Bleach has been one of the most common household cleaning products for the last 100 years. However, bleach has some downsides for our health and the environment. Whether you’re looking to brighten whites, eliminate stains, or sanitize surfaces, these natural bleach alternatives may be the answer to a healthier, cleaner home.
What is Bleach?
Bleach is a chemical compound widely used as a disinfectant and whitener in the home. The most common type of bleach used in households is sodium hypochlorite or “liquid bleach.” Sodium hypochlorite is a clear, slightly yellowish liquid with a strong smell. It’s typically diluted with water because using it at full strength can cause it to “eat away” at certain materials.
How Does Bleach Work?
Bleach’s disinfectant and stain remover action comes through its oxidative and antimicrobial properties.
Sodium hypochlorite, the active ingredient in bleach, is a powerful oxidizing agent. It chemically alters substances by transferring oxygen molecules. This oxidation process breaks down many types of stains and contaminants. It makes them less visible or completely removes them.
Bleach is highly effective at killing many microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It disrupts their structure and function by oxidizing parts of their cells or key enzymes. This action disinfects surfaces and water, making it safe to drink and use.
Bleach’s oxidative effects can also break down pigments that discolor fabrics and surfaces. This is why bleach laundry products whiten clothing and remove stains.
What Are The Health Dangers of Using Bleach?
While bleach can be effective for disinfecting and whitening, it’s associated with several health dangers. Here are a few of them:
Mixing bleach with other cleaning products with ammonia or acids (like vinegar) can produce toxic fumes. One of those dangerous fumes is chlorine gas.
Prolonged or repeated exposure to bleach fumes can lead to respiratory issues. Some people may start coughing, wheezing, or have shortness of breath. Those with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may get worse.
In severe cases, it can cause chemical pneumonia or other respiratory issues, which can be life-threatening. Even if you don’t mix bleach with other cleaners, the fumes alone can cause respiratory damage and cell death.
Skin and Eye Irritation
Direct contact with undiluted bleach or fumes can cause skin and eye irritation. It may lead to redness, burning, and, in some cases, chemical burns. If bleach comes into contact with the eyes, it can cause severe eye damage or even blindness.
Some people may be hypersensitive or allergic to bleach. In that case, exposure can lead to allergic reactions like skin rashes or hives. If you have an adverse reaction to bleach, seek medical attention immediately. In ingestion or severe exposure, contact poison control or call 911.
Suppressed Immune Response
In 2015, Researchers studied over 9,000 children ages 6 to 12 in the Netherlands, Finland, and Spain. They wanted to see how bleach affected infections in children.
The results were significant. The researchers found that homes using bleach increased the chances of children coming down with the flu by 20% compared to children whose parents didn’t use bleach. Recurrent tonsillitis was 35% more common in homes using bleach.
“Passive exposure to cleaning bleach in the home may have adverse effects on school-age children’s health by increasing the risk of respiratory and other infections. The high frequency of use of disinfecting irritant cleaning products may be of public health concern, also when exposure occurs during childhood.”
We truly can be “too clean,” as I discuss with MIT-educated engineer Jasmina Aganovic in this podcast episode. Even the FDA agrees that we don’t need to go overboard in fighting bacteria.
Ingestion By Children or Pets
Ingesting bleach can be dangerous and is considered a medical emergency. Swallowing bleach can cause severe chemical burns in the digestive tract, which can lead to serious symptoms. Bleach ingestion may cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and potentially life-threatening complications.
A 2010 study reported on 270,000 young children harmed by household cleaners. Bleach was the overwhelming culprit and was responsible for 37% of the incidents.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mostly considers bleach safe to use. However, stored bleach may form a chemical called perchlorate. Perchlorate is a toxic chemical that appears in drinking water.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), perchlorate has made its way to irrigation water. It’s now detectable in produce, dairy products, and packaged foods. It can prevent the thyroid from getting the iodine it needs and can interfere with child development.
Here are some bleach alternatives for laundry and cleaning. I’m including both commercially prepared cleaners as well as some you can DIY at home:
1. Branch Basics Natural Cleaner
Branch Basics is a brand that produces non-toxic and environmentally friendly cleaning products. They also have an all-purpose cleaning concentrate that I love. When diluted, it creates cleaning solutions for many different surfaces and purposes.
Their Oxygen Boost product is a great alternative to bleach. You can add it to a load of laundry to whiten and brighten fabrics – just like bleach. You can also use it as a pre-treatment for tougher stains. Plus it works for tile and grout in the bathroom. Learn more about Branch Basics here.
2. Truly Free Home Natural Cleaner
Truly Free Home also has an OxyBoost bleach alternative. It’s fragrance-free and has the power of bleach without the toxicity and potential fabric damage. They are mission-based and support over 200 children in Central America with education, food, clothing, and shelter. Check out their Oxyboost stain remover and use code wellnessmama for a discount.
3. Hydrogen Peroxide
Good old H2O2 can also be a good bleach alternative. You can now find it with a sprayer right on the bottle. The standard concentration is 3% hydrogen peroxide. You’ll find it in most drugstores, box stores, and supermarkets.
As a stain remover, just apply directly to a stain and let it sit for a few minutes. Then wash as usual. To whiten clothing and other items, add 1 cup of 3% hydrogen peroxide to the bleach dispenser. You can also add it directly to the drum along with the detergent. Then continue the laundry process as usual.
You can also use hydrogen peroxide to disinfect countertops, cutting boards, toilet bowls, and shower tiles. A diluted spray also works for carpet stains. Be sure to open the windows or use proper ventilation when using it.
4. DIY Oxiclean
You can also make a DIY Oxiclean using hydrogen peroxide and washing soda. It’s super easy, just mix the two ingredients with hot water in a spray bottle. The two ingredients mixed together react to make sodium percarbonate. DIY Oxiclean deep cleans tough stains and it’s an eco-friendly alternative to chlorine bleach.
I spray the stains before I put them in the washer. Since the mixture doesn’t last for long, you can dump any extra in the washing machine with the laundry detergent when you’re done treating the stains. Learn more and find the recipe here.
5. White Vinegar
White vinegar is a versatile cleaning agent. It can help dissolve mineral deposits, remove stains, and eliminate odors. It also has mild antibacterial properties.
To use it for general cleaning, mix equal parts of white vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Use it to clean countertops, glass surfaces, and bathroom fixtures. To disinfect and deodorize in the kitchen, apply undiluted vinegar to cutting boards or counters. Let sit for a few minutes before wiping clean.
In the laundry room, it acts as a natural fabric softener and it’s great for those with hard water too. You can add some distilled white vinegar to the final rinse cycle of white clothes or colored clothes to help clean and soften.
6. Baking Soda
Baking soda is an excellent scrubbing agent and deodorizer. It cleans and removes stains from surfaces, sinks, and even fabric.
For a stain remover, mix it with a small amount of water to make a paste. Then apply it on the stained area before laundering. As a whitener, add half a cup of baking soda to the wash cycle to help brighten whites, soften fabrics, and neutralize odors.
For household cleaning, sprinkle baking soda on surfaces like sinks, stovetops, and bathroom tiles. Then scrub gently to remove grime and stains. Its mild abrasive action makes it effective without harsh chemicals.
Borax can also substitute for bleach for various cleaning tasks. For laundry, add half a cup of powdered borax to a gallon of warm water, stirring until it dissolves. For stains, make a paste with a small amount of water and apply it to the fabric before washing. You can also add borax to your laundry cycle to brighten whites.
For cleaning, mix borax with water in a spray bottle to tackle surfaces, disinfect, and deodorize. I use a natural borax powder free of added surfactants or detergents, but Mule Team Borax is also a high-quality natural form of borax.
8. Lemon Juice
Lemon juice contains citric acid, which has natural bleaching properties. It’s excellent for whitening laundry, removing stains, and cleaning surfaces.
To use lemon juice for a laundry pre-treat, apply it directly to the stain and let it sit for a few minutes before washing. Besides stain-removing, lemon juice can brighten and freshen white and light-colored fabrics. Just mix it with water and add it to the wash cycle.
For household cleaning, combine ¼ cup of lemon juice with water in a spray bottle. Then use it to clean and disinfect surfaces such as kitchen countertops, cutting boards, and bathroom fixtures. As a bonus, lemon juice also provides a naturally fresh scent!
Sunlight can be a natural and effective way to whiten and disinfect items and surfaces. The ultraviolet (UV) rays can naturally bleach, disinfect, and deodorize the fabric. Clean or wet the items first, then place them in direct sunlight for a few hours until dry. There’s nothing quite like the cleaning power of fresh sunshine on a clothesline!
While sunlight is a natural disinfectant, it isn’t as effective as commercial disinfectants in certain situations, like highly infectious diseases or heavy stains. Also, be careful when sun-bleaching colored fabrics, as prolonged sun exposure can cause fading.
Keep Your Home Microbiome in Mind
Keep in mind that it’s possible to go overboard on disinfecting. We really don’t need to bleach everything —even when using natural bleach alternatives. Doing so can disrupt something called your home microbiome.
Just as the human body has a microbiome that plays a crucial role in health, our homes also have microbiomes that impact our health.
The “home microbiome” is the diverse community of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes) that inhabit and coexist with you in your home. Different microorganisms colonize different rooms of the house. These microorganisms can come from the outdoors, our bodies, and our pets.
A beneficial microbial balance in the home may reduce the growth of harmful microorganisms like mold and mildew. It can also improve indoor air quality and create a more balanced living environment.
Research suggests the home microbiome can influence our health in many ways. It may impact respiratory health, allergies, and immune system development. For instance, exposure to a diverse range of microbes in early childhood can contribute to a better immune response. It may even reduce the risk of allergies later on. This is known as the “Farm Effect.”
Overusing disinfectants or other antimicrobial products can alter your home microbiome. While cleaning is essential for removing harmful pathogens, excessive use of disinfectants may disrupt the home microbiome.
How/When to Disinfect
Keeping your home microbiome in mind, here’s how and when to disinfect:
- Stick to Natural Products — Use mild, non-toxic cleaning agents to avoid disrupting the microbiome.
- Use Disinfectants Selectively — Reserve disinfectants for specific situations, such as when a family member is sick, when handling raw meat, or when exposed to potentially harmful bacteria or viruses.
- Target Your Disinfecting — Focus disinfectant use on high-touch surfaces and areas with a higher risk of pathogens, such as bathroom fixtures, kitchen counters, and doorknobs. Avoid unnecessary or excessive disinfecting.
- Hand Hygiene — Encourage proper hand washing as the primary way of dealing with germs. Then there’s not as much need for disinfectants.
Using disinfectants too often can cause bacteria, viruses, and molds to adapt and become stronger. (Learn more about antibiotic resistance and superbugs here). Saving disinfectants for when they’re really needed will help you avoid microbial resistance.
Final Thoughts on Natural Bleach Alternatives
These natural bleach alternatives can help you work toward a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable home. But you don’t have to stop there! Check out the many other natural cleaning posts on this website. Natural cleaning doesn’t have to be expensive or require lots of time. A few simple ingredients, like hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, can go a long way.
Do you use bleach? If not, what’s worked well for you? Share with us below!