My History with Bleach
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!).
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 last fall, 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)
Is there anything wrong with bleach, which should be completely evaporated by the time my 19-month-old is gnawing on the toy car wheels?
I think so.
Natural Alternatives to Bleach Don’t do This
Here is a short list of issues chlorine bleach has been linked to:
- 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 cancer
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 is. Is anyone listening?
How Strong Does a Disinfectant Need to be to Kill Germs and Bacteria?
In a document titled “EPA Registered Hard Surface Disinfectants Comparison Chart” you can see a comparison of six “active ingredients in institutional disinfectant products” including chlorine bleach and Thymol, the “botanicals” example found in Benefect and other natural sanitizers, including Cleanwell.
The CDC’s three levels of disinfection used to rank are as follows:
1. 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.
2. Intermediate-level disinfection – kills mycobacterium, most viruses, and bacteria with a chemical germicide registered as a “tuberculocide” by EPA.
3. Low-level disinfection – kills some viruses and bacteria with a chemical germicide registered as a hospital disinfectant by the EPA.
The Toxicity of Bleach
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.
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.
Safe Alternative to Bleach – that Actually Kills Germs and Bacteria
The Thymol, along with “Silver Dihydrogen Citrate (example –PureGreen 24)” are the only category IV substances, 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!
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.
More Health Impacts of Bleach
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?
See more of my thoughts on bleach here and take the challenge – get rid of it!
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.
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).
Did you know that essential oils have a shelf life?
Katie here, popping in to tell you that those essential oils that have been sitting in your cabinet for a couple years and are still half full may have expired. Read more about what I learned when researching this topic, and you can even have the handy printable I made to help me remember how long which oils last.
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 Tropical Traditions (watch for free shipping weekends) or 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 (if a new Grove customer, get a free bag of Molly’s Suds, my favorite non-toxic laundry powder, with any $20 purchase…like thymol cleaners)
- 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.
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.
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 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.
Use this post to know exactly what to say when someone recommends using bleach to disinfect!
More “Clean” Posts You’ll Enjoy:
- 3-part series on handwashing and antibacterial soap
- Are waterless hand sanitizers okay?
- On creating “superbugs” with triclosan
- What’s SLS all about?
- Take action: Write to Bath and Body Works about triclosan
- Too Clean Can be a Bad Thing
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post. See my full disclosure statement here.