Cleaning Won’t Kill You (Maybe)

Bad things happened in my kitchen last night. Read on and be warned that it could happen to you, too.

I had some lunch dishes that were forgotten, and had become rather Chia Pet-esque in the time I accidentally left them to sit. This is, unfortunately, a regular thing. I get too busy tackling school work, going camping, spending time with The Electrician, writing this blog: the list goes on and on and (unfortunately) on. I’m also a world-class procrastinator, but that’s a topic for another day.

I’m really allergic to moulds, so I figured the best way to tackle my furry plastic friends was to hit the spores with a knock out punch. This means bleach. Normally, I don’t use much bleach in my house, but I really wanted to save these containers and not sacrifice them to the mould monster. I’ve done it before, and my plastic lunch containers come out smell-free and pretty spiffy. If it was just a stanky container, I’d use white vinegar in the wash water, but I really needed a heavy hitter to address the sad state of my Gladware.

I ran a sink of the hottest water available in the dollhouse, squirted in some dish soap, glugged in a little bleach, and submerged the containers before prying the lids off to avoid releasing the spores into the air. Yes, I was a woman with an excellent plan. Then I left the mould and the bleach to duke it out while I ran away to the living room and browsed more photos of Kate and Will. It’s a minor interest. It was also significantly more entertaining than the papers I could have been marking.

A little while later, I started to feel lightheaded. My chest hurt and I was having a hard time taking a deep breath. I also noticed that my little house really smelled like bleach. It’s generally a pretty potent smell, but I felt like my nostrils were burning. Something was definitely not right.

When I walked back into the kitchen, the air felt strange and the bleach smell became thick like a chlorine gravy in the air. Hmm. It was all very odd. I’d washed icky things in dish soap with bleach many times, but the smell had never made me sick before. I was suddenly a very dizzy girl, and I had a weird headache in my left eyebrow.

Then I read the back of my detergent bottle. Do not add bleach. Wha? Why? I’d been washing things with a little added swimming pool flavour for years, and I’d never had a problem. I drained and rinsed the sink and hit the internet to find out what was going on.

I few weeks ago, I switched to Palmolive Oxyclean dish detergent because I liked the smell. Because, you know, when your cleaners smell pretty, you’re more likely to actually use them. Maybe.

The main ingredient in my old dish soap (the one that cuts grease and makes bubbles) was sodium laurel sulfate. This old surfactant was not a problem when mixed with bleach. Molecules of SLS could hang out at the same soapy party as chlorine molecules, because they basically ignored eachother. Think junior high dance: the kiddos stare awkwardly at one another across a sweaty room, but rarely interact in any way.

As I learned from the Palmolive website, the key surfactant in the Oxyclean version is ammonium C12-15 pareth sulfate. I am (clearly) no chemist, but I do know that mixing bleach with anything containing ammonia is a big, big no-no.

What happened in my sink last night was akin to a nightclub for the barely-legal set. Picture a sweaty room with young people hopelessly attracted to one another, pawing at one another, and (unfortunately) making any casual observer dreadfully uncomfortable. For some of these stupid “couples” unintended offspring will result. This is what happened in my sink: the unplanned result was chlorine gas! Thankfully, I didn’t put the dishes in to soak and then go to bed for the night, as I’d originally planned.

Here is my problem with the situation: there are NO ingredients listed on the Palmolive bottle. It does say to avoid mixing with bleach, but it does not say why.

Doesn't look like much of a warning, does it?

Here’s the thing. If mixing my dishsoap with something that many people add to dishsoap can produce toxic gases, I fully expect that dishsoap to tell me so. I expect to see it in BIG letters on the back of the bottle. I took the note about not adding bleach to mean, “This fabulous detergent will leave things so sparkly that bleach is unnecessary.” What it should say is “Mixing with bleach could produce a poisonous gas, which will make your house stink and could possibly kill you.” I’d even settle for, “Contains ammonia: do NOT mix with bleach.”

I am peeved with Palmolive, because the “warning” on the back of the bottle is tiny and unclear. They’ve chosen to “warn” me about mixing with bleach just before the note about what to do if I happen to get in in my eyes and the statement that I shouldn’t use it in automatic dishwashers.  The note about bleach therefore feels akin to telling me that putting their soap in my eyes will sting like heck or that putting it in my dishwasher will cause a foam party in my kitchen. Thanks Palmolive, but I don’t have an automatic dishwasher. Way to rub it in. Jerks.

My big concern here is that lots of people don’t read the labels on their cleaning products, particularly when there is nothing clear, specific, or attention-grabbing on the label to catch their eyes. How many seniors with weak eyesight wash dishes and mix in a little bleach? How many people have been mixing the two cleaners for so long that they don’t give much thought? I bet there are whole heck of a lot of them.

I think the warning that mixing this stuff with bleach could have serious risks should be larger than the other fonts and enclosed in a box, or at least given its own line so that it stands out. Apparently, the Colgate company thinks it’s more important to point out that their soap gives me “Sparkling Shine for [my] Dishes” than to give me clear warnings about the risks of the product. As well, the website itself had no warnings about chlorine gas that I could find.

I would even be satisfied if the ingredients were listed on the back of the bottle. That way, people who see the little note about not mixing with bleach can also see that something similar to ammonia is one of the main ingredients and make an informed decision.

As it stands, I think the labelling on Palmolive Oxyclean detergent is unsafe and dangerously unclear. I am seriously considering writing a letter to the company to explain my concerns.

To Colgate-Palmolive, I say, booooo! For shame, melon farmers.

copyright 2011:

16 Comments Add yours

  1. John Foster says:

    I bought the same brand and after using the antibacterial citrus soap i figured bleach would be ok to add with it, thankfully i noticed the spelling. I told everyone in my house not to do it (my mom and dad have a fascination with using bleach on everything.) They havent yet and i hope they don’t, considering they don’t really listen to my warnings.

  2. Solomon says:

    Thank you, I Was just washing dishes and came across a white bowl with orange chili stains. Because it was white I wanted to add bleach to help remove the stains. I then added Palmolive soap and started scrubbing next thing you know I was about to pass out and I instantly remembered that my mom said “be careful what chemicals you are mixing when cleaning Alot of thing produce gasses EXPECIALLY BLEACH!!!” I dropped the bowl in the sink stepped into the other room and caught my breathe. Think ran into the kitchen to hurry and rinse the bowl down the drain and any leftover residue. Ma’am I am only 18 and was home alone. Please write that letter because I had no clue and have a tendency to ignore thing like that… It could have been Fatal.

    1. Thanks for reading! I really believe Palmolive needs to have more responsible labeling on its products. I think way too many people have had experiences like ours.

  3. Jillisn says:

    I just did this today and the product of the reaction was an abundance of bubbles (which led me to believe that a gas was formed…scared the shit out of me) I’m only 15 and a proper warning on the label would have REALLY helped me out a little. I ran to google to figure out what chemical reaction occured and was scared to go back in the kitchen to fix the situation :/


  4. web site says:

    Ha-ha! You write in a very attractive way! I find it very difficult to find time to clean because I work at two places. Hope that I will find time for Spring cleaning!

  5. Amy says:

    I mixed both today and started to feel weird. Came across your site. I agree Palmolive should say more on the label as I didn’t know not to mix the two products – bleach and dish soap

  6. Rod says:

    Never mix chemicals unless you look it up.

  7. Doreen Ray says:

    Hello, everyone! I want to share that I kill mold in my house with white vinegar. The only thing that I do is to spray some white vinegar onto the problematic place and then leave it for a few minuter. Wipe off the dirt and you will never again see that ugly mold!

  8. Chicken tenderoney says:

    Yeah you should most definitely send the letter I mean whats the whole point of you even doing the whole post on what had happened if you’re not going to send the letter please send the letter that would be helping out our communities and everywhere else morning people to read labels obviously I know I should be reading the labels because you know what I love to clean and let me just tell you I have mixed bleach with dish soap but it wasn’t Palm it was actually Dawn nothing really happened but anyways what had happened to me tonight was I was distracted and I poured bleach down the drain thinking like oh you know what I’m sure pour down another chemical stupid me not even thinking I grabbed ammonia and purchased a little bit and I soon as I put the cap on I was like oh shit oh crap you’re not supposed to do that and smoke it was smoke coming from my drain and I just turned the water on and let it run and run and then it was coming out of the other drain and I was freaking out like oh my gosh so what I did was just kept running water down the drains and then I plug both of them and let him fill up with water and then I released the disposal one first and once it was almost empty that’s what I release the other one so it kind of just would like pushed the gases down the drains I was freaking out thank you for your post that was awesome

  9. D. McNeal says:

    Excellent article. But wish I had read it before Iinadvertanly just mixed a weapon of mass destruction in my sink. I am so pissed off about this I am not dizzy but can’t get the bleach smell out of my sinuses. I use bleach sparingly because after several years as a pool operator I feel like I have developed a sensitivity to it. It’s summer, there are flies in the house and these dishes were from overnight so, that calls for a shot of bleach in the dish water in my book. Like you, my first thoughts ” who in the Hell reads the labels on dish soap”? And the warning does not jum out at you I opened doors and windows and removed myself outside immediately. Getting this posted on Facebook soon!

  10. karl says:

    thanks for sharing my mom likes mixing dish soap with bleach when washing dishes no wonder i felt not okay after are any of the dish washing soaps okay to be mixed with bleach do all of them contain ammonia are there brands that can be mixed with bleach please let me know what to look for on the ingredients and labels thank you

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