The Chemical Reaction That Cleans Everything


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Victoria Roberts

Q. What exactly does bleach do? If I soak a cracked dish, the stains seem to be gone — but are they really?

A. The active ingredient of bleach is sodium hypochlorite, which is made up of three common elements, sodium, oxygen and chlorine, said May Nyman, professor of chemistry at Oregon State University. The rest of what is in the bleach bottle is mostly water.

“Of those three common elements, the chlorine is really hungry for electrons,” Dr. Nyman said. “It doesn’t have enough. The food that gets stuck to your dishware is basically hydrocarbons, and they are great sources of electrons.”

What follows is a chemical reaction. “The chlorine grabs the electrons from the hydrocarbons, the oxygens and chlorides get bonded to the carbons, and this makes your food stains water soluble, but just enough to unstick them from the dishware,” Dr. Nyman said.

As a result, the stains come unglued and can simply be washed down the drain.

Food particles get stuck in cracks, making them more visible. When the food is released by the bleach, cracks are not so visible anymore, though they are still there.

But the stains themselves “are really gone,” Dr. Nyman said. “This reaction is what scientists call favorable, meaning it won’t go backwards.”

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