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When chlorine gas is bubbled through a cylinder of tomato juice, the chlorine/tomato juice mixture turns almost completely white within five minutes. This spectacular change is a result of the chemical action of chlorine, acting as an oxidizing bleaching agent, on the pigments in tomato juice. When old newspaper clippings, discolored through aging and exposure to light, are treated with 1 percent aqueous sodium borohydride solution, the paper is dramatically whitened within twenty minutes. In this instance, the paper has been restored to its original white color by the action of sodium borohydride acting as a reducing bleaching agent.

A bleaching agent is a substance that can whiten or decolorize other substances. Colored substances generally contain groups of atoms, called chromophores , that can absorb visible light having specific, characteristic wavelengths, and reflect or transmit the part of light that is not absorbed. For example, if a chromophore absorbs blue light, it will reflect light of the complementary color, and the chromophore-containing substance will appear yellow. Bleaching agents essentially destroy chromophores (thereby removing the color), via the oxidation or reduction of these absorbing groups. Thus, bleaches can be classified as either oxidizing agents or reducing agents .

Some of the use of bleaching agents are:

  • The bleaching of textiles and fabrics
  • The bleaching of wood pulp
  • The removal of stains
  • Commercial and household laundering and cleaning
  • As ingredients in scouring cleansers and dishwashing products
  • The bleaching of hair

Oxidizing Bleaches

A large number of oxidizing bleaches were reviewed by Jules A. Szilard in Bleaching Agents and Techniques (1973). The oxidizing bleaches (and bleaching agents) in common use today are: chlorine, chlorine dioxide, alkaline hypochlorites, hydrogen peroxide, peroxygen compounds, and sunlight and artificial light.

Chlorine (Cl 2). The discovery of chlorine by the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1774 marked the beginning of the modern era of bleaching. According to Sidney M. Edelstein in a 1948 journal article titled "The Role of Chemistry in the Development of Dyeing and Bleaching," French chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet was the first to use chlorine to bleach cotton and linen fabrics.

Chlorine has been used to bleach wood pulp. Many pulp mills employing the Kraft pulping process prepare sodium hydroxide (needed to digest wood chips) on-site via the electrolysis of brine , a concentrated aqueous solution of sodium chloride.

2NaCl + 2H2O 2NaOH + H2 + Cl2          (1)

Chlorine is a side product. Subsequent chlorine bleaching of the brown pulp gives a product that can be used for the manufacture of writing and printing paper. Unfortunately, organic compounds in the pulp are both oxidized and chlorinated, yielding small quantities of organochlorine compounds, including

Bleaching AgentCommercial Use in Bleaching
ChlorineBleaching pulp and paper; making hypochlorites
Chlorine dioxideBleaching kraft paper and flour
Sodium hypochloriteHousehold laundering and sanitizing
Calcium hypochloriteSolid bleach used in sanitizing
Sodium dichloroisocyanurateSanitizing and dishwashing agents
Hydrogen peroxideBleaching textiles, fur, pulp and paper, and hair
Sodium perborateMilder bleach for laundering; dry cleaning; denture cleaning; tooth powder; replacement for phosphates in detergents
LightBleaching paper artifacts
Sulfur dioxidePreserving grapes, wine, and apples; removal of color during refinement of sugar
Sodium sulfite; sodium bisulfiteAnti-chlor (a reducing agent for removing oxidizing bleaches)
Sodium dithioniteBleaching textiles, pulp and paper; removing rust stains
Sodium borohydrideBleaching pulp and paper

dioxins. In fact, the most abundant dioxin produced by the pulp and bleaching process, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p -dioxin (2,3,7,8-TCDD), has been found to be both a carcinogen and a deadly toxin . Thus, chlorine as a bleaching agent is being replaced by the safer bleaching agents chlorine dioxide and hydrogen peroxide. In fact, the trend in the pulp and paper industries is toward totally chlorine free (TCF) bleaching. Chlorine is now used in the bleaching industry mainly to prepare hypochlorite solutions and dry bleaches such as calcium hypochlorite.

Chlorine Dioxide (ClO 2). Chlorine dioxide has been used as a bleaching agent both in its gaseous phase and in aqueous solution. Because of its explosive nature, chlorine dioxide in the gaseous phase is often diluted with nitrogen or carbon dioxide. If stored or shipped, chlorine dioxide is passed through cold water and kept under refrigeration.

Chlorine dioxide is prepared industrially via the reduction of sodium chlorate by sulfur dioxide in aqueous solution.

2NaClO3 + SO2 + H2SO4 2ClO2 + 2NaHSO4          (2)

A relatively safe method for the preparation of ClO2 involves the reaction between sodium chlorite (NaClO2) and formaldehyde (H2CO).

H2CO + H+ + ClO2 HOCl + HCOOH          (3)

As reaction 3 proceeds, the pH of the solution drops (due to the production of formic acid [HCOOH]). The increased acidity of the solution promotes the formation of ClO2, shown in equation 4.

HCOOH + HOCl + 2ClO2 2ClO2 + Cl + H2O + HCOO          (4)

In acidic solution, chlorine dioxide behaves as an oxidizing agent. The complete reduction of ClO2 is shown in equation 5.

ClO2 + 4H+ + 5 e Cl + 2H2O          (5)

The individual steps of this overall reduction reaction produce HClO2, HOCl, and Cl2, which all behave as oxidizing agents. An acidic medium is required, as ClO2 disproportionates in alkaline solution, as shown in equation 6.

2ClO2 + 2OH ClO3 + ClO2 + H2O          (6)

Chlorine dioxide is mainly used for pulp bleaching.

Hypochlorites (OCl ). Hypochlorite bleach solutions are made from NaOCl and, to a lesser extent, Ca(OCl)2. Hypochlorites are used in laundering, as disinfectants, in the bleaching of pulp and textiles, and in the removal of ink from recycled paper. Commercial bleaching solutions are obtained by passing chlorine gas through cold, dilute, aqueous sodium hydroxide, as shown in equation 7.

Cl2 + 2OH OCl + Cl + H2O          (7)

Alternatively, the hypochlorite ion can be generated by the hydrolysis of organic nitrogen-chlorine compounds. Some of the more important nitrogen-chlorine compounds used in this way are the chlorinated isocyanurates. These find use in cleansing and dishwasher products.

To be an effective bleach, the hypochlorite solution should be kept alkaline (pH > 9.0), in order to suppress the hydrolysis of OCl (see equation 8) and prevent the formation of unstable HOCl.

OCl + H2O HOCl + OH          (8)

In acidic solutions, HOCl forms and decomposes.

3HOCl HClO3 + 2HCl          (9)

HOCl will also react with HCl, one of the decomposition products.

HOCl + HCl H2O + Cl2          (10)

Hypochlorite bleaching solutions must not contain heavy metal cations, as these cations (like light or heat) promote the decomposition of HOCl, as shown in equation 11.

2HOCl 2HCl + O2          (11)

The active ingredients in hypochlorite bleaches vary with pH. At pH < 2, Cl2 is the main component in solution; at pH 4 to 6, HOCl is the dominant species; at pH > 9, OCl is the only component present. It is the hypochlorite ion in basic solution that is the active ingredient in household bleach, which is typically about 5 to 6 percent NaOCl. The OCl ion oxidizes chromophores in colored materials, and is itself reduced to chloride and hydroxide ions.

OCl + H2O + 2 e Cl + 2OH          (12)

The whitening process effected by commercial hypochlorite bleach is often enhanced by the use of optical brighteners, compounds that absorb incident ultraviolet light and emit visible light, making the fabric appear brighter and whiter.

Hydrogen Peroxide (H 2O 2) . Hydrogen peroxide can be prepared by the reaction of barium peroxide and sulfuric acid (see equation 13). As barium sulfate precipitates out, hydrogen peroxide is easily separated.

BaO2 + H2SO4 BaSO4 + H2O2          (13)

Hydrogen peroxide, as a bleaching agent used in the pulp and paper industry, has the advantage that it is nonpolluting. Because of the instability of pure hydrogen peroxide, aqueous solutions are employed in bleaching. At room temperature, hydrogen peroxide very slowly decomposes to water and oxygen.

2H2O2 H2O + O2          (14)

However, the presence of transition metal cations (particularly Fe3+, Mn2+, and Cu2+) and other catalysts dramatically accelerates this reaction. As a result, aqueous hydrogen peroxide must be stabilized with complexing agents that sequester transition metal cations.

The active bleaching species in hydrogen peroxide is the perhydroxyl anion , OOH, formed through the ionization of H2O2.

H2O2 + H2O H3O+ + OOH          (15)

The acid ionization constant of hydrogen peroxide is very low (Ka = 2 × 1012) with the result that solutions of H2O2 must be made alkaline in order

to raise the concentration of OOH. In the absence of an alkaline medium, hydrogen peroxide is no longer effective as a bleaching agent. For example, the bleaching stage of hair dyeing often employs hydrogen peroxide (56%), but also ammonia to provide an alkaline medium.

At the same time the pH must not rise above 11, as at this point the decomposition of OOH begins to occur.

2OOH O2 + 2OH          (16)

Peroxygen Compounds. A number of solid peroxygen compounds that release hydrogen peroxide when dissolved in water exist. These include sodium perborate (NaBO3 z 4H2O or NaBO2 z H2O2 z 3H2O) and sodium carbonate peroxyhydrate (2Na2CO3 z 3H2O2). The structure of sodium perborate contains the peroxoanion B2(O2)2(OH)42, which contains two OO linkages that join two tetrahedral BO2(OH)2 groups. These peroxygen compounds are used in detergents, denture cleaners, and tooth powders.

Bleaching with Light. Bleaching that involves either natural sunlight or artificial light has been used to remove stains from paper artifacts and to treat textiles. The material to be bleached is first immersed in an alkaline solution of either calcium or magnesium bicarbonate, and then protected from ultraviolet radiation by covering it with Plexiglas, Lexan, or Mylar. Exposure to light is then allowed to take place for two to four hours, for natural sunlight, and two to twelve hours, for artificial light.

Reducing Bleaches

Reducing agents used in bleaching include sulfites, bisulfites, dithionites, and sodium borohydride, all of which are used in pulp and textile bleaching.

Sulfites (SO 32 ) and Bisulfites (HSO 3 ). The oxidation state of sulfur in both SO32 and HSO3 is +4, and oxidation to +6 occurs readily, with the formation of SO42 and HSO4, respectively, making sulfites and bisulfites good reducing agents.

Dithionites (S 2O 42 ) . Both sodium and zinc dithionite have found use in the bleaching of mechanical pulps and textiles. The preparation of the dithionite ion is accomplished via the reduction of the bisulfite ion and sulfur dioxide with Zn dust.

2HSO3 + SO2 + Zn Zn2+ + S2O42 + SO32 + H2O          (17)

The dithionite ion, S2O42, which has sulfur in the +3 oxidation state, behaves as a strong reducing agent in alkaline solution.

S2O42 + 4OH 2SO32 2H2O + 2 e          (18)

As the pH is lowered, the reducing power of the dithionite ion drops off, as predicted by LeChatelier's principle.

Dithionites are useful in removing rust stains, and neutral citrate solutions of Na2S2O4 were used to remove iron corrosion products from objects recovered from the Titanic.

Sodium Borohydride (NaBH 4). Sodium borohydride has been used mainly in the industrial bleaching of mechanical pulps. The BH4 ion is a strong reducing agent in alkaline solution.

BH4 + 10OH BO33 + 8 e + 7H2O          (19)

One problem with using sodium borohydride is that the BH4 ion slowly decomposes in aqueous solution.

BH4 + 4H2O B(OH)4 + 4H2          (20)

As an alternative method, BH4 salts may be dissolved in either CH3OH or the less toxic C2H5OH. The decomposition of the BH4 ion in alcohols occurs at a much slower rate:

BH4 + 4ROH B(OR)4 + 4H2 (R = CH3, C2H5)          (21)


A bleaching agent can whiten or decolorize a substance by reacting with the chromophores that are responsible for the color of the substance. Depending on the nature of the chromophores, the bleaching agent will either be an oxidizing or reducing agent. That is, the chromophore is either oxidized or reduced to produce a colorless or whitened substance. Bleaching agents and their commercial uses are summarized in Table 1.

see also Berthollet, Claude-Louis; Chlorine; Detergents; Scheele, Carl.

Henry A. Carter


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Swaddle, Thomas W. (1990). Applied Inorganic Chemistry. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Szilard, Jules A. (1973). Bleaching Agents and Techniques. Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Data Corporation.

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Internet Resources

Linak, Erik; Leder, Andy; and Takei, Naoka. CEH Report: Hypochlorite Bleaches. Available from <>.