Why You Shouldn’t Mix Baking Soda and Vinegar for Cleaning, According to a Chemist

updated Apr 5, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

Some of the most effective household cleaners aren’t meant to be mixed. You probably already know never to combine harsh chemicals like bleach and ammonia (or really, bleach and anything). But common pantry essentials that are often used for cleaning — like baking soda and vinegar — shouldn’t be mixed either.

Unlike the bleach-ammonia mixture, combining soda and vinegar won’t hurt anyone — but don’t expect the mixture to do a good job cleaning, either. According to Amanda Morris, associate chair of the chemistry department at Virginia Tech University, baking soda and vinegar basically cancel each other out when they’re mixed — unless you use them the right way, in the right time frame.

Why, you ask? Here’s a little chemistry lesson, compliments of Dr. Morris. 

Credit: Equation: Dr. Amanda Morris, associate chair of the chemistry department at Virginia Tech University

What Happens When You Mix Baking Soda and Vinegar?

Let’s start with the basics (literally). Baking soda is a base, and vinegar is an acid. When they’re combined, acids “donate” protons to bases; in this case, it’s acetic acid lending a hydrogen proton to the bicarbonate. When bicarbonate gains a hydrogen proton, it forms carbonic acid (or H2CO3) which is unstable and eventually decomposes. Once that happens you’re left with water, carbon dioxide, and acetate and sodium ions. The carbon dioxide gained in the reaction is what makes it bubbly, which looks appealing. But once the bubbles stop, you’re left with what Morris describes as “glorified water.”

Can You Clean With a Mix of Baking Soda and Vinegar?

Technically yes, but it’s not the power cleaner you’ve been led to believe. In fact, it’s volatile, and only really has one benefit: the mechanical movement of the bubbles.

If you’re planning to use baking soda and vinegar together, Morris suggests using the mixture while it’s still bubbling – and ideally, directly on the surface you’re cleaning. For example, one useful method Morris suggests is to dump a bit of baking soda down a garbage disposal, followed by a couple glugs of vinegar. The CO2 from the reaction will create bubbles, which are useful for manually dislodging gunk from your drain, or other places you can’t reach with a scrub brush.

Technically, as long as you use your mixture while it’s still bubbling — and still slightly basic — you can use it to cut through grease on kitchen surfaces. But it’s the basic baking soda doing the heavy lifting here, and a simple paste of baking soda and water would be better at cutting grease; the added vinegar only harms the power of your mixture.

By the time the vinegar and baking soda mixture stops bubbling, it won’t be all that helpful. “The way you wouldn’t want to use these ingredients is to mix them and let them sit in a bottle forever,” Morris says. “At that point, you essentially have water.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

If Baking Soda and Vinegar Cancel Each Other Out, Why Do People Mix Them?

Irina Nikiforova, owner of Rocket Maids LA, says she often sees clients attempt to clean their ovens and cooktops with the mix. Other people, she says, clean shower doors with pre-mixed vinegar and baking soda with 0000 steel wool (which she says actually does the trick, probably because of the steel wool). Nikiforova suspects people see the bubbles in the reaction and assume it’s an effective cleaner, even after the reaction stops; or, people just assume that because the two ingredients are great for cleaning on their own, they’re even better together. 

But she agrees with Morris that the best, most effective way to use baking soda and vinegar is separately, taking advantage of each one’s chemical properties. For example, as a base, baking soda is a great degreaser, and vinegar’s acid will cut through hard water stains.

If you’re looking for a green solution to clean your oven or cooktop, Nikiforova suggests simply creating a paste of water and baking soda, applying it to your oven for a few hours, and scrubbing the tough spots with a scouring stick.

And if you can’t use your baking soda-vinegar mix right away, as Morris suggests, save the chemical reaction for an at-home science experiment.