Vinegar - tasty condiment or household disinfectant?
April 12, 2006 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Is vinegar really effective as a household cleaner?

A number of people have suggested to me to use vinegar instead of bleach in my household cleaning, stating that it's just as effective as killing germs & bacteria and leaving things nice and clean, without being as toxic as bleach.

I do use vinegar to de-stink things (the dishwasher, coffeepot, etc), but I'm not sold on the fact that it's a disinfectant. Maybe my Google-Fu is off, but I can't find any information about it except from "Frugal Living" sites, and their primary goal seems to be more to save a buck than to clean your raw-chicken-slimed kitchen counters or toilet bowls.

Anyone have any evidence? Or suggestions for other less-toxic household cleaners?
posted by catfood to Home & Garden (33 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Vinegar and water makes a great glass cleaner but I wouldn't count on it being acidic enough to klll any bacteria.
posted by Captain_Science at 12:38 PM on April 12, 2006

here, and here have more info

and more info on acetic acid
posted by killyb at 12:41 PM on April 12, 2006

Best answer: Th' wife makes all our household cleaning products from various mixtures of vinegar, borax, washing and baking soda, alcohol, simple liquid soaps, grated bar soaps and water (and essential oils as needed). They work great for everything except the automatic dishwasher, where we still use a commercial powder. I'll see if she has some links for you.

Can't speak to the bacteria issue scientifically, but the surfaces, etc. look really clean and we haven't had an increased level of sickness while she's been doing this (over a year now). She's got a partially compromised immune system, so we're pretty attuned to that kind of thing.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 12:42 PM on April 12, 2006

Best answer: I wouldn't say it is AS effective as bleach, but it is effective for some things. Matter of degree. We use vinegar as a general cleaner (toilet, sinks, shower...) and seems to work well. If dealing with something that absolutely needs everything killed associated with the contaminated area bleach is the way to go (blood, body waste). Something inbetween, very hot water and soap (chicken goo).
posted by edgeways at 12:43 PM on April 12, 2006

and forgot my bit of info, i personally wouldn't trust it to disinfect, but i know many people who do, if you're cleaning for something where it's important for the surface to be 99% free of bacteria use bleach, if it's just day to day cleaning use vinegar, imo
posted by killyb at 12:44 PM on April 12, 2006

Best answer: From Fact Sheet: Safe Substitutes at Home: Non-toxic Household Products:

All-purpose cleaner can be made from a vinegar-and-salt mixture or from 4 tablespoons baking soda dissolved in 1 quart warm water.

Disinfectant means anything that will reduce the number of harmful bacteria on a surface. Practically no surface treatment will completely eliminate bacteria. Try regular cleaning with soap and hot water. Or mix 1/2 cup borax into 1 gallon of hot water to disinfect and deodorize. Isopropyl alcohol is an excellent disinfectant, but use gloves and keep it away from children.
posted by junesix at 12:50 PM on April 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm skeptical as to its use as a glass cleaner on windows due to some really bad streaks on windows and a layer of grime that wouldn't wipe off.
posted by mikeh at 12:55 PM on April 12, 2006

More cleaner recipes from The Vinegar Institute
posted by Sara Anne at 1:21 PM on April 12, 2006

It's effective. Is it the most effective product you could use for cleaning? No, of course not. But for a reasonably cheap, readily available substance it's pretty good and quite flexible in terms of the uses you can put it to.

For about a year I had a great "organic cleaning" person who did a wonderful job on my old apartment, and she used vinegar-based cleaning recipes for nearly everything. I can't tell you how impressed I was with the results.

As to how well it kills bacteria, well, that's open to debate. It's acidic enough to kill a fair amount of bacteria, but it's not bleach. It sounds like you're conflating "disinfecting" with "cleaning," so perhaps this answer about how well vinegar cleans doesn't answer your implied question about how well it disinfects. If that's the case, you have my apologies.
posted by majick at 1:49 PM on April 12, 2006

I might add that while bleach is a pretty good disinfectant, it's fairly miserable at cleaning. You might want to consider doing both.
posted by majick at 1:50 PM on April 12, 2006

See this article . For this you need two spray bottles, one with vinegar and one with hydrogen peroxide. Spray one, then the other, then rinse. [Note that the vinegar and hydrogen peroxide are NOT MIXED together in the same sprayer]
posted by scubbadubba at 1:52 PM on April 12, 2006

Response by poster: I might add that while bleach is a pretty good disinfectant, it's fairly miserable at cleaning. You might want to consider doing both.

I usually use Clorox Cleanup (which is a bleach-based cleanser) on my countertops & rinse with hot water - is that not "cleaning"? I also just use regular straight bleach in the toilet, scrub, and let it sit, then clean the outside with Clorox Cleanup.

I guess I really don't see the difference between cleaning & disinfecting or why it's unrealistic to want to do both at once. If it's covered in germs, then it's not clean, right?

Feel free to enlighten me, I really don't know how to clean house very well, which is part of why I'm looking into what works as a household cleaner and what doesn't.
posted by catfood at 2:13 PM on April 12, 2006

Response by poster: I guess what I am assuming is that something that is an effective "cleaner" will also disinfect to an appropriate degree, because I wouldn't consider a surface "clean" if it's swarming with disgusting germs.
posted by catfood at 2:19 PM on April 12, 2006

catfood - The Clorox Cleanup is more than just bleach, I'm sure they have detergents in there which are doing the cleaning part. Getting rid of the germs isn't the same thing as getting rid of grime, grease, dirt, etc. That is why people are saying cleaning (which gets rid of the grime, etc) and disinfecting (getting rid of germs) are two different things.

Most of the time you don't need to disinfect, and there are a lot of people who would argue that getting rid of all your germs is actually a bad thing as it only creates stronger germs. (it is more complex than that, but that is the quick of it)

on preview -- looks like you're really going to hate learning that germs are everywhere and inevitable!
posted by evening at 2:22 PM on April 12, 2006

Response by poster: on preview -- looks like you're really going to hate learning that germs are everywhere and inevitable!

I know, but I'm referring to cleaning kitchen counters and toilets, which I stated in my original post. Things that have harmful bacteria on them and do need at least some level of disinfectant.
posted by catfood at 2:24 PM on April 12, 2006

Response by poster: Also, note that I grew up in a household where my stepmother lived in constant fear of bacteria, especially salmonella. She wouldn't even eat eggs unless they were literally burnt to a crisp. So I may have a warped opinion about what is necessary in terms of cleaning things like kitchen counters & toilets. I thought I had a good handle on it, but now I'm not so sure...
posted by catfood at 2:27 PM on April 12, 2006

But who is sticking their hands (or whatever) in the toilet?? The toilet seat should be fine with regular cleaning (unless someone has sores on their butt or something).

As far as kitchen counters go, I'd say the only time you need to be concerned is when raw meat is touching the counters. And that will probably be very little counter space you have to worry about.

I hope the rest of my comment helped.
posted by evening at 2:30 PM on April 12, 2006

Response by poster: But who is sticking their hands (or whatever) in the toilet??

Point taken.

Yes, your post was helpful.

I have to think about this though. Something can be clean without being thoroughly disinfected? It's a new way of thinking for me. I do like the idea of killing at least a few germs though...
posted by catfood at 2:33 PM on April 12, 2006

Best answer: "Cleaning" with an all-purpose vinegar-based cleaner should be sufficient for most duties. Face it, bacteria is everywhere and most of it isn't really harmful. Trying to sanitize your entire house with disinfectant is overkill and promotes resistant bacteria strains.

Use disinfectant where there is a possibility of transmitting harmful germs. This would be areas like kitchen counters (raw food), door knobs, and kitchen and bathroom sink handles. It's unnecessary to disinfect the toilet bowl - you don't stick your face or hands in there right? :)

Other than that, don't sweat the "germs" too much and just remember to wash your hands after using the bathroom and whenever you handle food.
posted by junesix at 2:33 PM on April 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sigh, preview.
posted by junesix at 2:34 PM on April 12, 2006

Catfood, that Clorox Cleanup stuff also has a surfacant and detergent in it, which is why it cleans away the dirt so easily. These products are designed to both clean and disinfect, but are relatively expensive (all that marketing and packaging) and harsh on hands, surfaces, nasal passages.

For the purpose of measuring effectiveness, "cleaning" means removal of surface dirt and "disinfecting" means killing germs, and are considered two totally different things.

For this you need two spray bottles, one with vinegar and one with hydrogen peroxide. Spray one, then the other, then rinse. [Note that the vinegar and hydrogen peroxide are NOT MIXED together in the same sprayer]

I do this. Cheap, non-smelly, convenient.
posted by desuetude at 2:37 PM on April 12, 2006

derail: Trying to sanitize your entire house with disinfectant is overkill and promotes resistant bacteria strains.

Bleach doesn't promote resistant bacteria strains - because no bacteria can survive at all. Like human will never become resistant to having our heads chopped off, as it'd be a pretty strained genetic anomaly that would allow some humans to live and reproduce sans head.
Resistance comes from some population of the organism having an accidental property that allows it to survive the onslaught, and then passing that off. So antibiotics, yes; bleach, not so much.
posted by muddylemon at 2:55 PM on April 12, 2006

Food contamination can be an issue in a kitchen. But, using vinegar or soap and water along with using different cutting boards for poultry, pork, beef, fish and veggies will cover nearly all of it.
posted by QIbHom at 4:07 PM on April 12, 2006

Peroxide-based bleaches are better for you than chlorine-based ones, and far less likely to create toxic fumes if accidentally mixed with things they shouldn't be.

We use vinegar a lot. It works for us.

The main way that cleaning surfaces discourages bacteria is by depriving them of food sources. Bacteria really are everywhere, and the only time they do damage is if they arrive in your body in sufficient numbers to overwhelm your local defences and get established.

Going scorched-earth on every household surface is likely to cause you more damage from toxic fumes than you'd get from the bacteria you're trying to eradicate.
posted by flabdablet at 4:59 PM on April 12, 2006

It's weird, discovering childhood baggage in random places. I'm sure you never expected to see your stepmother and her germophobia popping up on your kitchen counter.

Everyone's given you great advice, but flabdablet's comment seems to provide a useful new way of thinking about cleaning and disinfecting:

Going scorched-earth on every household surface is likely to cause you more damage from toxic fumes than you'd get from the bacteria you're trying to eradicate.

Also, a normal level and range of bacteria in your household can actually strengthen your immune system -- the regular exposure to common bugs makes you less susceptible when you encounter them out in the world. (Exceptions, obviously, for especially nasty bacteria and already-compromised immune systems.)

One commerical product I use is Bon Ami powder. No chlorine bleach and non-abrasive but excellent for cleaning grout and similar porous surfaces. Also, try Oxiclean or any of the peroxide-based bleaches. They're great for hard surfaces (except real linoleum, as I discovered too late) and color-fast fabrics.

As far as recipes, this site looks pretty comprehensive.
posted by vetiver at 6:14 PM on April 12, 2006

Also -- Kirk's Castile Soap. No animal products, very clean-smelling but not perfumey, available in bars or liquid -- I love the stuff.
posted by vetiver at 6:20 PM on April 12, 2006

muddylemon wrote: Bleach doesn't promote resistant bacteria strains - because no bacteria can survive at all.

Just wait a bit. Free chlorine is still a pretty novel substance on this planet. The bacteria will evolve one step at a time: from tap water to swimming pools to counter tops. There are bacteria that survive boiling, so why not bleach? The Giardia protozoa is fairly chlorine resistant. Google(chlorine resistant bacteria) finds half a million pages.
posted by ryanrs at 6:31 PM on April 12, 2006

Our media thrive on what one of my readers referred to as "fear pimping": your children will suffer a horrible death unless you...

It's a common theme in news reporting, as you know. And it features highly in many kinds of advertising.

Modern fear of household bacteria is primarily the result of 50 years of advertising by companies who make cleaners and disinfectants. Quite naturally, they're trying to convince people to buy their products and to use them heavily. But that doesn't mean it's actually a good thing for the customers.

Over the last 30 years or so, there's been a rise in childhood asthma. Some researchers now think that it's the result of excessive and widespread use of disinfectants in the home. Not, as you might at first expect, because exposure to disinfectants is a primary cause of asthma, but rather because the disinfectants are effective and actually do kill most bacteria, and as a result the kids are not being challenged on a regular basis by low level exposure. Thus when they finally do breath in something like that, their bodies aren't ready and their immune systems overreact.

Whether there's a specific link to asthma or not, there's good reason now to believe that excessive disinfecting is actually a bad thing in the long run, except in places like operating rooms.

Addressing the primary question of whether vinegar or bleach is more effective, the primary disinfecting agent in vinegar is acetic acid. In water it disassociates into an acetate ion (CH3COO-), and a hydronium ion (H3O+), which tries to attack anything which is oxidized by adding a hydrogen to it. Like any acid it will attack organic material, but it is relatively weak and ineffective unless the vinegar hasn't been diluted and the exposure is relatively long. Spray-on-wipe-off is going to have virtually no effect on killing any kind of hardy bacteria.

The active ingredient in most bleach is sodium hypochlorite. In water it disassociates into a sodium ion (Na+) and a hypochlorite ion (ClO-). When the hypochlorite ion comes into contact with things that are inherently burnable (not fully oxidized) there's a tendency for it to break down into a chloride ion (Cl-) and an oxygen radical. Oxygen radicals are extremely active chemically; they're the primary weapon used by lymphocytes to attack and kill bacteria they've engulfed. They're particularly effective and active against organics, such as the lipids which make up the cell walls of bacteria (and your skin cells) and it doesn't take long for them to kill. Spray-on-wipe-off with dilute bleach actually will kill a hell of a lot.

...which is why I think vinegar is a better choice for a household cleaner. However, what I actually use is a commercial cleaner based on citric acid; it's just as effective but it smells a lot less foul.

(Peroxide-based bleaches are similar; hydrogen peroxide HOOH tends to convert to water and an oxygen radical.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:36 PM on April 12, 2006

[Rats] In water it disassociates into an acetate ion (CH3COO-), and a hydronium ion (H3O+), which tries to attack anything which is oxidized by adding a hydrogen to it.

I wrote this correctly and then "fixed" it. It originally said that the hydronium ion tries to attack things which are REDUCED.

Ryan, chlorine isn't the active factor in bleach. Note that some bleach has no chlorine in it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:41 PM on April 12, 2006

Best answer: catfood, this is a bit beyond the scope of your original question, but this thread is getting into broader cleaning issues anyway, so here goes:

It is useful to know about the chemistry of your household tap water, as this common fluid will greatly affect, if not determine, many kinds of household cleaning issues you'll face, and how successful you will be with different formulas. Where I live, in Northern Florida, the municipal water is fairly "hard" (contains 323 MgL of naturally dissolved calcium carbonate, and some magnesium and fluoride). Water softening systems are popular here, but without such systems, automatic dishwashers don't appear to "clean" dishes well, washing machines don't clean as effectively, and plumbing fixtures quickly build "scale" deposits. But there is nothing unhealthy about this, if you don't mind the appearance issues. For those that do, but don't want to deal with the issues of water softening systems, vinegar is a huge help in controlling the water deposits by dissolving them, as part of regular household cleaning and maintenance procedures. Other places I've lived have had high naturally occurring levels of dissolved sulfur, and up in the northeast, it is not unheard of for tap water to be somewhat acidic, and when I lived in these areas, I used a lot less vinegar as a cleaning agent than I do here. Since tap water is a big part of any cleaning regimen, I think you can understand that getting a handle on effective cleaning chemistry requires understanding your tap water, and adapting your cleaning strategy and chemistry accordingly. What you find works well in one house may not work so well if you move, for this, if no other, reason.

That said, cleaning products generally have specific functions, which you use in combinations to minimize cleaning work, and get an appropriate esthetic and functional result. The Vinegar Institute has some suggested uses for vinegar as a cleaning agent, and some of these point to vinegar's natural acidity as an anti-bacterial agent. If you can keep the acetic acid solution strength above 4%, meaning that you are applying pretty much straight white vinegar to a surface that is not already overly wetted, you may get practical anti-bacterial effects. A more versatile cleaning product is concentrated vinegar, where the acetic acid concentration can be as high as 30%, making it easier to include the product in combination with other wetting agents, such as detergents. Indeed, such premixed formulations are commercially available in products such as CLR. A 15 to 25% acid solution of any kind is pretty hostile to any kind of life, not to mention many common polymers and metals. You'd need to be wearing gloves and face/eye/breathing protection to use such products in an enclosed household environment, in any quantity. The good news about simple acid solutions is that they can be effectively and inexpensively neutralized at will by common household chemicals such as baking soda (but beware that dumping a base material such as baking soda into a larger quantity of a high acid liquid is dangerous, as the resulting rapid reaction can cause splashing of the excess acid solution. Plan your application work accordingly).
posted by paulsc at 10:36 PM on April 12, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your patience with my apparent stupidity about cleaning! Haha.

If anyone is still reading this, what do you think of this revised cleaning policy of mine, based on your suggestions & advice:

- Disinfecting wipes or spray ONLY for use on: kitchen counters after preparing raw meat/eggs/goo; doorknobs (for deep-cleaning, not daily); kitchen & bathroom sinks (for deep-cleaning, not daily); toilet handle

- Less harsh all-purpose cleaner for most other surfaces & for regular cleaning. I could use a vinegar spray for this, or find some other non-evil-toxic cleaner for this.

- Vinegar to clean the inside of the toilet since it neutralizes odors and apparently cleans ok.

- Vinegar ice cubes in the garbage disposal (got that from the Vinegar Institute site, what a great idea!)

- Vinegar for cleaning kitchen things like the inside of the fridge, dishwasher, microwave

Is this a little less "scorched earth" than my regular habit of using Clorox Cleanup for most surfaces & straight Clorox for a lot of bathroom cleaning?
posted by catfood at 8:48 AM on April 13, 2006

Your proposed cleaning regime sounds both reasonable and thorough and certainly not at all "scorched earth."
posted by majick at 4:47 PM on April 13, 2006

Following up on my earlier post, my wife recommends these two books for homemade household cleaner recipes:

Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan
Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond.

She also says she found a lot of different things to try by googling for "homemade laundry detergent" and similar searches, but she didn't have a particular site to point people at.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 4:54 PM on April 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

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