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10 Things You Can — and Can’t — Clean With Vinegar

It’s touted as a wonder cleaner, but you should proceed with care.

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rubber gloved hand pouring vinegar into electric kettle

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Scientists have long touted vinegar as a powerhouse cleaner. And as people seek more eco-friendly (and cheaper) products, the versatile pantry staple, which contains acetic acid and water, is gaining even more traction. But does it live up to its sterling reputation as an amazing, natural and nontoxic cleaning agent?

The answer depends on what exactly you expect vinegar to do — and what you are trying to clean.

“Its biggest selling points are it’s really inexpensive, it’s benign and it can kill some bacteria,” says Eric Beckman, distinguished professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. But, he adds, “it’s not good for everything, and it’s smelly.”

In the best-case scenario, using vinegar to clean and sanitize surfaces or as part of your laundry routine can have antibacterial and antifungal effects, protecting you from germs that could make you sick. But those effects depend in part on how long the vinegar solution is in contact with a particular surface, says Jason Tetro, a microbiologist in Edmonton, Alberta, and author of “ The Germ Files.” “You need at least five minutes for killing bacteria and 30 minutes for viruses.”

As for its cleaning properties, using vinegar can help degrease surfaces such as the stovetop, allowing you to clean more effectively. Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the American Cleaning Institute in D.C., says the acetic acid in vinegar makes this possible. “It cuts through grease, grime and dirt,” he says. “It’s also useful for removing calcium and other mineral deposits, for descaling household items.”

In general, many experts recommend using a 50-50 mix of distilled white vinegar and water for cleaning. There are certain substances you should never mix with vinegar, including bleach and ammonia, because these combinations will produce chlorine gas and toxic vapors, says Ryan Sinclair, an environmental microbiologist and associate professor at the Loma Linda University School of Public Health.

Even with these caveats, though, “some things should never be cleaned with vinegar,” Sansoni says. Here’s a look at what you can and can’t clean with vinegar.

The green light list

Windows: You can use diluted vinegar and wads of newspaper to clean your windows without causing streaks, says Marilee Nelson, a cleaning expert and environmental consultant based in Hunt, Tex., and co-founder of Branch Basics cleaning products. (The same approach works for shower doors.) Just be sure to have good ventilation, she says, because “acetic acid is a lung irritant. Open the windows and use a fan. Don’t let anyone in the area with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

Your coffee maker and kettle: Minerals from tap water can clog the tank and tubes in your coffee maker. That’s why it’s smart to periodically run a mixture of white vinegar and water through the machine, followed by running the brew cycle a couple of times with plain water (no coffee), Nelson says. (You should do this when you notice scale buildup or according to the manufacturer’s instructions.) Similarly, you can let a vinegar-water solution sit in your tea kettle for a couple of hours to dissolve scale; rinse the kettle well several times with plain water before using it again.

Bathtubs and showers: “Natural soap leaves soap scum — vinegar has the ability to take it off,” Nelson says. Simply spray a diluted vinegar solution on the surface, let it sit for at least 10 minutes, then wipe the surface with a sponge or microfiber cloth, Sansoni says. Over time, mineral deposits also can build up in the showerhead nozzle, compromising the flow of water. If you can remove the showerhead, soak it in a vinegar solution for an hour then use a toothbrush to clear the gunk, Tetro says. If you can’t remove it, use a spray bottle with undiluted vinegar to clean the showerhead with a toothbrush, Sinclair suggests. Then run clear water through the showerhead to get rid of any vinegar residue.

The kitchen sink and garbage disposal: Tetro recommends putting five tablespoons of baking soda down the kitchen drain, followed by a cup of vinegar. “You’ll get some violent bubbling,” he says, which has a degreasing and descaling effect. Then, rinse the sink with warm water. You can also use a vinegar-water solution to clean the spray nozzle on the kitchen sink: Unscrew it and let it soak in vinegar for a few minutes before rinsing it thoroughly with water, Sinclair says.

The red light list

Marble, granite or natural stone countertops: “The acid in vinegar can damage the stone by creating etches in the surface, and over time it will remove the sealant on the stone so it starts looking dull,” says Chrysan Cronin, director and associate professor of public health at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. The same goes for ceramic tiles.

Hardwood floors: Even diluted vinegar can damage the sealant or finish that protects the wood and adds luster, leaving it looking dull and damaged, Cronin says. The same thing goes for wood furniture.

Cast iron pots and pans: Vinegar can permanently damage the surface, eventually leaving the cookware unusable. Also, don’t use vinegar to clean knives; the “acid could damage or corrode the edges of the metal,” Sansoni says.

Electronic screens: The acid in vinegar could damage the screens or the protective coating on TVs, computers and mobile phones, Beckman says.

The yellow light (maybe) list

The dishwasher or washing machine: On the upside, using a vinegar solution has the potential to deodorize and remove scale buildup from these machines. But “there may be concern that the acid [in vinegar] could interact with the rubber gaskets and hose, causing deterioration over time,” Sansoni says. “Once in a great while may be okay, but don’t use it often.” To be on the safe side, check the manufacturer’s instructions before cleaning these machines with vinegar.

And if you want to clean with vinegar but can’t stand the smell, open a window or turn on a fan to encourage the odor to dissipate more quickly. Alternatively, Tetro suggests sprinkling baking soda on the surface of a bathtub or shower, then giving it a full rinse with clean water to help combat the smell.

Stacey Colino is a writer specializing in health and psychology. You can follow her on X at @ColinoStacey.

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This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published March 6, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

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