Using Vinegar Safely

Using Vinegar Safely

Vinegar is a wonderful product with a variety of uses, including cooking, cleaning, and personal care. It is not harsh or overly abrasive and is suitable for use on many surfaces.

What happens if you breathe in vinegar? If you breathe in the fumes from boiled vinegar, it can irritate your lungs and inhibit your breathing but may not cause serious damage. If done over longer periods, however, it can cause permanent damage to your lungs in the form of diseases like chemical pneumonia. It is never a good idea to breathe in vinegar

Vinegar is a great and natural disinfectant and has several uses. It is inexpensive and leaves your home smelling fresh and clean without harmful chemicals.

In this article, we will explore the properties of vinegar, the different types available, what it is used for, and the safest ways to come in contact with it.

What is Vinegar?

Vinegar is a dilute solution of acetic acid produced by fermentation (source). It has a wide array of purposes, including cooking, pickling, baking, personal care, and cleaning. 

The word vinegar is from the Old French words vyn egre, or “sour wine.” Because of this, one might call it wine gone bad.

The acetic acid used in vinegar is fermented ethanol or sugars with acetic acid bacteria. Vinegar is between 5-8% of this acetic acid combined with water and trace amounts of other chemicals such as flavorings.

Vinegar has been around for thousands of years, with the ancient Babylonians among the earliest to mention it around 3000BC. It was used across the ancient world in places like Egypt, East Asia, Greece, and Rome.

The process of making vinegar evolved over the years, quickly growing in the 19th century to a large-scale industrialized product. It is now an inexpensive product available on a global scale.

What Happens if You Breathe in Vinegar?

Breathing in vinegar in its liquid form could obviously choke you if you inhaled enough of it, so please don’t try it.

In smaller amounts, at the very least, this would highly irritate your lungs and cause temporary breathing problems. In larger amounts, it would cause permanent damage to your lungs.

If you breathe in a misted aerosol spray of a vinegar solution, it will greatly irritate your lungs and could progress to chemical pneumonia. Chemical pneumonia is the inflammation of lung tissue caused by toxins or poisons.

However, breathing in the sour aroma that vinegar gives off is not known to be harmful. The smells of some vinegar can be powerful and at times unpleasant, but they are not overtly dangerous.

If you use vinegar for any reason, the scent will undoubtedly permeate the air around you. It is incredibly potent and unavoidable, but it quickly dissipates and leaves surfaces and fabrics odorless when used as a cleaner.

Does Boiling Vinegar Clean the Air?

Scientifically speaking, boiling vinegar does not clean the air. White vinegar is a natural disinfectant, however, since air cannot be infected, it cannot be disinfected. 

Infections spread through the air via droplets from nose or mouth secretions. When you cough or sneeze or even just breathe, the droplets fly through the air. Those secretions either land on someone’s skin or they pick them up from a surface onto their skin.

Not only can air not be infected but vinegar also only cleans through direct contact. Vinegar fumes will not cleanse anything; the liquid form of the vinegar itself must come into contact with the surface that needs cleaning (source).

While boiling vinegar does not disinfect the air, it does deodorize the air in your home. The evaporating vinegar spreads throughout the area, and its odor-fighting properties remove any unpleasant scents inside.

For information on liquid air purifiers, read our article, “How Well Do Water-Based Air Purifiers Work?

Is it Dangerous to Boil Vinegar?

Generally speaking, boiling vinegar is not a great idea. When heated, acetic acid can become corrosive to the point of burning through metal and rock. The higher percentage of acetic acid there is in the product, the more likely it will become corrosive when heated.

When heated to a high enough temperature, acetic acid decomposes to produce carbon monoxide and methane.

The result is possible carbon monoxide poisoning in enclosed spaces. There have been reported incidents of people dying from carbon monoxide poisoning after boiling vinegar (source).

Is it Better to Boil Vinegar and Water?

The addition of water to vinegar before boiling helps to further dilute the acetic acid and can make it safer to boil. Vinegar permeating the air can eliminate those difficult-to-remove odors. 

The process of boiling a water and vinegar solution causes evaporation, which spreads deodorizing elements across a larger space.

A solution composed  of one part vinegar to one part water can also be used for cleaning surfaces. Use this solution if you want to make sure the scent of the vinegar is a bit more diluted. This solution will still kill bacteria and leave surfaces clean and odor-free.

Even if you are cautious and add water to vinegar prior to boiling it, always be aware of how much it has boiled down. Carbon monoxide poisoning is not to be messed with; it kills quickly and silently.

Types of Vinegar

Vinegar comes in different varieties, and the differences are dependent on the source materials used to create the acetic acid. Some examples of those materials are fruit juices, cane sugar, grains, and coconut water.

Red Wine Vinegar

The name may be self-explanatory, but red wine vinegar is made from red wine, which gives it an intense grape flavor and red color. Red wine vinegar has between 6-7% acidity, but it is not used in cleaning because the red color can stain surfaces.

White Wine Vinegar

Also commonly used in cooking, white wine vinegar is similar to its red counterpart but has a lighter flavor. White wine vinegar has between 6-7% acidity and is excellent for descaling and other cleanings.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar has a very fruity flavor and is of medium intensity. It can be used in a variety of ways and is regarded highly in the health food community. Apple cider vinegar has 5-6% acid content.

This type of vinegar has high antibacterial properties and is often used in cleaning.

Distilled White Vinegar

This type of vinegar is the kind most frequently used in cleaning because it is the least expensive and most common.  Distilled white vinegar’s acidity can vary quite a bit; it comes in a range of 5-10% acidity.

Rice Vinegar

Rice vinegar, a very popular product in Asia, is made from fermented rice. It is used in a variety of foods and has an extremely versatile sweetness but is not as strong as some of the types of vinegar mentioned above.

Rice vinegar has between 4-7% acidity and can be used for cleaning, especially floors. 

Malt Vinegar

Malt vinegar is a dark vinegar made from ale. It is often used on potato products and has a mild range of flavor. Malt vinegar’s acidity is between 4-5% and is not used for cleaning because it is very dark and can stain surfaces.

Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is an extremely concentrated dark vinegar. It is made from grape must, and has a very earthy flavor.

Its origin is in Italy, and it is found in many Italian meals. Balsamic vinegar has acidity between 6-7% and is not used for cleaning because the dark color can stain surfaces.

Champagne Vinegar

Champagne vinegar is a product made from soured champagne that has an extremely light flavor and is both tart and sweet. With an acidity between 6-7%, champagne vinegar is often used for cleaning.

Cleaning Vinegar

Cleaning vinegar is not a food product at all and is not safe to consume. It has a higher percentage of acid, which makes it cut through household grime faster. Cleaning vinegar has acidity between 6-10% and can deep clean surfaces.

Industrial Vinegar

Another type of vinegar that is unsafe to ingest is industrial vinegar. It is sometimes called horticultural vinegar and has between 20 and 30 percent acid. It can be used for industrial cleaning as well as for weed killing.

Uses of Vinegar

Possibly one of the most popular uses of vinegar is in cooking. Vinegar is an ingredient in a variety of sauces, such as ketchup, barbeque, and hot sauce. Another way to use vinegar is to tenderize or improve the flavor of different meats.

Vinegar is also commonly used in baking. It keeps cake moist and helps bread become more golden brown. It can make meringue fluffier and reduce the sweetness in anything with berries.

Vinegar’s acidity makes it an excellent product for cleaning and disinfecting. It dissolves scum, sticky buildup, and glue. You can lift stains from clothing, furniture, or carpets with a solution of vinegar and baking soda. 

Apple cider vinegar is a natural form of hair care. It lowers the pH of your scalp and moisturizes your hair, leaving it shinier and softer. Because it is a disinfectant, it helps control the bacteria or fungi that cause dandruff conditions on your scalp. 

You can also use apple cider vinegar as skincare. Its antimicrobial properties can help to clear up unsightly acne breakouts.

Vinegar is a great fruit and vegetable preserver. The acid in vinegar acts as a natural preservative and gives pickled foods a wonderful sour flavor. Another use of vinegar vapor is to stay off the decay of already harvested fruit (source).

Image by Crema Joe via Unsplash

Vinegar and Cleaning

Vinegar is a convenient and natural way of cleaning the surfaces in your home. Most people already have the product in their kitchen, and it is handy in an emergency.

While all forms of vinegar have disinfectant properties, the best type to use for cleaning is distilled white vinegar. It is colorless and will not stain surfaces as darker vinegars might. 

In addition, distilled white vinegar is about five percent acidic, which is similar to that of many multipurpose cleaners.

During an annual flu epidemic, you can use vinegar on your home’s surfaces and eliminate the virus (source). This is the case for both Influenza A and H1N1, though it could also be true of several other viral diseases that were not studied.

Vinegar absorbs odors in your home. If you place a bowl of white vinegar in a room, it will eliminate the unpleasant odors overnight. The scent of vinegar might linger behind, but it dissipates quickly.

You can clean almost anything as it cuts through bacteria, mildew, sticky substances, and general grime. Vinegar is a natural descaler, and it is extremely versatile. It has uses in the kitchen, bathroom, and more. 

In the kitchen, you can use vinegar to clean the refrigerator, drain, microwave, coffee pot, cutting boards, countertops, and more. Vinegar will both sanitize and deodorize these parts of your kitchen.

The directions for many coffee pots will instruct you to brew a pot with vinegar to clean out the system. It is important to run water through repeatedly afterward. Otherwise, your coffee will taste sour from the vinegar residue.

Use vinegar to surface clean the refrigerator, microwave, cutting boards, and countertops. Thoroughly wipe off the vinegar solution after using it to sanitize.

For drain cleaning, sprinkle baking soda into the drain. Then, pour vinegar into the sink and let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes. It will foam and rise up the pipe eating away at the grease and residue. Next, add a pot of boiled water to the drain to rinse it out. 

In the bathroom, white vinegar works wonders on a variety of surfaces. Use it on the toilet, shower, tile, drains, and the showerhead. 

You can even disinfect surfaces in your bedroom, living room, and dining room with vinegar. A combination of vinegar and water can be sprayed on soft surfaces to eliminate odors. Add it in the washing machine when doing the laundry for the same purpose.

If you really detest the smell of vinegar, a great tip is to put lemon in your vinegar cleaning solution. Lemon helps cancel out the vinegar’s odor and gives your home a fresh scent.

What Not to Clean with Vinegar

There are some objects in your home that you should not clean with vinegar. Granite and stone can be worn down by the properties of vinegar, and it can etch into the surface.

For the same reason, you should never use it on any type of flooring. The same goes for wood floors; they will get worn out, and the vinegar will damage the finish.

Do not use vinegar to clean egg stains or spills. The acid in the vinegar will make the egg coagulate, making the egg harder to clean up.

Do not use vinegar on electronic screens because these screens can be very fragile. The solution can ruin the coating on the screen, causing the device to no longer work.

The acidic property of vinegar will also etch into metal surfaces, leaving permanent scratches on them. Instead, there are products designed to specifically clean stainless steel. 

Vinegar and Chemicals

Hydrogen peroxide and vinegar should never be combined. Mixing these two products creates peracetic acid, which can be toxic and irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. 

These products can be used on the same surface to clean, but you must wipe the surface down thoroughly between each product.

Another product that should never be combined with vinegar is bleach. Individually, these are both powerful disinfectants.

Together, they create chlorine gas, which causes breathing problems and burning watery eyes. Even a small amount of this gas can prove toxic.

Combining vinegar and baking soda is a very commonly suggested natural cleaning solution. In most cases, it is safe to use. Be sure to dispose of the solution after use; storing it in a closed container can make the mixture explode.

It is actually not harmful to combine vinegar and ammonia, but it is virtually useless. Because vinegar is an acid and ammonia is a base, the two products cancel each other out. removing all cleaning properties.

Vinegar in the Eyes

Getting foreign objects in your eyes is generally a bad idea. Both liquids and solids can do damage to your fragile corneas; vinegar is no different.

If you do get vinegar in your eyes, rinse them immediately. Vinegar in the eyes can cause irritation, redness, and corneal injury. Make sure to remove contacts, rinse with a lot of room-temperature water, and frequently blink (source).

Final Thoughts

Vinegar is a wonderful cleaning product because it is a natural product and is still able to eliminate bacteria, sticky residue, and bad smells. 

Vinegar can clean most surfaces, and you can run it through things like your coffee pot and dishwasher to eliminate residue. 

The safest way to use vinegar in the home is in food or as a surface cleaner. It is best not to boil vinegar or mix it with certain chemicals. While breathing in the scent of vinegar is fine, the fumes made by boiled vinegar or vinegar mixed with chemicals could be toxic.

Vinegar is a powerful and inexpensive disinfectant. It is natural and free of harmful chemicals. Use it liberally around your house, but make sure you are doing so safely. 


I'm a Pharmacist and a passionate researcher into clean air and pure water for the home. I believe these 2 elements play a significant role in our health and overall wellbeing.

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