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
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”.
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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