Wishing there was a natural disinfectant as effective as bleach without all the hazards? Whether you’ve been washing dishes with bleach or just need to sanitize surfaces, YES, there are alternatives to bleach that are EPA-approved, even for childcare facilities. From hydrogen peroxide to kill germs to essential oils, we’ll explore the best of them in today’s post!
Have you ever felt ill after inhaling too much bleach? Do you feel that tickle in your throat when you clean with it? Do you wonder if it’s actually safe to clean with bleach, or wish there was a natural alternative?
Bleach kills germs and mildew, whitens fabric and is a great all-around, frugal cleaner, right?
But imagine if you could get your countertops just as clean and disinfected with a natural product that wouldn’t make your nose burn.
My History with Bleach, Washing Dishes, and Chicken
I still remember when my mom discovered how easy it was to disinfect with bleach water (that was years ago, and before I knew about natural alternatives to bleach or that bleach was bad for me).
We both felt like we had trumped the system, avoided toxic, costly sprays and knocked the salmonella right off the raw-chicken-covered cutting board. Current wisdom at the time said only a quarter cup per gallon water was needed to totally disinfect after cutting raw meat, so we both had our spray bottles under the sink, ready to go.
I also remember working one summer in a daycare facility, and every day I had to wash the snack dishes in hot soapy water, rinse them, then give them a dunk in a tub of bleach water and allow them to air dry, per state regulations (way before I knew about natural disinfectants approved for childcare facilities). I’m fairly sure I used a “glug” of bleach in the washtub, however much that was from day to day.
I thought that federal or state childcare regulations, which are very strict, mandated only bleach water and air drying as an appropriate way to disinfect surfaces, but it turns out that the CDC allows any EPA-registered disinfectant to be used (a welcome surprise!).
The Story that Woke me up to the Hazards of 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?1 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.2
Is Bleach Even Effective?
It’s used extensively, but is bleach even doing what all these inhaling housewives expect?
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 dishwashing water. Besides that, some dish soaps 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.3
All we really want is a product that will kill germs, you know “disinfect” or “sanitize” our surfaces to keep our families safe! But…do we even know what those terms mean?
How Strong Does a Disinfectant Need to be to Kill Germs and Bacteria?
The CDC’s three levels of disinfection used to rank are as follows:
- High-level disinfection – kills all organisms, except high levels of bacterial spores, and is effected with a chemical germicide cleared for marketing as a sterilant by FDA. Typically not used for generalized disinfecting. In other words, I’m reading this to mean not for household use.
- Intermediate-level disinfection – kills mycobacterium, most viruses, and bacteria with a chemical germicide registered as a “tuberculocide” by EPA.
- Low-level disinfection – kills some viruses and bacteria with a chemical germicide registered as a hospital disinfectant by the EPA.
The Toxicity of Bleach vs. Thymol
In a document titled “EPA Registered Hard Surface Disinfectants Comparison Chart”4 you can see a comparison of six “active ingredients in institutional disinfectant products” including chlorine bleach and Thymol, the “botanicals” example found in Benefect (also found on Amazon) and other natural sanitizers, including Cleanwell.
Of the six active ingredients found in institutional disinfectant products, only Thymol and bleach are “intermediate level disinfectants,” with the other four coming in at “low level disinfectant” or a combination of the two depending on formulation. Benefect is also on the list of registered antimicrobial products for avian (bird) flu disinfectants and also approved against SARS-COV-2 aka COVID-19, both the disinfectant spray and wipes.
Bleach and the natural disinfectant made from thyme quickly diverge on the next line, however, when the EPA rates the compounds’ “toxicity category.”
Chlorine bleach and the phenols are rated as a “category I,” described as “highly toxic” and lethal at levels ranging from a few drops to a teaspoonful orally. They are marked by law with a skull and crossbones and the words “DANGER. POISON.” Nice.
“Quaternary Ammonium Compounds” and “Accelerated Hydrogen Peroxide (hydrogen peroxide/anionic surfactants)” are both category III, “slightly toxic.” Lethal levels are over one ounce to one pint.
Do you still feel just as safe having bleach in your house?
Natural Alternatives to Bleach Don’t Cause These Health Issues
Here is a short list of issues chlorine bleach has been linked to:5
- Respiratory issues
- Skin burns
- Damage to nervous system
- Exacerbates Asthma
- 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 cancer6
Just to make sure you don’t miss anything, the EPA also lists “health effects” of bleach, including:
- Mixing with ammonia, ammonium quaternary compounds and other acidic products can create poisonous gas.
- Corrosive to eyes and skin, and a respiratory irritant.
- Suspected cardiovascular, gastrointestinal or liver, kidney, central nervous system, respiratory, and skin or sense organ toxicant.
It’s also “Toxic to aquatic organisms” and should be used only with “increased ventilation.”
How many windows are open in most schools, bathrooms, etc. when bleach is used?
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).7
One 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.
And this is stuff that’s added to city water across the nation and poured into school buildings and other public places.
Now I know – the germs bleach is killing, the mold, the bacteria – all can cause massive health problems too.
But what if there was an equally effective disinfectant that didn’t come with so much baggage?
The EPA says there are a few. Is anyone listening?
Why No One Uses EPA Approved Natural Alternatives to Bleach
In reality, though, I think people go with what they know – when I offered to bring a bottle of natural spray with essential oils for my daughter’s preschool class one year, the teachers were interested in natural alternatives to bleach, but their superiors said no, that they had to use the approved “3-step method” to clean and disinfect (this is not for dishes, just desks and surfaces in the classroom).
They were requesting Clorox’s “Anywhere” spray, which has 3 great ingredients and one, sodium hypochlorite, that decomposes into chlorine and is itself “an essential ingredient in bleach” according to Clorox’s website.
Sounds like a “same old product, new packaging and marketing” situation to me.
Similarly, our librarian also always assures us moms at Babytime that all the toys are sprayed down with a bleach solution. (squirm, squirm)
Even though the bleach should be completely evaporated by the time my 19-month-old is gnawing on the toy car wheels, I still think there’s a better, safer, perhaps even MORE effective way!
It’s time to get the word out there —
Thymol: Safe Alternative to Bleach that Actually Kills Germs and Bacteria
Thymol, which you’ll remember is equal to bleach as an “intermediate level disinfectant,” along with “Silver Dihydrogen Citrate (example –PureGreen 24)” are the only category IV substances on the EPA’s chart, the safest available, lethal only in levels over one pint (that’s two cups) up to a pound orally. They’re officially titled “relatively non-toxic.”
In my mind, bleach is already out to the curb, but just to prove that Thymol is just as effective, here are the “bugs” they’re each rated to be effective against:
- Bleach: “Effective against most bacteria and some viruses and is registered as effective against HIV, HBV, H1N1 (Influenza A), MRSA and TB.”
- Thymol: “Effective against a broad spectrum of microbes including H1N1 (Influenza A). TB and MRSA.”
That’s good enough for me!
And it’s truly safe: “The EPA is not aware of any adverse effects of thymol to humans or the environment when it is used in a manner prescribed by product labeling. The Agency has no significant incident reports involving thymol.”
Both are supposed to “dwell,” or sit on the surface, for 5-10 minutes, but for bleach, “rinsing is required in applications where direct skin or oral contact can occur (children’s toys).”
Considering all those “sprayed down” toys in nurseries across the nation, I’m thinking most providers aren’t reading that far down. I used to spray down all the secondhand baby toys I bought with bleach water and let it sit because I knew about the “dwell time” and air dried everything.
Hydrogen Peroxide: One of the Other Natural Alternatives to Bleach
You may not have Thymol on hand (yet). Until then, consider commercially available 3% hydrogen peroxide, a stable and effective disinfectant when used on inanimate surfaces,” according to the good old CDC.
I mix it 50/50 with water to avoid ruining my clothes and use that as a general spray in the kitchen. Paired with vinegar in separate bottles, research shows it to be even more highly effective at killing bacteria.
Raise Them Well, a company begun by a physician and his wife, has a great Kid-Safe sanitizer. The active ingredient is stabilized oxygen, which is along the same lines as hydrogen peroxide, especially as far as safety.
They’re even certified by the Toxic-free Foundation! The sanitizer either foams or sprays depending on the size of bottle you buy – we love it here, and there’s no scent at all if you have a sensitive olfactory family member.
Silver: Another Non-Toxic Alternative to Bleach
I went through some EPA “registered disinfectant” documents (you’re welcome, those of you who aren’t bored to tears right now) and began to look up any product that sounded remotely natural or like it might not use bleach.
Unfortunately it wasn’t always easy to find ingredients (never a good sign) but I did come up with another active ingredient that may be a good alternative to bleach when it comes to antimicrobial action. Brands actually have to get their product registered with the EPA, and Pure Hard Surface is one example.
Its active ingredients are silver (0.003%) and citric acid (4.846%), and it’s approved against bacteria, viruses, and fungi including MRSA, human coronavirus, norovirus, listeria, E. coli, and salmonella – all on food contact surfaces without a rinse. Impressive!
Does this mean that any product that uses at least that concentration of silver will have such an antimicrobial germ-killing effect? No. That’s why the EPA requires each product registered individually.
But I feel pretty safe extrapolating for my own family that a product like 3rd Rock Nutrasporin (100 ppm silver, less percentage than above but for use on skin) and their other silver products will be helpful in preventing germs. Use the code KITCHENSTEW for 20% off.
Is Thymol the Same as Thyme Essential Oil?
In my opinion, you can use any thyme essential oil (and there are other essential oils that are anti-bacterial and anti-viral, too, they’re just not patented and registered). Thymol is the active compound in thyme oils, but it’s technically not exactly the same, tested and proven.
Remember that this isn’t “official” advice, although more research is being done all the time on EOs.
Do you know how to properly dilute essential oils?
Katie here, popping in to tell you how important it is to be sure you’re diluting those essential oils properly.
Sure, you know not to use EOs straight (neat). But do you know the 1-2-3 math so it’s not too strong or weak?
Print this chart to keep with your oils so you never have to do math in the middle of the night when your LO is congested:
DIY Thyme Disinfecting Spray
- 10-30 drops thyme essential oil
- 1 oz. rubbing alcohol
- 8-ounce spray bottle
Put thyme essential oil into an ounce of rubbing alcohol, shake it together, then fill the rest of an 8-ounce spray bottle with water.
- Benefect hand sanitizer at Amazon.
- Cleanwell products at Amazon, also available at Whole Foods, Target and other brick-and-mortar and online stores.
- Seventh Generation Disinfecting Multi-Surface Cleaner, at Amazon (also sold as individual wipes like our school often requests on supply lists) or Grove Collaborative.
- Note: Not all 7th Gen cleaners use thymol, and some use a preservative that it “natural” but still not great, so read the ingredients closely.
Bleach: Overused Even When Necessary?
Ironically, when my mom and I used to use about 1/4 cup bleach per gallon water, we would lament about all the people who used much more and didn’t need to. Turns out that we were probably overdoing it too. That ratio is only for potty messes in daycare. 1 Tbs./gallon is for non-mouth objects. Dishes and counters, like we were cleaning, should have only 1 teaspoon per gallon water!
It’s also recommended in these child care facility guidelines that bleach water does not go in a spray bottle so it’s not “aerosolized.”
You’re supposed to mix up new bleach water daily. The EPA document I walked you through above states, “When mixed with water the solution is only effective as a disinfectant for 24 hours.” You also have to get rid of your bleach after 3 months. Why? Because it degrades so fast that it’s no longer effective for disinfecting after that time (although it will still bleach clothing). So much for having bleach “on hand for an emergency.” Do you replace your jug at least twice a year? And then what – toss the rest?
In contrast, essential oils (such as the one the EPA-registered Thymol is based on) last for years and are great for both preparedness and everyday applications. They’re not without any hazards and can sometimes burn (superficially) if certain ones are used without a carrier, but the list of deficits is far, far shorter than that for chlorine bleach.
How to Replace Bleach in Your Cleaning and Dishwashing Routines
Here are some of the most common places you’ll find bleach in the kitchen:
- To disinfect the counters/dishes after cutting raw meat
- In dishwasher detergent
- In dish soap
- Some add bleach to their dishwater
So now you need to know what to do instead of bleach, right?
- To wash dishes: You simply don’t need bleach. Just use dish soap. If you feel the need to disinfect your dishes, either use the sanitizing cycle on your dishwasher, pour boiling water on them, or spray after washing with one of the other options in this post.
- Dishwasher detergents: This is a sticking point for me. There are good natural commercial detergents out there that don’t use bleach. Because the dishwasher sends out steam that would otherwise be laden with bleach fumes (and heating it makes it easier for your body to absorb, unfortunately), dishwasher detergents are a really important area to “go green”.
- Don’t buy products “with added bleach.” Yuck! Just wash stuff.
- To sanitize after cutting raw meat, especially chicken? Use the hydrogen peroxide/vinegar combo I explain here, in separate bottles.
The chlorine added to city water is another thorny issue. Certainly we need access to clean water, and we are so blessed here in America to avoid the diseases that are so rampant in countries with tenuous or unsafe water supplies.
I don’t know – but without doing exhaustive combing of medical journals, I can say with certainty one thing. There is no denying that the chlorine in city water has an impact on human health.
For example, when making water kefir, one cannot use city water without taking steps to get the chlorine out, or the yeast and bacteria that ferment the beverage will die. Also, my King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book talks about baking bread with city water, and they insist that you must leave a bowl of water out overnight, because the chlorinated water harms the yeast, and the bread won’t rise as nicely.
And those people are a for-profit business, not the “natural, crunchy” community.
I ask you, as a thinking person: isn’t it logical to assume that if chlorinated water hurts the healthy yeast and bacteria in bread baking, it would also have some destructive effects on the healthy bacteria in our own bodies?
For our family, I am happy to remove the chlorine from our city water with our Berkey filter, along with fluoride and a host of other contaminants, while leaving the minerals intact.
COVID-19/Novel Coronavirus Natural Disinfectants Without Bleach
The bottom line, if you’re wanting to sanitize or disinfect your home to protect your family from viruses in general, is that YES — there are safer, more natural alternatives to bleach, including the following active ingredients in EPA-approved products specifically for use against SARS-CoV-2 (more are being added every day):
- Thymol (active ingredient in Benefect and others)
- Hydrogen peroxide
The CDC recommends routine cleaning and disinfecting, and if someone in the home IS ill, pay special daily attention to high-touch surfaces like door handles and light switches, phones, remote controls, toilets, sinks, etc.
Note that these are all for hard surfaces, NOT for human skin (aka not sanitizers!).
How do YOU Disinfect?
As good kitchen stewards, we must start with the question – once you’ve cleaned off the visible gunk, how do you attack the invisible germs and other buggers? (and do we need to??)
In schools, they have to – so how do we play along and keep our kids’ airways and brains safe?
After reading that the EPA rates natural disinfectants based on thyme oil, hydrogen peroxide and silver as effective as bleach, I hope you consider finding some natural alternatives to bleach and then banish bleach from your home once and for all.
If you have children in daycare, which includes ANY preschool, consider having a conversation about EPA-registered disinfectants and how the providers might use natural alternatives to bleach. This EPA document titled “Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: A Curriculum for Early Care and Education” completely gives me hope that eco-friendly health and safety will go mainstream someday. It covers the good side of germs, harmful health effects of chemicals such as endocrine disruption and inhalation dangers, risks of triclosan, fragrances, parabens, and improper ventilation, and why children are more susceptible to environmental impact than adults.
It’s a bit long though, so feel free to use this post to know exactly what to say when someone recommends using bleach to disinfect!
More “Clean” Posts You’ll Enjoy:
- On handwashing and antibacterial soap
- Are waterless hand sanitizers okay? On creating “superbugs” with triclosan
- Too Clean Can be a Bad Thing
1“Did you know that housewives have some of the highest rates of air-pollution-caused disease?” 1 Pinkerton, K. E., Harbaugh, M., Han, M. K., Saux, C. J. L., Winkle, L. S. V., Martin, W. J., … George, M. (2015). Women and Lung Disease. Sex Differences and Global Health Disparities. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 192(1), 11–16. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201409-1740pp. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4511423/
2The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality. (2019, October 3). https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/inside-story-guide-indoor-air-quality
3Normand, J. (Ed.). (1995). 6 The Effectiveness of Bleach as a Disinfectant of Injection Drug Equipment. In National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Panel on Needle Exchange and Bleach Distribution Programs. Washington, DC: National Academies Press (US). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK232358/
4https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-06/documents/20171406-listc.pdf; List C: EPA’s Registered Antimicrobial Products Effective Against Human HIV-1 Virus. (2020, March 4). https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-c-epas-registered-antimicrobial-products-effective-against-human-hiv-1
6Morris, R. D. (1995). Drinking water and cancer. Environmental Health Perspectives, 103(suppl 8), 225–231. doi: 10.1289/ehp.95103s8225. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1518976/
7Toxic Substances Portal – Chlorine. (2010, November). https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=683&tid=36