Bleach Alternatives for Purifying Water and Sanitizing Surfaces


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Last Updated: May 20, 2021

Bleach has many emergency uses, including purifying water and disinfecting surfaces after floods or during pandemics.  For this reason, bleach should be on your list of emergency supplies.

However, bleach has a very short shelf life which makes it a frustrating item to stockpile.

Even if you store bleach properly, it will start to degrade after 6-12 months. Unless you have expensive lab gear, there is no way to test the strength of old bleach.  I wouldn’t trust old bleach in an emergency situation.

While nothing is as good as bleach for general emergency prep, there are some bleach alternatives with longer shelf lives which you might want to consider for preparedness. I’ll go over them here, along with their pros and cons.

1. Natural Disinfectants (Not Recommended)

There are a lot of natural bleach alternatives.  The main ones are vinegar, tea tree oil, and baking soda.  Some of these are much more shelf-stable than bleach and have many other uses, such as baking or first aid.

Various studies show that these natural disinfectants can kill some bacteria, fungi, and virus strains.  However, as the CDC warns, natural disinfectants should NOT be used for disinfecting: they are ineffective against many pathogens.

The general consensus is that it is okay to use natural disinfectants in non-emergency situations.  In an emergency, a natural disinfectant is better than not using anything at all.  But don’t think they can replace bleach for emergency preparedness.

Pros:

  • Many uses
  • Nontoxic
  • Cheap

Cons:

  • Not effective against many pathogens

2. Povidone Iodine

According to UNICEF, povidone-iodine has a shelf life of 3 years – which is much longer than that of bleach.  It is also a powerful disinfectant and is effective against various pathogens. Povidone-iodine will even disinfect faster than bleach.  It’s something that you should have in your first aid kit (see a first-aid checklist here).

Povidone-iodine isn’t ideal for disinfecting surfaces because it stains.  But, in a pinch, you could use it to disinfect contaminated items.

Like with bleach, you can use iodine to purify water.  Here are the EPA’s instructions.

It is readily available on Amazon.

Pros:

  • Very effective against pathogens
  • Disinfects quickly
  • 3-year shelf life
  • Can be used on skin, surfaces and objects
  • Suitable for purifying water

Cons:

  • Stains surfaces
  • Hard to find in bulk quantities
  • Expensive if you need to disinfect large areas

3. Ethyl and Isopropanol Alcohol

Ethyl and isopropanol alcohol (aka rubbing alcohol) are commonly-used disinfectants and are the main ingredient in hand sanitizer. They are cheap and generally do a good job of killing pathogens quickly.

However, there are downsides like that these alcohols won’t kill certain viruses or the Clostridium bacteria. You definitely can’t use them to disinfect drinking water.

As with bleach, alcohol will start to degrade over time.  If you leave the bottle unopened in a cool dark place, it should last for up to 3 years.

Pros:

  • Shelf life of up to 3 years
  • Cheap and available in bulk
  • Can be used on skin, surfaces and objects
  • Doesn’t whiten or stain

Cons:

  • Ineffective against some pathogens
  • Can’t be used for purifying water

*Can’t get hand sanitizer? Here’s how to make your own hand sanitizer.

4. Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is another bleach alternative for disinfecting surfaces and objects.  You won’t want to use it on your skin, though it can cause irritation (it will also make your skin turn white).

The shelf life of hydrogen peroxide is about 3 years, which is better than bleach.  Once you open the bottle, hydrogen peroxide airs off quickly, so you’ll need to use it within 6 months.  You’ll be able to tell whether the hydrogen peroxide is still active by whether it bubbles or not when in contact with dirty surfaces.

Unfortunately, hydrogen peroxide is regulated in many areas.  Unless you work in a lab or similar setting, you probably won’t be able to buy it in bulk or with high strengths.  Also, note that it can take 10 minutes of contact before hydrogen peroxide kills certain pathogens.

Pros:

  • Very effective against pathogens
  • 3-year shelf life
  • No toxic residues
  • Suitable for disinfecting surfaces and objects

Cons:

  • Can’t buy it in bulk amounts
  • Expensive if you need to disinfect large areas
  • Causes white staining
  • Takes 10 minutes of contact to kill some pathogens
  • Not suitable for purifying drinking water

5. Cream Hair Developer

Here’s a bleach alternative that many people don’t know about. Cream hair developer is hydrogen peroxide which has been stabilized (and usually has some perfumes and additives in it too).

The great thing about hair developer compared to pharmacy hydrogen peroxide is that you can buy it in bulk and higher strengths.

My daughter and I collect animal bones, and cream developer is what we use to clean and whiten the bones. It is a lot cheaper than buying a zillion bottles of hydrogen peroxide in the store.  The shelf life is also better, though it also starts degrading after about 6 months once opened.

Pros:

  • Very effective against pathogens
  • Shelf life of 3+ years
  • Can buy in bulk
  • Available in higher strengths

Cons:

  • Often contains additives and perfumes
  • Not suitable for purifying drinking water

6. Quaternary Ammonium Compounds

Also known as “quats,” these compounds are found in many disinfectant wipes and disinfectant sprays.  They have various names, including benzalkonium chloride, didecyldimethylammonium chloride, and alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride. Lysol is probably the best-known quat.

Quats are very potent and effective.  They also are shelf stable for 3-5 years. However, they are generally considered overkill for everyday use.  There are many safety concerns with them as they are known to irritate the airways and skin.

I don’t use these in everyday life, but they are good to have in your disaster kit because of their shelf life.

Pros:

  • Shelf life of 3-5 years
  • Affordable
  • Very effective against pathogens

Cons:

  • Are lung and skin irritants
  • May have adverse health effects
  • Leave behind toxic residues
  • Not to be used on surfaces that come in contact with food

7. Pool Shock (Calcium Hypochlorite or Sodium Dichloroisocyanurate)

Without getting into the complex chemistry of it all, calcium hypochlorite (HTH) and sodium dichloroisocyanurate (NaDCC) is essentially bleach in a granular or tablet form.  They are the main ingredient in “Pool Shock” which is used to disinfect water in swimming pools.

Because HTH and NaDCC are solid, they are much more shelf-stable than liquid bleach.  When you mix them with water, chlorine bleach is released.  You can then use the solution as you would with regular liquid bleach, including purifying drinking water in emergencies or disinfecting surfaces. Pol shock is easy to find and readily available online.

The problem with using Pool Shock for disinfecting, though, is figuring out the measurements. Many brands of Pool Shock don’t list their strength.  Even if the strength is listed, you still have to do some meticulous calculations to dilute the Pool Shock properly. You’ll need a  sensitive kitchen scale and to do some complex math.  If your math is off, you might end up consuming unsafe levels of chlorine.

In addition to dosage issues, Pool Shock may contain cyanuric acid as a stabilizer.  In large doses, this could have serious health effects.

Pros:

  • Long shelf life of 2+ years
  • Can be used to purify water, surfaces and objects

Cons:

  • Difficult to measure precisely
  • May contain harmful ingredients

Instructions for using Pool Shock for disinfecting:

  1. Wear eye protection and do the mixing in a well-ventilated area.
  2. Measure out ¼ oz. (7 grams) of 70% calcium hypochlorite.
  3. Mix the calcium hypochlorite with 2 gallons of water (7.5 liters).
  4. This will produce a chlorine solution with approximately 650 milligrams per liter (or 650 ppm).
  5. You can use this solution for disinfecting surfaces.
  6. To use this solution for disinfecting water, add one part of the mixture to each 100 parts of water you are treating (or approximately 8tsp per gallon). If the chlorine taste is too strong, pour the water from one clean container to another and let it stand for a few hours before use.

8. Water Purifier

There are many options for purifying water during emergencies, and many of these are arguably better than stockpiling bleach.  For example, you can boil water to purify it and not ever have to worry about wood or propane fuel going bad.  You can also disinfect certain objects with boiling.

You won’t be able to disinfect surfaces or clothing with a water purifier like you would with bleach.  However, when it comes to disaster prepping, there’s rarely a single perfect solution.  It’s wise to have multiple ways of disinfecting surfaces and purifying water so you can be ready for anything.

What disinfectants do you have in your emergency kit? Let us know in the comments section below.

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  1. I’ve resigned myself to always having the ability to boil and filter water. I find that time flies by and I end up with out dated chemicals of all kinds (first aid as well as water treatment) so for water if I have a bottle or two for water treatment I try to rotate in with the regular laundry But the mechanical back up is always packed and ready to go without chlorine or iodine etc if need be.

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