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.
Long story short, vinegar only deals with a portion of the laundry solution and is ineffective without help from detergents.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.