The Biggest Thing People Get Wrong About Cleaning with Vinegar

updated Nov 1, 2021
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A bottle of Heinz distilled white vinegar on a kitchen counter next to sponges, a cleaning cloth, and a spray bottle
Credit: Cat Meschia

I try to keep my cleaning arsenal whittled down to the key must-haves. Why not have fewer things to buy and, thus, organize, right? I have a stainless steel cleaner, and I’m a sucker for Mrs. Meyers scents. (I love using their all-purpose cleaner and dish soap.) Vinegar, though, well, that’s a multi-purpose go-to for me. I use it to clean my cutting boards and bathroom sinks and toilets and to erase soap scum from my glass shower doors, among many, many other things. I love that I don’t have to worry about the kids getting into it (in fact, they use it when they help me clean!), that it can be used in so many different ways, and that it has some “disinfecting properties,” as I used to vaguely think of it. 

Then COVID hit and I paused to ask myself: Did I trust white vinegar to kill coronavirus germs? No, I most certainly did not. And rightly so. While vinegar, as a mild acid, is a great cleaner and does kill some pathogens, it is not a registered disinfectant. Specifically, vinegar can kill salmonella, E. coli, and listeria, which is good news for the kitchen. But the kitchen contains other pathogens as well, as does the rest of the house. The bottom line is that vinegar may kill some pathogens, but don’t make the mistake of counting on it to do much more than clean. 

The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) puts it this way: “… while vinegar does work as a disinfectant to some degree, it is not as effective as bleach or commercial cleansers when it comes to killing germs. If you are going to use vinegar as a cleanser, it’s important to decide whether your goal is to clean, or to disinfect.”

Credit: Taryn Williford

When your goal is disinfecting, ditch the vinegar. Instead, choose a product registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a disinfectant. The easiest way to do this is to check labels of cleaning products. Disinfectant products that advertise killing “99.9%” of germs should have an EPA registration number listed somewhere on the label. Check to make sure that this number is in fact on the EPA’s list. Next, make sure you use the disinfectant properly. Finally, read and follow usage instructions for the specific cleaning product you’ve chosen.  

Do you use vinegar to clean? Tell us in the comments below.