Using Bleach to Clean Clothes

Freshly laundered clothing in a basket

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Using bleach in the laundry room aids detergents in the removal of soil and stains. There are two types of bleach commonly used in home laundry: chlorine bleach or sodium hypochlorite (Clorox and Pure Bright are popular brand names) and oxygen bleach or sodium percarbonate (Oxiclean, Nellie's Oxygen Bleach, and Clorox 2 are leading brand names). 

Through a process of oxidation, bleach changes the soil into soluble particles to be washed away by detergents in the washing process. Bleach helps to whiten and brighten washable fabrics and some bleaches disinfect fabrics by killing bacteria.

How to Use Chlorine Bleach in Laundry

Chlorine bleach is a 5.25% solution of sodium hypochlorite and is the most powerful home bleach. The liquid version is the most common, but a dry form is also available. Both must be diluted with water for safe use on fabrics.

When chlorine bleach is used in the wash, it acts as a disinfectant on bacteria and viruses and generally whitens most natural-fiber fabrics like cotton. Care must be taken to use it effectively by adding it at the correct time and at the correct temperature to the wash load. Liquid chlorine bleach has a limited shelf life. If the bottle has been open for more than six months, it loses its effectiveness due to exposure to light and air. This old bleach may have no effect on stains, loses its disinfecting quality, and should be replaced.

Chlorine bleach should always be added to water and mixed in well before adding to the washer or added to the proper automatic dispenser in your washer. Never pour chlorine bleach directly onto fabrics because it can remove color completely and actually dissolve the fibers. If using bleach for stain removal, bleach the entire garment to prevent spotting.

How to Use Oxygen Bleach in Laundry

Oxygen bleach is often called all-fabric bleach and is safe for most fabrics and colors. Oxygen bleach should not be used on silk, wool, or leather. It works more slowly than chlorine bleach and has no disinfecting qualities to kill bacteria.

Oxygen bleach is most effective when used in a powdered formula that is activated when mixed with water. Liquid versions of oxygen bleach can lose their effectiveness with age. If adding powdered oxygen bleach to wash loads, add the powder to the empty washer tub first, then add clothes.

When mixing powdered oxygen bleach with water, use warm water to ensure that all of the powder dissolves, then add cold water if needed. Completely submerge the stained garment and allow to soak for as long as possible—up to eight hours or overnight. Oxygen bleach has a variety of uses and works more slowly than the harsher chlorine bleach. However, patience will give you great results. 

How to Use Hydrogen Peroxide in Laundry

The same hydrogen peroxide you use to clean skin scratches or achieve "sun-bleached" hair can be used in the laundry room. Hydrogen peroxide is most commonly available from pharmacies at three and six-percent concentrations in a water-based solution.

Hydrogen peroxide will whiten and disinfect laundry, and even has other surprising uses around the home. Add 1 cup of hydrogen peroxide to a load of whites in the washing machine to brighten them. It will permanently remove dye on darker colors; test it on a swatch of fabric before using. 

how to use bleach on clothes
Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018 

Laundry Bleach Warnings for All Types of Bleach

  • Always check the fabric for colorfastness first, following the instructions on the product container, before using any type of bleach.
  • Never pour full-strength chlorine bleach into a washer filled with clothes, even if the load is all whites.
  • Add any type of bleach to washer water, mixing well, before adding clothes.
  • Never mix any type of bleach with ammonia. The mixture will cause dangerous, caustic fumes.
  • Read and follow care instructions and any warnings on the fabric care label regarding the use of bleach.
  • Do not use chlorine bleach on silk, acetate, wool, spandex, polypropylene foam, some flame retardant fabrics or rubber. It will weaken the fibers and cause them to break.
  • Oxygen bleach should not be used on wool, dry clean only silks or leather.
  • Repeated use of chlorine bleach can weaken cellulosic or cotton/ramie/linen fibers.
  • Repeated use of chlorine bleach can cause yellowing of fabrics by stripping outer fibers revealing an inner core.