As we have documented pretty thoroughly on this site, baking soda and vinegar are each super-handy around the house. Baking soda is a natural deodorizer and a fine abrasive — that’s good for odor absorption and scrubbing. Vinegar’s acid cuts through grease and shines things up, making it a winner for cleaning hard surfaces like countertops and windows.
So naturally the next thought is: If they work so well separately, shouldn’t they work even better together? When you combine them, they create an amazing middle-school-science-experiment-level fizzing sensation, which must be doing something, right? But baking soda is a base, and vinegar is an acid — and your high school science teacher probably taught you that the two cancel each other out, right? If they cancel each other out, aren’t you losing the cleaning benefits of each of them?
I set out to get to the bottom of this.
I reached out to the American Cleaning Institute, but they do not test or recommend DIY cleansers. I reached out to the Heinz people, and even though they recommend a baking soda-vinegar combo on their site for refreshing a drain, one contact said they could not divulge proprietary R&D info, and another said they couldn’t comment on uses for vinegar other than cooking. The Arm & Hammer team was more forthcoming (details below), but their general take is: You don’t need the vinegar. “Baking soda can clean almost every surface of your home by itself,” says Dr. Steven A. Bolkan, director of research & development at Church & Dwight (the brand’s parent company). So curious, because there are many, many sites — including this one! — that recommend the combination for various purposes, specifically cleaning the drain, so anecdotally, if not scientifically, something seems to be working.
I called one of my favorite home economists, Carolyn Forte, the director of home appliances & cleaning products and textiles labs at the Good Housekeeping Institute. She tests every new commercial cleaning product that hits the market, and has tested many of the homemade remedies out there as well. She knows cleaning, and she knows science. She also happens to be a very nice person who I’ve had the pleasure of working with before.
First up: Do baking soda and vinegar cancel each other out? “It depends on the ratio,” Forte says. Baking soda is mildly alkaline [around a 9 on the PH scale, which is alkaline from 7 to 14 and acidic from 0 to 7], vinegar is pretty acidic [around 2.4 when diluted at 5 percent]. I asked the same of a mom at my daughter’s school, who’s a chemistry professor. She said the same thing: Your final mixture, once the fizzing has stopped, could be either basic, alkaline, or neutral, depending on the proportions of the ingredients. In my home experiments, I think my mixtures turn out on the acidic side, since the solution can still cut grease and shine surfaces, hallmarks of the vinegar effect.
The Good Housekeeping Institute did test the theory of using baking soda and vinegar on a drain a few years back (their recipe: 1/2 cup baking soda + 1/4 cup salt down the drain, followed by a cup of heated vinegar, let stand 15 minutes, then flush with hot tap water). They found that the combination did a fairly good job of deodorizing (the baking soda) and cutting through grease (the vinegar). So Forte said they recommend it for, say, a bad-smelling drain or to remove light grease buildup, but not as a replacement for a commercial drain-clearing product or a plumber. So as long as you’re using it for maintenance and not expecting it to solve a truly clogged drain, it will help freshen and keep drains flowing for you.
But surely, all that fizzing when you combine the two means that something is happening? When I asked Bolkan if the fizzing did anything, the short answer was no. “There isn’t really any added cleaning power, as the difference is only noticeable on a microscopic level,” he says. But Forte thought the bubbles might actually have a benefit: “I think the foam actually helps! It causes the mixture to cling, just like a foaming cleanser you’d use on your bathroom walls — if it were a liquid, it would slide right down, but when it foams, it gives the vinegar a chance to work on the pipe walls before you flush it down,” says Forte.
The Truth About Baking Soda and Vinegar
The combination as most people make it typically leaves you with a mildly acidic solution, milder than plain vinegar. But the foam might keep your mildly acidic solution in place longer for applications like the drain or grout on your wall, where a spray wouldn’t have a chance to work. So if you are someone who’s committed to making your own cleanser and is not turned off by the smell of vinegar, this combination may work for you. “Just take it with a grain of salt,” Forte says. Or in this case, a grain of baking soda.
Do you clean with the combo of vinegar and baking soda?