It’s not really a cleaner or a disinfectant. Combining it with other common natural cleaners can render it useless.
In fact, “natural cleaners” is a near-mythical phrase. No definition of “natural” has been made official. It can mean whatever the person using wants it to mean.
What is vinegar?
The first fermentation makes alcohol. Think wine.
The second fermentation changes the alcohol to acetic acid.
Most vinegars you’d use in food preparation come from this double fermentation process.
Distilled white vinegar, the kind you use in cleaning, comes from diluting laboratory-produced acetic acid in water. It’s more acidic than other vinegars.
Some people with more environmental enthusiasm than knowledge approve of vinegar because they think it’s not a chemical. Water is a chemical. All the ingredients in your food and all your body fluids are chemicals. Well, so are the solid parts, for that matter.
So what kind of chemical is vinegar?
It’s an acidic solution with mainly acetic acid. Distilled white vinegar is about 5% acetic acid. With a pH of just over 2.0, it is a strong acid, corrosive to some surfaces.
It also contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The specific ones in vinegar apparently haven’t been tested for health effects, but VOCs in general cause respiratory problems. The Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for vinegar recommends using a respirator if you spray it or use it in large quantities.
Vinegar cleaning myths, or how not to use vinegar for cleaning
Many sites that tout the virtues of vinegar imply that it’s an all-purpose cleaner. It’s versatile, but not that versatile.
Vinegar won’t work on ordinary dirt and grime.
For that you need soap. Chemically, soap results from treating fatty acids with a strong alkali. Its long and complicated molecular structure attracts water at one end and repels it at the other. To be more technical, a soap molecule has a hydrophilic end and a hydrophobic end.
The hydrophobic end binds with fats and oils, which are also hydrophobic. The hydrophilic end pulls the fats and oils into the water, along with the grime dissolved in them.
Soap also acts as a surfactant. That is, it reduces the surface tension of water to make it spread on a surface more easily. Vinegar’s less complicated chemistry does not bind with fats and oils. You know that from having to shake your salad dressing that oil and vinegar don’t mix any better than oil and water. Vinegar doesn’t act as a surfactant, either.
Vinegar and soap don’t work well together
Lots of recipes for home cleaners include both vinegar and liquid soap. Soap is alkaline and vinegar is acidic. Combined, they neutralize each other. Vinegar reverts the soap to its original oils. Soap cancels vinegar’s ability to cut through scum.
In combination, vinegar and soap make only a curdled mess, not useful for any purpose.
I have seen plenty of recipes that combine vinegar and either laundry or dish detergent. Since detergent is alkaline, it stands to reason that the two ingredients would weaken each other. At least vinegar doesn’t appear to curdle detergent.
Vinegar and baking soda don’t work well together
That volcano effect happens for the same reason vinegar curdles liquid soap. Vinegar is acid and soda is alkaline.
Chemically, the reaction that puts on such a spectacular display creates carbonic acid, an unstable compound.
The carbonic acid soon dissipates as carbon dioxide and water. The carbon dioxide escapes into the air until the mixture stops fizzing.
Nothing remains except a weak solution of sodium acetate in water. And that won’t clean anything.
Vinegar destroys some surfaces
Vinegar will etch your granite or marble countertops or stone floors. It will dissolve the wax on your hardwood floor or wood furniture.
It will damage the innards of your steam iron or electronics.
For that matter, vinegar works on some messes, but not others. It won’t take out blood stains or ink stains, for example. And if you spill a raw egg, vinegar will only coagulate it and make it harder to clean up.
Vinegar is not a disinfectant
Most vinegar cleaning myths do no harm, but relying on vinegar as a disinfectant is potentially unhealthy. Under laboratory conditions, it kills about 90% of germs. But a disinfectant must kill at least 99% of germs. Vinegar falls very short of that standard.
So there’s no point in rinsing vegetables with vinegar. Plain water works just as well.
Best cleaning with vinegar
If vinegar won’t clean dirt and grime, won’t work in combination with soap or soda, and won’t disinfect, what’s it good for?
I have looked at several sites with tips for how to clean with vinegar to find ones that don’t rely on any of the vinegar cleaning myths.
Generally speaking, use an alkaline cleaner like soap, soda, or borax for acidic messes and vinegar for alkalines.
Soap combines with minerals in the water to leave an alkaline soap scum behind. Vinegar cuts right through soap scum. So clean with soap, then rinse with vinegar. That goes for counters (provided they’re not made of stone), sinks, and windows.
If you have a heavy buildup of soap scum in your bathtub or bathroom sink, vinegar will take care of it. Just don’t expect to clean it without scrubbing.
If you have hard water, it leaves alkaline mineral deposits. Vinegar and some elbow grease will take care of them. Take care of rust with vinegar, too.
Vinegar also works well to clean the microwave. Mix equal parts vinegar and water and nuke it long enough for it to boil for a while. The steam will loosen whatever is caked on the inside of the microwave.
Leave the door closed and let the steaming mixture sit long enough to be safe to touch (but still hot. Then use it to wipe inner surfaces.
Cleaning out the dishwasher requires several steps, but it ends with a cup of vinegar on the upper rack. Run the dishwasher with nothing else in it.
Pour a couple of cups of vinegar into a toilet that needs cleaning. The vinegar will dissolve any stains below the water line and kill germs and viruses. Let it sit for several hours. Brush and flush. It’s slower than a commercial toilet cleaner, but you’re not putting a dangerous chemical in the water supply.
The combination of vinegar and soda works in drains, by the way. Pour soda in the drain, dissolved in hot water if necessary. Then add vinegar. The fizzing action in which the two destroy each other loosens clogs. After a while flush the drain with hot water.
Should I buy cleaning vinegar?
Heinz sells a vinegar that’s 6% acetic acid instead of 5%. It says you can use it for food. Do you ever use distilled white vinegar for food? Any other vinegar tastes better. A higher concentration of acetic acid would make the food taste even worse, but it doesn’t clean any more effectively than the 5% solution.
You may also notice something called an industrial strength vinegar in the cleaning aisle. It appears to be nothing but 5% acetic acid that hasn’t been purified to food grade standards.
In either case, you’re likely paying more per ounce for the so-called cleaning vinegars. You have to find some place to put two different products and discard two different containers. And you get no additional value to justify the expense or inconvenience. Count cleaning vinegar among the vinegar cleaning myths.
Tell us your experience in the comments.
6 things you should never clean with vinegar / Lauren Piro, Good Housekeeping. December 23, 2015
Myths and facts about vinegar / Bruce Vance. Town & Country Cleaning
Should you buy cleaning vinegar for homemade cleaners? / Beverly, Make Your Own Zone. November 3, 2014
Uses for vinegar: what vinegar can and cannot do around your home / Household Management 101
What is vinegar and what makes it a good cleaner? / Alexandra Ossola, Kitchn. October 24, 2016