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Whiter than White: the Truth about Bleach

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 23 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Whiter Than White: The Truth About Bleach

Years of prime-time laundry ads have lead us to believe we should get very excited about finding a wonder-working whitener for our wash – and then tell all our friends so they can share in our discovery.

Well, perhaps not.

Because there’s no real good reason to use bleach in our washes at all - and perhaps we’d be doing the environment a favour if our whites were a little less white then the advertisers would have us desire.

What Is Bleach?

What is commonly known as bleach, is a chemical solution made of different properties, the most usual types of which are chlorine bleaches such as sodium hypochlorite or ‘household bleach’ and oxygen bleaches such as sodium perborate and sodium percarbonate – which are both added to laundry products to make whites look white.

Bleaches Don’t Remove Stains

The main reason for companies to add bleach to laundry detergents is for us to believe they remove stains. In reality; however, the amounts typically added to laundry liquids or powders are usually too low to really make much difference.

Even if they were, what actually happens is more of a trick of the eye – or more accurately, a trick of the light.Because bleaches don’t actually remove stains at all. Rather, what happens, through a process called oxidisation, is that they are made invisible by changing the way the colour (or stain) absorbs light to make them seem colourless.


Optical brighteners are also added to laundry detergent to help whites look whiter. They coat fibres in a thin film of chemicals which convert UV light into visible light and thus make them look brighter and whiter.

The same chemicals were once used in the food industry but have since been banned. Perhaps they should also be banned from our washes, as they do nothing for the cleanliness of the garment and can irritate the skin and trigger allergic reactions. They are also toxic to fish.

What’s Wrong With Bleach?

There are many people who argue that using a little bleach is no bad thing. But when there are less harmful alternatives which can do the same job, why resort to chemicals? Traces of bleach can find their way though our waste water to leach out to the wider environment.

Chemical Reactions

While bleach can be relatively harmless on its own, it can react with other additives in the mix and become more harmful. In particular it could form carcinogenic trihalomethanes as a when combined with some organic material.Also, bleach should never be mixed with ammonia, as dangerous chlorine gas can be produced which is highly toxic. If inhaled, it will irritate the airways, causing wheezing, and coughing and make the eyes sting and smart.

Bleach Residues

Bleaches left in the washing can irritate the skin and people who suffer from contact eczema or dermatitis may be particularly susceptible.

Organochlorines and Dioxins

But the real problem with bleach is that it is produced as part of the darker organochlorine group of chemicals from which dioxins are produced.

Organochlorines are harmful to aquatic life, polluting to water and are hard to get rid of. Dioxins are highly dangerous, both to humans and the environment.

Because bleaches are manufactured as part of this sector of chemicals, if we buy them, we are helping to support the industry which produces these kinds of pollutants.

Alternative Stain-Removing Remedies

  • Baking Soda
    Good old-fashioned sodium bicarbonate is a little-used wonder. Add a cupful to your wash and it will not only help to clean your whites, but will naturally deodorise them as well.
  • Lemon Juice
    Lemon juice is a safe and natural acidic. It attacks grease, de-odorises, and bleaches. It can be used to help remove many stains, including ink from clothes.
  • White Vinegar
    Another natural stain remover is common white vinegar. Inexpensive and safe, it can be used to both clean your washing machine and your clothes.
  • Sunlight
    If you really want your whites to look bright and white, then hang them outside. The sun is a natural bleacher and free!

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