why baking soda and white vinegar isn’t cleaning your home.

Why baking soda and white vinegar aren’t cleaning your home.

Hundreds upon hundreds of blogs out there recommend the use of vinegar and baking soda as a “natural” cleansing and disinfecting agent, to clean everything from toilet bowls all the way to kitchen counter-tops, and even to unclog your kitchen sink, but does it really work?

The Basic Chemistry from your High School Years you Forgot About

White vinegar is an acid with a pH of 5. Baking soda however is a base or alkali with a pH of 8.1. What happens when we mix them together? They cancel each-other out. In other words the white vinegar becomes less acidic while the baking soda becomes less alkaline. The result? Water with some salt particles that won’t do much against grime and oil at all.

Why white vinegar and baking soda isn't a good cleaner

Here at the lab we work making soap almost daily with one of the strongest alkalies – lye. Soap in its initial stage before it becomes the bar you shower with, is a stronger alkali with a pH at around 12-14, capable of burning the skin at contact. Sometimes accidents happen even to the most professional chemists, and when we accidentally splash some of this mixture on our skin, the bottle we reach for to stop the burn is the one with the white vinegar label. Because an acid will always cancel out an alkali or at least substantially diminish its power.

The Fizz is Just a Show not a Powerful Cleansing Reaction

When we mix an acid with a base we get a cool reaction, fizz! The fizz is nothing more than carbon dioxide gas being released during the chemical reaction. (1, 2)

The reaction between baking soda and vinegar is actually a 2 step reaction, yielding carbon dioxide + water + sodium ion + acetate ion.

The acetic acid in the vinegar reacts with sodium bicarbonate to form carbonic acid. Because carbonic acid is unstable, it immediately falls apart into carbon dioxide and water as it decomposes. The bubbles you see from the reaction come from the carbon dioxide escaping the solution that is left. What’s left is a very diluted solution of sodium acetate (the remaining salt) but mostly water.

Remember that cool volcano eruption you made for your school’s science fair? It’s the same thing.

A similar reaction takes place when mixing citric acid (powder) + baking soda (powder) + water. I’m talking about Bath Bombs, those wonderfully scented balls that fizz when you drop them in your bathtub.

What you’re actually cleaning with, or trying to, is a slightly salty water, and that’s not a cleaner or a powerful degreaser at all, despite what bloggers and green mamas might claim.

The Myths Dispelled

– White vinegar, baking soda and boiling water unclogged my sink
But did it really? Or you just ruined your pipes? The mixture of vinegar and baking soda plus boiling water* isn’t powerful enough at all as we’ve established above. It isn’t capable at cutting or removing grease, neither dissolves hair or food particles like lye does, nor is an anti-bacterial. If you can unclog your kitchen sink with this mixture chances are what is happening is the hot water is “melting” the fat and grease allowing the plug to “slide down” far enough until reaching the thicker portion of your drain and once there washing it away. But if you’re using this method to unclog your kitchen sink, chances are you’ve ruined your pipes*.

If the plug is composed of hairs like the one found in your shower or bathroom sink, and if it isn’t caught on the inside portion of your drain, and the mixture of vinegar, baking soda and boiling water* is washing it away, what is actually happening there is the bubbles from the fizzy reaction (carbon dioxide) is slightly moving the hairs enough for the next steps (boiling water) to flush it down far enough until it reaches the thicker portion of your drain. So save yourself the money on vinegar and baking soda and use a wire to unclog your shower or sink instead.

*The Uniform Plumbing Code (UPC) requires that the water temperature not be any hotter than 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 Celsius) for PVC or 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82 Celsius) for ABS or it could distort/deform the drainage possibly leaving you with a bigger more expensive problem to deal with. (3, 4, 5)

– Vinegar and baking soda are powerful disinfectants
No they’re not. White vinegar on its own and undiluted is capable of killing SOME bacteria in the kitchen, when applied hot at 130°F or 55°C. Otherwise undiluted and at room temperature is only good against Salmonella a bacteria that can live in your kitchen counter-top, but ineffective against everything else including E.coli a powerful bacteria living in both your kitchen and your bathrooms.

Baking soda pure, diluted, hot or at room temperature isn’t capable of killing anything in the germs department either, but it’s good as a fungicide. Mixed with a bit of water in a paste is good at removing some messes because of its light alkaline nature and the mechanical action (scrubbing) you would exercise, but if the intention is to wash messes, soap with a higher pH level might do a better job. (6, 7, 8)

Mixing the two (baking soda and vinegar) even at a hot temperature won’t work as a disinfecting agent at all either, as the level of acidity which makes the vinegar effective as a disinfectant at hot temperatures, is cancelled out with the baking soda, as explained above.

Other Myths Involving Vinegar and/or Baking Soda

– Vinegar and soap mixed together is a powerful cleanser
They’re not. Vinegar isn’t a cleaner at all. It’s good at cutting down grease (lemon or lime are better as they’re more acidic though), removing calcium buildup, and disinfecting – as long as it’s applied hot and undiluted – but it’s certainly not a cleaner. Soap on its own is a cleaner capable of removing quite a range of dirt. But when these two are combined we get a similar reaction as with vinegar and baking soda – they cancel each other out. Soap has a pH at around 9-10, vinegar has a pH of 5. In the case of this mixture something else happens, the soap becomes unsaponified. In other words, the oils used to make the soap partially separate. What you’re left with is water with unsaponified oils floating as curdles, which won’t clean anything at all.

– Peroxide and vinegar to disinfect every corner of your home
Unless you have a death wish, never ever mix hydrogen peroxide and vinegar together, especially around children and pets. This mixture creates Peracetic Acid which can corrode metal and the fumes can cause permanent lung damage. If you still feel the inclination to use them together, do not store the mixture as it has the tendency to explode if the proportions aren’t correct. Instead have one spray bottle for vinegar and one spray bottle for hydrogen peroxide, spray vinegar first on the surface you want to disinfect make sure the room is well ventilated of course, and spray hydrogen peroxide on top, wipe and rinse. This mixture does work as a powerful disinfectant but it’s best to purchase it already made, rather than using your home as a chemistry lab. The smell isn’t pleasant at all. When Peracetic Acid dissolves in water, it disintegrates to hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid, which will fall apart to water, oxygen and carbon dioxide. (9, 10, 11)

Green Cleaning that Works

If what you want is to disinfect without harsh chemicals, then pressurized vapor should be your goal. There are many nifty household appliances available. Add 1 part of vinegar to 2 parts of water to keep them free of calcium deposits and to disinfect your surfaces. (12)

Hot undiluted white vinegar or peroxide work at killing some common bateria, but are inefficient at removing dirt. So first clean with some soap and then use either to disinfect. Bleach, is one of the most powerful disinfectants however it isn’t very earth friendly plus it’s quite harmful.

Soap is still at the top of the list in the cleaners department, and true soap is biodegradable.

If you want to remove calcium deposits from your shower and if you have time, use white vinegar.

Use baking soda for cleaning pots and pants, but don’t use it on aluminium as it might corrode it.

As for your drains, either invest in a good wire drain cleaner, much better at keeping the world free of harmful chemicals and your pipes intact, or call the plumber.


  1. Can you please educate me a little more on why diluted vinegar is not a good sanitizer/disinfectant? Would the addition of lemon to a spray bottle with vinegar and water make the solution more effective in sanitizing/disinfecting? Would diluted vinegar with water in a spray bottle require a preservative in order to keep bacteria from forming? Most importantly what would be a good natural way to sanitize/disinfect let’s say a elementary school classroom?

    1. Commercial white vinegar, the one found at your grocery store, is about 5% acetic acid. The other 95% is water. When vinegar is diluted with water it becomes less potent, which translates in less effectiveness. If you’re looking to disinfect without pollutants, hot white vinegar would be the best way to go as explained in this article referenced in our post http://extension.colostate.edu/docs/pubs/foodnut/kitchen-sanitize.pdf More references can be located within the article.

      Lemon juice is not recommended as a disinfectant for surfaces. Not only it leaves surfaces sticky even when diluted, it cannot effectively kill harmful bacteria.

  2. Hello! I’ve recently been trying to live more sustainably, and it’s been so hard finding factual information regarding homemade cleaners. What are your thoughts on using 3% hydrogen peroxide with baking soda and dish washing soap/detergent? That’s another homemade cleaner I keep coming across, and while I don’t think it’s toxic (seemed to clean fine in the shower)- I can’t seem to find scientific data supporting this mixture. Thanks! Love your site.

    1. Hello Angie and thank you for the love!

      Chemically speaking and in simple terms, mixing 3% hydrogen peroxide a mild acid (pH around 3) and baking soda a base (pH 9) generally speaking cancel each other out, in the process creating a bit of fizz, releasing oxygen and CO2 (carbon dioxide) while leaving water behind. The dish washing soap in this recipe, would be the only actual cleaner in it. Nonetheless dish washing soap isn’t that effective at removing stains and all messes. What dish washing detergents are mostly formulated to do is dissolve lipids or fats/oils.

      Assuming there is unreacted or undissolved baking soda in the recipe, the unreacted baking soda will act as a mild abrasive agent, which would require a bit of effort by scrubbing to remove most mild daily messes. If on the other hand there is more peroxide unreacted than baking soda in the recipe, the peroxide will act as a mild bleacher on the stains if left for a certain amount of time.

      It’s worth noting, that even though peroxide has bleaching like properties, giving the impression the stains or most of them at least have been removed, more times than not that doesn’t happen. Peroxide and even chlorine or bleach, don’t actually remove all stains at all, they just lighten them up, making them momentarily not visible. The stain remains on the surface eventually coming back to life days, weeks, even months later.

      The reason this recipe seems to work in the shower, is because most of the residue in a shower is in the form of fats/oils, from the skin, hair, hair conditioners, shampoos, soaps and other oil base products used in the shower, which get dissolved by the dish washing soap itself, and not necessarily by the peroxide and baking soda.

      Is this mix toxic? no it isn’t toxic.

      Does it actually clean? this recipe will mostly clean mild fat or lipid based messes with a bit of effort or elbow grease, however it doesn’t have disinfecting properties.

  3. This was very helpful! Saved me some money actually haha. What are your thoughts on apple cider vinegar? And are decyl glucoside, saponified coconut oil effective? What if when the decyl glucoside is combined with lactic acid?

    1. Hi Tamsyn! Thank you for stopping by! Ha! Glad we saved you some money!
      Vinegar, whether apple cider, white or any other kind doesn’t clean, it might be great to disinfect surfaces at a certain temperature (check the article, we mention that on it) but won’t clean. Great on salads though! =D
      Decyl glucoside and decyl glucoside + lactic acid also known as decyl glucoside sodium lauroyl lactylate (sodium lauroyl lactylate is the sodium salt of lactic acid) are both very mild biodegradable surfactants derived from coconut oil and/or palm oil used on skincare. I don’t believe either of these ingredients would work to clean tough messes in the house though as they’re very mild, at least not by themselves. Then there is the issue with costs associated with these surfactants, the latter being fairly expensive ($75 per gallon).
      As a side note, decyl glucoside may be produced from coconut oil, palm oil or both. If you’re concerned about it containing palm oil due to the gorillas being harmed, you may want to contact the supplier and get a certification the product doesn’t contain palm oil.
      Hope this helps! =)

  4. So, if washing soda is supposed to be a better abrasive than baking soda, would it be more useful as a substitute cleaner? And if you were to only use washing soda in laundry, would it be too weak to actually clean anything without the help of a detergent?
    Also, as far as acids go, would it be just as ineffective to combine something like washing soda with citric acid? Would you suggest just adding the acid to the rinse cycle of laundry/dishes to balance the ph after cleaning instead of during?
    I get why they’d be combined in shower/bath bombs since you don’t want to mess with your body’s ph or whatever. But what about as an actual cleaner that you won’t be touching while it does its job? Still useless?
    I see these types of ingredients in many store bought cleaners.

    1. So, if washing soda is supposed to be a better abrasive than baking soda, would it be more useful as a substitute cleaner?
      A- You could try.

      And if you were to only use washing soda in laundry, would it be too weak to actually clean anything without the help of a detergent?
      A- It might be too weak yes, depending on the type of dirt. That’s why it’s mostly used as a “booster” in laundry.

      Also, as far as acids go, would it be just as ineffective to combine something like washing soda with citric acid?
      A- You would be neutralizing them by adding them together. Lots of fizz, no cleaning power at all.

      Would you suggest just adding the acid to the rinse cycle of laundry/dishes to balance the ph after cleaning instead of during?
      A- If you add the acid during the cleaning cycle, you could potentially be rendering the cleaner you use ineffective, as most cleaners have a higher pH, leaving both your dishes and clothing not fully cleaned.

      I get why they’d be combined in shower/bath bombs since you don’t want to mess with your body’s ph or whatever. But what about as an actual cleaner that you won’t be touching while it does its job? Still useless? I see these types of ingredients in many store bought cleaners.
      A- The combination of an acid and a base in a bath bomb or bath treat is mostly for the “luxury effect” of the product, the fizzines is what formulators are aiming for. Just like the bubbles in a bubble bath. A bath bomb or even two added to a bathtub full of water won’t alter the pH of the water that much to be considered of any beneficial or damaging effect to the skin. The active ingredients contained in the bath bomb or bath treat are the ones that actually mater and are of benefit to the skin. Citric acid and a base combined in somewhat equal proportions do not have any power to clean at all, as mentioned in the article, as pH wise they cancel each other out even though they put up a nice fizzy display. The power of a cleaner generally speaking of course, there are other factors and chemical reactions that come to place when it comes to cleaners, comes from how acidic or alkaline the product is in correspondence to the mess the cleaner is intended to be used for. That’s why some cleaners are good for some messes while they do not work on others. When you see both ingredients in a commercial cleaner for example, one of them is added as a buffer, to either lower or increase the pH of the final product. For example, a liquid soap displaying Potassium Hydroxide (a very strong base) in the list of ingredients, would also have Citric Acid towards the bottom of the list. The Citric Acid in this case acts as a buffering agent to lower the pH of the final product to safe levels without interfering with the cleaning power of the product.

  5. So happy to have found this article!

    As you mentioned, I’ve seen SO many recommendations on the Internet for cleaning solutions seemingly geared more for show than actual effect, and which don’t actually do much to clean (in spite of responses from users’ praise). There are commercial products out there as well which apparently feed on the misunderstanding.

    For quite a while, I’ve been searching for a way of cleaning toilets without continuing to purchase the ready-mixed plastic squeeze containers (mostly out of desire to eliminate another source of plastic use vs saving money).

    Do you have any recommendations here for a solution that could do that? How about a pH-neutral surfactant (e.g. SLS) mixed with powdered citric acid to combine a cleansing agent with something to remove deposits? If that would work, do you have a recommendation for ratio?

    Thanks again.

    1. Hello John and thank you for your comment.

      SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) is slightly alkaline, not neutral (pH 7.5-8.5). Adding citric acid to it, will decrease its cleansing and foaming power, and depending on how low the pH of the final product is, which you would need to dissolve calcium deposits, it (citric acid) might render SLS completely unstable. Sulfates are stable in basic solutions with higher pH levels (8-10), not low.

  6. I am going to send this out through my social media profiles… FINALLY LOGIC/OBJECTIVELY vs SUBJECTIVE hopes and wishes… but more frightening, how many people blindly obey random people who have no understanding, have not done any crucial thinking or have basic chemistry know from high school as you stated in the beginning.

    I have been denouncing and debunking for years, this piece is very well written and accessible… none threatening and allows for anyone to let down their confirmation bias and actually be taught reality vs bullshit!

    PS: the even more depressing reality is that all these facts are available with just a click and yet, the average person refuses to check the sources that only take 5 mins. Our society seems to be losing vital techniques taught by even the Greeks of how to make rational decisions. The very thing that an undergraduate degree is supposed to have completely taught and practiced for 4 years. Somehow even an Archaic formula that needed a few tweaks because of human development is falling out of favor and the notion of blind faith is being used instead.

    A sad commentary on our current situation here in the USA.

    Thanks again for this great piece and giving solid objective facts to help debunk the crazy and chaos that DIY has brought into the home.

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