Science Made Simple: Why You Shouldn’t Mix Bleach and Vinegar
There are a lot of chemicals in your home that shouldn’t be mixed — and one of the most dangerous pairings is bleach and vinegar, warns Kate Biberdorf, Ph.D., a chemistry lecturer and director of demonstrations and outreach for The University of Texas at Austin. What exactly happens when you mix these two liquids, and how can it be harmful to your health and your home’s safety? Learn more on the science behind this mixture and how to help prevent a possible accident in the home.
The Parts of an Atom
There are some things to understand first, Dr. Biberdorf explains. Molecules like those found in bleach and vinegar are made up of atoms. At the center of each atom is a nucleus. Inside that are two types of particles: neutrons and protons. A third type of particle, electrons, orbits the nucleus.
“The changing of electrons is how everything in the world happens,” Dr. Biberdorf says. “That’s what you study in chemistry.”
The pH Scale
You also need to understand the difference between an acid and a base, she continues. Substances are measured on the pH scale, with acids having a pH of less than 7 and bases having a pH of greater than 7 (7 is neutral). When you mix a base and an acid, a chemical reaction occurs in which a base takes a proton from an acid, Dr. Biberdorf explains. This, in turn, will form a new chemical compound.
What Happens When You Mix Bleach and Vinegar
One of the main ingredients in bleach is sodium hypochlorite, which is a base, Dr. Biberdorf says. Vinegar is an acid (in fact, it’s known as acetic acid). So when bleach is mixed with vinegar, the sodium hypochlorite takes a proton from the vinegar, and that reaction generates hypochlorous acid.
The hypochlorous acid then reacts with the rest of the vinegar, Dr. Biberdorf continues. Because hypochlorous acid is something that’s called an oxidizing agent, it takes electrons from whatever it comes into contact with. “This is why bleach is so good at removing stains,” she explains. When the chlorine atom in the hypochlorous acid takes electrons from the vinegar, chlorine gas is formed.
In large doses, chlorine gas is yellowish-green and smells like bleach, Dr. Biberdorf says. But in smaller doses, it’s invisible to the eye. Those who are exposed to chlorine gas can suffer burning pain, blisters, watery eyes, trouble breathing, vomiting and other effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you or someone you know has been exposed to chlorine gas, remove your clothing, quickly wash your body with soap and water and seek medical attention as soon as possible, the CDC advises.
Disposing of hazardous materials can require special training and equipment, according to the CDC. The organization advises that hiring a professional may help ensure the job is done safely.