Household Chemicals: A Home-Ec 101 Guide

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guide to chemical cleaners

Chemical based cleaners can be a big help with cleaning and disinfecting your house. If used improperly they can cause trouble. Here are tips about common household chemicals. Click on the title to read the entire article.

How to Use Chlorine Bleach Safely

Chlorine bleach aka sodium hypochlorite is a powerful disinfectant and is one of only a few widely available, inexpensive sanitizing agents.

How to Use Rubbing Alcohol Safely

Rubbing alcohol is frequently recommended by frugal and green bloggers for use as household cleaner.

Hydrogen Peroxide and Oxygen Bleach

As a regular consumer you most likely will find oxygen bleach in the following forms: ultra, concentrated, and as an added ingredient to things like laundry detergent, and liquid.

Is Synthetic or Distilled Vinegar the Same as Cider Vinegar for Cleaning?

Please remember that creating your own cleaning solutions is a great way to save money, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

Is Vinegar a Safe Alternative for Chlorine Bleach?

Vinegar is the byproduct of ethanol fermentation. Basically, a specific kind of bacteria -genus Acetobacter metabolize (think of it as their equivalent of eating) alcohol and produce acetic acid as their waste. You’re just craving some french fries with malt vinegar, now aren’t you?

Is Vinegar a Good Dishwasher Rinse Aid

White vinegar seems as though it would be more environmentally friendly and less expensive than the commercial dishwasher rinse aid products. Is this true?

Use Caution with Homemade Cleaning Solutions and NEVER Mix Bleach and Vinegar

While double checking my research I was stunned by how many frugal websites recommend a homemade cleaning agent with both bleach and vinegar in the recipe.

How to Use Bar Keepers Friend

Here’s a list of seven places to try out Bar Keepers Friend. One would think the fine folks behind Bar Keeper’s Friend would be banging down our door to sponsor us.

How to Dispose of Cooking Grease

In which Heather answers the question: “I am perplexed.  I have never had a good answer to the question: how should I dispose of cooking grease (that is, grease from hamburger, bacon, etc.)?”

What is Sodium Percarbonate

Sodium percarbonate is replacing sodium perborate in many laundry products due to its more environmentally friendly characteristics.

Where to Find Borax and Washing Soda

Borax can be difficult to find because it’s not as marketing heavy as your other cleaning products. Washing soda can be even harder to find.

Have a question about a household chemical? Submit your questions to

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Oxygen Bleach an Introduction

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Heather says:

Welcome to the another installment of the series on Common Household Chemicals.

I think I was a kid when Billy Mays first showed up on my radar. He pitched Oxyclean late into the night and I’d sit there fascinated watching the red swirl away and magically disappear. Oxyclean is just a brand name for oxygen bleach or sodium percarbonate.

When Na2CO3·1.5H2O2 is added to water the H2O2 is released. H2O2 should look familiar to you if you didn’t sleep through your entire high school chem class. It’s the same stuff you buy in the little brown bottle and store in the medicine cabinet. H2O2 is hydrogen peroxide. It’s essentially a water molecule with an extra oxygen atom. This isn’t a very stable molecule, things like: light, heat, and agitation, can all break that weak bond leaving behind plain old water.

Home-Ec101's Guide to Oxygen BleachSodium percarbonate is made from natural soda ash or borax that has been treated with hydrogen peroxide. Since hydrogen peroxide is so unstable, this powdered form is much better for shipping and storage.

As a regular consumer you most likely will find oxygen bleach in the following forms: ultra, concentrated, and as an added ingredient to things like laundry detergent, and liquid.

When you purchase oxygen bleach, you are going to get the sodium percarbonate you’re after and other filler ingredients. Sometimes it’s a detergent or surfactant, other times it’s just filler. Experiment with different brands and find the one you find most effective with your water.

Always use in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions and do not use with silk or wool.

Typical applications for oxygen bleach:

  • mold and mildew stain remover
  • bleach & clean decks and siding
  • color safe stain remover
  • laundry disinfectant

When it comes to laundry oxygen bleach isn’t particularly good at brightening whites, but if used consistently it can help prevent the dulling that occurs over time.

In general oxygen bleach products break down into borax and water, which makes it an environmentally friendly choice.

Oxygen bleach is safe for septic systems, when used properly. Don’t go flushing pounds of sodium percarbonate down the toilet.

Since when we talk about sodium percarbonate we are essentially talking about hydrogen peroxide, it’s time to ask:

hydrogen peroxide

What makes hydrogen peroxide an effective cleaning agent?

The extra oxygen molecule in the hydrogen peroxide molecule is essentially a scavenger just looking for weak bonds to break. These weaker single bonds are often found in organic molecules.

When material is dyed the pigments are typically set, rendering the item colorfast. This simply means the colors don’t bleed. Hydrogen peroxide, in low concentrations, can be a color safe bleach and works by breaking some of the single bonds in the pigments of a stain. Once these weak bonds are broken, you don’t see the color. In higher concentrations, hydrogen peroxide will bleach more than stains. Follow the label directions for proper dilution.

As a disinfectant, hydrogen peroxide acts as an oxidizer. Those rogue -totally not a technical term, but you get what I’m saying- oxygen molecules can oxidize the molecules that make up the structure of bacterial cell walls. When this happens the cell walls break, killing the bacteria.

It is important to note that there is a big difference between the 3% hydrogen peroxide most people keep in their medicine cabinets and the 35% food grade hydrogen peroxide.  35% food grade peroxide is typically diluted to 6% strength to sanitize food preparation areas. You cannot get 6% hydrogen peroxide from 3% dilution, that busy little H2O2 molecule is just too unstable.

Yes, at the proper dilution hydrogen peroxide is a fantastic disinfectant. However it is not shelf stable, you’re paying for the shipment of water, and in higher concentrations hydrogen peroxide is a strong irritant. 3% is the only strength approved for contact with skin. Use gloves if you use a 6% solution to sanitize your kitchen and follow the instructions carefully. Just because H2O2 breaks down into water and oxygen doesn’t mean it can’t do damage on the way.

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There are a lot of snake oil websites out there touting hydrogen peroxide as a magic cure all. Some even want to dupe people into believing that hydrogen peroxide is an effective cancer treatment. Please read what the Cancer Institute has to say about oxygen therapy. On a personal note, I think it’s cruel to try to sell a sham to people in pain, who are in need of hope.

Use your common sense. If you find yourself short on that, default to the instructions on the label.

Have more questions about hydrogen peroxide? Send your questions to

Can I Mix [cleaning product] with Bleach

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Dear Home Ec 101,
I love your site! Love the 50’s look!
I want to mop with bleach once a month to help keep our grout white, but mopping with bleach and water does not seem to clean the floor well. Your site came up when I googled which cleaners/soaps can safely be mixed with bleach? In other words, can I mix chlorine bleach and Fabuloso or Pinesol or Simple Green?

Heather says:


Never mix chlorine bleach with other general purpose household cleaners.

This is a practice that can have deadly results; I cannot emphasize this enough. Chlorine bleach is a fantastic disinfectant and has many safe and useful applications around the house, but you must use good judgement.

You may mix chlorine bleach with laundry detergent but this isn’t great for your purposes.


Cleaning action is created through four different mechanisms:

  • Heat – the hotter your solution the more dirt can be in the solution -think of how salt dissolves better in hot water
  • Agitation / Physical – scrubbing (yay) removes dirt particles from the surface they were stuck to
  • Chemical – different chemicals can increase the amount of particulates that can be suspended in a solution
  • Time – chemical reactions are not always instantaneous and sometimes different solutions need time to work. Keep in mind that this can be both your friend and your enemy. For example, if you soak a stain in a detergent, the chemicals can do their job on the stain, but if given too much time they may also damage fibers and not just the stain.

Chlorine bleach is great for disinfecting and of course bleaching. However as you have noted, it’s not that great at cleaning. Bleach can clean, but the molecules are quickly used up if the solution is used to remove organic matter -a nice way of saying dirt and filth.

Sometimes cleaning is best done in a two-step process.

This two-step process is crucial if you are looking to sanitize or disinfect a surface, such as with cutting boards and food preparation areas in the kitchen. First you want to get rid of the organic matter (dirt) by washing and then you want to deal with the stains or possible lingering bacteria.

I also want Home Ec 101 readers to understand that bacteria does not have magical abilities to cling to surfaces. If a surface has been thoroughly washed, it’s usually not necessary to go back and disinfect, unless we’re discussing a food preparation surface or dealing with compromised immune systems.

As far as your specific question about tile:

While sealed ceramic tile will generally not be damaged by MOST household cleaners, the grout is more easily damaged. Grout and the sealant that protects it from staining can be damaged by acidic or caustic (like bleach) cleaners.

If your grout is stained, clean it thoroughly and then stain and reseal your grout. The sealant will protect your grout from future stains.

Related posts:

What Can You Do to Fix Stained Grout

How to Scrub a Tile Floor 

How to Use Chlorine Bleach Safely

Good luck, be careful and thank you for the compliment!

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How to Use Rubbing Alcohol Safely

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Heather says:

This is another post in the series on household chemicals. Rubbing alcohol is frequently recommended by frugal and green bloggers for use as household cleaner, and needs to be used with care.

rubbing alcohol safetyRubbing alcohol is a general term that most often refers to isopropanol, but can also refer to ethanol. It is very important to understand that there is a difference between ethanol and isoproponal. Ethanol is the same type of alcohol you’ll find in your liquor cabinet while isopropanol is the alcohol we’re familiar with in medical applications – the pads used to wipe your skin before receiving a shot as an example. Both can be used as a topical disinfectant -think back to all the movies where nothing but a bottle of liquor was available- and this is how the term came about (the topical application, not the movie scenes).

To keep things simple, from this point forward the rubbing alcohol referenced is the white bottle of 60% – 90% isopropanol most of us are familiar with from the pharmacy department.

Rubbing alcohol should always be used in a well ventilated area.

Isopropanol is volatile which means that it evaporates quickly, creating flammable fumes. Never use rubbing alcohol near open flames or while smoking.

Ispropanol is converted to acetone in the human body. Do not drink it, do not use in an unventilated area, do not use over large areas of skin.

To understand why rubbing alcohol is so often recommended as a household cleaning solvent, let’s dive back into high school chemistry for a moment.

There is an adage like dissolves like, this refers to two types of compounds polar and non-polar. Water is a polar compound, each V shaped H20 molecule has an area with a slightly positive charge and an area with a slightly negative charge. Compounds such as fats are non-polar and do not have these charged areas. In most cases, at least without playing chemist, you won’t get a non-polar solution to mix with a polar solution. If you want to visualize this, head into the kitchen put some water a jar and add a few tablespoons of olive oil. Close the lid and shake the heck out of it. You’ll see tiny droplets of oil suspended in the water (until they eventually float to the top) but these droplets are not part of the solution.

Alcohols, like rubbing alcohol are also polar molecules, but they are organic compounds, this means they have at least one carbon atom, the longer the carbon chain, the less likely the molecules are soluble in water.  The carbon chain helps the compound bring non-polar compounds into solution. So alcohols like isopropanol (which pretty much makes up rubbing alcohol) can act as a solvent for non-polar compounds like dyes and fats.

This is why you see both rubbing alcohol and hairspray recommended to remove ink from fabric. The alcohol brings the ink into solution where it can be wicked away with a paper towel or cloth.

Rubbing alcohol, can strip the fats and oils that protect your skin.

If this is allowed to happen for a long time, this can lead to cracking which can set you up for dermatitis and other even less fun infections.  Use gloves or limit the contact with your skin.

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When used properly rubbing alcohol is a fairly safe cleaning agent. The main problem is its effectiveness as a solvent, sometimes it will destroy the item you’re trying to clean. You must use care and understand that alcohols are not always a safe choice for some surfaces and finishes.

Keep rubbing alcohol away from many painted surfaces, shellac, lacquer, and some man-made fabrics.

In some cases denatured alcohol -ethanol alcohol with bittering agents to make it unpalatable- may be a better choice. Don’t worry, I’ll get to denatured alcohol in a future article.

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How to Use Bleach Safely

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Heather says:

This is the first in our series on household chemicals.

Over the past few years, I have gotten the impression that many people are using chlorine bleach¹ in an unsafe manner. Chlorine bleach aka sodium hypochlorite is a powerful disinfectant and is one of only a few widely available, inexpensive sanitizing agents. It is so powerful in fact that it should only be used in fairly low concentrations.

How to Use Bleach Safely


Chlorine bleach should always be used in a well-ventilated area.

If your eyes are watering. You are using too much bleach. If your skin is peeling: A) you should have worn gloves and B) you are using too much bleach. If you use hot, rather than warm water, chlorine gas can be released and this isn’t recommended. Never mix bleach with other household chemicals such as ammonia or vinegar, both can cause dangerous chemical reactions.

Don’t waste the power of your bleach on cleaning; reduce your use and save it only for sanitizing.

Chlorine bleach works both as a cleaning and a disinfecting agent. However many less corrosive and dangerous household items also work as highly effective cleaning agents: hot water, scrub brushes, and dish detergents are but a few examples.

Chlorine bleach is a highly effective sanitizing agent, but it needs to be used properly. Repeat after me:

Clean, rinse, sanitize.

When sanitizing food preparation areas: counters, tables, sinks, knives, and cutting boards. All surfaces should be washed to remove organic materials (food bits) and rinsed. It is only at this point that the items should be sanitized with a bleach solution of approximately 200ppm. This is about 1 TBSP of chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Did you catch that? Let me repeat it.

The proper dilution of chlorine bleach for sanitizing food preparation surfaces is 200ppm or 1 TBSP per gallon of warm water.

Get yourself a spray bottle and mix up a batch whenever you’re going to need sanitizing agent. Be aware that chlorine evaporates so only mix a small amount at a time. If you’re making 1 quart of sanitizing solution estimate ¾ teaspoon per quart, and that will get you in the neighborhood of 200 ppm. Just rinse after use.

Allow the 200ppm bleach solution to sit on the surface for at least a full minute to give the bleach time to work. With a 200ppm dilution rinsing is not necessary and it’s actually best to allow most surfaces to air dry rather than re-contaminating with a towel.

Chlorine bleach is also an effective sanitizing agent outside of the kitchen.

When sanitizing other surfaces, such as in the bathroom, bleach may be used in a 500ppm dilution.

A 500ppm dilution is 2½ tablespoons of 5.25% chlorine bleach per 1 gallon of warm water.

While bleach is a cleaning agent, milder methods are highly recommended. Save the bleach for the final, sanitizing step, just as you would in the kitchen.

If you weren’t aware, urine evaporates leaving behind ammonium salts. Always clean and rinse any area that may have urine: near toilets, cat boxes, dog kennels, etc before sanitizing.

How to use chlorine bleach in the laundry

When bleaching a load of whites, use 3/4 cup of liquid bleach in a standard washer and those with high efficiency washers should consult their appliance manuals or call the manufacturer. Typically the amount of bleach per load in a high efficiency washer is equivalent to the maximum fill line of the bleach dispenser, but check to be sure.

When pre-soaking laundry bleach safe fabrics, first  remove as much soil as possible, then use 1/4 cup per gallon of warm water. Anything stronger can damage the fabric.

So for the TL:DR crowd here’s the quick summary:

  • Clean, rinse, sanitize, wait 1 – 5 minutes. Rinse again if it’s stainless steel
  • Food prep surfaces require a 200ppm or 1 TBSP chlorine bleach per gallon of warm water.
  • Other surfaces may use a 500ppm dilution or 2½ TBSP chlorine bleach per gallon of warm water.
  • Laundry pre-soaks 1/4 cup per gallon or 3/4 cup for a full load in a standard, top loading washer.

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¹♪♫Let’s talk about bleach baby, let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things and all the bad things bleach may be. ♪♫ Yeah, I woke up with a song in my head.


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