Google how to clean basically anything, and you'll likely get results that suggest using distilled white vinegar. Diluted with water to about 5 percent acidity, distilled white vinegar is hailed as a natural non-toxic cleaning marvel, killing bacteria, dissolving hard-water deposits, and cutting through grime at a fraction of the cost of brand-name cleaning products.
But don't believe all the hype. “There is a common perception that vinegar can clean everything, but it isn't the catchall ingredient that you might think it is,” says Brian Sansoni, senior vice president of communications at the American Cleaning Institute.
Distilled white vinegar is good at descaling your coffee maker and leaving windows streak-free because “the acid reacts with the organic chemicals in stains and dissolves them away,” explains Joe Glajch, a chemist and owner of JLG AP Consulting in Nashua, N.H. “But just as it eats away at coffee stains, imagine it doing the same thing to other surfaces in your home.”
Here are nine instances where you should skip the vinegar and grab a different cleaning agent for the job. In most cases, that’s going to be a product formulated for that specific purpose. For more cleaning tips (including easy, green cleaning solutions), pick up a copy of CR's book How to Clean Practically Anything.
Using vinegar to clean the inside of your iron can corrode the heating element and permanently damage the inside of the appliance. Most steam irons have a protective coating inside the chamber, but acid can gnaw away at that lining and then the metal parts are next.
The best way to clean an iron really depends on the model you have. We spoke to Rowenta, the largest manufacturer of irons, and were told there's no universal method. Your best bet is to read your iron’s manual and follow the cleaning recommendations.
If you want to keep your stone countertops looking beautiful, don’t reach for vinegar. The acid etches and dulls natural stone such as granite, marble, and soapstone. It can make them lose their shine and cause pitting or scarring.
Instead, we recommend wiping down these types of countertops with a sponge or dish towel dipped in mild detergent. Use only plastic scrub pads to remove stubborn spots.
You may have heard that running a dishwasher with a bowl of vinegar in it will help get rid of hard water film and lingering odors. Some people even use vinegar as a rinse aid.
CR’s testers have tried it out in our dishwasher lab to see if vinegar could remove water film. “It didn’t do a thing,” says Larry Ciufo, head of the dishwasher lab at CR. “It was perhaps better than nothing back in the day, but there are specially formulated dishwasher cleaners today that work really well.”
Ciufo recommends using a dishwasher cleaner, such as those from Affresh or Finish, to remove hard-water film.
Not only is vinegar ineffective at getting rid of water spots, but dishwasher manufacturers, including Electrolux and Bosch, warn that the acetic acid can eat away at the rubber parts in dishwashers. “There are dozens of rubbers out there with different chemical compositions, some of which react with vinegar and some that do not,” says Glajch. “If you don’t know what kind of rubber is in your appliance and the manual doesn’t say you can use vinegar, then don’t.”
Vinegar’s great at leaving windows streak-free, but never use it on an electronic screen like that on your computer, smartphone, tablet, or TV. "Vinegar can damage a screen's anti-glare properties and even make a touch screen less responsive," says Antoinette Asedillo, an electronics product tester at CR.
Use a soft sponge or cloth dampened with plain ole water instead. For stubborn spots, try a solution of dish soap highly diluted with water, applied to the cloth and not to the screen itself. (As a guideline for how much soap to use, Panasonic recommends a 100:1 ratio of water to soap.)
Many flooring manufacturers, including Lumber Liquidators, warn against using vinegar to clean your hardwood floors. Some will even void the warranty if there are any signs that vinegar was used.
Diluted vinegar can dissolve the finish that protects the wood and leave it looking cloudy, dull, or scratched. (The same goes for wood furniture.) Follow the manufacturer's cleaning recommendations or pick a cleaner that’s made specifically for hardwood flooring.
If you have stone tile flooring, you’ll want to skip the vinegar, too. See “Countertops,” above.
You want to keep vinegar away from metals. Tools with exposed edges, like kitchen knives, are especially vulnerable. Not only can vinegar damage the finish on knives, but it can also leave the knife’s edge pitted, warns Jim Nanni, head of appliance testing for CR. Other common metals in the kitchen that you should keep away from vinegar include aluminum and copper. The best cleaning option is dishwashing liquid and warm water.
Vinegar won’t necessarily damage your range or cooktop (the metals in ranges are typically coated in enamel and smooth cooktops are made of glass), but if it’s a greasy mess you’re looking to clean, vinegar simply won’t cut it. “Acids make for lousy degreasers,” says Glajch. “Instead, opt for an alkaline cleaner, like ammonia or Borax.”
The plastic and glass surfaces on most small kitchen appliances, such as blenders, coffee makers, and toasters, are safe to clean with vinegar, but you want to avoid any rubber parts or metal that vinegar can corrode. This includes stainless steel. “There are different grades of stainless steel,” says Nanni. “The lower-quality ones are often used for small appliances and less resistant to rusting, which can be spurred on by acid.”
When in doubt, use diluted dishwashing soap instead. Get more advice on how to clean your small appliances.
Vinegar is sometimes used as a fabric softener or for getting rid of stains and odors in laundry, but as with dishwashers, it can damage the rubber seals and hoses in some washing machines to the point of causing leaks. It’s a problem that Steven Grayson, owner of Foothills Appliance Service in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, sees fairly frequently: “With continual use, vinegar can literally melt hoses, causing leaks and thereby possibly all kinds of additional damage to the house,” says Grayson. In his experience, front-load washers are especially susceptible to vinegar-related damage.
Plus, it may not even be doing much. “Vinegar isn’t very useful with stains that have already set into clothing, including food stains and bloodstains,” says Sansoni. Consumer Reports' recent tests of laundry stain removers reveal products that are great at removing tough stains, and you don't have to worry about any of them melting the rubber in your washer.