The Science Behind Household Cleaners

Updated on September 2, 2015

One of the things I love about science is that it is behind most things we do and encounter in our daily life. Even when you put aside all of the science going on in our bodies you don’t have to go far to see science in action. Take something in our everyday life, an often mundane task, household cleaning. It’s really all about chemical reactions. Our everyday cleaners have their basis in science. The ingredients allow for our clothes to be clean, our kitchen countertops to be free of any food-borne germs, and our bathrooms to be sanitary. If one takes the time to look into these cleaners they each provide a science lesson.

The first household cleaner that comes to mind is bleach. We use it to keep our whites white in terms of our laundry but it is also used around the house in other ways. Most people use it to clean their bathrooms and it can be used to disinfect children’s toys among other things. Investigating what exactly bleach is, I figured I’d come up with the chemical formula behind the common name. The first cleaner I took a look at was my multi-purpose Clorox wipes and lo and behold, they are bleach-free. This was a surprise since I, like many other people, associate the brand name Clorox with bleach. My Clorox cleaning wipes don’t actually contain bleach, what do they contain? The active ingredients are two ammonium chlorides, one an N-Alkyl Dimethyl Ethylbenzyl Ammonium Chloride and the other an N-alkyl Dimethyl Benzyl Ammonium Chloride. For both the N-alkyl refers to a carbon chain of varying lengths, denoting by the ‘N.’ Each ingredient contains a mixture of these varying carbon chains, the label specifies the chain length and percentage in the mixture. For example the first has a mix of C12 (68%) and C14 (32%). Each of these components is present at only 0.145% of the entire solution but represent the active components of the wipes.

Carbon length varies between even numbers generally over 8. Clorox lists the mix of C12 and C14 for Benzalkonium chloride in their wipes.
Carbon length varies between even numbers generally over 8. Clorox lists the mix of C12 and C14 for Benzalkonium chloride in their wipes.

Both of the compounds listed above are classified as Quaternary Ammonium compounds, where the four hydrogen groups of ammonium, NH4+, are replaced by organic groups. In the case of the two found in Clorox wipes, one of the groups replacing a hydrogen is the long carbon-chain alkyl and these chains are known for their disinfecting properties, effective against microbes and bacteria. Benzalkonium chloride, another name for N-alkyl Dimethyl Benzyl Ammonium Chloride, is a surfactant and disinfectant. It is thought to have its effect on various micro-organisms by upsetting the cell membrane, the lipid bilayer, and thus disturbing intramolecular interactions. The cell membrane controls traffic in and out of cells and attacking it can negatively affect the overall well-being of the entire cell and in the case of small micro-organism the entire organism.

So based on this new knowledge of my Clorox wipes being ‘bleach-free’ I then took a look at my Clorox Clean-up which I use on my toilet bowls. The label says it does contain bleach, now we are getting somewhere. Listed as the active ingredient is sodium hypochlorite at 1.84%, elaborates that chlorine bleach contains this as its active ingredient. Here’s the relationship I was seeking, bleach is the common name and sodium hypochlorite is the chemical name. But it’s not quite that simple- goes on to distinguish between chlorine bleach and oxygen bleach. Oxygen bleach contains either hydrogen peroxide or a peroxide releasing agent. And another distinction is needed between oxidizing and reducing bleaches depending on their mode of action. In all cases bleach works to disrupt the color reflecting properties of chromophores. Chromophores, as the name implies, are a class of compounds that absorb light at specific wavelengths and thus appear to be a given color. Bleach works to either break or alter bonds to mess with chromophores’ optical properties depending on the type (oxidizing or reducing). This was news to me, there isn’t one chemical compound behind all bleach, instead bleach is a term for any chemical that cleans and disinfects often by removing color from its target.

Sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl) is an example of an oxidizing bleach. Sodium hypochlorite can be made by mixing chlorine gas with NaOH, sodium hydroxide, to get NaOCl (this process also yields NaCl).

Cl2 + 2 NaOH → NaCl + NaClO + H2O

Chlorine in general terms is a disinfectant, a stain remover, and it kills bacteria and algae. When chlorine and water are put together the products are hypochlorous acid (HOCl), hydrochloric acid (HCl), and oxygen. The oxygen reacts with chromophores to disrupt their optical properties. lists sodium hypochlorite as the active ingredient of bleach that whitens, brightens, and removes dirt and stains from surfaces and fabric; as well it is effective in killing 99.9% of bacteria, viruses, and some types of mold. How does bleach do all of these? Well we have already touched upon the method by which bleach whitens and brightens. But what about chlorine bleach’s other properties-the bacteria, virus, and mold killing?

Louis Pasteur.  Source:Public Domain.
Louis Pasteur. Source:Public Domain.

Chlorine’s germ fighting abilities were first noted in the late 1800s by none other than Louis Pasteur, the same scientific big-wig responsibility for some of the first vaccines, the process of pasteurization, and other key contributions to the field of microbiology. In 2008, researchers pinned down the exact link between sodium hypochlorite and micro-organisms. Ursula Jakob et al. at the University of Michigan showed in Cell (Nov. 2008) that hypochlorous acid, one of the breakdown products of sodium hypochlorite when it comes in contact with water, unfolds and irreversibly aggregates essential bacterial proteins rendering the bacteria itself inert. In the vast gap between these two time points, studies have been done investigating sodium hypochlorite mechanisms but for the most part have served only to rule out not establish the exact mode of action. The working hypothesis was the chlorine, once it is introduced as the cleaning agent, in its various forms disrupts micro-organisms by getting in through their cell membranes and interacting with essential factors. The task of specifically linking chemicals found in cleaning products to their exact mechanism of action proved to be a little tougher than I expected while researching this topic. On the other hand there is a general attitude in science that if something is proven to work, in the case of bleach killing micro-organisms, its credibility remains even if the specifics aren’t clear.

As my research on this topic continued, I found a website The Laundry Alternative Inc which spells out the types of oxygen bleach available. We’ve all seen the infomercials advertising Oxiclean, the major oxygen bleach and alternative to chlorine bleaches. I never realized there was a tug of war between the two, but a quick search online shows a myriad of sources comparing them side by side. It seems for a long time people were content with only one option- chlorine bleach. But now there is another option out there- oxygen bleaches.

So the next time you are trudging through a load of laundry or cleaning your bathrooms, just think of all the mystery and drama surrounding your cleaning agents. Have scientists even come up with what exactly makes your particular cleaning agent work? Or are the details still under investigation? And which side of the bleach debate are you on- chlorine or oxygen? Unsure- you could always conduct your own scientific experiment comparing the two bleaches side by side. See science can make routine household chores interesting.

Sources available upon request

Which side of the bleach war are you on?

See results

Questions & Answers

  • Can you use ammonia to rehydrate wipes which have dried out? Or perhaps mix with water? I know you can't mix chlorine with ammonia. Sometimes it is hard to find the list of chemicals on the packaging.

    That is a good point about not wanting to mix chemicals. I would try water that seems safest.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image

      #I LUV U 

      2 years ago

      Wow! Thanks! :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Science is NOT in these products---Science is the STUDY of natural phenomena, NOT the Phenomena-----Science is what WE DO, Phenomena is what NATURE DOES

    • thebiologyofleah profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Kathryn.

      I was really surprised to find out about the Clorox wipes, all those years of advertising has embedded in my mind the association between Bleach and Clorox. They have me so brainwashed I won't buy anything other than their wipes which is impressive since I generally buy generic otherwise.

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image


      7 years ago from Windsor, Connecticut

      Wow, interesting. I am not a student of science, so I don't understand it quite like you do, but the explanation was useful. Thanks for sharing!

      I was surprised to hear that the Clorox wipes don't have bleach in it. I have never bothered to look. The brand is almost synonymous with bleach. It's almost like buying a box of Kleenexes, expecting it to be full of facial tissues, to find out it is full of toilet paper.

    • thebiologyofleah profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      From what I know both are great alternatives to traditional cleaners. Hydrogen Peroxide is the active ingredient in certain oxygen bleaches, or it can be used alone as a 3% solution to do most cleaning around the house. White distilled vinegar can be made into solutions with other household items, such as baking soda, to do cleaning duty as well. I have never tried either of them personally, have you?

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 

      8 years ago from Southern California

      what about white vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide, not together of course.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)