5 Vinegar Myths Worth Busting

The Internet is full of listicles on the hundreds of uses for vinegar, but it doesn’t always live up to the hype. Here’s why.

April 9, 2015
Glass Bottle Breaking
PHOTOGRAPH BY LIONGER/GETTY

Over the years, our culture has built up a mythology about vinegar. It will disinfectant surfaces, magically remove odors that are lingering in the kitchen, kill weeds, cure cancer (well, no). The point is, there’s a lot of “truthy” stuff out there that doesn’t quite match the science behind the household staple.

Common white vinegar is 5 percent acetic acid, a safe, weak acid that will react with anything that is alkaline. It’s one of the easiest acids you can use at home for cases where you need a cleaner that will neutralize a base or decrease pH—like when you’re removing soap scum, cleaning away mineral deposits on glasses, or preventing mold from growing in your shower. But is vinegar the miracle cure-all that some people tout it to be?

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Let’s find out. Here’s a look at some common vinegar myths.

Myth: It’s good for disinfecting.

People often turn to vinegar because they see it as a cleanser with a gentler chemistry; it doesn’t use the industrial-strength cleaning agents that you might find in other products. While I celebrate the motivation to be environmentally mindful, it’s important to distinguish between what’s useful and what’s not. Vinegar may often be touted as a disinfectant, but it doesn’t have the power—as bleach does—to thoroughly decontaminate surfaces from pathogens. And vinegar is simply not necessary for tasks like rinsing produce; water does the job just fine on its own.

Myth: Vinegar is natural—it’s not a chemical cleaner.

This is perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions that many of us have—that vinegar is “natural,” not a chemical. The facts: Everything in the world that we live in—from water to vinegar to bleach is made of chemicals. This is an ongoing sore point for me, one commented on beautifully by Deborah Blum in this op-ed. It’s true that in the spectrum of liquids I just mentioned, there are varying degrees of toxicity. It’s fine to say vinegar is “nontoxic,” but I wouldn’t say “natural” because that sets up the natural versus chemical dichotomy, which is specious. And it’s simply not true that natural chemicals are better than synthetic options; each one is appropriate at different times and in different contexts. Plenty of organic compounds will outright kill you, and a myriad of synthetic compounds will save your life.

 

Myth: Vinegar is good for removing odors.

Now we get into specifics: There’s a notion that putting a pan of vinegar out will absorb odors from a room, and that by boiling it you can achieve the same. Just setting out a container of vinegar isn’t going to do anything. The acetic acid is in liquid form, and it’s not magically pulling odors out of the air. And I would not recommend boiling vinegar. Acetic acid vapors are not something anyone should be breathing at any real concentration on a regular basis. Think about it this way: If it’s able to reduce odors, then it’s reactive; if it’s reactive, do you want to be exposed to it? In general, no. Finally, spraying vinegar frequently as a way of reducing odors isn’t advisable if you’re going to be in the same space. Acetic acid can cause asthma. Instead, if there’s an odor you want to remove, open a window—outdoor air quality is almost always better than indoor.

Myth: Vinegar will remove ballpoint pen stains.

This one might make sense from a theoretical perspective, but in my home lab, this was a no-go. I made lines with six different pens on paper and scrubbed one side with vinegar. The result? The inks I used stayed put, and I mostly scratched off the paper. When I checked this with a friend who is an art conservator, she told me that perhaps it’s possible to remove ink using a higher concentration acetic acid that you can buy from a chemical supply house, but you wouldn’t want to be exposed to that concentration. Even then, the outcome is indefinite. “Perhaps some inks might be reduced, maybe even removed, with a really strong concentration, but it will depend on the ink, the solvent in that ink, the dye, and the chemicals that make it flow,” she told me. “It’s really hard to get ink out.” Of course, your ink might be water-soluble, so giving it a rise with soap is a good first step.

 

Myth: Vinegar is an effective a weed killer.

This has a shade of truth to it. For some weeds, a 5-percent spray works on young weeds less than two weeks old, but for more established plants, researchers at the USDA found that 10 percent and 20 percent acetic acid solutions were needed.

The Takeaway

Ideas of where to use vinegar around the home sometimes come from looking at how scientists and industrial applications of acetic acid are used, but there’s one key difference: Acetic acid in those contexts is typically more concentrated that the 5-percent diluted version you find in your pantry—and for good reason. Stronger concentrations of acetic acid can cause chemical burns, respiratory problems, and other issues. Acetic acid is still a chemical, even if it comes from a familiar bottle.

Jeff Potter is the author of Cooking for Geeks.