Electrolyzed water, aka el liquido milagroso

Picture 7-2

The LA Times' Marla Dickerson reports on a cheap way to turn water and salt into a degreaser and sanitizer.

Used as a sanitizer for decades in Russia and Japan, it's slowly winning acceptance in the United States. A New York poultry processor uses it to kill salmonella on chicken carcasses. Minnesota grocery clerks spray sticky conveyors in the checkout lanes. Michigan jailers mop with electrolyzed water to keep potentially lethal cleaners out of the hands of inmates.

In Santa Monica, the once-skeptical Sheraton housekeeping staff has ditched skin-chapping bleach and pungent ammonia for spray bottles filled with electrolyzed water to clean toilets and sinks.


It turns out that zapping salt water with low-voltage electricity creates a couple of powerful yet nontoxic cleaning agents. Sodium ions are converted into sodium hydroxide, an alkaline liquid that cleans and degreases like detergent, but without the scrubbing bubbles. Chloride ions become hypochlorous acid, a potent disinfectant known as acid water.

"It's 10 times more effective than bleach in killing bacteria," said Yen-Con Hung, a professor of food science at the University of Georgia-Griffin, who has been researching electrolyzed water for more than a decade. "And it's safe."


  1. Wow, I’m going to try this stuff. Thanks! Using nasty chemicals is one of the only reasons I hate cleaning.

  2. Errrr…. Sodium hydroxide is lye. In concentrated form it will burn holes in your skin. I wouldn’t exactly call it anything other than what it is: a nasty chemical. That being said, in low concentration it can be a useful cleaner. But that slick soapy feel it often has? Yeah, that’s what it feels like when your skin is getting roached.

  3. Agree with the comment about sodium hydroxide. I use it and it’s hell on my hands. It burns holes in clothing quite effectively too.

    Additionally, the quote:

    “It’s 10 times more effective than bleach in killing bacteria,” said Yen-Con Hung

    is not credible because hypochlorous acid is the acid from which the salt sodium hypochlorite, otherwise known as “bleach” is formed.



  4. Walt Hougas @6

    “It’s 10 times more effective than bleach in killing bacteria,” said Yen-Con Hung

    is not credible because hypochlorous acid is the acid from which the salt sodium hypochlorite, otherwise known as “bleach” is formed.

    I could still be true – sure, hypochloric acid is used to make bleach, but it isn’t bleach. It seems entirely possible that the difference between a solution of the acid, and a solution of the sodium salt (The positive ions are H+ rather than Na+) could actually make a significant difference in its effectiveness as a disinfectant.

    That said, I agree that neither of these things seems especially chemically benign. Why not just use soap and vinegar?

  5. And it isn’t cheap. It takes serious energy to pull table salt apart.

    High school chemistry: not just for retro-nerds any more!

  6. Dragonfrog: Soap requires fat; Vinegar requires yeast, sugar, alcohol, bacteria, and time.

    Sodium hydroxide solution combines with grease to form detergent – soap can be made flammable itself, or be used to make napalm.

    Hypochlorous acid is too weak and unstable to use to etch infrastructure, blind inmates or guards, fatally inject inmates or guards, rot clothing and bedding, or apply in various chemical combinations.

  7. Man, that is wrong in so many ways.

    first, as some have already said. sodium hydroxide is lye, or caustic soda. No more, no less. It is used in many cleaning stuff. The amount of harm it can do only depends on the concentration you can achieve.

    Second, Hypochlorous acid is not less toxic than bleach, mainly because it is actually bleach. (well bleach is actually the salt formed when you mix hypochlorous acid and sodium hydroxide, but the dessifectant and toxic pover of bleach is mainly due to the hypochlorous ion.

    and third. I don’t quite buy the chemical reaction. If the red dots represent chlorine ions, what you obtain is hydrochloric acid, not hypochlorous acid. Hydrochloric acid may get reduced to hypochlorous, but what is show in the picture is hydrochloric acid, which can also be used as a sanitized, and it is also toxic.

  8. Do you remember
    Gramma’s lye soap
    good for everything in the home
    and the secret
    was in the scrubbing
    it didn’t sudse
    it didn’t foam

  9. “It’s 10 times more effective than bleach in killing bacteria.”
    I thought we were shying away from heavy duty sanitizers because they create super germs. I like my germs to be mild-mannered.

  10. The article says the marketing guy drinks some of it before he uses it to mop the floor.

    So if it’s really lye/bleach/acid/whatever is it just really weak?
    I should have paid better attention in Chemistry class.

  11. Sorry, I should have said that hydrochloric acid HCl may be OXYDIZED to hypochloric acid. HOCl. Not reduced.

  12. I don’t actually remember this from high-school science, but I do remember it vividly from Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac, which I highly recommend.

    Yen-Con Hung has a patent here

    and I’m starting to think that the real magic is that he may have found a way to convince people that it’s healthy to wash food in bleach, by branding is as alkaline electrolyzed oxidizing water.

  13. Slicklines sez
    “But that slick soapy feel it often has? Yeah, that’s what it feels like when your skin is getting roached.”

    That soapy feeling is actually soap. The sodium hydroxide (AKA lye) reacts with the oils on your skin to form soap through a process know as ‘saponification’

  14. this is often used to clean windows in the UK. I’m not sure why particularly but it tends to be done where the washing is by a long pole and it would be difficult to effectively wash off any soap residue,

  15. I’m no chemist, but isn’t hypochlorous acid produced when you chlorinate water? Like in a swimming pool?

  16. Funny, I read this article on a dead tree about ten minutes ago. I do not dispute what the members of the boingboing chemistry club are saying, but this is from the article:

    Minnesota food scientist Joellen Feirtag said she was similarly skeptical. So she installed an electrolysis unit in her laboratory and began researching the technology. She found that the acid water killed E. coli, salmonella, listeria and other nasty pathogens. Yet it was gentle enough to soothe her children’s sunburns and acne.

    I wouldn’t mind trying it, but don’t have the money for an electrolyzer lying around.

    Lying! Get it?

  17. On a related note, I really like Benefect which is a really nice disinfectant. I’ll let their link do the pimping, but basically it’s thyme oil based, and extremely safe and as effective as ammonia or bleach and smells very nice (like thyme).

  18. If a solution can “kill bacteria” it has to be cytotoxic by definition. Now, it may well be that this doesn’t have secondary effects such as carcinogenicity that some other cleaning compounds are known to have, but the idea that something can kill germs chemically without having any effect on your own cells is nonsense.

  19. @6: At high pH, the chlorine exists as hypochlorite, as in “sodium hypochlorite,” or commercial bleach- which is made by dissolving chlorine gas in sodium hydroxide (lye) solution.

    At low pH (pKa =7.2 or something in that neighborhood), the chlorine exists as hypochlorous acid. I recall from Principles and Practice of Disinfection, Preservation and Sterilization there was a test where hypochlorous acid was 80x as effective as hypochlorite on a molar basis. So, 10x as effective is not out of line, depending upon the test conditions and the organism of interest.

    See also:


    In this situation, as the chlorine effluent is not at high pH, it could lean towards hypochlorous acid, depending upon the pH of the feed water.

    I think this is similar to what is used in “salt water” pool chlorinators that require no added liquid or solid chlorine. Just top off with salt water, add electricity, and keep the algae and microorganisms at bay.

  20. You have to read the article closely to notice that they’re not talking about an all-in-one wonder degreaser/sanitizer. They’re talking about making two different liquids to both be used in different situations:

    Weak lye solution and weak hypochlorous acid solution. Lye (NaOH) solution is indeed a degreaser – as seen in oven cleaner – it turns grease into soap which in turn cleans up pretty easy.

    As for hypochlorus acid (HClO), I’ve never used it, so I couldn’t say. From the descriptions I’ve read today, I’d say it sounds less caustic than Chlorine Bleach (Sodium hypochlorite)… but I still wouldn’t swig it.

    One reason, via Wikipedia is “HClO reacts with HCl to form chlorine gas”. Hey dude, guess which kind of acid your stomach is already churning with?!

  21. Hydrolyzing sodium chloride in water produces sodium hydroxide, chlorine gas, and hydrogen:

    2NaCl + 2H2O -> 2NaOH + H2 + Cl2

    Chlorine gas exists in equilibrium as hypochlorous acid, so the previous commenter is correct that this is equivalent to chlorinating a pool. Likewise, all the previous comments about sodium hydroxide are true as well, though this article doesn’t say anything about the concentration of the resulting solution. Depending on how salty the water is you can make a stronger or weaker solution.

    On the other hand, saying hypochlorous acid and bleach are “the same” is not accurate. One is an acid, the other a sodium salt – just because both contain a hypochlorite ion does not make them equivalent. That would be like saying sodium chloride and hydrochloric acid are the same because they both contain a chloride ion. I don’t know much about the properties of hypochlorous acid, but as an acid it will have different properties than bleach, which acts through oxidation as opposed to acid/base chemistry.

    And yes, I am a chemist so I do have some idea of what I’m talking about, although electrochemistry is not my strong suit.

  22. This is a newer version of the classic “caustic and chlorine” heavy industrial process. The old-fashioned approach used mercury as a conductor to keep the two end products separated; the newer processes use various fancy membranes instead.

  23. This does not work as described. In High School I remember that we electrolyzed water with transformers from model train sets. We had to add salt (NaCl) because pure water is a really poor electrical conductor. When you do this, you get H2 gas and O2 gas at the two electrodes – you can collect the gases in test tubes and test their flammability if you like.

    At much higher voltage and salt concentration you will get NaOH and Cl2 as commenter #27 says.

    If the machine worked as described, you would get NaOH (lye) and HCl (hydrochloric acid). Toxicity depends on concentration, but there is no reason to think that they are “safe” just because you used a battery to generate them from salt water.

  24. Slightly off topic – while I know little about chemistry, my years as a domestic engineer has taught me that one of the best degreasers out there is plain old baking soda. I use it to scrub the stove off, clean tough muck out of frying pans and food baked on to pans or cookie sheets, remove tough stains on clothes, remove built up deodorant from the arm pits of clothes, scrub mineral build up on glass shower doors, and some with a little water through hair when it’s feeling drab. I know I know. Save it for Martha Stewart.

  25. There is no free lunch in the universe. Not now. Not ever. Get used to it.

    Just because something is ‘forgotten wisdom’ or ‘used for years in Europe’ doesn’t make it better, safer, cheaper.

    Renaming bleach to be hypochlorous acid or lye as sodium hydroxide is an obvious obfuscation process. It’s like calling water dihydrogen monoxide.

    Just because a big recognizable name uses a product, doesn’t mean they are smart or that it works.

    These are the classic techniques of snake oil salesmen.

    Does this product work. Probably. Is it better (in any sense) than other solutions? Probably not.

    It takes a lot of energy to create the end products. This is probably done more efficiently on an industrial scale (at industrial temperature and pressure) than in this device.

  26. Are people really confusing an LA Times newspaper graphic with the actual devices used by the hotel and laboratories in the study?

  27. Is this the same set-up for the electrified water bath that chickens and turkeys are dunked in at slaughter houses?

  28. Two more verses to Grandma’s lye soap:

    Little Herman and Brother Therman
    Had an aversion to washing their ears
    Grandma scrubbed them with her lye soap
    And they haven’t heard a word in years.

    Mrs. O’Malley down in the valley
    Had ulcers as I understand
    She swallowed a cake of Grandma’s lye soap
    Has the cleanest ulcers in the land

  29. “Bleach” is a sort of nickname for sodium hypochlorite, as in Clorox, but the word bleach means any chemical that takes the color out of things.

    Hypochlorous_acid and hydrogen peroxide are also bleaches.

    I love how tiny the “battery” is in the diagram compared to what you would need.

  30. Why is the issue of making soap so confusing?

    You need a fat, and a base.

    Ergo lard and wood ash will make soap.

    Baking soda on bacon fat will make soap. There is nothing magical or new about using basic chemicals to get rid of grease.

    The process is not new – it is used industrially to create chlorine. Additionally – what you are making is a combination of HClO and HCl – you cant just bubble chlorine through water and get only one.

    Not to mention that this process makes CL2 g

    Chlorine gas is DANGEROUS!!! read chemical weapon dangerous.

    Im not disputing that HClO is a good cleaning chemical – i don’t really know – what i do know is that using this process at home could kill you, not to mention make a worthless product full of HCl.

  31. As for hypochlorus acid (HClO), I’ve never used it, so I couldn’t say.

    Yes you have.

    You’ve used dihydrogen monoxide, too.

    Anyway … this article, and parts of this thread, are hilarious. Oh boy! Hypochlorous acid is just as efficacious as bleach! And I’ll tell you what, mix sodium and chloride ions, and you’ll obtain a substance that can readily replace lowly table salt, only with a cooler name!

    People, when they tried to teach you chemisty in high school, it wasn’t just to annoy you, it was so you wouldn’t look stupid on BoingBoing today!

  32. My school, Washington University in St Louis, just installed these in our new dining hall. My plates have been clean ever since, so it is a noticeable improvement.

  33. basic chemistry here, but knowledge that’s bad news for the megabucks cleaning industry that is selling weak and brightly colored solutions of the same things. a solar panel or other source of ‘free’ voltage can be the source of power.

    the disinfecting action is much more direct than “antibacterials” which can breed a resistance.


    Renaming bleach to be hypochlorous acid or lye as sodium hydroxide is an obvious obfuscation process. It’s like calling water dihydrogen monoxide.

    Sodium Hypochlorite: NAClO, pH ~12.8
    Hypochlorous acid: HClO, pH ~5.0

    Two very different animals, I think. While it would be obfuscation to call bleach HClO, it’s not obfuscatory to call HClO it’s proper name.

  35. Seems like the same process that my Dad has been using for years to chlorinate his swimming pool. Add salt to machine, turn on power, open water-valve. You get ‘free’ chlorine and muriatic acid which he then used as a weed killer.

    Sounds safe hey?

  36. Mark, remember when you were trying to convince everyone that a jetliner would still take off if you put it on a giant conveyor belt running to counteract the forward motion of the plane? Skepticism isn’t the same thing as cynicism, you know…

  37. I used to work in a chemical research facility & would get some nasty stuff on my hands occasionally & we had a glassware cleaner called Alconox that would clean anything off your hands. My hands always felt so nice & smooth as you rinsed it all off, clean & shiny, not goop, grease or oil. Then 10 minutes later your skin would parch & crack as all the natural oils in it had been washed away. Oy, that always was a bugger.
    As far as # 15’s concern, if these are cytotoxic as was mentioned then you needn’t worry about creating superbugs. It’ll kill ’em all. And, as mention. do some damage to your body, at some level.

  38. i call bu*****t on this. ok, sure, you can make hydrochloric acid solution (dilute) and sodium hydroxide (dilute) with an electrolytic osmotic cell. but hypochlorous acid, you need O- which means that the whole diagram is missing an ozone generator to feed into the HCl side to make the HCLO-

    and it requires a lot of energy, and if that HCl gas gets out of the system it’s gonna rust the crap out of every bit of steel and copper and everything metallic near it.

  39. I don’t remember high school chemistry well enough to argue this issue on my own, but for all of you who say it’s hog-wash, it’s interesting that a guy who says it is useful has a PhD and teaches at the Univ. of Georgia.

    He presented this concept at a conference of the American Chemical Society back in 2000. See this summary.

    He’s the patent applicant someone referenced earlier in these comments.

    I doubt that if this were as obviously stupid as you some of you say it is, it would have been accepted for that conference.

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