Bleach: How it works, when to use it, and what makes it so powerful

Bleach: How it works, when to use it, and what makes it so powerful

Bleach is the standard, go-to disinfecting product for many offices. It’s used on countertops in the kitchen, on desks, in the bathroom, and even on the floor. It promises to whiten, brighten, and make surfaces sparkle. It also promises to disinfect from norovirus, the common cold, and other illnesses that are transmitted by touching infected surfaces. 

While bleach is a steadfast disinfectant for a reason, it also has its limitations. It can discolor, damage, or even destroy something if it’s not used properly. What’s more, it can be harmful or dangerous to your health if it’s not used or handled safely.  

This article will cover all things bleach. By the end of this article, you’ll know what bleach is, how it works, and how to use it without causing your surfaces—or you—any harm. 

Bleach: How it works, when to use it, and what makes it so powerful

What is bleach? 

Like snowflakes and fingerprints, not all bleach products are the same. The definition of bleach is “a strong chemical used for cleaning things or removing color from things; to remove the color from something or make it lighter, with the use of chemicals or by the effect of light from the sun.” In stores, the term “bleach” actually encompasses three different products.  

The most common type of bleach is chlorine bleach. This is the kind of bleach you would typically buy for your office or home. Chlorine bleach is a water-based product that has the chemical sodium hypochlorite in it.  

There is also oxygen bleach, which contains hydrogen peroxide or a similar peroxide-releasing compound. You may more commonly think of hydrogen peroxide bleach as a chemical people can use to lighten hair, but it can also be used as a disinfectant.   

Bleach also comes as a powder in the form of a chemical called calcium hypochlorite. Bleaching powder is used to bleach clothes and as an oxidizer in many industries. It is less commonly used as an everyday product than chlorine bleach and hydrogen peroxide. 

How does bleach work to remove stains?  

So how does bleach actually work? When we’re talking about its whitening or color lightening ability, we first need to understand a little bit about color. 

Imagine a green stain from sitting on fresh-cut grass. What makes the grass stain green? The answer, of course, is science! Grass is made of molecules, like everything else. Some molecules can act like dyes by absorbing part of the light spectrum. The wavelengths of light that aren’t absorbed are reflected. We see those reflected wavelengths as colors, so long as they are in the visible spectrum. Therefore, we see grass as green because it absorbs all wavelengths except those in the green color range. A chemical compound called a chromophore is doing this absorbing and ends up giving the green color to the grass. 

Ok, back to the bleach: An oxidizing bleach, like chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide, works by releasing oxygen, which breaks up the chemical bonds of chromophores. The broken-up chromophores either don’t reflect colors at all, or they reflect colors outside the visible spectrum. We humans see the absence of color as white. 

Some bleaching agents are reducing rather than oxidizing. These types of bleach work a little bit differently, but it still comes down to the chromophores. A reducing bleach changes the double bonds of chromophores into single bonds, which alters the optical properties of the molecule. Either way, the result is that the changed chromophores now appear colorless, or white, to the human eye, and the stain is reduced or gone. 

Why is bleach useful when cleaning? 

Bleach is such a powerhouse because not only does it make things look brighter and whiter, it also disinfects. Bleach can remove mold, mildew, bacteria, and viruses from surfaces in much the same way it whitens. It oxidizes the molecules in the germs, which kills them. 

Not only that, but bleach is also one of the most affordable cleaning supplies.  

All this combines to make bleach a useful and practical cleaning tool. 

Bleach: How it works, when to use it, and what makes it so powerful

How to safely use bleach 

Now that you know exactly what bleach is, let’s talk about how to use it. Below, we discuss best practices for ensuring that you are making your office clean and sparkling without harming yourself or others. 

Dilute bleach properly 

Follow the directions on your bleach bottle to know how much water to add to the product. If you don’t have directions, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends diluting it by gallon or quart: 

  • 1/3 cup of bleach per gallon of room temperature water 
  • Four tablespoons of bleach per quart of room temperature water 

You will want to use the entire solution within 24 hours because diluted bleach solutions won’t be as effective after that time frame. 

Never mix chlorine bleach with ammonia 

Many household bleaches contain chlorine, or sodium hypochlorite. When sodium hypochlorite reacts with ammonia, it releases a toxic gas called chloramine gas. Exposure to this gas can cause: 

  • Coughing 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Chest pain 
  • Nausea 
  • Irritation to the throat, nose, and eyes 
  • Fluid in the lungs 

Common household products that contain ammonia include some glass and window cleaners and some paints. Never allow bleach to mix with these products, and don’t use one directly after the other. Urine also contains ammonia, so keep that in mind if you’re cleaning out a litter pan or disinfecting a toilet seat.  

Bleach: How it works, when to use it, and what makes it so powerful

Never mix chlorine bleach with acids  

Sodium hypochlorite also interacts in a dangerous way with acids. When the two products interact, they produce chlorine gas. Exposure to chlorine gas almost always irritates the eyes, throat, and nose. Higher levels of exposure can cause breathing difficulties, vomiting, and fluid in the lungs. Very high levels are dangerous and can be deadly. 

Examples of common household products that contain acid can include: 

  • Vinegar 
  • Window cleaners 
  • Detergents 
  • Toilet bowl cleaners 
  • Drain cleaners 

Avoid using these products directly before or after using bleach in order to reduce the chance of mixing bleach with these products. 

Protect your eyes 

Read the safety labels on your bleach products. Some will encourage the use of eye protection 

There are two primary dangers to the eyes when using bleach. First, the bleach could splash and hit your eyes. Second, gases released from bleach can irritate your eyes. Protective goggles protect your eyes from both of these dangers. 

If you do get bleach in your eyes, immediately wash them out with water for several minutes. If you’re wearing contacts, remove them if possible. Call Poison Control at 800-222-1222 or your doctor for additional help. 

Protect your skin 

Generally, bleach is not toxic to your skin, but it can irritate it and make it red. When using bleach, protect your hands with latex gloves. If you do get bleach on your skin, rinse it with soap and water. If the bleach irritates your skin and it persists for more than a day or so, or the irritation is severe, consult a doctor.  

Only use bleach in well-ventilated areas 

Because fumes from chlorine bleach can irritate your throat and eyes, it is best to use bleach in a well-ventilated area. Open windows and doors if you can. If you have a fan, run that, too, to get the air moving and refreshed.   

Clean your surface before using bleach 

Okay, it may sound weird to clean something before using bleach. But here’s why you should.  

Bleach is not a cleaner; it’s a disinfectant. It does a great job at brightening and killing germs, but it is not a great match for dirt. To have a clean and disinfected surface, scrub and rinse surfaces first with a mixture of soap and water. Remember that you can’t clean with an ammonia- or acid-based solution first because of the possibility of toxic fumes.  

After the surface is clean, add the diluted mixture of bleach and water to the surface. Let the bleach and water solution sit for at least five minutes to fully disinfect. Then, rinse off the bleach with water and let it air dry.  

Be sure to do this last step of rinsing off the bleach. Failure to do so can discolor some surfaces, including plastic and wood 


Bleach is an effective and affordable disinfecting agent. When used properly, it can be used to safely brighten and disinfect your workplace. Follow these tips for using bleach safely to enjoy its benefits and keep your office healthier. 

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Bleach: How it works, when to use it, and what makes it so powerful