Do a search on Google on how to clean anything in your home, 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, nontoxic cleaning marvel, killing some household bacteria, dissolving hard-water deposits, and cutting through grime at a fraction of the cost of brand-name cleaning products.
At first glance, however, vinegar may not seem like the strongest cleaner. “Vinegar is a weak acid,” says May Nyman, professor of chemistry at Oregon State University, noting that it’s “even weaker than some of the sodas we drink.”
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Distilled white vinegar is great at descaling your coffee maker and leaving windows streak-free. When you pour vinegar on a hard water deposit like calcium or magnesium, it will lower its pH values, and it will dissolve more easily in water, according to Eric Beckman, professor of engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
However, vinegar doesn’t work its marvels on everything, and you may want to avoid using it on certain items. “Just as it eats away at coffee stains, imagine it doing the same thing to other surfaces in your home,” says Joe Glajch, a chemist and owner of JLG AP Consulting.
When to Avoid Cleaning With Vinegar
Below, we highlight nine instances when 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."
Never add vinegar to the iron’s tank; it could permanently damage the inside of the appliance. Most steam irons have a protective coating inside the chamber, but acid can eat away at the lining, and then the metal parts are next.
The best way to clean an iron depends on the model you have, so read the owner’s manual. If your model has a self-clean function, in most cases all you’ll need to do is fill the tank with water, heat the iron, unplug it, and hold it over the sink with the soleplate facing downward. Press and hold the self-clean button, and hot water and steam will be released from the soleplate—along with any impurities.
If you want to keep your stone countertops looking beautiful, don’t reach for vinegar. The acid etches and dulls natural stone such as marble and limestone. It can slowly dissolve them, according to Beckman. With other durable stones, such as granite, vinegar can break down any sealers that have been applied.
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 the method 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, which will help your dishwasher last longer.
Vinegar is ineffective at getting rid of water spots. The acid can eat away at the rubber parts in the appliance, according to Nyman.
You should never use straight vinegar 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 touchscreen less responsive," says Antonette Asedillo, an electronics product tester at CR.
You can also use a soft sponge or cloth dampened with plain 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 LL Flooring, warn against using vinegar to clean 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 also want to skip the vinegar for reasons covered in the “Countertops” section above.
Tools with exposed edges, like kitchen knives, are especially vulnerable to vinegar. Cleaning the knives with vinegar can damage the finish on knives and leave the 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. Since grease already contains plenty of acids, vinegar doesn’t help dissolve it, according to Beckman. He suggests baking soda, a mild base, as an alternative.
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 are less resistant to rusting, which can be spurred on by acid.”
When in doubt, use diluted dishwashing soap instead. In our guide on how to clean your small appliances, you’ll find more detailed advice for cleaning specific kitchen 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, N.C., 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 Brian Sansoni, chief spokesperson for the American Cleaning Institute. Consumer Reports’ tests of laundry stain removers revealed 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.
Editor’s Note: This article, originally published on Feb. 5, 2020, has been updated with additional advice on cleaning clothes irons and to include limestone in the list of countertop materials that shouldn’t be cleaned with distilled white vinegar.
Perry Santanachote is a multimedia content creator at Consumer Reports. She has been with CR since 2019, covering nothing in particular. Not having a beat allows her to work on whatever’s trending—from parasite cleanses to pickleball paddles. Perry is a main producer of Outside the Labs content at CR, where she evaluates products in her tiny Manhattan apartment.