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Vinegar: Definition, Green Cleaning Uses, Disinfectant Properties, & More

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Photo of Heinz Distilled White Vinegar

Heinz Distilled White Vinegar

Photo © Karen Peltier
Definition:

Vinegar is an acidic, clear liquid substance derived from fermenting alcohol, usually made from fruits or grains, that is used as a primary ingredient in many green cleaning products in addition to its culinary uses.

Composition

Vinegar is comprised approximately of 5% acetic acid and 95% water; however, vinegars do vary in the amount of acidity they contain. For example, distilled white vinegar usually contains around 5% acidity, whereas champagne vinegar contains 6% acidity. A 5% acidity level is common for most general all-purpose cleaning, but sometimes a stronger level is preferred for disinfecting the toilet, for example.

Types of Vinegar

Non-organic and organic vinegars are available in a variety of types, such as distilled white vinegar, rice wine, champagne, apple cider, malt, balsamic, etc. Organic vinegars are made using organic grains or fruits and manufactured according to organic guidelines. Distilled vinegars have gone through a pasteurization and straining process where the bacteria used in making the vinegar has been removed.  So, in vinegars that aren’t distilled, you’ll notice “strands” or “floaters." These don't cut down on vinegar's effectiveness as a natural cleaner.

The most commonly used vinegar in green cleaning is distilled white vinegar. The organic variety is definitely more earth-friendly, because it is made with grains that aren’t genetically modified or treated with pesticides or fertilizers.

Disinfectant Properties

Due to a pH of 2.0 and the acetic acid content, vinegar is an inhospitable environment for many microorganisms, so it is the perfect cleaner for your home! Just think about how well it does at inhibiting bacteria and mold from growing in pickles. Still not convinced?

Studies have been done testing how effectively it kills bacteria and viruses. For example, a 2010 study showed that a 10% malt vinegar solution was just as effective as commercial cleaning wipes in killing the Human Influenza A/H1N1 virus. A 1997 study in the Journal of Environmental Health showed that undiluted vinegar was just as effective as bleach in eliminating E. coli from surfaces and sponges, but not as effective in eliminating S. aureus. Also, a 2003 study published in the Journal of Food Protection showed that vinegar reduced viruses by 95% when used as a strawberry wash.

Cleaning Uses

Vinegar can be virtually used anywhere in the home from cleaning wood floors to windows to wastebaskets, but it is not recommended for use on marble since the acid content can etch the surface.

Often combined with water for green cleaning, such as in this recipe for an aromatherapy all-purpose vinegar spray, the ratio of water to vinegar may vary depending on the cleaning task at hand. For example, pure vinegar might be needed to clean heavy mildew stains on tile or disinfect a cutting board, whereas a simple 50/50 solution of vinegar will work for general everyday cleaning.

The high acidity level of vinegar helps loosen mineral deposits, such as lime and rust, and dissolve soap scum due to their alkaline nature, so it is great for bathroom and kitchen cleaning. It is also useful for cutting through grease on ovens, cooktops, stoves, and grills, and it easily strips wax build-up off of wood floors. In addition, a vinegar soak helps remove stains, such as coffee and tea, from kitchen sinks, cups, and coffee makers. It is also useful for deodorizing and removing kitchen and bathroom odors as a simple spritz of a vinegar-water solution will prove. And it is often added to the laundry rinse cycle as a softening agent.

Other ingredients, such as citrus juices, may be added to vinegar to amplify its cleaning abilities, such as is done in this recipe for "Clean Everything Lemon Lime Vinegar Spray."

Because it’s natural and biodegradable, it’s a good choice when doing outdoor cleaning such as car washing, wiping down patio furniture, cleaning exterior windows, etc.

Cost

You couldn’t get a cheaper green cleaning product. Well under a dollar for a cup, vinegar is definitely earth-friendly and friendly on your wallet.  Save more by buying vinegar in bulk sizes.

Shelf Life

According to Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., About.com Chemistry Guide, in her article "Expiration Dates for Common Household Chemicals,” vinegar lasts about 3 1/2 years. But if the expiration date has passed, it's not a total loss. The Vinegar Institute (VI), which is comprised of vinegar manufacturers worldwide, states that vinegar has an almost indefinite shelf life and notes that vinegar may change aesthetically after a period of time, but it is still safe. However, a big bottle of distilled white vinegar won’t last long as you’ll find multiple uses for it!

Safety & Environmental Notes

Because vinegar is edible and all natural it is easily biodegradable and environmentally friendly.

Should vinegar come into contact with the eyes, flush with water for 10-15 minutes.

Avoid mixing vinegar with bleach or it will create toxic chlorine gas as About.com Chemistry Guide, Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., explains in her article "Why People Mix Bleach and Vinegar."

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