When to Use (or Avoid) Vinegar for Cleaning

blog vinegar 2Vinegar is on the short list of everyone’s natural cleaning favorites and, IMHO, deserves to be. But articles listing ‘1001 uses’ don’t help you understand how vinegar works… and that’s important since its acidic power can be used for good or for harm.

Vinegar is technically a rinse agent, not a cleaner. (Shocking, I know) The thing it does better than anything else in the world of green cleaning is to dissolve and carry away minerals; a talent otherwise known as being a solvent. (in the same way that water is a solvent for soap and dirt) It’s the reason you are encouraged to run vinegar through your coffee maker every now and then; to dissolve and clear away mineral deposits. Very few things have an effect on mineral build-up; not regular cleaners, not ammonia, not even bleaching products. Since most commercial products designed to do so might be on the harsh side, vinegar is an awesome natural choice.

How pH Affects Use

Most cleaning products on store shelves, green or otherwise, are on the base side of the pH scale, but vinegar is on the acid side. White distilled vinegar usually contains 5% acid, though you can find more potent choices.

Know your science before adding vinegar to DIY cleaning formulas; it is possible you could be neutralizing ingredients by combining them. The well-known volcanic reaction between baking soda (base) and vinegar (acid) is simply the two compounds neutralizing each other. (though baking soda’s gentle scrubbing texture can be a nice finishing touch to a vinegar-soaked spot :) Lisa Bronner writes an informative article explaining the odd reaction between vinegar and Dr. Bronner’s Castile soaps.

Important Cautions!

Since the motto here is “First, Do No Harm”, I hope you’ll register these two rarely mentioned (but unanimously agreed upon) cautions:

  1. Vinegar should never be used to clean natural stone surfaces such as granite countertops, or marble or travertine shower walls, etc, etc. It will eat away at the surface of the stone because rocks are… made of minerals. Most stone surfaces are sealed but the sealant often wears away before anyone is the wiser; some say vinegar can have a hand in that. Determining if the surface is indeed natural stone or faux can be tricky~ there are many great look-alikes out there!  Your customer will probably know unless previous owners had it installed. If it is indeed natural stone (or if you are in doubt) and the surface suffers from mineral deposits, check into the use of Borax.
  2. Vinegar should not be used on waxed surfaces.
    1. Waxed wood floors are still out there, but rare. Increasingly common though are countertops and flooring made from poured cement which is then stained in really cool patterns before the concrete is sealed with a waxy coating. I’m seeing a lot of it in newer homes. Using a cleaner that contains vinegar might make that protective seal murky.
    2. Waxed wood (or any wood for that matter) should not be touched with vinegar. (you see DIY formulas involving vinegar and oil to remove water rings, but I wouldn’t attempt it on someone else’s furniture)
    3. Stainless Steel appliances have often been treated with products that have a waxy consistency designed to fill in the grooves of the grain. Using vinegar can cause a mark that is difficult to un-do.

Benefits In Bathroom Cleaning

In the shower minerals do not rise with the steam but remain stuck to the surface where the hard water deposits them along with that soapy mix that bestows house cleaners with real job security.

Here’s a marvelous trick I only recently discovered; especially for shower stalls, bathtubs, and sinks:  

(Note: see cautions above regarding surfaces that can be damaged by vinegar)

Anyway, back to this marvelous trick:

First I rinse the area with hot water, then cover it from bottom to top with my general cleaner (currently I use- and love- Planet dish liquid; diluted) then wait a minute for it to penetrate.  I fill my rinse cup with hottish water so that I can keep the Scrub Sponge plenty wet as I apply a bit of undiluted Planet dish liquid and a squirt of white vinegar to the scrubby side of the sponge.

That combination cuts through soap scum easier than anything I’ve used; better even than using a mild abrasive like baking soda, because the vinegar dissolves the minerals in the mix instead of trying to budge them off. When the minerals dissolve, everything else seems to give way and can be scrubbed then rinsed away.

When it feels slick, I rinse completely to finish.

Brushing the shower head holes with vinegar on a toothbrush makes for quick, regular maintenance taboot.

First time removing minerals from the shower stall might take a while, or you can work visit by visit to improve it gradually. Eventually you will break through to the prettiest the surface can be and then you can easily maintain it.

Note: lime scale is the white hard-as-plaque deposits and is the toughest to deal with. Soaking in vinegar does seem to soften it a teensy bit, but a lime scale problem is a different category (and bigger mission… should you decide to accept it…)

If a toilet bowl has the telltale orangish residue, I swish and flush to get rid of most of it, then let a bit of vinegar sit in the toilet bowl while I tend to other things. A shake of baking soda; a quick swish; and a thorough flush solve the age-old problem.

Benefits In Kitchen Cleaning

In the kitchen I mainly use it for the sink. (again, see cautions)

Wiping the walls inside the microwave with vinegar to remove any trace of cooking smells or cleaning product can be useful, and it’s handy when trying to remove a ring or rusty mark on a kitchen surface.

Debate on the Floor of the House  (Ha! Good line, eh?)

A more debated issue is the question of whether vinegar has a place in floor cleaning formulas for polyurethane wood floors and no-wax floors. Some vendors have told my customers to use a diluted vinegar spritz always and only, but warnings against using vinegar on floors can be found on many credible flooring websites claiming that the acid in the vinegar has a dulling effect.

I’ve cleaned floors with vinegar and without; both for long periods of time. I’ve never noticed a detrimental effect from using 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar per gallon of homemade floor cleaner; in fact I’ve noticed a cleaner shine which probably has to do with removing old traces of minerals.

Currently I use 1/2 cup white vinegar and a scant tbsp of Planet dish liquid in a gallon of distilled water… and it works great.

Especially if you skip the vinegar just to be safe, consider making any DIY floor formula using distilled water (or water filtered in a way that removes minerals, such as reverse osmosis) so that you are not applying a wisp of minerals each time you spritz mop. The H2O will evaporate from tap water, leaving that slight trace of minerals which might layer up over time. (I know it sounds a wee bit obsessive, but a dulling residue on an otherwise gorgeous floor is so common it often goes unnoticed. If you can bring a floor to its best and shiniest clean and keep it there, you will endear yourself to your customers)

One instance when I certainly use a diluted vinegar spritz is when winter weather brings tracks of sidewalk salt across my customer’s floor. (though never vinegar on a waxed or unsealed floor) I minimize the cleaning ingredient in my formula and use mainly a diluted white distilled vinegar spritz; rinsing the mophead often. That’s the most effective way of removing the salt and mineral mix.  If needed, I go over the floor a second time with a quick water-only spritz.

Fringe Benefits

Vinegar also has deodorizing and anti-bacterial characteristics, both of which are always welcome features. Its strong scent will disappear when the vinegar has evaporated, though it is considerate to make sure that customers at home while you work are not bothered by it. For most the scent suggests serious-yet-green cleaning… so usually it’s more than acceptable.

My preference is white vinegar over apple cider vinegar (both of which you see recommended for cleaning) because I rest easier if I am working with a clear liquid that is less inclined to stain grout etc. over time. I use distilled vinegar to lessen any trace of residue.

Overhyped?

There are plenty of claims repeated all-around regarding the amazing and versatile cleaning power of vinegar. Personally, I think some of those claims are… exaggerated. In my experience, vinegar is not a go-to tool for mold or grease even though it is often suggested as such. Also, it does not evaporate completely as some say. Leave some in a glass and you’ll find a slight sticky residue when dried, which might matter if you are using it full strength or using it on the same area repeatedly.  Just sayin…

 

Please Chime In!

Share your thoughts and experiences regarding the use of vinegar in cleaning:

What’s awesome?

What’s overrated?

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    I love cleaning with vinegar and buy it by the gallons at a time. I wash windows, clean the shower, add it instead of fabric softener in the washer, I think it helps cut down on static cling in our clothes in the winter. I have used it to clean my wood floors also, I think vinegar is miraculous and it doesn’t cost much to boot! I even think my hands feel softer after I have cleaned with vinegar. Love your website Kathy!