Despite the fact that many of us were raised in a world of lemon-fresh scents and tough-on-stains cleaners, white vinegar has been growing in popularity of late as a natural and non-toxic household cleaner.
“We’ve been conditioned to believe that ‘clean’ should have a scent and that we need to use chemicals that lather to clean our homes,” says Andrew Gayman, director of the Charles MacPherson Academy. “If you ask people like our parents and our grandparents what they used to clean in the past, they didn’t have any of the commercial, chemical cleaners we have now and they weren’t missing out.”
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Anyone who’s researched how to make your own natural household cleaner knows that some strange ingredients have remarkable cleaning powers — cream of tartar, for example, can do anything from remove carpet stains to restore scratched dishes — and vinegar is like the holy grail of natural cleaning solutions. Plus, it’s kid, pet and allergy friendly.
But anyone who has used it exclusively might be somewhat underwhelmed with the results it yields in certain situations.
“Vinegar can kill some bacteria, but it’s not a disinfectant. If you want to disinfect a surface where you’ve had, say, raw chicken, you need to use something like bleach,” Gayman says. “Also, vinegar needs to sit on a surface for up to 30 minutes in order to reduce bacteria. You can’t just spray it and wipe.”
You should never clean these things with vinegar
If you have natural stone, marble or granite countertops or floors, don’t clean them with vinegar.
“Vinegar is an acid and over time, it will erode at natural surfaces like that,” says Tracy Cummings, founder and owner of The Green Boutique Cleaning Company. “You also shouldn’t use it on raw wood floors because it could leave water damage.”
Your iron is also not the right vehicle for vinegar (despite the fact that it is a good decalcifier) because it can damage the internal parts of your appliance. It’s best to just make sure you dump out the water after every use.
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It’s also important to mix vinegar with other ingredients carefully.
You should definitely clean these things with vinegar
Anything that gets calcium buildup
Vinegar is a great decalcifier, Cummings says, so it’s ideal for cleaning things like your coffeemaker, tea kettle, faucets and shower walls. Make a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water, and leave overnight in appliances or spray onto the shower walls and allow to sit for at least 30 minutes.
“People often complain about the water pressure in their shower, but it’s really that the nozzles on the shower head are caked over,” Gayman says. “The best thing to do is take a sturdy plastic bag, fill it with vinegar, submerge your shower head in it and a secure it with an elastic band. Then leave it to soak overnight.”
Glass and chrome
“It’s a great everyday cleaner for shiny surfaces because it cuts through grease,” Cummings says, which means it’ll effectively get rid of fingerprints, as well as any dried rain buildup or grime on the outside of windows.
Cummings advises pouring some vinegar into the fabric softener compartment of your washing machine to naturally soften clothes.
“It also eliminates any lingering smells that don’t come out in the wash,” she says, and assures that the smell of vinegar evaporates within minutes (even less when it’s diluted).
There are a lot of minerals in our water and they can build up in your toilet bowl creating a rusty-looking ring. Gayman says to pour some vinegar into the toilet, let it sit overnight and then give it a scrub to dissolve any mineral buildup. It’ll also work for a bathtub that has a ring around the interior.
We use it to clean the plates and utensils that we eat food off of, but the interior of your dishwasher can get pretty grungy. And there can be a lingering smell, even after you’ve run a cycle.
Gayman says to take a small glass bowl, fill it with vinegar and place it on the top rack of the dishwasher. Then run it through a cycle — don’t add detergent and don’t select heat dry.
“As the dishwasher gets going, it will fill the cup with water and it will spread around the entire machine,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll see hacks that say to pour vinegar into the bottom of the dishwasher, but most machines drain the water before starting, so it will just flush out the vinegar before it has a chance to do its job.”
A myth about vinegar
As it turns out, mixing it with baking soda won’t do much more than give you a cool show.
“It looks great when it starts foaming but it doesn’t make for an effective cleaner,” Gayman says. “Baking soda is a base and vinegar is acid, so it gets neutralized. There was an idea that it creates carbolic acid, and it does briefly, but not long enough that it’ll do much to clean a surface or unclog a drain.”