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Does Vinegar Really Kill Germs? A TURI-IEHA Report.

Vinegar is a very popular ingredient in DIY cleaners. It is hailed as a “cure all” when it comes to many cleaning dilemmas. As a result, we were eager to test the effectiveness of vinegar and its germ-killing abilities.


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Vinegar Bottle


We tested distilled white vinegar (the 5% acidity variety you can find at a grocery store) on a smooth, stainless steel surface and used E. coli and other bacteria to test vinegar’s germ-killing abilities (see Sidebar: “TURI’s Testing Process for Greener Disinfectants”). We applied vinegar to the surface and observed contact times of .5, 1, 3, and 5 minutes. What were our overall findings?

The bottom line, vinegar does kill germs including bacteria and viruses. We infer that the acetic acid in vinegar denatures (chemically changes) the proteins and fats that make up these organisms resulting in their death.


HC’s “Do Try This at Home” Initiative

For many practical reasons, do-it-yourself “DIY” cleaners are becoming popular, and many bloggers are sharing their “greener” home cleaners with whomever they can, especially through social media outlets such as Pinterest. While this trend to use pantry-based cleaners has benefits, including sustainability and avoiding notably harmful chemicals, the questions still remain: Are these cleaners safe, and do they work?

Since most of us are not experts in the fields of microbiology and chemistry, we need a little help to determine what’s safe and effective. That’s why we at Housekeeping Channel (HC) have partnered with labs such as the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) and experts, such as Dr. Jason Marshall, Dr. Nancy Goodyear and Field Scientist, Ms. Heidi Wilcox. Using professional equipment, they are able to evaluate how effective a greener disinfectant or DIY cleaner is before we recommend it to you. This is our way of ensuring that we share only homemade cleaning recipes that work.

As we share each DIY cleaner and greener disinfectant with you, we hope that you “Do Try This at Home”!

-Allison Kirby, Associate Editor


Sanitizing with Vinegar

For the best results, you’ll want to clean the surface before you use vinegar as a sanitizer. You can use vinegar to clean the surface, or another green cleaner, by spraying the solution onto a microfiber cloth, and then wiping the surface. Next, spray vinegar directly onto the surface and let the solution set - and stay wet - for from 30 seconds to 3 minutes or more (the longer the better).


After the time has elapsed, use a clean side of your microfiber cloth to wipe up the vinegar. This method will ensure the most germ removal without using harsh disinfectants.

Do remember though, that while vinegar does kill germs, it doesn’t kill all germs. This is where caution is needed. In our testing, we found that some bacteria were likely unaffected by exposure to vinegar. This fact emphasizes that vinegar may not be the best disinfectant for your cutting boards that handle raw meat.*



TURI’s Testing Process for Greener Disinfectants   

Bacteria Used: TURI usually uses two kinds of bacteria - one classified as a gram-negative, and one classified as a gram-positive. If benchmark gram-negative bacteria are effectively eliminated by a disinfectant, it is inferred that other gram-negative bacteria will respond in the same way to the disinfectant. The same applies to gram-positive bacteria. In most cases, we use low-risk bacteria to test products on, such as E. coli (gram-negative), to reduce hazard to those testing the bacteria.

Surfaces: TURI typically tests effectiveness of products on smooth surfaces, such as stainless steel, so that we can accurately determine what is left after disinfecting

Overall, we think vinegar is good sanitizer to supplement the germ removal process through physical cleaning. However, on surfaces where disinfection is crucial, such as cutting boards and kitchen surfaces, a stronger disinfectant may be warranted. A thorough washing and scrubbing with hot soap and water may help the most.

*This study focused primarily on vinegar’s germ-killing abilities. Vinegar can also be an effective acidic cleanser, i.e., to remove light scale and soap scum residue in bathrooms.



Disclaimer: While effort is made to ensure the accuracy and quality of the content, HC, UML TURI and IEHA are not providing professional or health advice, and offer no warranty - expressed or implied - and assume no legal liability for the accuracy, completeness, usefulness or safety of any information, product or process disclosed in conjunction with the content above. The views and opinions of the authors or originators expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the HC, UML TURI or IEHA organizations.


Does Vinegar Really Kill Germs? A TURI-IEHA Report.:  Created on March 8th, 2013.  Last Modified on January 21st, 2014


About Jason Marshall, Sc.D., Heidi Wilcox, and Nancy Goodyear, Ph.D.

Dr. Jason Marshall is the Lab Director at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at UMASS Lowell. During employment at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, he has published several articles focusing on the work conducted at the Institute’s laboratory. Areas have centered on case studies of past solvent substitution work, papers on specific alternative cleaning products and their impact on the environment as well as surfactant studies in cleaning applications. In addition, he has participated in several Institute-wide research publications, most notably the Perchloroethylene section of the Five Chemicals Alternatives Assessment Study completed in 2006. His recent work includes expansion of the TURI Lab's focus by working directly with manufacturers of cleaning products to assist in the development of safer cleaning formulations.  This effort has created a fee-for-service infrastructure to aid companies in their efforts to get products certified by third party organizations (Green Seal, Eco Logo, EPA DfE). A partnership was established with the IEHA (fka, International Executive Housekeepers Association) to help provide testing research on the performance of products in the commercial cleaning sector (including chemical and equipment assessments).

Heidi A. Wilcox is a Field Specialist at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) UMass Lowell.  Heidi bridges and integrates lab and field work, validating Green Cleaning methods and interventions that work.  She has a Bachelor's of Science degree in Microbiology from UMass Amherst and a Master of Science in Environmental Studies and Atmospheric Studies from UMass Lowell. Currently, she is a Doctoral student in the Department of Work Environment in Cleaner Production.

Dr. Nancy Goodyear is an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Laboratory & Nutritional Sciences, with expertise in Clinical Microbiology and Safe Disinfection at UMass Lowell. Her laboratory is focused on evaluating safer disinfection ("green" or low toxicity disinfectants) with particular interest in "real world" performance, including common errors made by users who don't follow manufacturers' directions; as well as  investigating performance of rapid test methods for detecting residual microorganisms.