Bleach is a powerful cleaning agent used for removing stains from laundry and hard surfaces. It’s active ingredient, sodium hypochlorite, is a caustic agent that can break down the chemical structure of wood. In short, it deteriorates the wood at the chemical level, causing changes in color and weakening of the material. Bleach can also break down certain finishes, exposing the hardwood to damage from other chemicals as well as water damage.
It might happen over time or immediately, but when you notice a bleach stain, refinishing and restoration are possible. We’ll explain how to tell when your hardwood floor is bleach damaged, and how to decide what to do next.
How To Identify a Bleach Stain
Whether you’re using a small amount of bleach in hot water to mop your floors, or have spilled undiluted bleach directly on your hardwood floors, the bleach will begin to lighten the wood. The amount and concentration of lightening and might depend on what your floors have been treated with. There are dozens of stain and finish combinations for hardwood floors, so bleach stains might appear differently depending whether the bleach has corroded the stained, waxed or oiled bare wood fibers, or just the finish.
Regardless, a bleach stain will appear noticeably lighter, as bleach draws the color out of surfaces. You might notice some superficial textural changes to your floor, depending whether the bleach corroded the finish or the wood itself. Either way, bleach will damage your hardwood floors, and can be costly and time consuming to repair.
If you notice a bleach stain that’s still wet, spot dry the stain with a clean towel immediately. Keep in mind, bleach will alter the color of the towel as well, if it has any. Once the stain is thoroughly dried, you’ll need to assess the damage. Consider how deeply the bleach has corroded, the surface area of the bleach stain, and whether you have any remaining finish and stain from your hardwood floor installation or last refinish. These factors will help you determine your next steps.
Refinishing Vs. Restoring Hardwood Floors
The damage caused by bleach stains and other caustic chemicals can sometimes require restoration. If the bleach stain has penetrated the finish or outer treatment layer and corroded the wood itself, the affected floorboards should be replaced. If the stain has caused exposure of the wood surface for an extended period of time, or if the floor boards are warped or otherwise not smooth and level, they need to be restored.
Restoration involves replacing, treating, sanding, staining, and finishing the damaged floor boards. It will often require sanding, restaining, and refinishing unaffected floorboards as well, in order to maintain uniformity in the floor’s appearance.
Refinishing is essentially restoration that doesn’t require floorboard replacement. In order to avoid mismatched stain, finish, and surface texture, the entire hardwood floor should be sanded, restrained, and refinished. A professional refinishing service can get the job done quickly and efficiently with professional sanding tools, buffers, and dust-minimizing equipment. Refinishing can take a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on accessibility to the floor and preferred finishing materials throughout the process.
If you have the time and the ambition, it is possible to rent equipment and refinish your hardwood floors on your own. Check out our Refinishing DIY blog post for more details on how to do that.
Bleach Alternatives For Hardwood
The best way to avoid bleach stains on hardwood is to avoid bleach altogether. There are 4 types of household bleach, and all but one of them are caustic to hardwood floors. Of all the bleach types, chlorine bleach is the harshest type available, and should never be used on hardwood. Two-part bleach is usually reserved for the toughest, set-in stains, and is also caustic to hardwood and other porous surfaces.
Non-chlorine bleach is a milder, less effective, but less-caustic form of bleach products that can be safe in small amounts when mixed with clean water. It uses oxygen as its active ingredient, and is less toxic and more environmentally friendly than other types of bleach. Common stains may require something as mild as this chlorine bleach alternative.
There are many bleach alternatives that are gentler on your hardwood flooring than most bleach. If disinfecting your floor surfaces is your aim, Chrolox makes bleach-free Swiffer-like wipes for your floor that kill 99.9% of bacteria. For greasy floors, try using dish soap and hot water to clean your flooring. To remove sticky residue, use a Mister Clean Magic Eraser sponge, dipped in a 4:1 water to vinegar solution. For all other cleaning agents, make sure the products you use are safe for wood flooring as per the label.
Avoid using tile cleaners for hardwood floors. Also avoid other corrosive cleaners, and always check the label for compatibility. You can spot test a small section of the floor before using new cleaning products. Do not use natural cleaning products with real lemon juice or white vinegar ingredients, as they can have similar effects to bleach.
Some of our friends use a bleach solution on their wood floors when cleaning them. How does that work?
While we don’t recommend using bleach to clean your hardwood floors, some people do. Certain types of hardwood are better suited to take on bleach solutions than others. These include red oak, ash, gum, and beech flooring. Even bleach-resistant and resilient species likely require a full sanding before bleaching, and restaining afterward.
What if my hardwood flooring is engineered wood?
Different types of flooring have different structural components and interact with chemicals in different ways. Engineered wood flooring is composed of a veneer of solid wood, which means the same rules apply to engineered wood that apply to natural hardwood floors. different structural components and interact with chemicals in different ways. Engineered wood flooring is composed of a veneer of solid wood, which means the same rules apply to engineered wood that apply to natural hardwood floors.
Can I use bleach on my laminate flooring?
Laminate flooring is a durable, wood-based flooring product that actually has a superficial plastic layer. This layer isn’t wood at all, it’s just made to look exactly like it. Depending on the floor finish you have on your laminate top layer, bleach may or may not damage it. Consult the labels of the bleach, or any other cleaning solutions you plan to use, for compatibility.