The Science of Vinegar

Cleaning with vinegar: why it works
You may have noticed that my cleaning tricks frequently have you steering your shopping cart away from the bleach and aiming a little closer to the salad dressing. If this sounds familiar, you know all about my favorite not-so-secret cleaning ingredient — vinegar! I’ve written a lot about what and how to clean with vinegar — from floors to sports gear and more — but have you started to wonder about the why? I know I have. So, I hope you don’t mind me adding a little extra geek to my CleanGeek blog this week, as we take a brief break from cleaning tips and explore some cleaning science.

The first thing I discovered during my vinegar investigation, was that the substance responsible for all the magic is its “active ingredient”: acetic acid. Found in vinegar in concentrations that are usually between 4%–7%, this naturally occurring, organic acid is what gives vinegar its distinctive taste and smell and also happens to have many properties perfectly aligned with the cause of clean.

Coffee Pot
So delicious, so problematic.
Mineral deposits disintegrated
The chalky stuff on your coffee pot, the scum in your bathtub, and even the hard water deposits that are left on your laundry all have a common weakness — they are made of alkaline substances like calcium and magnesium. Why does that matter? Because that means they can be effectively handled by our versatile friend, vinegar. The acetic acid will react to each of these messes in the same way — by breaking them apart to be easily whisked away.

If you want to see a dramatic example of this effect, or just want a fun science experiment to do with the kids, try making naked eggs! Put an egg in a container with enough vinegar to cover it, place it in the fridge overnight, then see what happens. The shell is made primarily of calcium carbonate, the same substance that makes up the limescale deposits you find on your coffee pots. The vinegar will break up the calcium carbonate crystals, leaving only the squishy membrane behind. Acetic acid in action.

Aren’t they cute? Let’s destroy them.
No mercy for microbes
Now, it’s time to talk about the pH scale (I told you we were going to get geeky, guys). Most living things like to exist in a pretty neutral environment, at a pH of around 7. So, at a very acidy pH of 2.4, vinegar can make your home inhospitable for uninvited guests like viruses and mold. The acidity is also what makes vinegar a good deodorizer, since it takes care of many odor-causing agents like bacteria and fungi.

“But what if I don’t want my bathroom to smell like carnival fries?” you ask. Don’t worry; while vinegar does have a strong odor, the fumes are not harmful and they dissipate quickly. It can also be combined with lemon and/or lime juice to improve both its strength and its scent. Combine the following for a great, all-purpose cleaning and disinfecting spray:

  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 1 cup water

Did I say I’d be taking a break from cleaning tips? Well, that didn’t last long!

Even cuter than the germs.
Lean, mean, cheap, and green
Aside from all the cleaning (and science) projects vinegar can tackle, it’s also a favorite of mine for what it doesn’t do:

  • It doesn’t cost much. I can usually grab a jug for less than 2 cents per ounce.
  • It’s non-toxic. There aren’t many other cleaning agents I’d want to spray on my salad!
  • It’s hypoallergenic. If you or your family members are sensitive to commercial fabric softeners, you may find that using vinegar is an effective and gentle alternative.
  • And, it doesn’t harm the environment. All natural and readily biodegradable, vinegar is a great green choice.

Exclamation Mark
Pay attention to this one.
Clean with caution
Before you run off to pickle your whole house in an effort to achieve the perfect clean, keep in mind these things to avoid:

  • Do not mix with bleach. Doing so will create toxic chlorine gas.
  • Do not boil. Concentrated acetic acid is corrosive.
  • Do not use to clean natural stone, like granite countertops or stone floor tiles. The acid can damage these types of surfaces.
  • Do not use to clean your car, or any waxed surface. The acetic acid will dull, and eventually strip away the coating.

This list isn’t exhaustive, so always remember your CleanGeek 101: test clean an inconspicuous spot of any surface you want to preserve. You can never be too clean or too careful.

Do you have any more vinegar facts (or warnings) to share? Do you have any other cleaning tips that have you reaching for your pantry instead of under your sink? Let me know in the comments below!