Since I am a big promoter of green cleaning and green living in general, people often say to me: “You must love using vinegar” to which I respond, “yes, there is no substitute for it in most salads.” I love to to cook and make preserves and for that vinegar has an undisputed place in my tang-loving heart. But although vinegar provides a broad range of culinary applications, its role in my cleaning life has shrunk to basically nothing. Not that it doesn’t perform a wide range of cleaning tasks, it’s just that for each aspect of its skill-set, something else that is equally green, safe and healthy has been found to do a better job. This is of course how one has to think when they are a professional: the best tool or product for each particular job. Now for the average home, vinegar will do just fine for some light-duty jobs – and has the benefit of being something most people already have so it often doesn’t even require any special purchases (however, since white vinegar is the most ideal for cleaning, as it is distilled, colorless and unlikely to stain surfaces, it tended to require a special purchase for me since I used tastier un-distilled vinegars for virtually every cooking project). So this post will serve cleaning geeks like me who want to take their green cleaning repertoire to another level. I will accomplish this by breaking down some of the main things vinegar is used for (either correctly or incorrectly) and some alternatives that I have found function better:
Vinegar doesn’t remove grease much better than water does. The simple reason for this is pH level. In short, think of pH as a positive vs. negative scale, where something on one end of it (acid) will neutralize something on the other (alkaline). Water is dead in the middle. In cleaning, neutralization is the name of the game since it basically means “delete”. So if something has an acidic pH it needs to be neutralized with an alkaline and vice versa. Although kitchen grease is oily like many alkaline substances, it is actually acidic in nature. And as mentioned the best way to neutralize an acid is, well, not with another acid. Alkaline substances like baking soda are much more effective. And I mean alkalines on their own. Vinegar and baking soda together becomes ineffective in about the time it takes them to neutralize each other (usually seconds). That charming science-project-style foam you get when combining the two very quickly becomes as effective as cleaning with water – since that’s essentially what it becomes as each chemical, on opposite sides of the pH scale, reduces the other to an inert puddle of H2O with a few sodium and acetate ions suspended in it. That’s right: on a chemical level vinegar and baking soda basically combine to clean EACH OTHER and not the grime at hand. A strong natural Castille soap is better suited to degreasing and makes a much better compliment to baking soda for jobs like this. Try mixing those two and comparing results.
2. Stain Removal:
Hydrogen Peroxide, especially in combination with things like salt or baking soda is a much more powerful bleaching agent and best-in-class at dissolving things like cat pee. Vinegar on cat pee doesn’t really do much, but for a short time you will smell vinegar instead…then vinegar plus cat pee (a do-not-miss experience)…then just cat pee again.
The thing with disinfecting is that it’s an all-or-nothing business (all being 99ish percent, which is more like “virtually all”). And vinegar has been found to remove a maximum of 90% of bacteria and 80% of viruses and fungi (which is not “virtually all” enough when it comes to removing pathogens since it tends to leave the strong ones behind to repopulate). Some accounts say it kills more, but the question always comes down to what it kills not how much – and generally-speaking vinegar has not been found to cover a wide spectrum of microbes. What can we use instead? Well, unless you’re planning on performing surgery in your bathroom in the near future, the short answer to this is: nothing! Honestly, sterile environments tend to be better for the mind than the body. We might think they are safer, but in fact, wiping out the microbial cultures in our homes is more likely to cause our immune systems to atrophy. Let those little guys live…in safe numbers of course! But if you feel you must endeavor on a microbial genocide, then something as simple as distilled water and a microfiber cloth is actually more effective than vinegar. And if you want to up the effectiveness, then just up the heat. Steam is probably the best and most eco-friendly broad-spectrum disinfectant on the planet.
“Scaly” stuff like calcium, lime, rust and soap scum are all alkaline in nature so vinegar will tend to have some effect on those things because that’s what acids do (distilled vinegar is generally about 5-20% acetic acid – the rest being mostly water). However, these deposits – especially if they have been left to fossilize for some time – can be very formidable alkaline opponents and as far as acids go, the acetic variety (especially at vinegar’s concentration levels) is one of the feeblest ones you can throw at them. Oxalic acid (also natural and found in things like rhubarb) is 3,000 times as strong as vinegar and when diluted to safe levels (1-9% will do just fine), is less irritating to the respiratory system – that’s right vinegar is actually more harmful to the respiratory system than its peers. Oxalic acid makes short work of scaly deposits and to boot doesn’t make your throat close when you breathe it. Citric acid is also much better against scale even in a highly diluted form. At higher concentrations acetic acid would certainly rival it, but by the time you reach an effective strength, is corrosive and a major respiratory threat (less damaging to the lungs than full-strength oxalic, but evaporates more readily). Undiluted citric acid is so safe you could basically eat it if it’s food grade, although I don’t recommend it without a chaser…and an alkaline one at that. Combining it with oxalic acid makes an excellent all-purpose alkaline fighter, but admittedly, an inferior salad dressing.
5. Cleaning Up Spilled Baking Soda:
Okay fine, I won’t argue, vinegar is definitely right for this job since, as discussed, it neutralizes things like baking soda at a blazing speed. However, in these situations, a broom usually does just fine…though it’s not as exciting.