Is Vinegar a Disinfectant?

Author: Fresh Green Clean

“Can I use vinegar instead of a chemical disinfectant to disinfect the surface?”

The short answer is no – vinegar is not a disinfectant. This article explains why this is the case, and what to use instead to keep your surfaces safely and hygienically clean.

To be classified a ‘disinfectant’ a substance must first pass stringent tests then be listed on the eBS Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods Medicines. Vinegar has not been tested or registered – therefore it cannot be called a disinfectant. But can it disinfect?

Disinfectant tests require a substance to demonstrate which type of germs it can kill and under which specific conditions, such as length of contact time. A few research labs have actually scientifically tested the effectiveness of vinegar and other ‘green’ alternative disinfectants and cleaners.

One such article in the Journal of Environmental Health; 94, reported that ‘vinegar showed some germicidal activity, but not across a sufficient range of microbes’. In another test conducted in the USA in 95, Reckitt & Colman concluded that ‘… vinegar… did not possess the germicidal activity (germ killing ability) required of EPA registered disinfectants.’

It would appear that although vinegar prevents bacteria from growing on food while soaking in it, as a preservative, it does not kill enough germs in a short enough period of time to be an effective surface disinfectant.

How do disinfectants work?

But you may be surprised to learn just how strict the conditions must be before a disinfectant can do its job as intended.

Firstly, a disinfectant’s germ killing ability is seriously limited if the surface or cleaning tool are dirty. Yes, you must clean first. Next, to be able to kill a sufficient number of germs, it must soak the surface for at least 10 minutes – or possibly even hours! This is called dwell time. Who has the time to do that?

Now ask yourself: what are you actually trying to achieve by disinfecting your surfaces? Sterilisation? 100% elimination? This is not only unnecessary in a community setting, it is also completely impossible. The aim should be to reduce bacteria to a safe level and maintain surfaces in a ‘clean and hygienic’ condition.

Do we need disinfectants?

Cleaning regularly with soapy water easily removes bacteria and its food source – dirt and moisture. A clean, dry surface starves the germs (disease causing bacteria) and prevents them from growing back.

‘Washing germs down the drain is better than trying to kill germs with disinfectant. Ordinary detergents help to loosen the germs so that they can be washed away.’ (The NHMRC’s Staying Healthy in Child Care Guidelines Ed.4)

Note: State Health Authorities usually require chlorine bleach to be applied after cleaning with soapy water, to all food contact surfaces, and general surfaces in the case of a gastro outbreak, in community services.

Cleaning effectively

You may now be asking: ‘why can’t I use vinegar to do that?’ Contrary to very popular belief, vinegar is not an effective cleaner. A little chemistry lesson will help me to explain.

The aim of an effective surface cleaner is to stop dirt particles (and the germs within it) from sticking to the surface. This can be achieved physically (i.e. microfiber), with heat (i.e. steamer or dishwasher) , or through a chemical reaction with dirt.

Acidic cleaning agents remove alkaline dirt, while alkaline cleaners remove acidic dirt. Vinegar, being mildly acidic, helps to lift alkaline dirt such as lime-scale or rust. But most of the dirt in community services, i.e. food or bodily fluids, is acidic, not alkaline.

Mild detergents are slightly alkaline or pH neutral, which combined with their water-penetrating abilities, helps them lift dirt more effectively than vinegar. In fact, as vinegar congeals protein, it may actually make bodily fluids stick to the surface even harder!

Isn’t ‘chemical-free’ safer?

Probably the main reason vinegar is preferred to a detergent is because it seems more ‘natural’. This is a common misconception. Although naturally derived, vinegar has still undergone a simple chemical process. A detergent can also be made from ‘natural’ ingredients – the process is just more complex.

Cooking vinegar is undoubtedly safe to handle. (Be aware that cleaning vinegar can be far stronger and may burn skin and eyes).

However the health risks of a mild, pH neutral, surface cleaning detergent, diluted 1:50 (i.e. 20mls of detergent to 1 litre of water), are also minimal. Skin irritation due to the de-fatting action of detergents can be avoided by wearing gloves and applying skin cream.

Finally, to ensure detergents contain only plant-derived ingredients, and no harmful petro-chemicals, the manufacturer should list all the ingredients to support their claim.