How to Use Bleach Safely

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I received a concerning email yesterday that made me realize it was time to send this post out again as a reminder.

This is the first in our series on household chemicals.

Over the past few years, I have gotten the impression that many people are using chlorine bleach in an unsafe manner. Chlorine bleach, aka sodium hypochlorite, is a powerful disinfectant and is one of only a few widely available, inexpensive sanitizing agents. It is so powerful that it should only be used in fairly low concentrations.

Chlorine bleach should always be used in a well-ventilated area.

If your eyes are watering, you are using too much bleach.

If your skin is peeling:

  • You should have worn gloves
  • You are using too much bleach

Chlorine bleach is concentrated and needs to be diluted before use, depending on what you need it for. (keep reading, we’ll get to that).

If you use hot rather than warm water, chlorine gas can be released, which isn’t recommended.

Never mix bleach with other household chemicals, such as ammonia or vinegar, as both can cause dangerous chemical reactions.

Please remember that there is a difference between clean, sanitary, and sterile. Your living room is not an operating room, and sanitary is good enough. If no one in the home has a compromised immune system, some exposure to germs is actually a good thing. It gives your immune system practice so it doesn’t freak out over things it shouldn’t (hi, fellow allergy sufferers, I feel your pain).

Don’t waste the power of your bleach on cleaning; reduce your use and save it only for sanitizing.

What does this mean?

There are only so many bleach molecules in the water, and they can only go so far. You want them doing their job on surface bacteria and viruses, not on dirt particles that could have been wiped, swept or mopped away.

In other words, if you try to use bleach water to clean a heavily soiled surface, meaning there’s a lot of dirt or grime on the surface, the bleach won’t work.

Get rid of the dirt first. 

Chlorine bleach works both as a cleaning and disinfecting agent. However, many less corrosive and dangerous household items also work as highly effective cleaning agents:

  • hot water
  • scrub brushes
  • dish detergents

are but a few examples.

Chlorine bleach is a highly effective sanitizing agent, but it needs to be used properly. Repeat after me:

Clean, rinse, sanitize.

When disinfecting clear water (without dirt or other particulates) to drink during an emergency, use 8 drops of unscented chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Stir the bleach into the water and let it sit for 30 minutes before consuming.

If you are preparing for an emergency, get a new bottle of bleach, you’ll want bleach that has been opened for less than 4 months for this.

Pro-Tip: Tape an eyedropper to the bottle so you don’t have to search for one during an already stressful situation.

When sanitizing food preparation areas: counters, tables, sinks, knives, and cutting boards. All surfaces should be washed to remove organic materials (food bits and dirt) and rinsed. It is only at this point that the items should be sanitized with a bleach solution of approximately 200ppm.

This is about 1 TBSP of chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Did you catch that?

Let me repeat it.

The proper dilution of chlorine bleach for sanitizing food preparation surfaces is 200ppm or 1 TBSP per gallon of warm water.

Get yourself a spray bottle and mix up a batch whenever you’re going to need a sanitizing agent. Be aware that chlorine evaporates, so only mix a small amount at a time. It won’t be effective tomorrow.

If you’re making 1 quart of sanitizing solution, estimate ¾ teaspoon per quart, which will get you in the neighborhood of 200 ppm. Just be sure to rinse after use. It’s okay to be in the neighborhood of ¾ teaspoon. Slightly underfilling a teaspoon will work perfectly.

Bleach and stainless steel are not good playmates. However, dilute bleach solutions are still usable. Rinse the surface after sanitizing to avoid the corrosive effects.

Allow the 200ppm bleach solution to sit on the surface for at least a full minute to give the bleach time to work. With a 200ppm dilution, rinsing is not necessary, and it’s actually best to allow most surfaces to air dry rather than re-contaminating with a cloth towel. If you are using a new paper towel, you’re fine.

Chlorine bleach is an effective sanitizing agent outside of the kitchen.

When sanitizing other surfaces, such as in the bathroom, bleach may be used in a 500ppm dilution.

A 500ppm dilution is 2½ tablespoons of 5.25% chlorine bleach per 1 gallon of warm. not HOT water.

While bleach is a cleaning agent, milder methods are highly recommended. Save the bleach for the final sanitizing step, just as you would in the kitchen.

If you weren’t aware, urine evaporates, leaving behind ammonium salts.

Always clean and rinse any area that may have urine:

  • near toilets
  • cat boxes
  • dog kennels etc, before sanitizing.

Parents of young boys… we are talking to you.

How to use chlorine bleach in the laundry

When bleaching a load of whites, use 3/4 cup of liquid bleach in a standard washer and those with high-efficiency washers should consult their appliance manuals or call the manufacturer. Typically the amount of bleach per load in a high-efficiency washer is equivalent to the maximum fill line of the bleach dispenser, but check to be sure.

When pre-soaking laundry bleach-safe fabrics, first remove as much soil as possible, then use 1/4 cup per gallon of warm water. Anything stronger can damage the fabric.

So for the TL: DR crowd, here’s a quick summary:

  • Clean, rinse, sanitize, wait 1 – 5 minutes. Rinse again if it’s stainless steel
  • Food prep surfaces require a 200ppm or 1 TBSP of chlorine bleach per gallon of warm water.
  • Other surfaces may use a 500ppm dilution or 2½ TBSP chlorine bleach per gallon of warm water.
  • Laundry pre-soaks 1/4 cup per gallon or 3/4 cup for a full load in a standard, top-loading washer.
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30 thoughts on “How to Use Bleach Safely”

  1. Well, you could have published this a week or so ago, couldn't you?! 😉 Thanks for the info. Now you need to tell me how to dye my poor shirt that I can't get the stain out of.

  2. I no longer buy chlorine bleach — I buy oxygen bleach instead. I haven't done a ton of research on it, but I understand that it's gentler on the environment and on clothes, so the higher cost is worth it to me. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    Also, for disinfecting kitchen / bathroom, I use two spray bottles. A spritz of undiluted vinegar followed by a spritz of undiluted hydrogen peroxide, and then wiped down. This is supposed to be MORE effective than bleach for sanitizing surfaces such as counters and toilets and even food, as the result is non-toxic. (But don't premix the vinegar and hydrogen peroxide; in order to be effective, you need that chemical reaction to happen on the whatever-it-is you are cleaning.)

    • I assume you are using the food grade H202, correct? I do plan on mentioning the alternatives to bleach in future posts, but I'm going to start with the most familiar chemicals and work my way out from there.
      I do want to be very careful with what I recommend. When I was researching the book, I corresponded with the government's consumer question program and asked for alternatives for bleach. I became quite frustrated when the only information they would give me is a version of what you see above.
      As I do not want to be responsible for passing along bad information, I'm researching the alternatives carefully and there will be disclaimers.
      Since no one in my home has an immune deficiency, I'm not especially careful to sanitize, except food surface areas.
      For most of us, provided we practice good personal hygiene. Hands people, wash them. Often. Clean is good enough.

  3. Just remember that cleaning thoroughly before using bleach to disinfect is a must. Bleach is readily inactivated by organic matter.

  4. How much bleach to keep the algae down in a 4 foot by three-foot pond nothing in it just water It has a pump It bigger then what the pond needs

  5. Hi, Heather,

    Before I get to my topic I just want to let you know how much I appreciate the nice, clean, easily-navigated layout of your site, with the vintage theme (the cover of your book is great!- boy, does that bring back memories).
    Thanks so much for this post & the correct %ages, most of all my finally being able to find out whether or not I can use hot H20 with bleach, and why [not] (it could be a real gas!). Since a few other readers proffered other alternatives I thought, having a daughter with several chemical/food sensitivities (and with asthma myself), I’d offer up my own long-time, beloved go-to: thyme. Yup, good old, simple thyme. It actually has disinfectant properties superior to bleach – and it smells a whole lot better! Not only do I love how my kitchen, laundry room & bathroom smell when every surface has had a thorough cleaning with thyme; it’s also very satisfying to know I did it in a safe, non-toxic way; and somehow, I feel connected to a long line of forebears who went before us using the good things provided us from the earth instead of some chemical witch’s brew that is going to take off my skin or make my pets horribly ill if it spills. No toxic clouds floating overhead, either, and no disposal issues (moreover, in summer, the insects seem to really hate it, so another side bennie is far fewer cobwebs & invading ants). I used to just purchase a small glass bottle of the essential oil at my local health store and add a few drops to a spray bottle of water (completely dependent on the bottle size and “germiness” of the task at hand), and do still have a bottle made up under the kitchen sink; however, since “Natural” has gone mainstream in a big way there is a host of ready-made, herbal-based cleaning/disinfecting products on the market, and I recently picked up Seventh Generation’s [Botanical] Disinfecting Multi-Surface Cleaner. I compared it to the leading bleach-based cleaner/disinfectant, and it kills one more type of household germs than does the bleach-based cleaner, incl. the H1N1 flu virus – at a comparable price point. A terrific product for anyone who needs to Clean It.

  6. Great article, came upon this when I was suffering from norovirus. I needed a bleach solution to clean up after myself so I didn’t get my family sick. Bleach is great for killing things without a lipid envelope like norovirus.

    One thing tho, I’ve been using a concentrated bleach (clorox concentrated) which has a higher percentage of sodium hypochlorite (I think it’s around 8% vs 6%). I assume that this means the dilution would require lower concentrations of bleach but I’m not sure what the dilution would be.

  7. I have a friend who cleans her bathroom only with bleach. When I go to visit her the whole house smells like bleach and that is awful. I should send her this article! Thanks a lot for sharing this important information here! Earlsfield Carpet Cleaners Ltd.

    • You better be glad she cleans here space that well cuz the places I go don’t. And if you send her this article on the subject. I guarantee you that your friend would be insulted and drop you. Her preference to have her house clean is probable the way her own mother cleaned up. I clean hotel rooms and disinfect everything!! on purpose. Nothing gets missed. You never take for granted what unknown disease any person has and that includes toilet cleaning. #peace

  8. I need some advice. I have dogs (4) in my home They are all house trained but accidents sometimes happen. What is the best way to clean tile and hardwood floors when accidents happen?

    • Target Stores has a nice cleaning agent that you might like. Its called OUT! Stain&Odor Remover.
      It has a powder type smell and sells for approximately $4.00. Try might like it. And says its safe too. Its a blue&white spray bottle and the bottle looks like a 409 bottle.

  9. I’m trying to find an alternate cleaning agent but I love the smell of bleach & cold water. It smells like a pool and I love swimming but can’t go. My question is this: I need a backup cleaner that is going to make me feel just as clean as the famous clorox cleaner and water and also as cost effective.

  10. Great post. Bleach use in my house is limited because of the Doodles. Have to be super careful with all my cleaning products. Dogs are smart but they don’t always listen and they like to investigate everything.

  11. Is it safe to rinse baby bottles in bleach mixture. 2 gallon water/3 tsp of bleach and let air dry? Is it safe to use once bleach is dry or should it be rinsed with water too

  12. I’m cleaning my basement floor that had nasty sewage come up. I want to scrub the floor down with degreaser first (contains ammonia). After this step how do I properly get ammonia off the floor before I bleach? If I mop over it with water is this sufficient?

  13. Heather, if you have any advice for me I’d be so grateful. We have a mouse infestation at the moment and have found lots of mouse droppings (and urine) in many of our drawer units and cupboards – not just in food storage areas but even in our clothing and bedside drawers. I’m trying to figure out how to clean it up in a way that’s safe and effective. All the things I’ve read have said to disinfect everything with a diluted bleach spray, before trying to clean up because dry vacuuming or other disturbing of the refuse could send micro-particles up into the air with potentially dangerous and even life-threatening viruses. I was searching the internet to learn about how to make and use a bleach spray, when I found your article and saw that you recommend against putting bleach on dried urine because of the ammonium… Do you have any alternative solutions for me??? I just have no idea what to do. Thankfully the online information I’ve read also says that the bacteria and viral risks are no longer present after the mouse poo/urine has been sitting there for several days, so if there’s no other solution I guess I’ll just wait a reasonable length of time before going in with a vacuum.

  14. Love how this post touches on minor ponts like stainless steel and urine, which is a mistake I would have made half an hour from right now. Quick question – you mention to mix 1 Tbsp per gallon of water. Would that be 1 Tbsp of liquid bleach or powder? I have powder with me, what would be the appropriate quantity per gallon water?

      • Powdered bleach can be concentrated and more powerful, be aware that commercially 16% is a commercial grade of bleach used for laundry mostly in commercial machines. It is dispensed into a machine by way of a dispenser that portion controls automatically, in most cases @40% active chlorine. This is too powerful for common household use for hypochlorite based bleaches would cause holes in cotton sheets, for instance, if not diluted and ran through quickly during laundry cycle. This is why most launders use a dispensing machine to control the application accurately each time. It avoids the chance of flesh burns.

  15. We had household things stored in a storage place that some mice got in. I don’t want to throw away my kitchen stuff but also can’t use it knowing mice were on it. After washing with dish detergent how should I mix the bleach to soak my stuff in so I can use it again without worrying about catching something. Dame mice


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