Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Cleaning With Bleach

updated Nov 8, 2022
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

There are endless ways to clean, but simply cleaning won’t always actually kill viruses and bacteria. If you’re looking to disinfect something, bleach is one of your best bets. Bleach has been shown to disinfect surfaces of SARS-CoV-2, along with other common illness-causing germs. Bleach is also an effective way to clean your food surfaces to prevent cross-contamination.  To make sure you properly disinfect surfaces and objects—and, more importantly, to ensure you stay healthy and safe—it’s vital to store, dilute, and use bleach the right way.

Another great thing about bleach is its versatility. Along with its broad effectiveness against pathogens, it can also be used on lots of things. You can use bleach on surfaces like counters and toilets or solid objects like dishes and kids’ toys. Bleach can also help you clean your cleaning tools, like the dishwasher. Another common use for bleach is brightening (and de-germing) white clothes. (Obviously, proceed with caution unless you’re reverse-tie-dying your wardrobe).

But as powerful as it is, there’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to bleach cleaning.

Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to clean with bleach in your home. 

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What to Know Before You Start Cleaning With Bleach

First, a few important notes for safety and effectiveness with bleach cleaning.

Never mix bleach with other household cleaners, including ammonia or vinegar. Doing so could create a chlorine gas such as chloramine or chloroform, which can be fatal. Mary Johnson, a Downy & Tide scientist, reiterates that it’s important to wear gloves when you’re working with bleach solutions since any product with bleach can irritate the skin.

Also, it’s important to store bleach cleaners safely, away from kids and animals. And if you make a bleach and water solution (say, in a spray bottle), keep in mind that it will naturally break down over time due to time, light, and temperature, so it should be replaced regularly, ideally every few days. Johnson recommends making a smaller amount of bleach-water solution at a time, so it doesn’t go to waste.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

How to Clean and Disinfect Surfaces With Bleach

So, what surfaces can you clean with bleach? Johnson says if bleach is diluted to the appropriate strength, bleach can be used on many hard, non-porous surfaces, such as countertops, toilets, sinks, and trash cans; however, it is not recommended on most metals, like stainless steel or copper, or porous surfaces such as wood and many types of stone. 

Got a bleach-safe surface ready for some disinfecting? Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how to clean it.

  1. Dilute your solution: Dilute ½ cup of bleach per gallon of water for common kitchen surfaces or soaking objects.
  2. Clean the surface: Keep in mind that while bleach will effectively disinfect a surface, it might not actually clean dirt and other residues. So before you apply the bleach, Johnson recommends thoroughly scrubbing with soap and water, then rinsing. You can also wipe down the surface with an all-purpose cleaner. 
  3. Disinfect the surface: Apply your bleach mixture to the surface with a clean rag or sponge, allowing it to sit for five minutes (always follow the product label’s instructions.) 
  4. Rinse and dry: Finally, thoroughly rinse the surface with warm water and air dry.
Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

How to Use Bleach in the Laundry

Most commonly, bleach is used to brighten white laundry. But, just like it disinfects surfaces, it can sanitize your clothes. 

Before using chlorine bleach (also known as sodium hypochlorite or NaOCl), always check the care label. John says chlorine bleach can damage certain fibers and fabrics and lead to permanent staining, particularly on colored fabrics. 

Color-safe bleaches don’t contain chlorine and can be used on a wider variety of fabrics. One example of a color-safe “bleach” is hydrogen peroxide. Another example is the color-safe peracid bleach found in store-bought products like Tide One Wash Miracle.  

  1. Make sure your laundry is bleach-safe: Before you set out to stave off that mildew-y smell in your gym clothes, check the fabric label to make sure it’s safe to use chlorine bleach.
  2. Run your washer: Wash your load on the highest temperature possible, adding a normal dose of your laundry soap.
  3. Add bleach to your washer: Add bleach to your washer’s bleach dispenser (not directly on your clothes). Pour ⅔ cup for a standard washer or ⅓ cup if you have a high-efficiency machine. Wash and dry as usual, per the garments’ product care instructions!

Can you leave bleach on a surface overnight?

Leaving bleach on a surface for an extended period of time can alter the color, so don’t soak something in bleach overnight unless you’re trying to alter the color of something (like bleaching your laundry). In addition, Johnson says there’s no added sanitization benefit to leaving bleach on a surface for 8+ hours. If you’re looking for a longer-lasting sanitization, she recommends Microban 24, which keeps surfaces sanitized for 24 hours.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What happens if you don’t dilute bleach?

You might damage what you’re trying to clean, according to Johnson. Full-strength (non-diluted) bleach can be damaging to the surface and be harsh on your skin. And using undiluted chlorine bleach on fabric can lead to permanent staining and damage to fibers, so always follow the instructions on the product’s package.

Does hot water kill bleach? 

Johnson says heat can cause bleach to break down faster, making it less effective. But that doesn’t necessarily mean hot water and bleach don’t mix. “Bleach products should be stored at room temperature; however, it’s OK to use chlorine bleach and non-chlorine bleaches with hot water as long as you’re mixing a fresh solution to do the job,” Johnson says.

What’s the difference between bleach and cleaning bleach?

Different products are made for different purposes. Common household bleach, Johnson says, is not the same thing as a cleaning product with bleach in it, which also contains other cleaning chemicals and usually fragrance.

“Household bleach, or chlorine bleach, can be diluted with water to disinfect surfaces, but it is not a cleaner, so you will need to pre-clean a surface with soap and water to remove dirt and debris first and let it dry completely before disinfecting with the diluted bleach,” she says.