Bleach is a powerful cleaning and disinfecting agent with antimicrobial properties commonly used in households.1
The active ingredient in bleach is sodium hypochlorite, a corrosive chemical made from mixing chlorine and sodium hydroxide. Sodium hypochlorite kills most viruses, bacteria, mold, and mildew.
Exposure to bleach can seriously irritate or burn the skin, eyes, nose, and mouth. It can lead to a type of chemical burn known as bleach burn, a serious condition characterized by painful red welts.
This article will discuss what to do if you spill bleach on your skin, risk factors, and common treatments.
Bleach has two main properties that can create irreversible damage to the body when exposed at high levels.1 First, bleach is strongly alkaline (pH of 11 to 13), which can also corrode metals and burn skin. Second, bleach contains a strong chlorine odor and fumes, which can be harmful to the lungs when inhaled.
You can be exposed to bleach through:2
- Skin or eye contact: Bleach spills to the skin or eyes can cause serious irritation, burns, and even eye damage.
- Inhaling chlorine gas: At room temperature, chlorine is a yellow-green gas that can irritate the nose or throat and especially affect people with asthma. Higher exposures can irritate the lining of the lungs and may lead to a buildup of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema), which is a serious medical condition.
- Accidental ingestion: Accidentally drinking bleach is common in children but can occur in adults, as well. Bleach is clear in color and can be mistaken for water, especially if it has been poured into an unmarked container. The most common symptoms of this accidental poisoning are sore throat, nausea, vomiting, and/or difficulty swallowing. Ingestion of bleach requires immediate medical attention.
What to Do
The effects of bleach on your skin will depend on which part of the body it comes in contact with, its concentration, the length of the exposure, and the amount.3
Bleach in Eyes
Damage to your eyesight is possible if bleach gets in your eyes. This is because the combination of the eye’s aqueous humor (transparent fluid in your eyes that contains small amounts of proteins) and bleach forms an acid.2
If you get bleach in your eyes, immediately rinse your eyes with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes. If you wear contact lenses, remove them before rinsing (you will need to discard them; do not put them back in your eyes).2 Avoid rubbing your eyes or using anything besides water or saline solution to rinse your eyes.
After rinsing, seek emergency treatment. Your healthcare provider will check for any traces of bleach and assess your eyes for any permanent damage to nerves and tissues.
Bleach on the Skin
If you spill bleach on your skin, remove any clothing splashed with bleach and immediately wash the exposed skin with plain water for at least 10 minutes (15 or 20 minutes is even better). After rinsing, you can gently wash the area with mild soap and water.4
Then, seek medical attention. If an area of skin more than 3 inches in diameter has been exposed to bleach, you have an increased risk of a bleach burn. Call Poison Control at 800-222-1222 for advice.
While chlorine doesn’t typically get absorbed by the skin, small amounts may pass through to the blood. Too much chlorine in your blood can lead to a serious condition called hyperchloremia.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
If you spill bleach on your skin, seek medical attention. Monitor any symptoms such as pain or itching, especially if they occur for more than three hours.
Bleach in your eye is a medical emergency. Get transportation to the emergency department.
If you experience any symptoms of shock (diminished blood flow to your tissues and organs), an immediate visit to the emergency department is essential.
Symptoms of shock include:2
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness, confusion, or feeling faint
- Pale skin
- Rapid breathing
- Rapid pulse
- Enlarged pupils
Are Bleach Baths Safe?
Diluted bleach baths are commonly used for people with atopic dermatitis (eczema) to kill bacteria, reduce inflammation, and moisturize skin.5 If properly diluted with water, a bleach bath is safe and effective for children and adults.
For best results, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) recommends adding 1/4 to 1/2 cup of 5% household bleach to a bathtub full of water (40 gallons).5 Be careful not to submerge your head in the water to avoid bleach getting into your eyes.
How to Use Bleach Safely
In most cases, diluting bleach with water (1 to 10 parts, such as 1 cup bleach added to 10 cups water) for cleaning will be enough to reduce the risk of skin irritation.3 Check the bleach bottle for directions. If there aren’t directions, proportions that should be safe are 1/3 cup of bleach in 1 gallon of water or 4 teaspoons of bleach in 1 quart of water.
Never mix bleach with other products, especially other cleaners that contain ammonia.6 Toxic gases can be produced (like chloramine) that are very irritating or corrosive to the eyes and lungs.
Always work in a well-ventilated area (open windows or doors). Wear rubber gloves and goggles to protect your hands and eyes from contact and splashes. Wash your hands after using bleach.
Never store bleach in an unlabeled container. It’s best to keep it in the original container, but if you must transfer it, make sure it has a large label noting it is bleach.
Bleach is a powerful cleaning and disinfecting agent. Although household bleach is not usually toxic, it can seriously irritate or burn the skin, eyes, nose, and mouth when exposed. It can also cause serious chemical burns, such as a bleach burn with painful red welts.
The effects of bleach on your skin will depend on which part of the body it comes in contact with, its concentration, the length of the exposure, and the amount. For any exposure to bleach, flush the area with running water for at least 10 minutes.
Seek medical attention after rinsing. Contact Poison Control for advice.