How Does Bleach Work?

How the popular household cleaning staple removes stains and more.

Bleach chemical cleaner
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Bleach is a chemical that can remove or lighten color, usually via oxidation.

Types of Bleach

There are several different types of bleach:

  • Chlorine bleach usually contains sodium hypochlorite.
  • Oxygen bleach contains hydrogen peroxide or a peroxide-releasing compound such as sodium perborate or sodium percarbonate.
  • Bleaching powder is calcium hypochlorite.

Other bleaching agents include sodium persulfate, sodium perphosphate, sodium persilicate, their ammonium, potassium, and lithium analogs, calcium peroxide, zinc peroxide, sodium peroxide, carbamide peroxide, chlorine dioxide, bromate, and organic peroxides (such as benzoyl peroxide).

While most bleaches are oxidizing agents, you can use other processes to remove color. For example, sodium dithionite is a powerful reducing agent that you can use as a bleach.

How Bleach Chemicals Work

An oxidizing bleach works by breaking the chemical bonds of a chromophore (part of a molecule that has color). This changes the molecule so that it either has no color or reflects color outside the visible spectrum.

A reducing bleach works by changing the double bonds of a chromophore into single bonds. This alters the optical properties of the molecule, making it colorless.

In addition to chemicals, energy can disrupt chemical bonds to bleach out color. For example, the high energy photons in sunlight (such as ultraviolet rays) can disrupt the bonds in chromophores to decolorize them.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "How Does Bleach Work?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, September 7). How Does Bleach Work? Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "How Does Bleach Work?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).