Bleach is a common household product that many people use for cleaning and disinfecting. It can kill most types of viruses, bacteria, molds, mildew, and algae. Bleach also whitens or lightens the color of certain materials.
Household bleach tends to contain 3–8% sodium hypochlorite. It is not usually toxic to the skin itself, but it can irritate the skin, eyes, and other parts of the body. It can be more harmful if mixed with other household chemicals, such as toilet cleaner, or if someone inhales it.
This article looks at what to do if bleach comes into direct contact with the skin or eyes. It will also discuss when to see a doctor and provide tips on how to use bleach safely.
Effects on the skin and other body areas
Household bleach is corrosive but not usually dangerous if a person uses it according to the label.
The effects of exposure to bleach will vary depending on the part of the body it affects, the concentration of the bleach, the duration of the exposure, and the amount.
Exposure to bleach can affect these body areas in the following ways:
- Eyes: Exposure to bleach can make the eyes look red and feel irritated. The affected eye may tear up, and the person may experience blurry vision.
- Mouth and throat: The mouth and throat may feel irritated, but the bleach will not usually cause any severe damage.
- Skin: The skin may be irritated and look red.
- Stomach and gastrointestinal (GI) tract: It is unusual for bleach to damage the stomach or GI tract because they are very resilient to such substances.
- Lungs: Breathing in bleach fumes can irritate the lungs. For example, a person may experience bronchospasm. Bronchospasm causes the chest to feel tight and makes it hard for the person to catch their breath.
Exposure to bleach can be dangerous or even fatal if it mixes with other household chemicals. Bleach manufactured in countries outside of the United States may be even more dangerous due to the increased concentration.
For example, when combined with ammonia, bleach will create a toxic gas called chloramine. People can inhale the gas or absorb it through the skin. High levels of exposure to chloramine gas can be fatal.
Exposure to chloramine gas can cause many symptoms, including:
- shortness of breath
- watery eyes
- pain in the chest
- throat, nose, and eye irritation
- fluid in the lungs
What to do for bleach exposure
In most cases, diluting the bleach with water will be enough to ease the skin irritation it causes. However, if someone gets bleach in their eyes or lungs, they should seek immediate medical attention. If a person ingests bleach, they should call Poison Control on 1-800-222-1222 immediately.
First aid advice for bleach exposure, depending on the area of the body it affects, is as follows:
- Eyes: Flush the eyes with tap water. Then, see a doctor immediately.
- Skin: Wash the exposed skin with mild soap and water.
- Mouth or throat: If a person has swallowed a lot of bleach or an unknown amount, they should call Poison Control. They should also drink plenty of water. Drinking milk may ease the irritation. However, people should never force themselves to vomit, as it will cause more damage.
- Lungs: Anyone who has inhaled bleach and is having trouble breathing should see a doctor, especially if they have asthma.
When to see a doctor
Anyone who gets bleach in their eyes should, after flushing the area with tap water, seek medical attention straight away.
People with asthma who inhale bleach should speak to a doctor straight away, especially if they start to experience any breathing difficulties.
Getting bleach on the skin is not usually dangerous when it is only for a short duration. However, it is important to speak to a doctor if the irritation does not pass within a few days or becomes severe.
When someone mixes bleach with other household chemicals, especially those that contain ammonia or acid, exposure can be very harmful. If someone has exposure to chloramine gas, for example, they should seek medical attention right away.
Tips for using bleach safely
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that it is critical to read and follow the safety instructions on any household cleaning product to avoid accidental exposure.
The most important things to remember when using bleach are as follows:
- Never mix bleach with ammonia or any other cleaner.
- Always wear rubber gloves to protect the skin on the hands.
- Wear goggles or another form of eye protection.
- Do not breathe in product fumes.
- Keep the windows and doors open to ventilate the area.
- Store it away from children.
Alternatives to bleach
The environmental protection organization Beyond Toxics warn of the environmental impact of bleach. They state that the bleach manufacturing process produces a highly toxic chemical called dioxin.
In large quantities, dioxin may:
- lead to reproductive and developmental issues
- damage the immune system
- interfere with hormones
- give rise to cancer
Discarded bleach may also mix with ammonia- or acid-based products in sewers and create dangerous chloramine gas.
Some alternatives to bleach for cleaning and whitening materials include:
- hydrogen peroxide
- lemon juice
- washing soda or borax
Household bleach is not usually toxic, though exposure can cause irritation.
If someone gets bleach on their skin, they should clean the affected area with soap and water.
If bleach gets into the eyes, the person should first flush the eyes with water and then seek medical attention.
When mixed with other chemicals in household cleaning products, bleach can produce a toxic gas called chloramine. Chloramine gas can be hazardous and even fatal. Anyone who has exposure to chloramine should therefore speak to a doctor.