Vinegar (aka acetic acid) is more than versatile as a household cleaner: It’s great as a kitchen degreaser, DIY fabric softener, or tool for removing hard water stains from your tub or any other dirty, grimy places (more on this below). But does vinegar kill germs like the ones that cause a nasty cold or COVID-19 infection? We checked in with a microbiologist and a cleaning expert to find out exactly what vinegar can and can’t do in the disinfecting department.
Is vinegar a safe and natural disinfectant for home use?
If you’re wondering whether vinegar is actually a disinfectant (aka kills germs), the answer is only partially. It’s not classified as a disinfectant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because it does not kill 99.9 percent of disease-causing germs (aka bacteria and viruses), as is deemed necessary by EPA standards for public health.
That said, vinegar may disinfect some surfaces in your home, depending on the bacteria and viruses hanging around on them. “Acetic acid has been shown to act as a disinfectant on some microbial species including Pseudomonas aeruginosa1, and Escherichia coli (E. coli), which can be common in the house,” explains Jason Tetro, a microbiology researcher at the University of Alberta. (For the record, these are bacteria that cause things like pneumonia and food poisoning, respectively.)
Note, however, that vinegar is not completely effective against other common bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus (known for causing staph infections), Listeria monocytogenes (one cause of a serious form of food poisoning called listeriosis), or Klebsiella pneumoniae (a cause of meningitis), according to Tetro. And you can’t count on the efficacy of vinegar3 against germs that cause norovirus (a nasty stomach bug) or COVID-19 infection.
And even though vinegar can be used to kill some types of germs, it can’t be relied upon for total elimination. Research on vinegar as a natural disinfectant usually measures its efficacy at a concentration of 10 percent acidity, but most drugstore or grocery store bottles of white vinegar or cleaning vinegar only have a concentration of five to six percent acidity. (You can buy more concentrated versions of vinegar, though, to increase its germ-killing properties.)
As for the readily available options, though? The vinegar will just reduce the number of germs on a surface versus killing them all, “and when you’re dealing with potential pathogens and fecal bacteria, you don’t want to settle for reduction,” says Tetro. After all, some level of exposure to disease-causing bacteria and viruses can still make you sick.
How does vinegar compare to chemical disinfectants in killing germs?
Vinegar doesn’t match up to common chemical disinfectants in killing germs. For example, ethanol (aka ethyl alcohol), the active ingredient in most hand sanitizers, can kill many different kinds of disease-causing germs in about 10 seconds, as can hydrogen peroxide, in as little as a few minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While vinegar at a high concentration can reduce the number of pathogens on a surface, it is not effective against all germs nor can it be relied on to totally eliminate the germs it can kill. For these reasons, vinegar is not a good natural disinfectant, but it can still be used as a nontoxic cleaning product (to remove dirt, debris, and some germs) on a few surfaces in your home.
How to clean with vinegar
While you shouldn’t rely on vinegar to disinfect surfaces, you can certainly clean with it in most rooms of your home. In particular, it can be handy for cleaning stainless steel, whether you need to degrease a stovetop or scrub down a kitchen sink and faucet, says Becky Rapinchuk, author of Clean Mama's Guide to a Healthy Home. She recommends mixing it with some water for an all-purpose cleaner (or you can buy a vinegar-based cleaner like the Cymbiotika Multi-Purpose Cleaner Kit).
You can also clean with vinegar in the bathroom. Because of its acidic nature, it can help dissolve hard water deposits or mineral buildup on the taps or shower heads, says Rapinchuk. Try Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Vinegar Gel Cleaning Spray, which is made for this purpose and ideal for a quick clean (one-hour cleaning method, anyone?) since you don’t have to rinse it.
While vinegar can also be a useful cleaning agent for plenty of household surfaces, Rapinchuk warns against using it on natural stone (e.g., marble or granite) countertops because over time, it can etch its surface. The same goes for cast iron and waxed wood, both of which are surfaces that the acidic component of vinegar can damage.
Does vinegar kill germs in laundry?
You may not have considered using vinegar in laundry, but it’s an appealing alternative to bleach (an effective disinfectant) for those who want to avoid ruining colored clothes. As it turns out, vinegar can kill germs when used in a laundry machine—if it’s highly concentrated. The study assessing the efficacy of vinegar as a cleaning agent linked above also found that adding enough concentrated vinegar (120 mL of a vinegar essence containing 25 percent acetic acid) to a laundry load with hot water had a significant disinfecting effect for common pathogens.
But again, that requires a super-concentrated version of vinegar and not just your everyday stuff. Meaning, you might be better off just going for something like Lysol Laundry Sanitizer.
That said, it’s not a total wash for everyday white vinegar when it comes to laundry. You can still use it to clean the drum of a washing machine, assuming it is made with stainless steel, says Rapinchuk. She recommends using one or two cups of Aunt Fannie’s Extra Strength Cleaning Vinegar (depending on the size of your washing machine) to get it clean.
While the vinegar won’t necessarily kill all the germs on your clothes and sheets (especially if you’re hit with COVID-19 or the dreaded norovirus), you can also add ¼ cup of vinegar per laundry load as a natural fabric softener and to help deodorize fabrics, adds Rapinchuk.
How can I sanitize my house naturally?
When it comes to vinegar vs. chemical disinfectants, it doesn’t quite hold up—but there are some synthetic cleaners that mimic naturally occurring substances and that are better disinfectants than vinegar, like hydrogen peroxide, citric acid, and lactic acid, says Tetro.
At concentrations that you can find in most products, like Seventh Generation Disinfecting Cleaner with Hydrogen Peroxide, hydrogen peroxide zaps a variety of pathogens, like SARS-CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19) and rhinovirus, which causes the common cold.
To get more mileage out of your cleaning (and skip unnecessary cleaning products), you can use hydrogen peroxide and vinegar back-to-back, says Rapinchuk, so long as you do not combine them (which creates a corrosive acid that can irritate the skin and lungs). Rapinchuk’s method? Spray a surface with a vinegar cleaner, rinse thoroughly, then use hydrogen peroxide to disinfect.
By a similar token, citric acid (an acid found naturally in citrus fruits) is another effective disinfectant, which works by disrupting the cell membrane of bacteria4. You can use a citric acid-containing cleaner like Blueland Glass + Mirror Cleaner to both sanitize and get rid of greasy fingerprints on your mirrors, windows, or medicine cabinet.
And lactic acid, another organic acid, also has antimicrobial properties5, especially when used in a concentration of at least 0.5 percent6. You can find it in this Better Life Tea Tree and Peppermint Toilet Bowl Cleaner, which combines both citric acid and lactic acid for a clean with solid disinfecting capabilities.
- Fraise, A P et al. “The antibacterial activity and stability of acetic acid.” The Journal of hospital infection vol. 84,4 (2013): 329-31. doi:10.1016/j.jhin.2013.05.001
- Entani, E et al. “Antibacterial action of vinegar against food-borne pathogenic bacteria including Escherichia coli O157:H7.” Journal of food protection vol. 61,8 (1998): 953-9. doi:10.4315/0362-028x-61.8.953
- Zinn, Marc-Kevin, and Dirk Bockmühl. “Did granny know best? Evaluating the antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral efficacy of acetic acid for home care procedures.” BMC microbiology vol. 20,1 265. 26 Aug. 2020, doi:10.1186/s12866-020-01948-8
- Li, Xue-Song et al. “Citric Acid Confers Broad Antibiotic Tolerance through Alteration of Bacterial Metabolism and Oxidative Stress.” International journal of molecular sciences vol. 24,10 9089. 22 May. 2023, doi:10.3390/ijms24109089
- Nishioka, Yuki et al. “Lactic acid as a major contributor to hand surface infection barrier and its association with morbidity to infectious disease.” Scientific reports vol. 11,1 18608. 20 Sep. 2021, doi:10.1038/s41598-021-98042-4
- Wang, Chenjie, et al. “Antibacterial Mechanism of Lactic Acid on Physiological and Morphological Properties of Salmonella Enteritidis, Escherichia Coli and Listeria Monocytogenes.” Food Control, vol. 47, Jan. 2015, 231–236, doi:10.1016/j.foodcont.2014.06.034
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