Cleaning with Ammonia & Bleach

In my last article, I talked about a couple of eco-friendly but widely useful household products: baking soda and white vinegar.  This time we’ll tackle another common and useful product, ammonia.  But first, a warning, NEVER MIX AMMONIA WITH BLEACH OR OTHER PRODUCTS CONTAINING CHLORINE.  Sorry about shouting, but when you mix the two, the chlorine can be released as a dangerous, and even life-threatening, gas.

Now that I’ve got you properly scared, let’s talk about it and what it can do.


What is it?  Household ammonia is the smelly gas (NH3) dissolved in water.  Household ammonia is usually 5 to 10% ammonia.  In 1909, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed a method to make ammonia out of the nitrogen in the air and it was produced by the Germans in WWI to make explosives (the allied forces had cut off the supply of Chilean ammonia, which was produced from bird guano). Ironically, it was leftover munitions from the war that helped the Green Revolution by using ammonia to add nitrogen to crops.  Always be careful with ammonia, both the fumes and the product can be hazardous to your health.

How to use it?

  • Mix 1 part ammonia to 3 parts water in a spray bottle to clean windows, appliances and countertops.
  • Because it is highly alkaline, it makes a good grease remover.
  • Full strength, you can use to it remove the wax buildup on floors.
  • You can clean old cast iron with it.  Put a cup of ammonia in a big plastic bag with the cast iron.  Close the top to keep the fumes in and in a week, the cast iron will clean up.


What is it? Household bleach, or chlorine bleach, is the chemical compound NaClO and can be distinguished from oxygen bleaches which use hydrogen peroxide to do its work.  Chlorine bleach is made commercially by electrically breaking salt (NaCl) molecules apart. It is dangerous but useful stuff, which is why I pair it with ammonia in this article.  The slippery feel of higher concentrations of bleach (and lye, for that matter) is because it is dissolving (saponifying) the fat in your hands.

How to use it?  As you know, bleach is an excellent sanitizer.  2 drops in a quart of water will sanitize drinking water in an emergency.  There’s some evidence that it also produces the harmful product chloroform, so it should be only be used in emergency situations.  1 part bleach to 4 parts water will make a good sanitizing solution for counter tops, stainless steel, etc. but remember that it will also bleach out color so use it carefully.  By the way, bleach works in 2 ways:  it both causes the parts of the molecule to break up into other substances but it also changes the bonds in the stains to make them so they can’t absorb light.  In other words it both removes the stain and makes the stain see-through.  A ½ cup can be used to either sanitize the toilet bowl or bleach a load of white cotton laundry.

Since I get 600 words for this article and I want to use them all, let me wrap this up with a quick difference between soap and detergents.  Soap is made from an alkali (lye) mixed with a fat (lard or vegetable oils).  The lye bonds to the fat producing soap and glycerin, and making soap is a fun home hobby. Detergents are long molecules which share with soap their ability to break the tendency of water to bond with itself (a surfactant) and help water to more easily carry away dirt.

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