Is Sodium Hypochlorite (Bleach) Toxic? The Dangers & Alternatives
By Marilee Nelson |
Is sodium hypochlorite (aka bleach) toxic? The answer is yes. Bleach is extremely toxic to humans, pets, wildlife, aquatic life, and the environment.
You’re probably aware of this to some extent. After all, most of us were brought up with bleach in our homes and were taught not to touch it, play with it, drink it, breathe it in, etc.
Yet, therein lies the irony, which raises another important question: why do most Americans feel they must rely on a deadly poison for cleaning, laundry, mold removal, etc.?
It sounds bizarre when you think of it that way, doesn’t it?
Yet, according to 2020 data published by Statista, Clorox (a leading manufacturer of sodium hypochlorite) is one of the top 3 most popular home brands in America, with 362 million customer reach points.
I believe there are three main reasons for our love affair with bleach:
- It is so commonplace, we’ve accepted it as a necessary evil for ridding our homes of germs and keeping things clean.
- Most people don’t realize how poisonous and dangerous chlorine bleach is (or they’d ban it from their homes). We’ll cover this more coming up.
- It works really well, and we’ve been led to believe there are no effective substitutes.
We’ve debunked the myth that killing germs is healthy (it’s usually not) and that there are no effective, non-toxic substitutes for bleach in previous articles (there are many and we will cover this again coming up).
So today, we’ll look at what sodium hypochlorite/chlorine bleach is, why it’s so dangerous, how it impacts the body, the environment, and your indoor air quality, what should never be mixed with bleach (hint: it’s not just ammonia), and recap non-toxic alternatives.
Ready to toss those bleach toxins? Let’s get started.
What Is Bleach?
Sodium hypochlorite, commonly known as chlorine bleach, is a combination of the chemicals sodium chloride and sodium hydroxide.
It is commonly used as a disinfectant, stain-remover, weed and pest killer, and whitening chemical in the cleaning, laundry, pesticide/herbicide, paper, textile, and pool industries.
It’s available as a liquid or a powder and is a classified pesticide under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.
Chlorine bleach is common in household cleaners, pools (chlorine), drain cleaners, oven cleaners, laundry products, tampons (unless specified “unbleached”), bleached paper products (coffee filters, toilet paper, paper towels, tea bags, etc.), disposable diapers, municipal water supplies, chlorinated pools, and other bleached products.
Why Is Sodium Hypochlorite Dangerous?
There are several reasons sodium hypochlorite is considered a poisonous and hazardous substance. Here are a few of the harmful effects bleach has on humans:
- It is corrosive to skin and eyes and can cause severe burns.
- Per the CDC, disinfectants including chlorine, increase the rate of miscarriage and preterm birth. However, they do not know at what concentration they become problematic.
- Bleach creates a chloramine gas when combined with other chemicals or organic matter. This gas is highly irritating and corrosive to the skin, lungs, and eyes.
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- Fumes from bleach, such as chloroforms and nitrogen trichloride, can also cause DNA damage, cancer, asthma, and a host of other illnesses.
- Bleach fumes also create VOCs , which can trigger and contribute to asthma, COPD, chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions, and headaches..
- As a disinfectant, chlorine bleach negatively impacts the microbiome health leading to less robust immunity.
- Water treated with sodium hypochlorite (and its cousins) has been shown to release chloroform gas when mixed with organic matter, such as urine or dirt. When you shower this is a problem because the chlorine mixes with your organic matter (the stuff you’re washing off), then the steam intensifies that gas exposure. A Taiwanese study showed an increased risk of cancer in those who showered in highly chlorinated water.
- New research shows that passive exposure to bleach in the home can cause an increased risk of respiratory illness and other illnesses in children.
Bleach can encourage the growth of mold and mildew. Yes, it works to kill surface mold. However, it doesn’t kill mold beneath the surface and introduces water to the invisible mold, allowing it to thrive. This is why the EPA and OSHA no longer recommend bleach for mold remediation.
- Bleach fumes can accumulate and linger on surfaces and in the air. They can even seep out of sealed bottles (think about the last time you walked down the cleaning aisle… you smelled bleach, right?). This means you’re not just exposed while you’re cleaning, showering, doing laundry, etc., but throughout the day, every day that bleach is in your home.
This isn’t a complete list of all the reasons chlorine bleach and its byproducts are toxic. However, it proves that this isn’t just an innocent household cleaning chemical that shouldn’t be swallowed.
It’s a dangerous toxin that, in our opinion, has no place in a healthy home.
Effects Of Bleach On The Environment & Household
If a chemical is not human-safe, you can bet it’s not safe for the environment.
Yet, even though it’s an EPA-registered “hazardous substance”
They fail to recognize that, as discussed previously, bleach reacts with organic matter in streams, rivers, lakes, oceans, etc., to create what? More toxins!
Bottom line: Per the EPA, bleach is bad news for the environment, aquatic life, and your home’s air quality. It’s also not recommended for septic systems as it disrupts the microbial balance.
What Should Not Be Mixed With Bleach?
Chlorine bleach is dangerous on its own. However, it can become a deadly gas when combined with certain chemicals and even elements from nature.
Here are five things you should NEVER mix with bleach (the last one is pretty ironic):
- Acidic products, such as distilled white vinegar
- Other cleaners, which may contain chemicals that react with bleach to create noxious fumes
- Organic matter, including urine and plain old dirt and soil can create chloroform gas when mixed with bleach (for real). In addition, some water contains enough organic matter to cause a reaction.
An easy way to remember this is: don’t mix bleach with anything…and that may even include tap water.
How To Clean Without Using Bleach
Yes, it is possible to disinfect, clean, do laundry, and whiten whites without using toxic chlorine bleach.
Here are five non-toxic bleach substitutes and how to use them.
The acetic acid in distilled white vinegar t brightens clothing and removes stains without harming fabrics. To use, add half a cup of vinegar to the final rinse for brighter, whiter, softer clothes.
You can also soak dingy socks and other whites in a water basin with a cup of vinegar overnight, then launder as usual the next day.
Distilled white vinegar can also be used with hydrogen peroxide as a powerful disinfectant combo. Here’s how.
PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING BEFORE USING VINEGAR AND PEROXIDE:
Even though they’re non-toxic, vinegar and peroxide can create harmful and irritating fumes when mixed and stored together. Thus, they must be stored and used in separate bottles.
We like to attach a trigger sprayer directly to our hydrogen peroxide bottles (3% in the brown bottle), then designate a spray bottle for vinegar.
- To use, clean wipe down the surface with Branch Basics All-Purpose
- Next, spray the surface liberally with either vinegar or peroxide (the order doesn’t matter). Let it sit for 5-30 minutes. Wipe with a microfiber cloth.
- Repeat the same step with the other bottle.
2. Baking Soda
Baking soda is great for whitening laundry, deodorizing, cleaning grout, and making a DIY cleaning scrub.
For grout, make a paste of baking soda, water, and liquid castile soap and scrub on with a grout brush. Rinse.
For laundry, add half to 1 cup baking soda directly to your wash and launder as usual.
For stains, either make a paste of baking soda and water and rub directly on the clothing or carpet stain (always do a patch test on carpet!), or soak stained clothing, stuffed animals, etc. in a basin of water with half to 1 cup baking soda for a few hours or overnight.
For a DIY cleaning scrub recipe, just search “Baking Soda Castile Soap DIY Cleaner” for loads of good options.
3. Hydrogen Peroxide
Did you know hydrogen peroxide is considered a powerful bleaching, cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting agent?
This makes it an excellent fragrance free alternative to chlorine bleach/sodium hypochlorite!
For convenience when cleaning surfaces, toilets, etc. we keep a trigger sprayer on our Hydrogen Peroxide bottles.
You can also spray it on white fabrics to remove tough stains like blood (great for re-usable menstrual pads!), grass, red clay, etc.
To use on whites (not colors!) in your washer, add 1 cup 3% hydrogen peroxide to your wash (in the bleach cup) along with your favorite non-toxic detergent.
Related Reading: 5 Best Natural (& Effective) Toilet Bowl Cleaners
Sunshine is a natural bleaching agent, deodorizer, and stain remover. It is a super whitener and brightener for white fabrics. And, applied in the right doses, sunshine can also be used to remove stains. .
But care must be taken to avoid fading or over bleaching. For optimal stain removal, place items outside when the sun is at its strongest (usually high noon to 3 PM).To avoid fading colored clothing, turn items inside out.
This may take less than an hour or several hours over a few days, depending on the stain. But you’ll see stains fading the longer the item(s) sits out. Several parents have told us this is their secret trick for naturally bleaching out and deodorizing cloth diapers, onesies, etc.
Sunning also provides an added bonus as it speeds the outgassing of fragrance and other chemicals from clothing, electronics, furniture, toys, etc.
Branch Basics Concentrate is an all-in-one, non-toxic product designed to replace all types of chemical cleaners…including chlorine bleach.
Our Laundry dilution will clean clothing and for an extra boost of whitening and stain-fighting power, Oxygen Boost works wonders. For stain fighting tips - see our Stainmaster Guide! A
Oxygen Boost is also awesome for soaking soiled baby clothes and kid’s clothes (think blow-outs, grass stains, baby food, paint, crayons, etc.), and pet stains too. See User Guide for specific instructions and always test on an inconspicuous area first.
You can also use Oxygen Boost on ovens, to remove burnt on food from pans, and combined with All Purpose of Bathroom as a scouring agent on sinks, toilets, etc.
All-Purpose or Bathroom can be used as stand-alone stain removers on surfaces, clothing, dishes, toys, etc.
To learn how to use our Concentrate to create custom dilutions of cleaning products and laundry soap, click here.
We give detailed information on how to use each of these, and more, in: How To Clean Without Bleach.
Sodium Hypochlorite FAQ's
Have questions? We've got answers.
How long is bleach toxic?
How do you sanitize surfaces without bleach?
There are plenty of cleaning alternatives to bleach that work as sanitizers. You can opt for any of the options listed above, or for a natural cleaner like Branch Basics. To read more about bleach-free cleaning alternatives, check out our blog: Laundry Bleach Alternatives.
Are bleach-free cleaners as effective?
Yes, cleaners without bleach have proven to kill just as many germs as chlorine bleach.
If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: sodium hypochlorite/chlorine bleach is incredibly toxic to humans and the planet and completely unnecessary.
And now you have the knowledge and tools to toss that toxin from your home for good.
As we mentioned, bleach is hidden in many household products, including cleaners, laundry products, pesticides, herbicides, chlorinated water, feminine care, baby care, and paper products.
This can make it feel almost impossible to avoid…but it’s not!
The key to getting bleach out of your life is to first remove all bottles of bleach from your home. Even with the top closed on the bottle, the VOCs escape into your home’s air.
Next, you may move on to filtering your water in the shower and/or at the sink and tub, switching to unbleached paper products and/or unbleached or reusable feminine care and diapers.
Take it a step at a time, and you’ll be amazed how quickly and easily you can eliminate this toxin from your life.
Need some extra support? Check out Toss The Toxins where our co-founder and healthy home expert Marilee, takes you through detoxifying your home category by category, step by step.
You’ll also find dozens of helpful articles on our blog, including:
Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.