Is Vinegar an Acceptably Safe Alternative for Chlorine Bleach when Disinfecting

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

home ec logoHeather says:

There are certain times where 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 and I only found this 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”.

Bleach v Vinegar

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. You’re just craving some french fries with malt vinegar, now aren’t you?

Distilled vinegar is the only type of vinegar that should be used for disinfecting. 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.

So here is my advice, given with the understanding that if you have any type of condition that may compromise your immune system, you follow your health care provider’s advice and not mine. Got it?

In most cases, distilled vinegar is acceptable as a disinfectant for hard surfaces in a home.

It is not safe to use as a disinfectant for any medical equipment. If you are looking for information on cleaning home healthcare items, you must follow your physician’s advice.

There’s a whole genus of bacteria Pseudomonas out there that really don’t give a hoot 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 Entercolitis 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.

Your home is not a hospital.

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. Think of it this way, influenza is especially problematic because of the way it changes. It’s still the flu, but each season new strains of it show up. Because they are just different enough that our immune systems may not have defenses, they cause people to get sick. If the virus did not change, most healthy individuals would pick up a natural immunity to the virus through exposure and it wouldn’t tear through populations each year. It would be more like the chicken pox or other one-time diseases that can be miserable -or worse in cases like polio, but it wouldn’t really have the potential for a pandemic.

Those of us who have healthy immune systems should be exposed to some bacteria. On a related note, there are some really interesting studies that suggest allergies are the result of our lack of exposure to parasites. -I know when I’m sneezing, itchy-eyed, and snot-nosed for days on end, that a low-grade case of hookworms sounds like a fabulous alternative. I am not an advocate of keeping a hyper-sterile home. Despite all this there are times where disinfection matters, in those cases vinegar is a good choice for most of us, but dilute chlorine bleach is the better alternative for those at risk.

Please use your best judgement when making these decisions.

Also? Wash your hands.

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28 thoughts on “Is Vinegar an Acceptably Safe Alternative for Chlorine Bleach when Disinfecting”

  1. After my husbands’ prostate cancer surgery, at a well-known teaching hospital, the physician and his team had us clean the medical equipment with white vinegar.

  2. My husband had emphasema; I needed to daily clean/soak plastic tubing and the plastic items that he sucked on, etc.
    His physicans said white vinegar was the only thing they wanted me to use.

    • That’s because anything else would cause a reaction and could close of the lungs. Household cleaners like bleach, shower cleaners, Windex, etc. all caused my mom (who also has emphysema and COPD) to have a reaction with her breathing. The lungs inflame from breathing in the harsh chemicals (in already damaged lungs) and can swell and close off leaving the person without air. This is why for those patients Vinegar is usually used.

  3. When I worked in restaurants we had a spray for sanitizing food surfaces that had a very mild odor. Do you have any idea what that might have been and if it is available for retail consumers?

    • I’ve been wondering the same thing, but I think from what she says it might actually be watered down bleach. At one point I refilled the spray bottles for my restaurant, and I was told to mix a small amount of liquid with a large amount of water. Unfortunately I did not think to note down the name of the sanitizing liquid in question, but I remember suspecting that it was bleach from the smell, which I never suspected using the watered down spray bottles. Her page on using bleach safely says to use 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water, and that is exactly how much I was told to add to our bottles.

  4. Just my usual naggy reminder that bleach is readily inactivated by contact with organic matter, so clean before disinfecting with bleach!

  5. Thank you for bringing up the need for germs in our lives! I have a couple autoimmune diseases and I really believe that the over-sterilization of our environment is why these types of diseases are becoming so prevalent.

    • My allergies make me so angry. I keep telling my husband, if we didn't have clean water, I'd be the healthiest person in this house!
      Do I go drink from puddles? No, there's a total skeeve factor there.
      He's totally disturbed by the idea that I would sign up for a parasite study. Too bad, he's not the one who feels like he did 100 + crunches from an allergy attack. He doesn't get eyes so red, people ask what he's on. (My 5yo emptied the vacuum cannister upstairs and didn't mention anything. The forced air heat spread it around the house. I'm still a little cranky from yesterday.

      • Heather, when i read what you wrote about the vacuum being emptied and your allergies, it reminded me of earlier home life with two highly allergic family members. One of the things we did that really helped was purchasing a used Rainbow vacuum cleaner. All the gunk goes right into the water and there’s just that to dump. NO bags to be exposed to, buy or toss. They are expensive that’s why I bought a used one. But the family was certainly happier and healthier. I also used it in the baby’s room as a humidifier adding essential oils to the water when she was sick. Good luck! karen

        • That’s a great idea.

          The funny thing is, yes, I have allergies, yes I still have to take prescriptions, but? A few years ago I’d be miserable despite everything.

          I’ve done a lot of hard work to reduce the stress in my life and that has helped more than anything else. I could also finally be growing out of them, but it’s a bit coincidental. 🙂

  6. I have a UV light wand that I use for sterilizing things that can't take bleach. It kills all kinds of germs on all types of surfaces except for deeply textured textiles and carpets (if the light can't reach a spot, it can't disinfect it).

  7. Bissell and the Shark Mop company both make handheld steamers for cleaning and sanitizing hard surfaces without any chemicals, just water – Bissell's is called SteamShot, the other is called the Pocket Portable Steamer (and you can use it on your wrinkled clothes, too!).

    I haven't tried them myself but they might be a good option for the chemical sensitive.

    • I was just researching these this past week. 🙂 I've been wondering about the hard plastic casing off gassing though. I do tend to do better with the harder plastics (rather than the softer, flexible sort) so maybe I'll be okay. <shrug> Only one way to find out.

  8. A few years ago, I experienced CO poisoning. As a result, I developed MCS. (multiple chemical sensitivity) I now react to all commercial cleaning supplies and personal care products, among a large number of other things. Headaches, confusion, loss of motor control, and muscle/joint pain are all par for the course. But for me, bleach will trigger an asthma-like attack. It doesn't matter where in the building the bleach is being used, I will react to it.

    • I, completely, understand. I stopped buying it, but unfortunately I'm not the only one that shops, at my house, and I'm most usually (did I just make up a new term? LOL) not the one cleaning. My family still uses bleach and they try to use it when I'm away. I react with asthmatic reaction and migraines up to 3 days after they've used it and I came home.
      My recent post Common Compendium – 19 Dec 2010

    • It's the trickiness that makes me very reluctant to offer it as an alternative. Also, I don't even see food grade peroxide on my usual runs, so the thought of adding another item to hunt down?
      In our house, it's just not an option I'm willing to pursue, but thank you for mentioning it, others might find it useful.

      • Please note that the "brown bottle"H202 – Hydrogen Peroxide is not only unstable but its not regulated so its full of "gunk." (no telling what is mixed in it) I would only use it in a bathroom and laundry. I do not use that particular type (brown bottle) Hydrogen Peroxide in my kitchen, at all.. and NEVER PUT IT INTO YOUR MOUTH. ~Heidi


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