Remember when we wrote about green cleaning and other alternatives to the generic cleaning products readily available in supermarkets? We spoke about how green cleaning products are eco-friendly and cost effective but there’s another craze that cleaning enthusiasts are into and that’s natural cleaners e.g. vinegar. There are many sources online that advocate for natural cleaners because of the belief that they are environmentally preferable to commercially available hard surface cleaners but we’re here to debunk the vinegar myth. Please bear in mind that the purpose of this article is to provide you with science-based information regarding the efficacy of the recommended alternative cleaners you find online.
Let’s start with a basic introduction to vinegar and why it’s so popular as a cleaning agent. Vinegar is a weak form of acetic acid that forms through fermentation of sugars and starches. Vinegar destroys microorganism by penetrating and disrupting the cell’s membrane (Parish, Beuchat et al. 2003; Yousef and Juneja 2003; Marriott and Gravani 2006). Vinegar is made of roughly 3-9% acetic acid, which is good because a concentrated acetic acid is actually corrosive and can attack the skin. So now that we know a little bit more about vinegar, let’s have a look at its effectiveness as a cleaning agent compared to other registered cleaning agents e.g. your generic household cleaner.
A study conducted by Orson et al. was published in the Journal of Environmental Health. It examined the effectiveness of vinegar and other natural cleaners compared to commercial household cleaners. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on vinegar.
To conduct the study, they artificially soiled tiles with simulated bathroom soil and simulated kitchen soil. Secondly, they also introduced a microbial agent onto these soiled sections. They then proceeded to clean the sections using vinegar and hard surface cleaners. The results are not what you’d expect. They discovered that alternative cleaners, e.g. vinegar, as a group are less effective in both microbial reduction and soil removal. The only reason vinegar was actually more effective in reducing microbial contamination was because the microbes used in the study was susceptible to acid conditions. Since vinegar is made of acetic acid and this acid is more effective of a bactericide than citric acid, vinegar was effective in reducing microbial contamination. In other words, the antimicrobial effect of vinegar is dependent on the concentration, the type of microorganism, the strain, and the contact time (Entani, Asai et al. 1998; Parish, Beuchat et al. 2003).
Ashley Zekert also conducted a study on the “Effect of Alternative Household Sanitizing Formulations Including: Tea Tree Oil, Borax, and Vinegar, to inactivate Foodborne Pathogens on Food Contact Sufraces” and discovered that vinegar alone or a combination of the three solutions did not produce significant reductions in microbial populations sufficient enough to be considered as a sanitizer. In other words, they were less effective at removing organisms from the surface.
This isn’t to say that you should stop using vinegar to clean. Keep in mind that before cleaning agents are commercialized, they have to undergo a series of tests by the environmental protection agency of that country. Even though the manufacturer may not necessarily divulge all the ingredients in their cleaning product, it did pass certain standards and requirements. The same cannot be said about vinegar and other natural cleaners. Though vinegar is not harmful to your health, it may not necessarily be as effective in removing dirt and other domestic microbes.
A believer in natural products myself, I decided to try out vinegar and baking soda to clean my air fryer. At first I used vinegar alone to remove the grime. It didn’t work. Next I decided to mix baking soda and vinegar. It didn’t work. So I thought to myself, maybe it needs to soak for a few minutes and I did just that. I soaked the grill in a vinegar and baking soda mix. It still didn’t work. I realized that the grime that I was able to remove was probably the lose hanging grime. So I tried the method of boiling water, adding vinegar and placing the grill in that solution. To my surprise, IT STILL DIDN’T WORK! Goodness, what was all the fuss about? To make it even worse, the vinegar had such a pungent and undesirable smell that I gave up. It just wasn’t worth it! I went back to my regular dish washing liquid, hot water, and sponge. It didn’t remove everything but at least it was more effective than the vinegar and baking soda. Now some of you may argue and tell me I’m not doing it right but to be honest I didn’t have the time or energy to figure out the right combination of chemicals.
If you’re still bent on using vinegar because you believe it’s the best alternative for your cleaning needs, be prepared to use more strength and energy and keep in mind that it may not remove all the microbes on the surface and may not be as effective of a cleaning solution.