What You Should Know About the Dual Personality of Chlorine Bleach

Dangerous chemical
or cost-effective tool in the laundry room?
Chlorine bleach can be considered either, or both. One thing is certain, bleach must be well-understood by laundry professionals.

 

The laundry business is full of strange (and sometimes misleading) words and phrases such as “hand,” “break,” “bleach in the clear,” “redeposition,” and of course, “some stains only come out with scissors.”

“Bleach in the clear” is a cliché that means you should never use bleach until the dirt and detergent are completely removed from the wash bath. Years ago, one would drain some wash bath water into a glass and hold it up in front of a newspaper. If you could read the newsprint, it was “clear” and time to put the bleach in. Like most clichés, people use it because it is still true — you do get the best bleaching results with clear water in the bleach bath. Many other truths about bleach are less clear, so let’s rinse them out.

"You do get the best bleaching results with clear water in the bleach bath."

WHAT IS BLEACH?

“Bleach” doesn’t refer to a specific product, but rather describes the effect the product has. What most people call “bleach” is in fact sodium hypochlorite, a product originally made by bubbling chlorine gas up through a liquid made from soda ash and water. Today, an industrial process using electrolysis, chlorine, and sodium hydroxide solutions produces the same result more efficiently.

Bleach is by far the most dangerous product most people keep in their homes. Chlorine bleach can cause chemical burns to the eyes, mouth and stomach, it also reacts very strongly with a wide variety of other chemicals to create harmful gasses, eats away at pretty much any kind of container (except glass), makes plastic brittle, eats through stainless steel if given enough time, and just to top it off, is very unstable. If left uncapped, a container of bleach will lose most of its potency in a matter of days. Even in a closed container it starts to degrade after approximately six months.

Not-so-Fun Fact: Bleach is a strong oxidizer, which means if your house catches on fire, the flames will burn cleaner, brighter and faster when they get to your stockpile of bleach in the laundry room.

Despite all of these drawbacks, bleach continues in wide use because it works, both at whitening clothes and at killing germs, and also because it is so very cost-effective. Generic bleach can still be purchased at a store for a dollar per gallon or less, and in bulk containers the cost comes down even more. As a final bonus, linens that are run through certain types of bleach cycles are considered to be “sanitized” as defined by many health departments.

THE BLEACH PROCESS - KNOWING YOUR "STUFF"

To “bleach” is to make something white or lighter in color. However, even the sun can do that. A lot of things have bleaching properties, however only two products are widely used in commercial laundries as bleach: sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach) and hydrogen peroxide (oxygen bleach). 

Why would you use anything besides chlorine bleach if it works so well and is so darn cost-effective? All of the safety drawbacks listed above are part of the reason. Add to those issues the corrosive effect of chlorine bleach on dispensing equipment, tubing, and (very expensive) washing machines themselves, and you're beginning to build a case that the perceived "cheapness" of bleach is what is known as a false economy.

Chlorine bleach is also a very harsh chemical on the fabrics being washing. Continued exposure degrades natural fibers like cotton or wool. If the chlorine bleach is not properly rinsed out of the fabrics, they can turn yellow in the drier - even brown or pink if there was a lot of iron in the water. Cities that get part or all of their water from wells often have this issue. The more chlorine bleach you use, the more thoroughly you have to rinse. Extra rinsing increases water usage and lengthens energy-hungry wash cycles. If you’re a healthcare facility, one of the worst things about chlorine bleach is that it combines with certain types of antiseptics used in emergency rooms and surgeries to make brown stains that are just about impossible to get out (refer to guideline above about scissors). So the agent used to defeat stains ends up in the final analysis, staining.

"The perceived 'cheapness' of bleach is what is known as a false economy."

A FRESH BREATH OF AIR

That brings us to oxygen bleach. This bleaching product is not 100% safe to handle, but is certainly much less reactive than chlorine bleach, and safer under most circumstances. It is correspondingly more stable, and also lasts longer in the container. 

Oxygen bleach’s most outstanding property is that if properly diluted, it is safe to use on colored fabrics and delicate linens you wouldn’t dream of using chlorine bleach on. Also in its favor are the plusses that it won’t combine with iron to discolor whites, and it doesn’t yellow if over-used. Oxygen bleach is the preferred choice at healthcare facilities, because it is doesn’t cause permanent brown stains when it comes in contact with antispetics.

SO, BACK TO THE ORIGINAL QUESTION - WHAT TO USE?

So now we’re back to a question similar to one we opened with — why would anyone use chlorine bleach when oxygen bleach is available and obviously superior in so many ways? First of all, oxygen bleach costs more per ounce. It can cost almost twice as much, depending upon the concentration. Bleach is the highest-use chemical in a commercial laundry, so this can make a notable difference to the bottom line. This has to be weighed, however, against all the indirect costs of chlorine bleach we have already considered. Secondly,  performance of oxygen bleach is tied closely to water temperature. You need at least 165 degree water for truly effective oxygen bleaching, and 170 degrees or a little higher would be ideal. Not all laundries are high-temp laundries.

Chlorine bleach works best in the 145-degree range, and can still be effective with temperatures as low as 115 degrees if the laundry formula is adjusted properly. (PUR-O-ZONE can assist you with these kinds of adjustments.) Because making water hot is also an expense, that cost also has to be factored in. If you operate a high-volume laundry, an oxygen bleach activator can be purchased and added to the program to allow the oxygen bleach to work at lower temperatures. Unfortunately, this technology has not filtered down into smaller, on-premise laundries yet.

Finally, most oxygen bleach products are not rated as sanitizers by health departments. Oxygen bleach does kill germs. However, very few manufacturers have gotten a sanitizer rating for their oxygen bleach products, in part due to the high expense of doing so. Under normal circumstances, this issue is less important because - even without bleach - the chances of anyone becoming infected from properly laundered linen are very remote. If your facility wants to or is required to have that rating however, most oxygen bleach products do not provide it.

So which one is better? The pros and cons are easy to sum up:  Chlorine bleach is cheaper, works better in low temperatures, and can be used to sanitize. Oxygen bleach is safe on all fabrics, less harsh on the fibers and doesn’t cause yellowing or browning like chlorine bleach can.

It really comes down to what your particular facility needs. If you already have 170-degree water and have to deal with antiseptic stains, using oxygen bleach is a no-brainer. If you barely reach 130 degrees inside the washer and need to sanitize sheets or towels, chlorine bleach is the way to go. Just make sure your staff is well-versed in the dangers and proper use of sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach).

Talk over the options with your chemical provider after being confident laundry is a core commitment of their company. If you suspect the knowledge level there is not first-rate, interview other providers. There is a lot at stake. One 65 lb load of ruined personal clothes at an assisted care facility can cost more than the savings by using the wrong chemistry over a very long period of time.