Food for Thought: Why is Bleach Bad for Me?

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bleachBleach kills germs and mildew, whitens fabric and is a great all-around, frugal cleaner, right?

Have you ever felt ill after inhaling too much bleach? Do you feel that tickle in your throat when you clean with it? Imagine if you could get your countertops just as clean and “disinfected” (who infected your counters with something, anyway?) with a natural product that wouldn’t make your nose burn.

Bleach is as much of a toxin as it is a cleaner. Here are some of the hazards:

  • Respiratory issues
  • Skin burns
  • Damage to nervous system
  • Exacerbates Asthma
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Accidents that cause the skin to come into direct contact with bleach or people ingesting it (as many as 700 adults per year)
  • Linked to cancer

Many sources say that chlorine by itself is not hazardous and will break down before it reaches the environment, which may be true (but it sounds a little too good to be true). The real hazard of bleach is that it can’t be mixed with ammonia, vinegar or other acids, and even organic matter (and what would you normally clean up with bleach? Organic matter, of course.). Each of these compounds causes a reaction with bleach that emits toxic, potentially carcinogenic fumes.

The Story that Woke me up to Bleach

I read a story a few years ago about a boy doing his homework in his room. He was concentrating and writing a delightful essay about such-and-such and so-and-so (can you tell I can’t find the exact source for this story?), when rather suddenly he began to feel less focused and his handwriting actually changed and became sloppy, as did his line of thinking. The only thing that changed in his environment was that his mother was using bleach in the laundry room below, connected to his room by the ventilation system. Inhaling bleach fumes actually decreased his concentration, motor control, and cognition. As a teacher, I was shocked by the handwriting sample and even more shocked to think about how much bleach was used in my old school building.

Did you know that housewives have some of the highest rates of air-pollution-caused disease? The indoor air quality in many homes is some of the most hazardous around, in part (in most part?) because of fumes from cleaning products.

Is Bleach Even Effective?

First of all, bleach has to dry on the surface you’re trying to disinfect in order to kill all the bacteria. That may make you think twice about adding a glug of bleach to your dishwater. Besides that, some dishsoaps have ammonia in them – major death-wish no-no!

Secondly, bleach becomes ineffective when it touches organic matter, which means that any food or gunk on whatever you’re trying to disinfect must be completely cleaned off first, before spraying a bleach solution on.

Bleach is overkill. It’s not necessary in your kitchen. Please accept the Monday Mission this week to eradicate bleach from your kitchen, and see my post Tuesday for the easy, frugal, natural cleaners I employ in my kitchen.

UPDATE: Here’s a new post on the natural disinfectant that the EPA rates as highly as bleach!

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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39 Bites of Conversation So Far

    • Katie says

      Always, always. You can’t avoid the fumes. Try oxygen bleach. It works great and is hydrogen peroxide based. :) Katie

  1. Laura says

    First of all, I just found your site and I am already hooked! Here is my problem: I am slowly but surely eliminating bleach from my household. My question is about disinfecting when TRULY needed (to prevent spread of gastro illnesses within the household, to clean our little travel potty seat that I’m certain is picking up some nastiness, etc). What do you suggest in those situations? Thanks so much!

    • Katie says

      I use a combo of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar and feel pretty confident about that, especially for everyday potty germs. See my homemade natural cleaners post for exactly how to do it and a link to another post with more research about the method. There’s a comment at the second post that has me convinced I might want to keep bleach around for very seldom usage, but I’m looking into that more. Hope that helps! :) Katie

    • says

      I have a great alternative that is eco friendly, EPA approved to kill Rotavirus, influenza A and MRSA. It is a naturally sourced disinfectant that leaves no harmful residue on If you would like more info let me know.

  2. says

    I hate the thought of all the bleach we use. But I’m still trying to find a good alternative. I’m looking forward to the day when I know that water will actually clean my food and dishes instead of just potentially making them worse. Right now, though, I live in the Dominican Republic. Our water is untreated and not drinkable. The produce we buy we always soak in water with a few drops of food grade bleach. We buy our produce at local vegetable markets, and cleanliness is not a focus at most places. I’ve seen people take raw meat, weigh in on the scale, and then weigh our veggies on that same, dirty scale. And cockroaches? Well, they’re just a part of life here. I can’t buy a produce wash here (besides bleach) and hydrogen peroxide is very expensive (and we have a small budget! And any water I use to clean my food or dishes starts as dirty water (full of great things like parasites and amoebas). So, the question I forever have is: how do I soak my veggies when I can’t even start with clean water?!

    • Katie says

      Oh man, Teresa…In your place, I might do exactly what you’re doing! Your situation is definitely a question of “what is WORSE for me?” Be well! :) Katie

    • Katharine says

      Yes, I have a solution for you: boil your water! It is a very effective way to get rid of parasites. Just make sure it really boils for several minutes. That eliminates bleach. I am European, and I have never used bleach. My mother never used a drop of bleach in her life. I also do not use antibacterial this and that or disinfectants in my house.

  3. says

    Thanks! I’m learning I need to do what I can and leave the rest up to God- without getting too anxious! We’re moving back to the States this summer (it’s been an amazing 6 years here, but we feel God calling us back). I’m hoping to take advantage of “starting over” (since we’re leaving most of our things behind) and go even more natural and organic. The question is how to afford it when we’ll be pretty much starting from scratch. But, like you say, baby steps! :)

  4. Kim says

    The nursery at our church uses a bleach water spray to spray down all the toys before putting them away. That’s their only source of disinfecting. The kids aren’t touching it–it’s drying before they’re in the nursery next week. Do you think there is any harm being done there?

    • Katie says

      I doubt your kids are at risk; chlorine evaporates very effectively. If you know the folks in charge, though, you could recommend other sources, like hydrogen peroxide water or vinegar water, that aer just as inexpensive. Good question! :) Katie

      • Elizabeth says

        Doesn’t Bleach break down plastic after a while?. .. If the kids are putting the toys in their moths, aren’t they getting more plastic/paint in their systems?

  5. says

    I have lived without ammonia bleach for a number of years now, but am feeling the loss of its cleaning power. I use Norwex products, but feel like I have to use so much ‘elbow grease’ to get things clean. For instance, keeping my stainless steel sink free of the brown grime that builds up just after a week, is really difficult without the extra power of grease in your typical Comet cleanser. Also, how do I clean the spots on my counter from black tea stains? Do I just need to get over wanting things sparkling white?

    • Katie says

      For both of those issues, have you tried baking powder? It’s an awesome scrub cleanser. Vinegar can cut some gunk, too. Hope that helps! :) Katie

  6. Margaret says

    Bleach makes me feel ill for hours, but I can’t seem to figure out any other way of dealing with mold and mildew in our bathroom. There is no fan, and therefore no air circulation. Since we rent, we cannot fix the situation. Is there anything besides bleach that kills mold?

    • Kim says

      Yes! Thieves essential oil diffused in a room will kill even black mold and has been found to be even more effective than the typical mold remediation offered by professionals. You can only buy it from Young Living–it is a blend of oils that is very effective against all bacteria and viruses as well, so a great one to have at home. As soon as I start feeling sick, I put some on the bottom of my feet, diffuse it in my home, or even take it in a capsule (diluted with oil).

      • Leslie Li says

        Thank you so much, this is SO helpful for I have black mold in my room, was making me so sick, had professional remediation, but now it smells like chemicals. I want to ask, how do you eat it? How much oil mixed with what kind of oil andput in capsule?

        Thank you!

  7. MamaLion says

    I hate bleach and avoid it whenever possible, however according to the CDC, to prevent the spread of Norovirus aka. stomach flu, the two most important things are frequent handwashing and “After throwing up or having diarrhea, immediately clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces by using a bleach-based household cleaner as directed on the product label. If no such cleaning product is available, you can use a solution made with 5 tablespoons to 1.5 cups of household bleach per 1 gallon of water. ” After two bad breakouts of Norovirus in our house, and living with an infant and 88 year old, I always have a bottle of watered down bleach on hand when someone throws up. However, anything that can go in the washing machine or dishwasher with soap and hot water DOES NOT need bleach, washing is sufficient. I use it on doorknobs, light switches, and handles of appliances. Then once it dries I wipe it down with a wet rag to get the bleach residue off.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Welllll…I don’t always listen to the CDC. There are other disinfecting options; nowadays I use tea tree oil and water or doTERRA On Guard blend in water for killing nasty things…
      :) Katie


        Ms. Kimball, I appreciate your efforts to lead a healthy life, but you have been misled, and what you’re doing is dangerous. In MamaLion’s household bleach is a necessity, with an infant and an elderly person living in her household, she is doing the right thing. Sometimes, as humans we do not educate ourselves before making rash decisions. Ms. Katie as an influence to people who ask of your advice you should consult with the CDC’s references before giving such weighty advice. For over a century, chlorine bleach has kept the human population healthy. Think back to when there was no bleach, and people died in great numbers from simple viruses. Now, whenever a new strain of the flu or another virus surfaces, it is tested by professionals in a lab and most of the time bleach is found to be effective at killing it. Alternative and holitic methods can be useful in certain applications, but the blind trust that we put in these faddish activities can be dangerous.
        Thank you for your time Ms. Katie

        • Katharine says

          With all due respect, but people died, because of poor nutrition, crowding and overall bad hygiene (germ theory was a 19th century discovery) not because they did not have bleach. In Europe most households do not use bleach, and we outlive you and lead far healthier lives. My uncle is a primary care doctor, my sister a nurse and my brother-in-law a chemist, and they do not use bleach in their households. I had a case of Norovirus four years ago, and I used hot water and soap as well as a natural, citric-based solution that kills 99.9 percent of germs according to my chemist brother-in-law. I know Americans would have fumigated their homes, but guess what? It wasn’t necessary. Nobody got ill, and I haven’t been ill since then.

          I believe that Americans rely too much on chemicals, and it is beginning to show. I have friends in the US, several families actually, and all their children have massive allergies to everything in the world you can imagine. My friend C.’s daughter has a basket full of medicine that she takes on a daily basis, because their germ-free, chlorine-disinfected home environment still contains too many allergens. My family and I happily and healthily live in our non-disinfected house with three parrots, several guinea pigs and our dog.
          BTW, my grand mum took care of her mother and her little daughter (my mum) without the use of bleach. Greatgrandmum died at age 101, grandma at 91 due to surgery complications, and my mother is still a picture of health at age 60. I guess we must be doing something right despite the absence of bleach.

          P.S. I do not trust the CDC or the FDA and am super glad that I do not live in their area of influence. Two years ago, I met a lovely retired MD who told me that both of these organisations are heavily influenced by the pharma and chemistry lobbies.

          • says

            I couldn’t agree more with your comment. I would like to add, people here in the US eat GMO’s when it is clearly banned in other countries. I think that causes allergies and autoimmune problems too.
            Way too many members of the FDA have worked for companies like Monsanto. It’s sad but they cannot be trusted.

          • says

            LOL, absolutely agree with you. Americans are some of the most unhealthy people in the world, yet they keep listening to the drug companies and chemical companies telling them they must use this product or that. And no, I don’t trust the CDC either as far as I can throw them.

            Never did understand why Americans are so gullible.

            I’ve lived in Thailand for years (British originally, then lived in the US for years – hated it :) – and I’ve never met as many people obsessed with buying cleaning products and using chemicals as I did when I lived in the US.

            People just don’t use them very often in Asia, yet live longer and healthier lives than do many Americans.

            And the constant hand-washing and using anti-germ hand washes is the worst thing you can do for your health. Studies show those who use them not only have more bacteria on their hands than those who don’t, the bacteria becomes immune to the hand washes and thus keeps on multiplying.

            And yes, I’m also very glad I no longer live under the CDC’s guidance :)

  8. says

    Hello All,

    I work for a chemical manufacturer. We are a relatively new company and our surface disinfectants (hospital-grade) are to be released to market this month. Don’t worry, I am not pro-bleach. In fact, I am quite the opposite. I will not touch the stuff!

    Thankfully, our products do not contain bleach or alcohol. Long-story cut short, I have done a lot of research on bleach and its health effects and its EFFICACY. Needless to say, it is not the best solution! By the time you purchase it, it has a shelf life of about only 6 months- which most people do not know about. Bleach will not kill the spores. If the spores are still present, the mold, under the right conditions, will grow back. My company has a sporicidal disinfectant
    that kills mold spores in 1 minute.

    I would stay far away from bleach, it only causes problems.

  9. Jamie says

    Bleach isn’t used in my house, except for one purpose. I have turtles and unfortunately, in our little house, their dishes are cleaned in the kitchen sink. They also get soaked in an old plastic bin in the tub. I use diluted bleach to spray down the sink, the counter around the sink, the soaking bin and the tub when I’m done with their cleanup. Any suggestions on what else might be used to kill potential salmonella?

  10. Han says

    Katie is wish it were true about most family’s in europe not using bleach! Its like a drug they are all hooked on to keep them healthy. I have friends that after getting a few crumbs on the kitchen table reach for the bleach spray and give me a headache for the next couple of hours despite me being the other side of the room. When staying in a hotel I always leave the sign on to not clean the room as they usually douse everything with chemicals. It’s a hard lonely life at times.

  11. kasey says

    I know this is an ancient post but I was wondering about using bleach to clean livestock dairy equipment since it will be used with raw milk I can’t seem to find any other options.
    Thank you

  12. says

    Wow, really like your site. I was just checking it for information about bleach, as I knew it was carcinogenic but couldn’t remember why. Thanks for this :)

    BTW, I use white vinegar for cleaning my house and my rabbits cage. It’s safe and the smell evaporates in just a couple of minutes, yet it disinfects fabulously.

  13. Ashleigh says

    Oh my gosh thanks for this my mom uses bleach in the dish water you may have just save all of us thank you again

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