6 Things You Can Clean With Vinegar, and 3 You Shouldn't

Vinegar doesn't kill germs, but it can be a useful addition to your cleaning kit.
Image Credit: Dougal Waters/DigitalVision/GettyImages

Maybe you're tired of buying plastic bottles, or maybe you want to try a more natural cleaning solution. Either way, cleaning with white vinegar has probably crossed your radar.

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The acidic substance can be useful in certain situations (like, say, when you're making a salad), but does vinegar really work as a household cleaner?

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It really depends on your cleaning goal, per the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). If you're cleaning to disinfect — a process that kills bacteria — you should not use vinegar.

You can use vinegar, though, if you want to remove dirt or smudges from surfaces or break down certain types of buildup.

For the record, we're talking white vinegar here. Apple cider and balsamic should definitely be kept out of your shower and reserved for dressings, marinades and other culinary purposes only.

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Read up on the dos and don'ts of using white vinegar to clean below.

Tip

The term "cleaning" means removing germs from surfaces, while "disinfecting" means using chemicals to kill germs, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

3 Times You Shouldn’t Use Vinegar to Clean

1. To Disinfect or Sanitize Surfaces

The first clue that vinegar can't properly disinfect? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not recognize it as a registered disinfectant. In order to qualify as a disinfectant, a product or solution should be able to kill 99.9 percent of harmful germs within five to 10 minutes, per the EPA.

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"The best way to clean surfaces is to use sanitizers produced to clean them," says Sanja Ilic, PhD, an associate professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University and food safety state specialist.

While the vinegar may kill ​some​ germs, "it isn't enough to render a surface safe," says microbiologist Jason Tetro, author of The Germ Files.

What to Use Instead

Ilic recommends using household cleaners you find in stores for disinfecting and sanitizing.

“It’s important when you use them that you follow the instructions,” she says, adding that every cleaner has its own set time, or the amount of time the solution needs to rest on a surface to work effectively. “If you just spray it and wipe it off right away, it might not be effective.”

You’ll usually find a product’s set time in small print on the instruction label. Some require 15 seconds, while others may need up to 90 seconds to get the job done, Ilic says.

2. To Clean Produce

While washing your fruits and veggies is a smart move, doing so with vinegar isn't really necessary.

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"The recommendation is to clean your produce under running water, which can be as effective as using a vinegar solution," Ilic says.

And you might want to stay away from a vinegar solution entirely, because submerging your produce in solution is not recommended, she says. Plus, vinegar might add an undesirable taste.

Submerging your food in any kind of solution will just move many of the germs around rather than removing them. (If you do want to submerge your produce in a solution, you'll need to rinse it under running water after it soaks.)

What to Do Instead

“There is not one treatment that could remove all 100 percent of pathogens and bacteria on produce,” Ilic says. “In the household, clean running water is what we recommend for cleaning produce.”

If you’re eager to use something other than water to clean your greens, you might try a solution of baking soda and water. An October 2017 study in Agricultural and Food Chemistry found this combination rids certain pesticides from apples more effectively than conventional store-bought produce wash.

3. To Clean Certain Granite, Natural Stone or Marble Countertops and Tiles

Vinegar is acidic, and over time it can wear down these types of materials. Why risk it?

What to Do Instead

Make sure to read the manufacturer's instructions: Some materials will be able to handle the solution, while others won't. Use cleaning solutions specifically formulated for these materials. Sometimes it’s just best to trust the experts.

6 Times You Can Use Vinegar to Clean

As we've said, vinegar is not a disinfectant: It can't effectively sanitize surfaces and can sometimes even wreck them. Still, vinegar can be useful for wiping away debris and removing hard stains.

And because vinegar is generally safe around children and pets, some people like to use the ingredient over harsher chemicals in these scenarios:

1. To Remove Water Spots, Soap Scum and Rust

Think of vinegar as an aesthetic cleanser. A solution made of vinegar and water can help dissolve hard water spots on glass and other surfaces, cut through soap scum in the bathroom and remove mild rust stains, according to the National Capital Poison Center.

You can clean and deodorize toilet bowls with a mixture of white vinegar and baking soda, per Kansas State Research and Extension. Just sprinkle the baking soda around the bowl and then pour some vinegar on top. Use a toilet brush to scour to make sure you cover the entire surface.

You should avoid mixing vinegar and bleach, so do not combine a bleach-based toilet cleaner with this homemade solution.

2. To Clean Floors and Tiles

Vinegar can also make for a trusty floor cleaner (but remember to check with the maker of your floors and tiles first).

  • No-wax linoleum floors:​ Adding a few drops into your mop water can help remove grease, and a solution of a half-cup white vinegar with a half-gallon of water can help refresh these floors, per Kansas State Research and Extension.
  • Wood floors:​ For shiny wood floors, apply a thin coat of a solution made of a one-to-one ratio of vinegar and vegetable oil.
  • Stone and brick floors:​ Scrub floors with a solution made of one cup of vinegar and one gallon of water. Rinse with clean water after.
  • Ceramic tiles:​ Mix one-quarter cup of vinegar into one gallon of water to remove dirt from ceramic tiles, like your kitchen backsplash. This solution won't leave a film, like soap often does, and will help eliminate hard water stains, per Kansas State.

3. To Remove Smelly Kitchen Odors

White vinegar is way less expensive than an air freshener and can help eliminate odors. To try this trick, fill a couple of small, shallow dishes with vinegar and distribute them around the kitchen. You can also boil one tablespoon of white vinegar and 1 cup of water to do the trick, per Kansas State Research and Extension.

You can also rub a small amount of white vinegar on the palms of your hands to remove odors (think: garlic and onion).

4. To Prevent Drains From Clogging

Pour a bit of vinegar and baking soda down your kitchen drain to prevent clogging. This combination can break down fat and keep things smelling fresh, per Kansas State. You can use this smart solution once a week.

5. To Freshen Up the Laundry

White vinegar can help remove soap residue from clothes. Try adding one cup of white vinegar to the washer's final rinse, per Kansas State.

Vinegar can also help break down uric acid, so it's especially useful for babies' clothing.

Warning

You should not add vinegar to your laundry if you’re also using a solution made with bleach, as this combination can produce harmful vapors.

6. To Clean Household Appliances

Vinegar can help eviscerate limescale buildup — chalky deposits that form from calcium carbonate in water, which is a very common problem in households with hard water.

For buildup on sinks and faucets, you can rub a bit of vinegar on the stain and rinse with water.

For coffee and teapots, boil a one-to-one solution of water and vinegar and let the mixture stand in the appliance for at least one hour. Rinse before your next use.

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If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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