemical ingredient oxidizes in water to help remove soil and organic matter. It acts as a disinfectant to kill bacteria, fungus, and viruses and generally whitens cotton, linen, and natural fabrics.
You can tell when chlorine bleach is doing its job because you get the distinctive chlorine odor as it breaks down organic matter. If that odor remains in the fabric after washing, the garment or linen is not completely clean.
While a dry form of chlorine bleach is available in stores and online, the liquid version is the most common form on store shelves.
Clorox is, perhaps, the most recognizable brand of chlorine bleach. However, most retailers carry a house brand. It is worth your time to read the fine print on the bleach bottle labels; especially if you need to disinfect clothes. To be effective as a disinfectant, there must be a 5.25% to 6.15% concentration of sodium hypochlorite in the product. Not all chlorine bleach formulas are that strong; so read the labels.
Morin, Ashkan, Guldner, Gregory T. Chlorine Gas Toxicity. StatPearls [Internet], 2020