You sprinkle and pour and watch the satisfying bubbles rise up. You watch the bubbles pop and feel proud that you’re using a safe and non-toxic cleaning solution. The bubbles fade away and you scrub down your sink, toliet, tub, or counter. But do you really know what you’re actually scrubbing around and how effective it is?
I learned something interesting last month when I wrote a post over on Keeper of the Home about vinegar not being a great non-toxic cleaner. Some people love their vinegar and can be kinda defensive about it! But, I’m here today to dispel a green and natural cleaning myth: That vinegar and baking soda is an effective homemade cleaning solution.
So should you use a vinegar and baking soda mixture for cleaning? The truth might actually surprise you.
The Truth About Vinegar and Baking Soda Mixed Together
We all know that when you mix vinegar and baking soda together, you get a great bubbly, fizzing reaction. But what do you really have left after all the bubbling and fizzing dies down? Really not much more than a salt water solution.
I will admit, this was news to me too when I first read about it while doing research for my book!
“What?!” I thought, “but I’ve read in so many different places about using vinegar and baking soda together as a homemade, non-toxic cleaner ! I’ve even written about it and advised other people to use it for cleaning!” Oops!
But it’s true:
The chemical reaction actually occurs in two steps. First, there is double displacement reaction in which acetic acid in vinegar reacts with sodium bicarbonate to form sodium acetate and carbonic acid. Carbonic acid is unstable and undergoes a decomposition reaction to produce the carbon dioxide gas.
The carbon dioxide escapes the solution as bubbles. The bubbles are heavier than air, so the carbon dioxide collects at the surface of the container or overflows it… A dilute sodium acetate solution remains after the reaction. Source
So, if you’re looking to clean your sink, toilet, tub, counters, or stovetop with more than just salt water, then I would not recommend mixing the baking soda and vinegar, letting it sit for a minute while it fizzes, and then doing your cleaning. At that point you’ll basically be cleaning with diluted salt water.
Instead of using baking soda and vinegar, the best cleaner for all around your house is still soap.
I love my homemade multipurpose cleaner made with castile soap, tea tree oil, and water! Sometimes I’ll sprinkle a really soiled surface with baking soda or cream of tartar first and then spray on the multipurpose cleaner. The baking soda or cream of tartar is great for scrubbing and whitening and the soap and tea tree oil add cleaning and disinfecting power!
Now, I don’t think this means there is absolutely no cleaning value in the bubbling action of the baking soda and vinegar. If you sprinkle baking soda on a surface, and then spray or pour vinegar over it and scrub right away – it will probably do an okay job. Baking soda is still a great non-abrasive scrubbing agent and vinegar still has disinfecting qualities.
I think I’ll keep admiring the baking soda and vinegar bubble dome while cleaning out my drains rather than cleaning my dirty kitchen and bathroom!
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Would you like to get started using homemade, non-toxic and green cleaners all around your house? Get my Free Guide to 5 Surprising Non-Toxic Cleaners you already have at home when you sign up for the Live Renewed Community newsletter. (And here’s a hint: Baking Soda and Vinegar aren’t even on the list!)
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A few things I’ve learned over the last 10 years or so of using homemade cleaners.
Salt water itself can be an effective cleaner, especially when mixed with soap, or vinegar or just on its own. It’s mildly abrasive. It’s good for toilet bowls, etc.
The bubbly action of vinegar mixed with baking soda is good for lifting dirt and non-set stains from clothes, carpet, car fabric, etc.
Baking soda on its own or mixed with a squirt of soap is typically more effective for scouring tubs, etc.
Vinegar and baking soda do make a great deodorizer.
Letting the vinegar – baking soda mixture sit for a few minutes (like in the oven) is mostly about letting the bubbly action do a little work, and then just having a mildly abrasive, wet substance on the grease and hardened food to soften it up (water mixed with lemon juice does about the same job). Straight baking soda can again be good for scouring here.
Though vinegar mixed with baking soda is not a miracle worker, it can be useful for some things. Experiment! 🙂
William Bramhall says
I had not heard of mixing bakingsoda With vinegar to clean. Although i am not a chemist, my nephew is. Applecider vinegar is the premium disinfectant. Even Dr Oz said so in their show. Absolutely no germs were left after their cleaning test. But with the others including chlorine, there were germs stillon the surfaces.
But after the bombs we had in the neighborhood last summer, I went and asked my neighbor how they were making them. Bakingsoda mixed with pop or vinegar and thrown into a bottle. The plastic kind. FYI.
ann hunting says
I’ve been trying to explain this to people for years. Also, vinegar is used to set some dyes, so my be what you don’t want to clean staines. Although, the two together make a good drain cleaner. Pour in the soda 1st, follow with the vinegar. a little goes a long way.
I find that separately they definitley have strong uses, vinegar is great at cutting through grease I love using it in the kitchen as a pre-cleaner (specially on taco night…), vinegar I really just use as a gentle abrasive, mixing it with mild soap keep my stainless and glass stovetop sparkling like new, and it doesn’t leave a scratch on my nonstick pans but cleans them beautifully
Teresa Kim says
I had no idea that the mixture of baking soda and white vinegar is just a salt water cleaning solution! Thanks a lot for the interesting article! Crews Hill Carpet Cleaners Ltd.
This article was a little confusing b/c vinegar is not a disinfectant. It can kill some microbes and but not all. Its only a disinfectant if it can kill 99.9% of germs/microbes. I don’t want to the readers to be mislead.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines “disinfecting” and “sanitizing” differently, but for our purposes they can mean the same thing, killing germs with germicial agents at near 100% effectiveness.
Actually, if you had a more in depth knowledge of what baking soda and vinegar do when they react you’d likely change your mind. The sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid combine to make a salt, you’re correct in that statement. The decomposition happens as well, creating CO2 and water. So now, the CO2 is let off as a gas, and you’re left with a salt and water. Now, you understand that when you mix salt and water, the salt dissolves, right? Why do you think it dissolves? Think about it? There must be some chemical reaction going on. And there is! The polar water rips apart the salt into NaOH and HCl; a very strong acid and a strong base as well. HCl is further broken down into its ions. These extremely electronegative ions attach to dirt molecules, penetrate bacterial cell bodies, destroy bacterial innards and generally disinfect surfaces by themselves.
So, using this combination is a very good method of cleaning. You’re right that if you let it sit, you achieve basically nothing; however, if you scrub with this mixture immediately, and maybe supply a drop or two more water, it’ll work as well as other cleaning products.
I learned this in my college chemistry class. The reaction IS the cleaner, not the PRODUCT of the baking soda and vinegar.
I did find one instance in which the reaction is the “cleaner” – removing clogs from drains/sinks.
It’s pretty well explained here: https://www.liquidplumr.com/diy-plumbing-tip/how-baking-soda-and-vinegar-cleans-drains/
Basically, it is the physical agitation of the vigorously bubbling vinegar + baking soda reaction that helps loosen the clog, and has pretty much nothing to do with the chemistry of the reaction. The chemistry ensures that gas is generated, creating a vigorous physical disturbance. You also MUST plug the drain while the reaction occurs to ensure that the gas will force its way past the clog. Rinsing with hot water is necessary to completely wash the now-dislodged clog away.
Perhaps it could work similarly in other instances when a physical agitation is needed to dislodge dirt and grime? It doesn’t really make sense to me in an open environment like a counter – won’t the gas be generated on top of the dirt/grime, and just bubble off the counter? How could the gas be generated underneath the dirt/grime, causing the dirt/grime to be loosened as the gas pushes through? At least in the drain example, when you plug the drain and allow the reaction to happen the gas is forced to expand past the clog. Maybe on porous materials, like carpet or grout, the gas can be generated underneath the dirt/grime, so the bubbling helps?
If you have a more detailed, step-by-step explanation for how the reaction is the cleaner, I’d honestly love to hear it!
I’ve been looking around trying to see if there is anything more to the vinegar and baking soda reaction that would potentially make it a good cleaning agent. The simple chemical reaction tells us that the products of the reaction are just water and sodium acetate – not very good cleaning agents. I wondered if something else during the reaction – like an intermediate molecular species or heat would improve the mixtures cleaning power. Alas, all that I have found has countered these ideas, and your explanation is incorrect as well.
The “salt” (in chemistry language) formed by the reaction of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and acetic acid (vinegar) is sodium acetate, not sodium chloride, which is table salt. This means there is no chloride ion in the reaction, and no way HCl (hydrochloric acid) could be formed. Furthermore, there is no NaOH (sodium hydroxide, a base) formed during the reaction.
The reaction happens as follows. In water, acetic acid (CH3COOH) breaks apart into protons (H+) and acetate ions (CH3COO-). Sodium bicarbonate in water breaks apart into sodium ions (Na+), and bicarbonate (HCO3-). When all of these ions are mixed together, some react with one another, and some just hang out, giving them the name “spectator ions.” In this reaction, H+ reacts with HCO3- while Na+ and CH3COO- are spectators. The reaction of H+ with HCO3- gives carbonic acid (H2CO3) which decomposes into water (H2O) and carbon dioxide gas (CO2 – bubbles!). Na+ and CH3COO- are the leftover “salt” called sodium acetate, dissolved in water.
In the end, the ions that you say have disinfecting properties, which would only be H+ in this case, have been reacted away. Na+ and CH3COO- are not very reactive, and won’t do much disinfecting. It’s the H+ that reacts with dirt and bacteria, and by adding baking soda to vinegar we have reacted away the H+ that was in the vinegar.
Additionally, this reaction is “endothermic,” which means that in order to occur it needs
P.S. You are right that salt (NaCl) dissolving in water is a chemical reaction, but it unfortunately does not make NaOH and HCl. It simply makes sodium (Na+) and choride (Cl-) ions, which do not react further. Additionally, this reaction requires a small amount of heat (because the enthalpy of solution is positive), therefore it will slightly cool the water as it dissolves.
Edit to my comment above (it was submitted accidentally!)
Second to last paragraph should read:
Additionally, this reaction is “endothermic,” which means that in order to occur it needs heat. This will actually make the temperature of the solution decrease a bit, which doesn’t sound so good for cleaning. Usually warm water is recommended, generally because solubility of dirt and grime increases with temperature. Check out this link for a description of this phenomenon: http://www.hawkaia.com/oldhawkaiasite/endothermic/
Wikipedia is also a nice reference for this chemical reaction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_bicarbonate (look under the “Chemistry” heading).
Very, very good to learn! Now what about baking soda used in cooking, and baking soda used for cleaning (such as http://tinyurl.com/BakingSoda101)? I’ve done my research and can’t seem to find a solid answer as whether they’re equally healthy/non-toxic to use, or if only the cooking baking soda is. Would you know the answer?
Samantha Burgoyne says
WHAT??!?!!?!?!?!!!?????!?!?!?! That is surprising