Bleach is a more familiar disinfectant to many people, but experts have raised concerns about its safety as well.
“It’s hard not to talk about it,” said Samara Geller, senior director of cleaning science at the Environmental Working Group. “It’s in every cleaning product, practically.” The chemicals in bleach “are persistent in the environment, and they’re also very corrosive,” she added.
Bleach’s corrosive nature means that it can be damaging to skin and eyes if contact occurs. It has also been shown in numerous studies to be linked to asthma, among professional cleaners as well as people who use it frequently in the home. Diana Ceballos, an assistant professor in the department of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington, said that one of the American Lung Association’s “recommendations on how to avoid asthma or prevent asthma or ameliorate asthma” was to avoid using bleach.
A risk unique to bleach is the potential for producing toxic gases, namely chlorine gas, which has been used as a chemical weapon. The reaction occurs when bleach is mixed with ammonia — which is found in many glass cleaners, oven cleaners and some all-purpose cleaners — or acids, including vinegar.
In 2020, poison control centers reported more than 5,000 cases of cleaning-related chlorine gas exposures, two of which were fatal. In one case, a woman died after mixing a bleach-based cleaner with an acid-based toilet-cleaning tablet. It’s critical to never mix bleach with another cleaning product unless you’re absolutely positive it doesn’t contain an ammonia or an acid — which, considering products are rarely clearly labeled, is hard to know.
So what should I be using to clean?
Most of the experts The Times spoke to for this article said that they rarely, if ever, use disinfectants when they clean their homes, instead opting for soap and water. They also advised swaps to safer ingredients, such as disinfecting products that use hydrogen peroxide or citric acid. (Check out the E.P.A.’s Safer Choice program for more alternatives.)
“We definitely recommend people substitute with some D.I.Y. recipes instead of buying products off-the-shelf,” Ms. Geller said. “Even a dash of dish soap with a bit of baking soda can help remove that scum off your sink or out of your bathtub, and that can really help you to avoid some of the heavier, harsher chemicals.”