Dear Home Ec 101,
Can one substitute vinegar -lots of it- for the bleach when cleaning and disinfecting?
I can’t be around bleach, it triggers SEVERE migraines.
Pickled in Pickens
Original opening written in 2014:
There are certain times when I am reluctant to give a hard answer. In our litigious climate, I’m sure you can understand my concern.
The CDC says the use of vinegar is inconclusive and needs to be studied further. I only found that after using a multitude of search terms to try and weed out the 934462 sites on the web that basically say, “Vinegar is the Greatest Cleaning Agent Ever!!! I don’t have any evidence, so you’ll just have to trust me because I say so”.
Do you know how vinegar is made?
Vinegar is the byproduct of ethanol fermentation. Basically, a specific kind of bacteria -genus Acetobacter metabolize (think of it as their equivalent of eating) alcohol and produce acetic acid as their waste. Now you’re craving some french fries with malt vinegar, aren’t you?
Distilled vinegar is the only type of vinegar that should be used for cleaning. Why? You need to know the acidity of your cleaning agent. Aside from that, you certainly aren’t going to save money by cleaning your toilet with aged balsamic vinegar, even if it does smell nicer.
Distilled white vinegar can only kill some, not all, bacteria.
The advice was updated in 2022, after the information has been updated in data available. Because Repeat with me:
Know better: Do better.
2022 UPDATE – The CDC says that vinegar is ineffective against the virus that causes COVID-19
Only use disinfectants approved by the EPA for disinfecting
Vinegar is not safe to use as a disinfectant for any medical equipment. You must follow your physician’s advice if you want information on cleaning home healthcare items.
There’s a whole genus of bacteria Pseudomonas, as an example, out there that doesn’t care about vinegar. Is Pseudomonas an issue? Well, for some people, it certainly is. If you have anyone in your home with Cystic Fibrosis, it can cause pneumonia. In patients on chemotherapy, it can cause skin infections, etc. Ever heard of hot tub rash? Pseudomonas is the likely culprit. So there are cases where vinegar really isn’t the smart choice. In hospitals, Pseudomonas can be particularly devastating. It’s the cause of Necrotising Enterocolitis in NICU patients and devastating skin infections in burn patients.
Dilute solutions of chlorine bleach applied properly is the only agent I feel comfortable recommending when disinfection truly matters. If you use chlorine bleach properly, there should not be a significant source of fumes.
As humans, we actually need some exposure to pathogens (disease-causing agents). Encounters with small amounts of some bacteria may actually be good for our body’s ability to recognize and fend off disease. Not every surface in your home needs to disinfected.
That said COVID-19 is causing immune system disruptions in the population at large. If you have had a case of COVID-19 in the last few months, you should be aware that your ability to fight off new infections may be compromised. This is one of the reasons the flu has been so widespread so early in the 2022-2023 season.
You should be practicing good hand hygiene and disinfecting high-touch surfaces in your home: door knobs, light switches, etc
Please use your best judgment when making these decisions.
Also? Wash your hands.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
ref: http://www.cdc.gov/hicpac/Disinfection_Sterilization/3_3inactivBioAgents.html which has been moved to: https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/index.html