Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why Bleach Does Not Work As Well Anymore

 It takes me a couple of years to go through a gallon of bleach. We don't have that many whites to launder, and there's rarely anything that needs disinfecting. So when I bought a new gallon a couple of months ago, and it didn't have much of an odor, and left gray stains on our white laundry, I thought it must have been something wrong with the bargain brand. I called, complained, and got my money back. I was careful next to buy genuine Clorox brand Regular Bleach - but the only kind available was this "concentrated" version.

For me, this new formula - both the brand name and the bargain brand - performs poorly, compared to original chlorine bleach. It will remove SOME things, but not as many kinds of stains as it once did - and it takes longer to do that.

I started searching to find out what was going on. State child care regulatory agencies were announcing that there is no longer a uniform sanitation formula, and bleach now has to be carefully measured according to package directions; consumers were complaining (sort ratings by "Lowest" to see) that it does not clean like old bleach, that it fails to remove pet odors completely, that it is leaving brown spots on clothes, that it foams, that it leaves residue behind. Oh, and according to the State of Oregon Health Department, as well as Clorox itself,, it has a very short shelf life, of one year or less. (on the Clorox site, click "Ingredients and Safety" and arrow down to find the Shelf Life question).

The bleach companies are meanwhile in full denial mode, responding to user posts that this new product is just as good as the old formula. Mary Marlowe Leverette, the Guide for Laundry, gave the question her best shot for a good answer based on common sense, experience, and corporate advertising about the changes, then approached Clorox on behalf of her readers and shared their response:
"One of the scientists at Clorox sent along this additional information that you may find helpful:
"Clorox® recently introduced Concentrated Clorox® Regular-Bleach, a more concentrated version of its namesake liquid bleach. The New Concentrated Clorox® Regular-Bleach contains the same sodium hypochlorite bleach active that consumers have come to know through generations of use, just with less water so the product is more concentrated..

I am no chemist, but here is what I was able to piece together:

 The chlorine bleach industry switched away from free-flowing chlorine for security and safety reasons after Sept 11th 2001, and Clorox notes they completed this transfer to a new form of chlorine-type bleach in 2011 called sodium hypochlorite.  Information on why, two years later, another change meant that suddenly all "bleach" was no longer called "chlorine bleach" and also no longer works, was hard to find. I ran across a uniform press release on several sites about municipal drinking water treatment facilities:

"Regulatory Considerations
The following are the current or proposed regulatory actions or regulations for each of the three contaminants or byproducts mentioned above:
1. Bromate -- The maximum level of bromine allowed in sodium hypochlorite is expected to be reduced by January, 2013 to around a level of 39 ppm. Currently, 69 ppm of bromate is the Maximum Contaminant Level allowed in sodium hypochlorite. Since bromate is produced in the ozonation process, ozone's use in the treatment process could be reconsidered."

So.  Previously, sodium hypochlorite bleach also contained bromine, which is a strong bleaching chemical, according to Wikipedia:
"It bonds easily with many elements and has a strong bleaching action."
""Dissolving bromine in alkaline solution gives a mixture of bromide and hypobromite...."
"This hypobromite is responsible for the bleaching abilities of bromide solutions. Warming of these solutions causes the disproportion reaction of the hypobromite to give bromate, a strong oxidising agent very similar to chlorate."

These bromines have a great ability to remove rust, are more effective than chlorine in alkaline water,  and were generally a strong booster for the old bleach. Without them, it sounds like even an increased concentration of bleach will not be as effective for those of us who have alkaline water or who have a lot of iron in the water.

Now,  I don't like over-regulation, but it is good to reduce anything that can permanently contaminate drinking water. Good for Clorox and Wegmans and the EPA for making the best product they can! What I don't understand is why the manufacturers have not been transparent about WHY they stopped making chlorine bleach and started making something they like to call "Concentrated Regular Bleach".  What harm could there possibly be in letting the world know that the EPA changed the rules to limit bromine/bromate, and thus the formula for household bleach had to change too? Why try to convince consumers that the only change was to "concentrate" it? Wouldn't  it be better to own the changes and help those customers who are experiencing challenges?

Clorox never says that regulation or product safety has anything to do with the changes. Instead, they say:
  "With so much power in one bottle of bleach, some worry about its environmental impact. ..."
 "In 2012, our namesake Clorox Bleach product will convert to a 33 percent more concentrated formula. This will help reduce the overall carbon footprint associated with the lifecycle consumption of bleach. The end product is a more convenient consumer product that is also better for the environment."

Everything in that statement is true. But is it "the truth" as in the primary rationale for an entire industry completely reformulating a product that is essential to health and sanitation nationwide?

When I finally found the Clorox webpage on old formula "Regular Bleach Non-Concentrated", they still kept silent about the regulatory requirements, and instead had this to say:
"How is Clorox® Regular Bleach different from Clorox® Regular-Bleach1, concentrated?

"We’ve done a great deal of research to ensure we are meeting consumer’s needs. In the Clorox® Regular-Bleach1, concentrated, the new Clorox® Bleach bottle will be easier to handle and easier to use in high-efficiency washing machines, which have built-in bleach dispensers. In addition, the concentrated formula will provide improved whitening on clothes and be able to kill viruses like norovirus on hard surfaces. And because the size of the bottle will be smaller, we can significantly reduce the amount of water used in bleach and the amount of packaging used, which is better for the environment."
- See more at: "

The Wegman's Bleach folks talked about how people had been using too little bleach, so the concentrated formula was to make up for that.
"The rationale is that most people doing laundry these days do not use enough bleach; they even have a name for it, “underdosing.”  One reason given is that many detergents these days have the addition of bleach alternatives, so consumers wanting whiter whites think they’re already covered or think they don’t have to use as much bleach.  Typically, consumers have used ½ cup of bleach when the package directions say to use ¾ cup.  And the majority of High Efficiency washing machines have a pull out tray for bleach, which measures half a cup.  So for all those reasons, the companies decided to concentrate their formula..."  I'm sure every word of that is quite true and honest, but was that the whole truth about an industry-wide change that coincided with these new environmental regulations?

The Wikipedia  article for Clorox reads in a way to make it appear that there have not been any changes to formulation in recent history - despite the fact that even the US Government via the EPA has referred to these formerly standard products as Chlorine Bleach:
 "Sometimes confused with chlorine bleach, household bleach has a completely different chemistry. Household bleach is a chemically-combined oxidizing agent that is used to remove or lighten color. Clorox bleach is derived from sodium chloride — common table salt. Clorox produces household bleach by bubbling chlorine into a solution of water and sodium hydroxide. During this process, the chlorine is converted to a sodium hypochlorite solution.[19] The ingredients in Clorox bleach are water, sodium hypochlorite (used to whiten and kill bacteria), sodium chloride, sodium carbonate (removes alcohol and grease stains), sodium chlorate, sodium hydroxide (removes soils that are fatty, oily, or acidic), and sodium polyacrylate.[20]"
In fact, it seems that the concentration is a way to control the  rate of disintegration that happens to the new ingredients. From Wikipedia's article on Sodium Hypochlorite:
"Bleaching:  Household bleach is, in general, a solution containing 3-8% sodium hypochlorite and 0.01-0.05% sodium hydroxide; the sodium hydroxide is used to slow the decomposition of sodium hypochlorite into sodium chloride and sodium chlorate.[10] "
And from the State of Oregon: "Bleach at high concentrations degrades fairly rapidly (16% lasts only minutes), but slows as the concentration becomes lower. Bleach at 5.25% will probably last several months without too much deterioration. It continues to deteriorate slowly to about 3%, where the speed of deterioration virtually stops."

Not being well versed in chemistry, I don't really understand how all of this works together, but I have learned enough to surmise that this "concentration" of the product probably has less to do with saving shelf space than it does with: (1)increasing the "rate of decay" of the product ( A bottle of old formula chlorine bleach would last indefinitely. A bottle of the new product will be much weaker in 6 months than it was when it was made); and (2) making up for the loss of bleaching action caused by the bromines.

In a nutshell:
* No, you haven't suddenly forgotten how bleach used to work. Bleach is no longer bleach and it does not work like the kind we and our parents and grandparents used.
* The changes were probably necessary, as they also apply to the chlorination process used for public water supplies, thus helping our drinking water from becoming saturated with chemicals that are harmful to us.
* For some reason, the PR departments in the industry decided against discussing regulatory requirements and actual environmental improvements in informing consumers about the change in formula. 
* And they have held tight to that refusal to name the EPA as a player in these changes, and continue to avoid discussing this information with the consumer.
* Bleach can still accomplish some tasks. We just have to learn how to use this new product. Clorox and Wegman's are still trusted brands, and both have directions on how to use them for disinfecting surfaces and water, as well as how to use them in laundry.
* This is a good time to learn about old ways of bleaching garments and linens: hanging them in the sun, for starters, will brighten whites and make them smell good too.

Textual sources that may be useful to you:
"FAQ About Bleach Solutions
What are the changes in bleach concentrations?
The concentration of bleach solutions sold in stores has changed throughout the country. The new, stronger bleach solution available in many stores is now 8.25% sodium hypochlorite solution. The former concentrated bleach (5.25%-6% sodium hypochlorite) is no longer available at many stores. The 8.25% solution is being produced by both brand name companies as well as companies that produce generic products. Many of these products are now EPA-registered products as well. Because of the variety of products available, it is more important than ever to check the label on your bleach bottle to determine the concentration.

"How long does regular household bleach last on the shelf?
Bleach at high concentrations degrades fairly rapidly (16% lasts only minutes), but slows as the concentration becomes lower. Bleach at 5.25% will probably last several months without too much deterioration. It continues to deteriorate slowly to about 3%, where the speed of deterioration virtually stops. According to Clorox™, the amount of hypochlorite that is added to their bleach depends on the season in which it is manufactured, because temperature affects the decomposition rate of sodium hypochlorite. So, more hypochlorite is added to bleach made in the summer than in cooler months. Clorox aims to maintain a constant hypochlorite concentration for at least six months after the manufacturing date, assuming the bleach is stored around 70°F. It takes about 4-8 weeks from the time chlorine bleach is made to when it gets to a store so that you can buy it to take home. This leaves you 3-5 months where the bleach is at the effectiveness level stated on its label.
(Last updated on Monday, January 27, 2014)

"Chlorine Bleach:  What is it?

"Did you know that a pesticide is added to your washing machine to help keep your white clothes white? This pesticide is also found in many household cleaning products that contain a "disinfectant" to kill germs. And it is found in household products used to clean mold and mildew from your shower or tub. Can you guess what this pesticide is? Chlorine Bleach!

"You wouldn't think that ordinary chlorine bleach is a pesticide - but it is. Because it kills bacteria- and viruses it is called a disinfectant or an antimicrobial pesticide. And because it kills fungi and molds it is also known as a fungicide.

"If you are responsible for doing laundry or other types of cleaning as some of your chores around the house, you may be using liquid chlorine bleach to do the job. If so, you need to be sure to always "Read the Label First" to know how to properly use this product and for safety information. Also, be sure your parents know what household products you are using. They can make sure you use them safely

"What's in it?

"Standard household bleach contains the chemical sodium hypochlorite.
What health and safety things do you need to think about with chlorine bleach?

"Liquid bleach in the bottle is a 5.25% sodium hypochlorite solution. That means 5.25% of the liquid is the chemical sodium hypochlorite and the rest is mostly water. The number 5.25% tells you how strong the concentration of a chemical is. Look at the labels of other household cleaning products that contain bleach in your home. Some contain sodium hypochlorite or chlorine bleach in concentrations of .7%, 1.8% and 2.4%.

"Never mix a chlorine bleach with any other household or cleaning products. Doing so can result in different types of harmful acids being formed. Poisonous gasses can also be released that will cause very serious breathing problems.

"Always be careful when using chlorine bleach. Because it comes in 1 gallon jugs the container can be a little hard to handle. Spills and splashes happen. Not only will the bleach damage your clothing but it is irritating to your skin and can cause serious damage to your eyes, even blindness. As with any chemical, your exposure to it is important to know.


  1. I love your blog, Tina....I've been wondering about the effectiveness of my bleach lately and never thought to look into it. Interesting stuff!

  2. Hey and Happy Spring, Leslie :-) Thanks a bunch. I might not have researched it myself if I had known I was going to have to read about chemistry to answer my questions! LOL!

  3. Thank you so much for this article. I could not find ANYTHING else on the internet about this problem. My t-shirts are gray, my handkerchiefs are dingy, and nothing is whitening like it used to. I know how to do laundry but I guess not so much any more.

  4. Hi there, Thanks so much for commenting. I appreciate knowing this is still being read. I still do not understand why this wasn't newsworthy. I have been trying to avoid using bleach at all since it doesn't work but still weakens fibers - plus diaper services don't allow the use of bleach either. So I have gone back to using ammonia instead (NEVER mix ammonia and bleach, they release poisonous gas!). I had to go to several stores and finally ask my local store to order it because they had stopped carrying it. What I do is use one to two cups of ammonia (sudsy or lemon is fine if that is all I can find, but no need to add extra soap if that is the kind you are using) to the wash water. The good thing about ammonia is that it is completely natural and leaves no odor even though it smells really strong in the bottle! Here is an article about using Ammonia in laundry: Good luck! :-)

    1. Thank you for your article. This bleach issue has been SOOOOOOO irritating, I found that I have to pour large amounts directly on my whites to get them clean. I will try the ammonia

    2. Hi, yes, it is still annoying to me after all these years. It seems there are more and more products that WORK that we can no longer get. Ammonia seems to do a better job of removing odors, and I don't have to worry about splashing it accidentally. Just have to be obsessive about not mixing it and bleach in any way.

      I've recently found a new powdered product called "Out White Bright" in my local stores that helps. It is expensive, so I tend to use it instead of ammonia or bleach about every 3rd wash.

      I've decided to put up a clothes line and start hanging my whites out in the sun too. Thank you for letting me know the article helped you. Best wishes to you! :-)

  5. Here is another article that tells about using ammonia for whitening instead of bleach: Scroll down to the second tip titled "Using Ammonia to Whiten Clothes". Hope it helps!

  6. Wow whats next. I don't use bleach. But It mes me wonder what affect this will have in drinking water for areas that use it. Also some people pour it in well water. This was very informative. Thanks. E :)

    1. Hi E! It sounds like people have to check with their local health department and read every container's instructions in order to be sure of how to use these new products for drinking water purification. Makes me glad I don't have to use it for that! Thanks for posting! :-)

  7. Lately I've had problems with white shirt collars not getting cleaned and having to throw white socks away. This problem has been nagging at me. I knew the product had changed --so thankful for for you research and for sharing!!
    Pat April 7, 2015

    1. Hello Pat, Thank you so much for posting and letting me know it helped. I appreciate it! :-) Tina

  8. Thank you- I knew something had changed... Old chlorine bleach would finish working after being out for 12 hours. The new stuff doesn't; so when I have bleached colored clothes to change the color, they keep getting lighter longer than I expect.

    1. That is good to know too! It's very difficult to get it completely rinsed out or neutralized.

  9. Wow I wish I had found this years ago. I don't know if there are any updates in your research, but you seem to know more than Clorox Support! Is there REALLY a difference in what they are now labeling as "disinfecting" bleach? Why are the clothing lines labeled "not for disinfecting"? Is there any pros/cons with the newer "spill proof" bleaches, either for cleaning clothes or even disinfecting, I guess I am wondering is there anything else we can do off label with that thicker consistency bleach, maybe it will stick better and disinfect a little better? It really bothers me how little information on the science of the modern day bleaches is out there. I mean half the labels don't even tell you the percentage of sodium hypoclorite!

    1. Hi Adam, I have never understood why Clorox - or other bleach companies - refused to just tell the public about these changes. Instead they actually lied and gave false reasons. Of course at this late date, I doubt the call centers who handle their email even know that it used to be different. :-(

      I don't know what the thing is with the new "Disinfecting Bleach". After you mentioned it, I saw it at Home Depot but have not yet seen it in our local grocery stores. It must have been stabilized again like old chlorine bleach was, but I have not used it so don't know anything about it. I remember when I was first looking into this that Day Care Centers were upset because they could no longer just use a ratio formula to mix bleach & water to disinfect. Instead they were supposed to use test strips for every batch. That's because of the rapid and constant degradation of new "bleach", so it wasn't stable.

      I don't do any professional disinfecting so I can't tell you anything about that, and I've never tried the Spillproof or thickened products.

      I agree with you about the bit FAIL in the science labels. It is as though the companies (and maybe the EPA etc) don't want ordinary people to understand chemistry.

      Thanks for commenting, and I'd love to hear if you find out anything more.

  10. Tina, THANK YOU for this!! I'm so glad to see that even 2.5 years later, you're still replying to comments. I rarely have used bleach over the years, so it has been a SLOWLY dawning realization for me that it does NOT work to whiten laundry/linens!!!! This is the first time I have searched the subject and I'm so happy to find your very reassuring post here. Why reassuring?? Because in their steadfast refusal to (as you say) simply tell us about their reasons and the facts... to (as you say) instead outright lie and give false reasons... they are totally GASLIGHTING us!! Here we are pulling our white sheets (that have got dingy areas from body oils, etc.) out of the dryer only to find that now the dingy is BAKED IN!! :-/ It's WORSE than ineffective, b/c at least if you knew it was ineffective going in, you wouldn't use it AS IF it were going to work. Grrrrr.

    Anyway, thank you so much for delving so thoroughly into the matter. I will explore the ammonia option now, thanks you your research!!

    1. Hi Marcy, You're right: it does feel like we are being "gaslighted" --- and over a simple household product of all things. Grrrrr here too! LOL!

      I've also recently tried a new "whitening" product that has been in stores, and it helps some. There are different brands that I think are mostly the same, the one I've tried is "Out Brand White Brite". The website says it has Sodium Choloride and Sodium Hydrosulfate, so I only use soap when I use it. It can only be used on whites. I buy mine in the grocery store, but here is what it looks like:

      Thank you for commenting. It is good to know I am not the only person wondering what happens when things that are part of my life are changed! LOL! Merry Christmas! :-)



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