Does stale bleach smell like bad breath?
September 7, 2016 8:28 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I keep a large generic squirt bottle of 20% bleach solution in the kitchen, and use it to wipe down countertops after cooking and to "pre-clean" dishes in the sink if they've been sitting for a while. Lately, I'm picking up on a severely bad odor that might be traceable back to the bleach, if it's possible the bleach is getting stale. It smells like bad breath has been marinating in a basement gymnasium. It is stale and wretched. What exactly is happening here?

I've asked partner not to use the bleach solution except when mopping our white tiles or cleaning up after raw chicken & other bleach-requiring messes; he agreed and for the past couple of days we've switched to the basic Seventh Generation non-bleach countertop spray. But the bad breath smell is persistent, even after a few days since the last bleaching. Ugh, it is so bad, and it's on the part of my travel mug that touches my nose so I'm getting a whiff of it every time I sip my coffee. HELP.

Specific questions:

- Is the odor harmful to humans and dogs?

- Is it being caused by bleach going "stale" inside the bottle where it's diluted with tap water?

- Are we better off using pre-mixed bleach products, like Clorox Clean-Up?

- And/or by mixing a fresh bottle of bleach every time? I have heard that this is advisable when cleaning up after (for example) a virus, but I also wondered if that was a ploy by Big Bleach to keep us buying more. Partner is fairly attached to his method of keeping the same mixture in the bottle until it runs out, so I will need to present some evidence if I want him to change.

Thanks in advance.
posted by witchen to Home & Garden (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you using a rag? That's what happens when our dishtowels and rags get funky (and everything smells like it when you use the towel to dry the dishes). A run through the washer with hot water and a few glugs of vinegar usually helps, as does not using dryer sheets or fabric softener on towel loads (they cause buildup of stuff that beasties like to grow on).
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:33 AM on September 7, 2016 [9 favorites]

When I worked in fast food and used diluted bleach for counter-cleaning, we poured out the mixture every night and made it fresh every morning. We generally tried to keep any kind of contaminants out of the bleach-water bucket, so we definitely weren't switching it out because it got particularly "dirty." I don't think the restaurant and the bleach industry were in cahoots, especially considering we used a couple of capfuls per bucket.
posted by griphus at 8:33 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I live in a house where there is a lot of stale bleach (my late father was a nut about using it to clean things up and there are little bottles of bleach-and-water everywhere around here and he died five years ago) and this is not a thing I have experienced. The other thing about bleach is that it, in my experience, dissipates fairly quickly when it's on things so even if there was some gross bleach-rot smell, it would go away.

So my feeling is that either the bleach has gotten into something that it's eating away at (rubber something would be my guess, check for gaskets, maybe around the drains?) which smells terrible, or you have something else in the general area that has gone wrong, or there is an issue with your water. Maybe there's some scunge on the bleach bottle or nozzle? I think I'd really go full on no-bleach for a few days and see if that helps. Also check sponges or whatever you're using to wash dishes for a smell. When my sponges get funky they are just the worst and poison everything they touch.
posted by jessamyn at 8:34 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Can't you just smell the bottle of bleach? I feel like I'm missing something.
posted by HotToddy at 8:37 AM on September 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

It might sounds crazy, but search the area for a forgotten potato. Rotting potatoes smell like really bad breath.
posted by soplerfo at 8:44 AM on September 7, 2016 [16 favorites]

Bleach doesn't 'go stale'. The hypochlorite breaks down and it stops being bleach (and starts being saltwater, which could possibly start harboring life.) Your solution is probably only good for a couple of months. The smell is probably coming from the rag, though.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:47 AM on September 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

Hm. Now I am even more perplexed! I use rags when I clean and never re-use before running them through the wash; partner uses almost exclusively paper towels. The spray bottles are sealed up pretty well so nothing would be getting inside.

The smell also happens in the vicinity of the toilet, if that helps (or adds another wrinkle). I don't clean the toilet with the standard spray bottle, usually a mix of Clorox Clean-Up and a bloop of straight bleach into the bowl. There is almost certainly not a rotten potato hiding out there, but I'm wondering if any residual stale urine smell could be mixing?

I reckon it's also possible that I'm the only one who notices the smell. Partner goes along with what I ask, but he doesn't show the same revulsion I do. Now that I'm thinking about it, he's never confirmed that he smells it too.
posted by witchen at 8:52 AM on September 7, 2016

Cleaning rags go draped on the washer until dry, then in the washer to wait for laundry moment. It is probably potatoes somewhere, or stored onions, sprouting.
posted by Oyéah at 8:53 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

find out from your partner and maybe another independent source if they are smelling what you're smelling. for me stuff like this is part of my migraine aura and is not necessarily accompanied by an actual migraine. so like, the bleach itself might be a migraine trigger for you and your perception of the bleach smell is that it is utterly gross and awful in a way that is unusual for bleach to smell. this is what happens to me with the smell of coffee.

in general if you frequently notice yourself having strong reactions to smells that other ppl are not noticing it might be a good idea to mention it to a GP and see if they recommend a neuro consult.

(but also definitely check the dish sponge because sometimes mine legitimately smells unbearably revolting for mysterious sponge reasons.)
posted by poffin boffin at 9:06 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ugh, it is so bad, and it's on the part of my travel mug that touches my nose so I'm getting a whiff of it every time I sip my coffee.

Are the dishes being fully dried before being put away? Because my dishes/bowls/mugs get a funk to them if they're not 100% dry and I stack them and put them in the cabinets.
posted by kimberussell at 9:07 AM on September 7, 2016

I'd go totally bleach free for a couple of weeks (unless there's some health reason you need that level of disinfection of course.) Hydrogen peroxide disinfects and doesn't irritate me.

I am quite sensitive to bleach. It feels like it gets into my nose and mucous membranes and it makes everything smell like vomit. No other way to describe the smell.

My ex was a clean freak who in my opinion used bleach too much, in a stronger than necessary concentration, and though he didn't smell anything off, I worried it was eating through caulk and surfaces or something because the smell was just awful.
posted by kapers at 9:14 AM on September 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

Clorox Clean Up AND straight bleach into your toilet sounds like overkill for regular cleaning, very caustic, and I'd be having bad reactions to that much bleach. Is this a weekly thing?
posted by kapers at 9:18 AM on September 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

Bleach does degrade, but it shouldn't smell: "liquid bleach starts as salt water and degrades into salt water".

"Bleach mixed with water at a 1:9 ratio (i.e. 10 percent bleach) is potent for about a day (it's more unstable in its diluted form). "

I don't think bleach is the source of your odor issue.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:21 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Bleach solutions degrade quickly and smell worse as they go. Bleach solutions need to be made fresh daily. That's why many people use commercial products that have formulations that resist that breakdown. Or, they mix fresh as needed in a bowl that's used immediately. Bleach fumes aren't great for humans and animals. Maybe you can switch to other cleaning methods? Bleach isn't the only game in town.
posted by quince at 9:21 AM on September 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

Also, I thought the reason professionals mix fresh solutions was because they degrade and you can't ensure the accuracy of the level of solution that's been sitting. So for like hospitals or restaurants, you would need to be sure of the concentration so you know you're disinfecting.
posted by kapers at 9:27 AM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Diluted bleach is only good for about 24 hours after mixing it with water. When I worked in a lab we had to make a fresh batch every morning, and it had nothing to do with "big clorox" trying to sell us a few more 5$ jugs of bleach. (Here's one fairly credible source for your partner...there are many others if you google something like "diluted bleach 24 hours").

I will also comment that a 20% bleach solution for routine cleaning seems incredibly excessive to me. We used a 10% bleach solution to sanitize incredibly foul and potentially dangerous biological material in a science lab setting (and yes, the diluted bleach does smell very bad, similar to your description). I have never used bleach at any dilution in a household setting other than a few times to eliminate black mold or remove stains from laundry.

Beyond the smell, bleach is not good for your skin, your airways, or your clothing, and that level of daily disinfection is not needed in a household setting anyway (assuming no unusual situations like someone being severely immune-compromised). It's also a major hazard if there are ever children around. If you have a dishwasher, that sanitizes all your dishes already - a pre-treatment with bleach doesn't make them any more sterile. Even if you don't, soap and water and a good scrubbing will already get rid of all the germs - no need for antibacterial soap, let alone a hazardous bleach treatment! Same thing for the counters.
posted by randomnity at 9:39 AM on September 7, 2016 [49 favorites]

It seems like a lot of bleach for everyday use. We're kind of fussy about our granite so I'd never wipe my counter tops with bleach. The dishes in the sink are gonna get hot water and soap, they'll be fine.

I learned a lot here, I mix 10% solution in a spray bottle and use it to clean the black mold in our shower. It still smells like bleach after months, but I just learned that it's gone in a day. Huh. My wife is a retired chef, she confirms that they mixed a fresh batch of sanitizer every day.

Take a bleach holiday and see what happens.
posted by fixedgear at 9:45 AM on September 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Is there any chance you're pregnant?
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:52 AM on September 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Switch to hydrogen peroxide.

Agreed that level of bleach (just the vapors) is incredibly unhealthy. Also, bleach is bad to use on urine because of the mixture of bleach with ammonia in urine = mustard gas. Not enough to be poisonous, heh, but it's not what you use there. Vinegar. Soap and water. Vinegar and baking soda for stains. Peroxide. All good. Enzyme spray for pet stains if the flooring has urine stains :))

My thought was the bleach was degrading the bottle. Only certain plastics are OK with bleach.
posted by jbenben at 10:07 AM on September 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

Possible smell factors:
Dish rag, towel, or sponge (replace them)
Dirty mildewy mop (replace it)
Nail or veggie brush that is subtly rotting from the inside
Pool of water inside the sponge or soap thingie, or in the tray of the dish rack
Bits of food under dish rack
Wetness in or beneath trash receptacles
Container that has trapped proteiny water in it (travel mug, plant pot...)
Damp dishes or cups or tupperware being stacked so the water trapped between them gets musty (let things air dry)
Rubber dishwashing gloves where water is pooling inside a finger due to a tiny puncture, and then it stays damp inside the glove and gets stinky
Goop around tap and edge of sink (scrub it out with a toothbrush then throw out the toothbrush)

I agree with above that you are using a LOT of bleach. I never ever ever use bleach in my home and I'm a clean person who cooks lots of meat; and I have never had a foodborne illness. Hot water and a dab of dish soap will clean things, and common sense (separating "raw" and "cooked" utensils while cooking, avoiding splatter, etc) will protect against contamination. You don't really need bleach in a home kitchen.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:32 AM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I feel like it needs to be said: the bleach itself is DEFINITELY NOT the source of the "bad breath" / "basement gym" smell. Bleach has a powerful chemical smell, fading as you dilute and/or it gets old.

The two reasonable possibilities for such an odor are (1) some type of mold / mildew / fungus, or (2) degrading plastics emitting hydrocarbon gasses which sometimes coincidentally include chemicals similar to organic odorants.

What exact part of your travel mug smells? Is it the soft plastic lid? If so it could actually be #2, though I would have leaned strongly towards explanation #1 (especially given it also smells near the toilet - sorry to say, you may have a plumbing leak buried in your floor). I would also check ALL surfaces that your travel mug touches, including the dishwasher, dish racks, and cabinets to see if they smell, too. If so, clean those up properly.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:38 AM on September 7, 2016

So I am most definitely not pregnant. But the degrading plastic thing...YIKES. Our countertops are a kind of laminate that fakes a granite look, so they are probably degrading. The trashcan lid that is a nexus of stink is made of plastic. The small trashcan beside the toilet is plastic. The soft plastic part of my coffee mug is the stinky part. All probably degrading. Damn damn damn.

Thank you for the links above, randomnity and SaltySalticid. I'm about to propose a dramatic paradigm shift for our household and I will surely need evidence to back up my case.
posted by witchen at 10:47 AM on September 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you have a dishwasher, when is the last time you gave it a good cleaning? It probably depends on the model, but I have to disassemble mine a fair bit to really clean it and was kinda grossed out by all the smelly gunk that was hiding in nooks and crannies.

Same with the toilet. When is the last time you've cleaned the hinges, bolts, under the tank lid, etc. There are a bunch of places for mould to hang out.
posted by ODiV at 11:56 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would like to emphasize that surfaces wiped with diluted bleach DO have a very bad lingering smell (again, as someone who used 10% bleach routinely for years to sanitize stuff in a lab setting). I would describe the lingering smell as "extremely bad body odour" myself, but I can definitely imagine someone else describing it as bad breath. Very distinct from the chemical "clean" smell that you'd get from smelling an undiluted bleach bottle (definitely not recommended, btw).

I always assumed the smell was universal but I'm learning in this thread that maybe some people don't smell it. But based on your description, I'm guessing you can smell it like me, and the bad smell is most likely just the diluted bleach rather than hidden mold/degrading plastic/etc. So don't panic too hard just yet (sure, check for hidden mold if you want, most houses probably do have some and you'll be better off getting rid of it, but it's probably not the source of the smell).
posted by randomnity at 12:23 PM on September 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

RE: "Ugh, it is so bad, and it's on the part of my travel mug that touches my nose so I'm getting a whiff of it every time I sip my coffee." I keyed on this bit about your travel mug because a lot of mugs with lids will have hidden reservoirs that aren't readily clean-able, or rubber gaskets that get gunk underneath them and start stinking. Especially a problem if you put dairy in your coffee. If your mug has a rubber gasket anywhere near the lid (like where your nose is), peel off the rubber gasket and clean it & the lid thoroughly. Take the any mechanisms apart and scrub, soak in a solution of hot water & oxy-clean for good measure then re-assemble. I recently scored a really nice $30 nearly-new vacuum mug from a rummage sale for $1 because it was stinky, but the owner never thought to clean under the gasket which was harboring old dairy residue until I cleaned it, now it's good as new. If your counters and other surfaces are stinky, grout between tiles is porous and may have soaked up something spilled, or the crack between counter & the wall could be harboring crud. No need to bleach everything constantly but you may need to give a good scrub to any porous surfaces. PS: Bleach will break down & damage a lot of surfaces when used frequently, and you'd be much better off using a vinegar solution for general household cleaning. Vinegar kills germs too.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 12:34 PM on September 7, 2016

Oh and also, it's pretty easy to test whether the smell's from the bleach or something else - just spray some all over the counter, wipe off the excess (without rinsing with water) and see if the bad smell gets noticeably stronger. Might not work if the baseline smell is already extremely strong, but even then, you could probably find a spot in your house where the smell isn't as strong to test out the difference after spraying some (safe) surface with bleach.
posted by randomnity at 12:36 PM on September 7, 2016

Came to say what's already been said, that 20% bleach is crazy overkill (I'm an epidemiologist and it's crazy even in some laboratory settings).

Dishrag funk can definitely transmit to objects they touch.

We had a long period of figuring out that our bathroom was smelling bad because there was a slimy bacterial overgrowth in the toilet water tank. Have you peeked in there?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:20 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Haven't seen it mentioned yet, so: is it possible you're smelling off odors due to a medication side effect?
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:40 PM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Another option, do you have any drains that may have dried out. Floor drains have a u-bend that should keep smells in check, but if the water in the u-bend dries out, you get all the bad smells. Easy to fix by pouring water down the drain.

And I agree that bleach on counter tops is overkill.
posted by kjs4 at 4:49 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I mean this in a not at all joking or judgmental way but is the smell maybe your own breath, which you notice on your mug because your residual saliva is there, close to your nose when you sip? Are you having your coffee before brushing your teeth?
posted by masquesoporfavor at 5:33 PM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bleach is weird, in that it first forms chloramine compounds, which have that "basement gymnasium" (or maybe "indoor pool") smell that you mention.

The way to remove chloramines is with superchlorination which, somewhat interestingly, just means adding more (or stronger) chlorinating compounds.

So I wonder if perhaps your bleach solution is too weak, and so when you clean with it, you are only doing the first step of creating Chloramines?

The solution could be as simple as a fresh bleach solution.

Also, could you clarify: you say a 20% solution. Do you mean an industrially-strong 20% solution? Or do you mean the usual 5% solution which you have further diluted by 5 to 1, e.g. a 1% solution?
posted by soylent00FF00 at 7:15 PM on September 7, 2016

we spent weeks trying to remove a smell my partner was smelling and was very distressing to him. i wasn't smelling it but my sinuses are awful and i sometimes can't smell sauteed onions that my nose is 3 inches from. come to find out it was a big dangerous medical thing that we caught just in time. keep trying to find the smell source, but please also mention it to your doctor.
posted by radiopaste at 7:20 PM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I reckon it's also possible that I'm the only one who notices the smell. Partner goes along with what I ask, but he doesn't show the same revulsion I do. Now that I'm thinking about it, he's never confirmed that he smells it too.

The soft plastic part of my coffee mug is the stinky part. All probably degrading. Damn damn damn.

I don't think the plastic is deteriorating, I think you are smelling biofilms which are probably composed of a number of different organisms, and which often form when bacteria are under some kind of attack. They generally serve to help the bacteria survive under adverse circumstances.

I've bought a lot of used vacuum insulated stainless coffee mugs from thrift stores, for example, and I haven't found one yet that didn't have horrible guck up under the plastic where it was pressed onto the stainless steel body, especially at the lip of the mug.

And my guess is that these biofilms have been around for some time, and that you are newly able to smell them.

In one of his books Oliver Sacks described people who had an extremely acute sense of smell, and at least one of them turned out to have an adrenal insufficiency. When someone Asked about their uncomfortably acute sense of smell a few years ago, I found a study at a now-dead link which confirmed a connection between adrenal insufficiency and very acute sense of smell:
A marked increase in olfactory sensitivity has been reported in
humans with adrenal cortical insufficiency (ACI). For example,
Henkin and Bartter (8) reported that patients with ACI could de-
tect, by olfactory cues alone, differences between water and
aqueous solutions of sodium chloride, potassium chloride,
NaHCO3, sucrose, urea, and hydrochloric acid at concentrations
1/100,000 that required by normal subjects.
Several Mefites who commented in the thread mentioned that they had PCOS and a heightened sense of smell, and I located a study (that link is also dead now) which showed that PCOS is often associated with impaired adrenal function.

My own sense of smell improved drastically when a course of antibiotics after unrelated surgery apparently cleared up a lingering minor sinus infection.
posted by jamjam at 11:41 PM on September 7, 2016

Do you use only bleach to clean?
Diluted bleach desinfects but I don't think that it is very effective in cleaning up fatty deposits...
So wiping with a regular cleaning product is important, too.
(You do not habe to desinfect everything detergents/soaps/surfactants should be good enough to deal with regular household dirt situations.)
posted by mmkhd at 12:49 PM on September 8, 2016

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