Vinegar as Laundry Detergent?

Dear Home-Ec 101,
I really appreciate all the advice on your website. I was wondering if you would know whether it’s alright to use white vinegar as a laundry detergent. Thank you very much.

Tart in Tahoma

Dear Tart in Tahoma,

The short answer is not if you want to have clean, fresh smelling laundry as a result.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you’re a human being. We, fallible creatures that we are, have skin that secretes sweat and oils. These oils are transferred from our bodies to our clothing while we wear them. It’s more noticeable in places that receive a lot of contact with your skin, for example the collar of button down shirts. In fact, there used to be commercial campaigns about which laundry detergent was best for handling “ring around the collar”. 

Your sheets, towels, and pillow cases all come into contact with you, resulting in the same kind of dirt and oil deposits. Any kind of of material that comes into contact with food or cooking will also pick up grease and proteins. You can use your imagination for other types of stains created by the human body. Most of those qualify as protein stains. 

Now keep in mind all of the above is just your normal, everyday dirt and grime. This conversation isn’t about stains, which will take special treatment and sometimes that treatment involves using vinegar to treat the stain itself. It isn’t contradictory to suggest using vinegar to treat a stain or to help improve the rinse cycle.

The laundry you don’t send out for dry cleaning is cleaned while immersed in water. The water passes through the fibers of the material bringing tiny bits of dirt into solution. Vinegar added to that water would lower the pH of the water, which does increase the solubility somewhat. Solubility is the ability for particles to dissolve in water.

That’s great, right?

Just add vinegar and all the dirt goes away. No, oil and grease are not water soluble. That’s where detergents comes into play. Here’s where the wording can get a little confusing. Chemically speaking, a detergent is a type of molecule that has one end that is attracted to water (hydrophilic) while the other end is repelled by water (hydrophobic). Detergents help clothes get clean when the hydrophobic end of the molecule gloms onto an oily particle. When the oily particle is completely surrounded by detergent molecules it now can come into solution as the water loving sides of the molecule face outward. 

The water your laundry is cleaned in is a solution.

Every solution has a saturation point. This means the point at which nothing else can come into solution. You can play with this concept in your kitchen. Just get a small glass of water and slowly begin to add salt. When the salt can no longer dissolve, no matter how much you stir, you’ve just passed the saturation point. If you heated the water, you could dissolve more salt. This is why it’s easier for clothes to get cleaner in warm or hot water and why the general rule of thumb is to wash your really dirty clothing in the hottest water the fabric can tolerate.

Laundry detergent has quite a few ingredients, including  surprise! detergents.: surfactants, which reduce the surface tension of water, water conditioners which soften hard water, brighteners, which help whites not look gray, enzymes, which can break down some organic material, and fragrances.  Finding the formula that works best for the water in your home can take a bit of trial and error, especially if you have hard water.

Some laundry detergents are more environmentally friendly than others, but if you have to run clothes through several cycles to get them clean, you have to consider the cost of the energy used, too. 

Not sure if you have hard water?

You can usually find out from your water treatment plant. If you use a well, you can call your county’s extension office and ask about the area in general or they may help you find a water testing service. If you do use a well you should have your water quality checked regularly to ensure that it is not contaminated.

If you have really hard water, you may want to consider conditioning your water.

Long story short, vinegar only deals with a portion of the laundry solution and is ineffective without help from detergents.

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  1. Jessica on May 30, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    I know this is an older post, but: The laundromat I use recently brought in new machines that are all spray rinse, so you can’t add anything during the rinse cycle. The washer does not refill after draining at the end of the wash cycle, and there are no options for anything like “deep rinse.” (If I pour vinegar in during the spray-rinse cycle, it will be like pouring vinegar straight onto my clothes without rinsing much of it out.) However, the wash cycle is now much longer than on the old machines. Can I add vinegar during the last few minutes of the wash cycle, when presumably much of the dirt has been washed out of the clothing?

  2. Gregory Anderson on March 11, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    The main reason to use vinegar is to help the rinse cycle remove excess soap or detergent from your laundry. This is because most people use too much detergent, and that’s just the top-loading machine users. Many front-loading users also use too much.
    The recommendation for almost every laundry cleaning product is for hard water. The majority of US citizens have soft water, meaning the water is treated in some fashion.
    Most of those who have been becoming “allergic” to cleaning products is due to the remainder left in the clothes after washing. The reason for “fabric softeners” was to reduce the effect of putting those same clothes into the dryer and baking the detergent stiff.
    Thanks for letting me comment.
    My wife is allergic to most man-made chemical fragrances; you know, the ones that manufacturers promise will last 2 weeks smelling strong? It is one reason why we cannot find a church to worship and function with, because of this laundry issue and the addiction to cheap fragrances. The only thing we can figure is folks like to smell like a occupants in a Navy port on payday weekend.
    We cannot live our lives in ignorance for long before it becomes a habit, and then a family tradition, and then a community custom.

  3. aimlesscruzr on September 6, 2017 at 8:57 am

    While vinegar isn’t good for the wash portion of doing the laundry, it is a good alternative to use as a fabric softener alternative.

    • Heather Solos on September 6, 2017 at 10:26 am

      If your water isn’t extremely hard, yes, I agree.

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