The Cleaning Mistake I Didn’t Know I Was Making (But I’m Going to Keep Doing Anyway)

published Apr 10, 2017
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(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Back when I Kon-Mari-ed my cleaning supplies, I dutifully refilled my homemade baking soda dispensers (jars with holes hammered into the lids) and my re-purposed white vinegar squirters (empty dish soap bottles) so I’d have one of each in every bathroom. I use these ubiquitous homemade cleaners to scrub and disinfect all our sinks and toilets — or so I thought.

There may be some people who have chemistry fresh on the brain while doing their cleaning chores, but I’m not one of them. (I quit being pre-med when I found myself writing poetry in chemistry class. And here we are.) It took me a while to think Hey, wait a second, isn’t vinegar an acid and baking soda a base? Don’t they cancel each other out?, and then even longer then to look into it.

Turns out that, yes, these green cleaning darlings render each other almost useless. As Lee Falin, PhD elucidates on Quick and Dirty Tips, baking soda (sodium hydrogen carbonate), and distilled white vinegar (acetic acid), combine to make water, sodium carbonate, and sodium acetate (which, incidentally, is what’s used to flavor salt and vinegar chips. Did your mouth just water, because mine did. Just call me Pavlov’s Dog).

So what happens when you clean with sodium acetate? Unlike what happens when mixing other cleaning agents like ammonia and bleach — which creates toxic fumes, don’t do it! — sodium acetate is harmless. Mixing baking soda and vinegar basically (HAHAHAHA) gives you a kind of salty water to clean with.

(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

But…. Here’s Why I’m Okay With That

It all comes back to the way I use it to clean: I sprinkle the sink with baking soda and use water to scrub the sink with a sponge. The baking soda acts as a safe abrasive for getting gunk off. My squirt of white vinegar, if done after most of the baking soda is rinsed down the drain, still provides some of the disinfecting power I’m looking for.

In addition, since acetic acid helps suspend hard water particles in a solution, adding vinegar to a baking soda scrubbing routine can help you remove hard water stains as you’re scrubbing. This is useful in the sink and especially while scrubbing the inside of the toilet.

Also, I’m not gonna lie: I like the fizzing.

I will not, however, continue to count on vinegar to disinfect when I’m using it in conjunction with baking soda. Lesson learned.