By Jeff Gardner | Aug 22, 2011
Bleaching is one of my favorite subjects – but it can also be a very confusing topic as well.
When I first started my laundry business, one of the biggest challenges I faced was teaching my staff when and how not to bleach. In fact, my attendants were always asking me to buy more bleach for the store.
I’d buy one bottle at a time, but before long, that bottle would be empty, and they’d be demanding more bleach.
Finally, I had to ask, “What are you using this stuff on?”
“Well, we use it on the whites, of course,” came the reply.
“No!” I shot back. “We don’t use bleach on whites – or at least we shouldn’t be.”
Confused? Maybe the following example with help…
Last year, one of the top manufacturers of toilet bowl cleaners aired a television commercial aimed at one of its leading competitors and that competing company’s claims that its chlorine bleach formula left toilets 99 percent germ-free. The commercial showed a toilet bowl that supposedly had been cleaned by the competitor’s product; however, after the cleaning, a blue dye had been added to indicate where residue still remained on the bowl.
I found this interesting because that’s exactly what happens with bleach. When you bleach something, you are not cleaning it. You are not taking out a stain when you bleach a garment. Yet, this is something that is completely misunderstood by the general public.
Bleaches do one thing – they remove the color of a stain so that it becomes invisible.
When you use chlorine bleach on white socks or any of your customers’ white garments, and you think you’re getting the clothes cleaner, the reality is that all you’re doing is removing the color from the soil that’s still there. You’re simply masking the stain.
As a matter of fact, if you examine white clothes that have been bleached over and over again, you’ll notice that the garments eventually will turn gray because, effectively, “white” clothing isn’t really white.
White clothing is as white as it is because it’s dyed and infused with optical brighteners. But continued bleaching will eventually wear away those dyes and brighteners, returning the garment to the original grayish color of cotton, for example.
Therefore, when you’re bleaching a garment, you’re not truly cleaning it. In fact, if you then washing the bleached garment in just water – without bleach – you’ll notice that the original stains will begin to reappear on those garments.
How Bleach Works
Bleach works by either adding or removing an oxygen molecule.
Oxygen bleaches, which add an oxygen molecule to the wash water, are color-safe. However, if you’re using the oxygen bleaching process for specific stain removal, always test first – no matter what it is, even if it’s just detergent, because there are so many cheaply made garments out there today that it’s risky using bleach to treat stains. Of course, that risk reduced significantly when you mix the bleach with a large amount of water and dilute it.
There are several types of oxygen bleaches. The two most common ones are hydrogen peroxide and sodium poboride.
In the professional laundering world, the introduction of sodium poboride about 20 years ago really changed the game. It’s a salt-based bleaching agent that also adds an oxygen molecule; it’s very active because the sodium portion of it helps to wet the garment, because it’s a softener. It not only softens the water, but it also bleaches. It was revolution for the laundry business from a lot of different standpoints.
On the other hand, chlorine bleach, which removes an oxygen molecule, is used primarily on white clothes. There are some colored garments that are safe for chlorine bleach, such as some nylons and items where the fabric is made with the color in it; however, these days there are very few garments that are actually chlorine-bleach-safe.
At my store, we still use bleach, but we’re using a lot less of it now, especially when it comes to our drop-off customers’ whites – like that ground-in dirt on the bottoms of white socks. You can’t get that out with bleach. You can try to take the color out of the dirt, but it just doesn’t take out the stain.
To get those socks really white again, you have to use a wetting agent to break that dirt loose. When we started using just a phosphate detergent and no bleach at all, the socks and other white items turned out cleaner and brighter than ever, because we were attacking the stains but not the optical brighteners.