Find out the difference between chlorine bleach and oxygen bleach—plus, when to use each. 

By Real Simple Editors
Updated February 28, 2019
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Bleach is a staple in most cleaning arsenals, but choosing the right type of bleach can be tricky. Whether your goal is to make your white button-down shirts look brand-new or to disinfect your gym socks, the purpose of your cleaning task should guide your choice. Then, consider other factors, such as your skin's sensitivity, before adding it to your wash. When you're not sure whether chlorine bleach, oxygen bleach, or an alternative cleaning method is the right choice, consult the guide below.

Chlorine Bleach

The Upside: It packs the most powerful punch. It not only whitens, but also disinfects and deodorizes. Reach for chlorine bleach when you really want to get your gym socks or sweaty undershirts clean. It can be used on almost every washable material, except for silk, wool, and delicate fabrics.

The Downside: It can weaken fabrics. (It’s strong stuff!) For this reason, avoid using chlorine bleach on delicate fabrics or those with patterns. And to protect yourself when using it, always wear gloves and work in a well-ventilated area. And, as you probably already know, chlorine bleach has a harsh smell, so it can be unpleasant to use.

Usage Tips: If your machine doesn’t have a bleach dispenser, wait for 5 minutes before adding it to the wash water. Pouring it in before then may destroy enzymes and whiteners in the detergent. Always store bleach in a secure place in your home, where children won't be able to access it.

What to Buy: Clorox Concentrated Regular Bleach ($14 for 3, amazon.com). To avoid splashing, opt for bleach packs, which can be tossed right into the washing machine, such as Clorox Zero Splash Bleach Packs ($4 for 12, amazon.com).

Oxygen Bleach (AKA, Non-Chlorine Bleach)

The Upside: It's gentler, less toxic, and more environmentally friendly than chlorine bleach. It can be used on almost all washable garments, though it’s best for colors. If you have sensitive skin, oxygen bleach is a safer bet than chlorine bleach.

The Downside: It's not as powerful as chlorine bleach.

Usage Tips: Pour it into the water before adding the clothes (unlike a regular wash, when clothes go first). Use warm or hot water; it’s less effective in cold.

What to Buy: Oxygen bleach is sold in both powder and liquid forms, but the powdered version will last for longer, while still staying effective. OxiClean ($13, amazon.com) is one of the most popular options.

Natural Alternatives to Bleach

While bleach is proven to be a powerful whitening agent in laundry, there are some all-natural alternatives to get your white shirts sparkling. In fact, you don’t need bleach to get rid of protein stains, like blood, sweat, and tears. (OK, maybe tears are not a big laundry issue.) One natural option: Toss stained socks, tees, and undies into a big pot of water with a few lemon slices and bring to a boil for a few minutes. Let cool before removing the clothing. Also check out our complete guide to removing blood stains and this stain removal chart for more helpful tips.