Vinegar: Myths and Facts
Does vinegar clean? Newspaper articles, magazines, green cleaning websites all tout vinegar as a miracle cleaner and ‘disinfectant’. All you need they say, is to put a little household vinegar in water and voila – you have a great cleaning and disinfecting solution. Let’s look at how well (or not) the claims stand up.
What is Vinegar?
Vinegar is an acidic solution with a pH of organic acids, mainly acetic, and other organic compounds, many of them volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). It is a relatively strong acid with a pH of about 2.0 to 3.0 and is corrosive to many surfaces.
The VOC’s of vinegar have not, to the best of my knowledge, been tested for health effects, but the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS, soon to be known as Safety Data Sheet) does recommend the use of a respirator when vinegar is used in large quantities or sprayed, as it is during cleaning.
Myth or Fact: Vinegar Gets Things ‘Squeaky Clean’.
True, sometimes. In the days when all we had to clean with was true soap, the soap left an alkaline residue which had to be rinsed off. If you added an acid to the rinse water it would do a better job of rinsing, so someone added vinegar to the rinse water. It rinsed the surface ‘squeaky clean’. Today (sixty-some years after the introduction of detergents) it is much less common but when and if you have an alkaline residue, adding vinegar to rinse water will still improve the rinse. Vinegar can also be effective in breaking up alkaline soils such as soap scum or hard-water film, but it is much less useful for other types of soil.
Myth or Fact: Vinegar Is a Disinfectant
As an acid, vinegar creates an environment that is inhospitable to many (though certainly not all) undesireable pathogens. Non-diluted vinegar has been shown to achieve kill rates as high as 90% in lab studies. However, in order to be rated as a disinfectant, it would need to achieve a kill rate of at least 99%. Anything that would tend to neutralize its acidity, such as adding an alkaline detergent (i.e. most cleaning agents), would definitely decrease its anti-microbial qualities.
Myth or Fact: Vinegar and Water Is the Best Wood Floor Cleaner
In a word, ‘NO’! Installers at one time would recommend (and sometimes still do) using vinegar and water for polyurethane-finished wood floors–mainly because they did NOT want oil soaps to be used. Oil soaps had been the primary wood floor cleaner before polyurethane finishes, but they caused major problems when it came time to re-coat those same finishes. Vinegar and water seemed a safe alternative. It turned out that over time, the acid degraded the finish. At the big flooring show, Surfaces, all manufacturers of wood flooring said ‘Do NOT use vinegar.” Several said it would void their warranty. Note: also heard at this year’s show, manufacturers of vinyl flooring are starting to say the very same thing!
Myth or Fact: Being Sourced from Nature Means Vinegar Is Safe for All Surfaces
Don’t be fooled! See the above note about wood and vinyl. It can also, as is true of any acid, damage many stone surfaces, especially marble, travertine and limestone. Even a brief second’s contact can etch these calcium-based stones.
In conclusion, vinegar can be useful as a rinse agent and even as a ‘cleaner’ in certain instances, but its uses for general cleaning and disinfection are highly overrated and misunderstood.