Why vinegar is so good for cleaning – 03/19/2023 – Science
All it took was some white vinegar, a rubber band and a plastic bag. In a matter of 25 minutes, the limescale embedded in a metal bathroom faucet was so softened that it could simply be brushed off with a toothbrush.
This trick is part of a viral trend on social media called #CleanTok. It involves online gurus who share simple tricks with satisfying results, scraping away dirt to reveal shiny surfaces.
There are thousands of commercial cleaners on the market, but many influencers prefer vinegar. Between degreasing windows and washing strawberries or transforming bathrooms, it seems there’s nothing this common kitchen ingredient can’t do.
Vinegar is used in dishwashers and clothes washers, and even scientists use it to disinfect laboratories. But why is it so versatile?
Vinegar is produced by a two-step fermentation process. First, carbohydrates of any kind are fed to yeast cells, which convert their sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
The alcohol is then exposed to oxygen and fermented again, this time with the bacteria acetobacter in place of yeast. “Et voilà” – the alcoholic liquid is transformed into a mixture of water and acetic acid. This is the same phenomenon that produces the acidic taste of wine that we forget to open overnight.
But when it comes to cleaning, arguably vinegar’s most useful property is its acidity—mild enough not to damage fabrics and surfaces, yet strong enough to remove stubborn stains and deposits.
The common product, for domestic use, can have a pH of up to 2.2 – about 10 times more acidic than the average soft drink. Commercial vinegar tends to have the lowest pH levels, while homemade versions top out at around 3.
When vinegar is added to stains, particularly those caused by mineral deposits such as limestone (the remains of a chalky material consisting primarily of calcium carbonate), the acid will help break down. The reaction produces a salt – calcium acetate, which quickly dissolves in water – and carbon dioxide.
The other advantage of vinegar is its antimicrobial property. Although some highly specialized bacteria can survive in acidic environments, most common microbes have difficulty surviving and reproducing in these conditions.
Pickling, for example, is an ancient method of preserving food by creating an inhospitable environment for bacteria using salt and vinegar. Cleaning with vinegar follows this same logic.
Research has shown that the product can kill a number of pathogens, including E. coli. Vinegar was once found effective for countless uses, from cleaning dentures to disinfecting fruits and vegetables.
Another popular cleaning trick is to apply vinegar to a surface that needs cleaning, sprinkle in some baking soda, and let the mixture foam up. It’s the same trick used to produce the “lava” of volcanoes in school projects.
In this case, the reaction produces water and carbon dioxide bubbles, which interact to help physically break down the dirt.
Because it is a base, baking soda reacts with acid and is also useful for removing stains and grease, making organic molecules more soluble in water.
But there is one situation where vinegar should never be used: certain types of stones.
Applying vinegar to limestone, travertine, or onyx floors, countertops, or tiles will replicate the reaction with baking soda, as these rocks contain calcium carbonate, which is also a base. When the acetic acid in the vinegar goes to work, the surface of the stone will be pretty clean but full of holes.
Can I clean electronics with vinegar?
Vinegar is not recommended for cleaning the inside of electronics because it is an acidic liquid that can corrode metal parts.
But the outside of laptops and other types of computers that are turned off can be safely cleaned by wiping down a microfiber cloth sprayed with a mixture of distilled water and vinegar. Spray the cloth and not the equipment, which must not be turned on or put back in until everything is completely dry.
You can use this technique to clean the screens of laptops and cell phones themselves – which usually don’t accept more aggressive cleaning products or those containing alcohol. But the impurities in vinegar, which consist mainly of undistilled water, can cause problems if the product is applied to printed circuit boards.
One field where vinegar is essential is film camera repair.
Cameras that are stored for a long time on batteries often experience catastrophic leaks that can prevent the machine from functioning.
In these cases, vinegar is the solution, according to camera dealer from Tokyo, Japan, Bellamy Hunt, of the company Japan Camera Hunter.
“You don’t need much, just a cotton swab and a little patience,” he teaches. “And you can marvel as the acid gently removes the corrosion and your swabs turn a blue-green color. It’s science in action.”
“For the battery compartment, there’s no better or cheaper alternative,” says Hunt. “Unless, of course, you have a lemon tree in your garden.”
Australian camera repair technician Brett Rogers says vinegar has other uses in the industry.
“It’s good for removing odors from very dirty equipment that has been sitting in a smoker’s house for years, for example. That can be difficult,” he says. “Normally, I prefer to tackle dirt and dust on the outside with a rag and a little isopropyl alcohol. But if it’s really tough, vinegar comes into play.”
“I’ve also used vinegar on some very opaque lenses,” he says. “It’s not my first resort. But if I have a real problem and the lens is so bad there’s nothing to lose, I try acetone or vinegar.”
Vinegar is very effective at killing fungus, and the inside of camera lenses can easily become infested in humid conditions.
But Rogers cautions that vinegar, even diluted, can be too harsh on some lens coatings.
Therefore, he usually uses the product in more modern optical equipment.
Vinegar can eliminate odors?
The acetic acid in vinegar itself is highly pungent and not everyone finds its odor pleasant. It’s a common component of bad body odor, for example.
But as a mild acid, it also reacts easily with alkaline odorous substances (bases), such as ammonia, which creates the strong smell of concentrated urine, and trimethylamine, with its distinct fishy odor.
Some cleaning enthusiasts recommend boiling a pot of vinegar to help get rid of strong odors by turning the acetic acid into steam. This way, it can more easily react with the volatile bases in a room.
But concentrated acetic acid fumes can also irritate the eyes and airways. And they leave that lingering vinegar smell throughout the house.
An alternative can be to apply liquid vinegar over the surfaces. The strong odor left by fish, for example, can be neutralized by washing with a mild acid such as vinegar.
It reacts with the amines in fish oils, forming salts that don’t hang in the air to harm your nose. But lemon juice — which contains citric acid rather than acetic acid — is often recommended as a more palatable alternative, especially when the problem is fishy smell on your hands.
Some types of vinegar – such as wood vinegar, which is much more pungent than the domestic, malt and wine types – have also been found to be effective in neutralizing the powerful smell of pig styes.
For all that, vinegar can have a number of uses in the home, although there are situations where it might be better to opt for a commercial alternative.
And whatever you do, don’t use the red or balsamic kind under any circumstances, otherwise you’ll have to spend hours scrubbing that stain over.