What can you use vinegar for?

The farmer’s almanac gives us the following uses for vinegar. I’ll copy and paste from their website and comment accordingly:

  • Bring a solution of one-cup vinegar and four tablespoons baking soda to a boil in teapots and coffeepots to rid them of mineral deposits.

Yes this will work, as long as you don’t add the baking soda. Vinegar is acidic and therefore is the right pH for removing alkaline mineral deposits. But adding the baking soda will partially or fully neutralise the vinegar and reduce its effectiveness. The chemistry of vinegar/baking soda is explained here

  • A solution of vinegar and baking soda will easily remove cooking oil from your stovetop.

It will work a little bit as long as you don’t add the vinegar, as the vinegar will neutralise the baking soda. But baking soda is only mildly alkaline, and you will get better results with the more alkaline Washing Soda

  • Clean the filter on your humidifier by removing it and soaking it in a pan of white vinegar until all the sediment is off.

This will not work very well at all. Presumably this is cleaning dust, and dust is essentially dead skin that contains fat, so it is oily when you wipe it with a wet sponge. It therefore requires an alkaline cleaner, such as an oven cleaner. Spray it on, wait about 30 seconds, then just wipe it off.

  • Saturate a cloth with vinegar and sprinkle with baking soda, and then use it to clean fiberglass tubs and showers. Rinse well and rub dry for a spotless shine.

Baking soda and vinegar neutralise each other. Far better results will be achieved with washing soda

  • For a clean oven, combine vinegar and baking soda, then scrub.

If you use just use washing soda for this, you won’t need to scrub

  • Clean and deodorize your toilet bowl by pouring undiluted white vinegar into it. Let stand for five minutes, then flush. Spray stubborn stains with white vinegar, then scrub vigorously.

This could work. Harpic used to make a range of cleaners that used hydrochloric acid as the active ingredient. The beauty of toilet bowls is that the porcelain is impervious to almost any chemical.

  • Clean windows with a cloth dipped in a solution of one part white vinegar and 10 parts warm water. This works for dirty TV screens, too!

Ammonia will work better, as it has grease-cutting properties that vinegar doesn’t. Also it will leave a positively charged surface that will repel further dust (which is also positively chatged

  • To clean drip coffeemakers, fill the reservoir with white vinegar and run it through a brewing cycle. Rinse thoroughly by brewing two cycles with water before using.

Yes, this ll work by removing mineral deposits

  • To remove bumper stickers from car chrome, paint on vinegar and let it soak in. Next, scrape off the stickers. Decals can be removed similarly.

No this will not work. Use acetone – it will work instantly, as it dissolves the adhesives

  • Rid your refrigerator and freezer of bad odors by cleaning the insides with a solution of equal parts vinegar and water, then wiping dry.

Yes this could work. Vinegar is acidic, and many fridge smells are amines, which are both volatile and alkaline – so the vinegar neutralises them.

  • To remove smoke odors on clothes, hang them above a steaming bathtub filled with hot water and a cup of white vinegar.

Not sure about this one. But it’s possible.

  • To prevent mildew, wipe down surfaces with vinegar.

Yes – it could work – the biomass probably wouldn’t like to adhere to an acidic surface

  • Use a sponge dampened with vinegar to clean shower curtains.

Yes, this could work, as most of the deposits would be alkaline minerals

  • To loosen a stuck jar lid, hold the jar upside down and pour warm vinegar around the neck at the joint between the glass and the top.

Hot water (without the vinegar) will work here

You’ll notice that baking soda is often used as a sidekick to vinegar. Find out more helpful household uses for baking soda here, and see a list of more natural household cleaners.

It is used as a “sidekick” simply because they foam when added together, and for reasons dating back about 70 years, people associate foaming with cleaning. This is the only reason. Explanation here 


  • Vinegar naturally breaks down uric acid and soapy residue, leaving baby clothes and diapers soft and fresh. Add a cup of vinegar to each load during the rinse cycle.

It is true that the vinegar will react with the urea (from the urine) but it also breaks down mineral deposits (scale on clothes)

  • To remove chewing gum, rub it with full-strength vinegar.

????  Can’t imagine why this would work, but I haven’t tried it. If you put the garment in the freezer, you will be able to pull away the frozen gum easily

  • Soak paint stains in hot vinegar to remove them.

If this works, it’s the heat that’s doing it. Try a steam cleaner

  • To remove salt and water stains from leather boots and shoes, rub with a solution of 1 tablespoon white vinegar and 1 cup water. Wipe over the stained area only, and then polish.

I can’t see why this would work, but I haven’t tried it

See our page on how to remove stains for more tips.


  • For brunettes, rinsing hair with vinegar after a shampoo makes hair shinier. Use one-tablespoon vinegar to one-cup warm water.

Correct, because you are neutralising the pH of the alkaline shampoo. A conditioner would achieve the same result

Haven’t tried this. It’s possible.

  • Place a vinegar-soaked brown bag on sprains to ease pain and aid recovery.

There is some history to this (Jack and Jill fixed a “broken crown” with vinegar and brown paper). I’m not sure of how much science there is behind it, however.

  • Rub cider vinegar on your skin to repel insects.

Very possible, if you had no Aerogard (or equivalent) available


Answers for Dr Karl #1: Plastic Bags and Chicken Juice

Dr Karl is a smart guy. He has an extraordinary broad knowledge of science in general, as well as human and animal physiology.

The reason for this, of course, is that as a professional educator he gets to read a lot. I am, of course, intensely jealous – and one day hope to have the kind of job that he has.

I love listening to his regular segments on the ABC on Thursdays where people call in and ask him questions. Mostly he has an answer, but occasionally he gets asked a question relating to chemistry that he is unable to answer.

This should not surprise anyone, of course, – Dr Karl himself would be the first to admit that no one knows everything, and anyone who has a call-in radio show and is never stumped is having a lend of their audience. When I had my radio show on 6PR for example, it was quite common for me to say “I’ll have to look into that and get back to you next week.”

Anyhow, for the chemistry questions that Dr Karl can’t answer, luckily I am here.

Last week a caller asked why “chicken juice” leaks through plastic bags. What he was getting at was that whereas if you put water into a plastic bag it wouldn’t leak, if you had some chicken (or meat) in a plastic bag sitting on your kitchen bench top, when you pick it up later on invariably some of the juice has seeped through.

Why is it so?

The answer is simply that plastics are not completely impervious. That is, if you zoom down into the molecular microstructure of plastic bags you will see that it’s essentially a jumbled mess of strands with holes everywhere. The plastic bags that we get from the supermarket are PVC and because they are so thin there are enough faults in the microstructure to allow some things to seep through.

Imagine if you cooked up a kilogram of spaghetti and then tipped it out onto the floor and let it dry. When it had tried it would be a solid lump spread out on the floor. But although it would be a solid lump, between all the overlapping strands there would be gaps. Plastic is essentially the same. At a microscopic level it is made up of polymer strands all jumbled together with only weak interactions between them.

We know that there is weak interaction between the polymer chains, because the bag is flexible. That is, the polymer chains are able to move and flex in relation to each other.

And the reason that some liquids will leak through the bag, whereas water won’t, is probably related to the surface tension of water. If you put a drop of water on a hard surface and then put a drop of metho next to it you would observe a curious phenomenon: whereas the metho drop would flatten out on the surface, the drop of water would sit proud of the surface and would appear round on the edges.

The reason for this is the surface tension of water, which, because it is a polar compound, is very high. This surface tension would mean that the water would not be able to squeeze through the little faults in the plastic, but if there were other substances dissolved in the water they would tend to have the effect of decreasing the surface tension. This would mean that the liquid might be able to seep more readily through the pores.

Incidentally, anyone who works in the chemical industry knows this. Gloves ain’t gloves. If you are working with a toxic chemical that you need to protect your hands from, you need to know what type of glove to use, as some chemicals will seep right through certain gloves, and the most expensive chemical gloves are made up of multi layers of different plastics, to cover all their bases.

So that clears up one of life’s great mysteries – stay tuned for more “answers for Dr Karl.”

Cleaning Fish Smells out of a Fridge

Reader Marisa asks
I need help, I had raw fish in my fridge and the liquid of the fish leaked onto the fridge, I didn’t realise for two days, I’ve tried everything even Shannon lush’s suggestion rub normal bathroom soap onto a pantyhose and rub the inside of the fridge! My fridge smells really bad and it’s a new fridge!
Any suggestions.

Soap will be no good to you in this application as the fish smell is not a fat or oil, it is an amine. Also, panty hose is simply an open weave light nylon cloth that has no special cleaning properties whatever.

Amines belong to the same class of chemical as urine and sweat, and they of course stink. In this case, the chemical is trimethylamine, and the way to remove it is with an acid. Since the fridge is a food area, a good place to start is with vinegar. That should protonate the tertiary amine group, remove the smell and make it water soluble so it wipes up with a sponge.

If that doesn’t work try lactic acid (Ajax Spray and Wipe), Citric acid (Shower Power) or sulphamic acid (BAM Easy Off Power Cleaner).

If they don’t work, try Harpic Toilet Cleaner – it’s a weakly acidic powder (bisulfite) that should do the job.

If they don’t work, next is Ajax Powder Cleanser (an oxidiser) and last resort is an oven cleaner (BAM or Woolworths caustic cleaners). But I doubt you’ll need to go that far. Let me know how you get on.

IGA BBQ Cleaner

A few weeks ago I was talking about cleaning BBQs, for which I recommend either an oven cleaner, or caustic soda (for a large area) or soda ash (to act as a scourer for the hotplate).

I then had a bloke call in and recommend an IGA product which, he said, worked very well. So I had a look at it, and got a surprise.

Most BBQ cleaners (like noncaustic oven cleaners) use ethanolamines – alkaline amines that are strong enough to cut the grease molecule. And although they try to mask the smell with fragrances, the characteristic smell is still there.

But when I smelled the IGA product, it had the unmistakeable smell of eucalyptus oil, a superb natural cleaning chemical. The actual chemical is  eucalyptol, a saturated cycloalkane with a characteristic ether linkage spanning the ring. Like other small, oxygenated organic molecules, this gives it the dual properties of being able to dissolve oils, while being miscible with water.

And it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t wash away properly, because your BBQ smells like eucalyptus oil afterwards. Hats off to IGA for producing such an innovative product!


New BAM Oven Cleaner on the Market

It’s no secret that I rate BAM as the most effective range of household cleaners on the market, and now they have a new one.

In a recent segment on Today Tonight I sang the praises of the BAM oven cleaner over the other two brands – OzKleen and Mr Muscle – simply because it was caustic, and therefore worked better.

It is a bit fumy tho’ – not really a problem as the fumes aren’t toxic, but a little unpleasant. But then – the day after I film this segment, they bring out a non-fuming variant that is identical, but in a purple can. It’s so new that there aren’t even any pics on the web I can cut and paste.

So how well does it work? It’s probably OK, but the selling point is that it is non-fuming. It can’t cut grease as well as the caustic product.