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Bleach: Boiling Bacteria and Whiting Out Stains
Clean houses don’t just impress guests—they also wage war on stains and germs. Meet one of a clean house’s main warriors with Groupon’s overview of bleach.
A bleach is any substance that fades the color from something, but when we talk about bleach, we’re usually talking about one of two substances: oxygen bleach, based on hydrogen peroxide, or chlorine bleach, based on sodium hypochlorite. The latter starts with simple saltwater, whose sodium and chloride atoms are forcibly separated by a strong electric current before being reintroduced to create a reaction that sticks an oxygen atom from the water into each disgusting new sodium and chloride sandwich. Oxygen bleach is more difficult to make and more expensive, but it is far gentler—enough so that dentists use it as a teeth whitener. When laundry bleach is advertised as safe for colors, it is most likely an oxygen bleach.
The stain-fighting power of both kinds of bleach stems from their ability to break down the parts of molecules that reflect color, or chromophores, by yanking away their electrons. Bacteria has just as much to fear: just as they would under high heat, the intricately folded protein molecules that make up a bacterium begin to unravel and then permanently clump, much like an egg solidifying as it boils.
Although people have been harnessing the disinfecting properties of bleach since the first half of the 19th century, nobody fully understood how bleach disabled germs until 2008, when a team of researchers led by Dr. Ursula Jakob documented the process. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Jakob explained that by inventing chemical bleach, humans were actually recreating a germ-fighting chemical that evolved inside their bodies over thousands of years. Hypochlorite, the active ingredient in chlorine bleach, is produced by the human immune system to break down the proteins of invading germs, just as it does on a dirty kitchen counter or anything touched by a baby.