What's the Difference Between Cleaning Vinegar and White Vinegar?

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 
White vinegar can be used for lots of things, including your favorite recipes, whereas cleaning vinegar is stronger and should not be eaten. Mike Mozart/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The cleaning cabinet in your home may be full of spray bottles and commercial cleaning products, each with its own purpose (like liquid dish soap). There's a spray bottle for natural stone countertops and another spray bottle for soap scum in the kitchen sink. But there's also a specialty spritz to clean windows, a separate spray bottle for stainless steel appliances and one with detergent to clean floors. The products are endless.

But what if you could use just one multipurpose, environmentally friendly concoction to clean most of the surfaces in your home, instead of one of each of the toxic chemicals on the commercial cleaning products aisle? And what if that cleaning solution was natural, nontoxic and inexpensive?


Distilled White Vinegar and Cleaning Vinegar Are Not the Same

This scenario may sound too good to be true, but it isn't. Among the balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, apple cider vinegar and red wine vinegar is an unsung hero: white vinegar. And if you peruse a commercial cleaning products aisle, you're likely to discover white vinegar's more astringent cousin: cleaning vinegar.

Both of these products can be used for cleaning multiple surfaces. Cleaning with spray vinegar is a tried-and-true household solution. There's always baking soda for scrubbing stains, and a mix of vinegar and baking soda to provide an environmentally friendly way to scrub your sinks and bathrooms. You can even add both white vinegar and cleaning vinegar to the wash cycle to boost your laundry detergent. However, they are definitely not interchangeable. So, what's the difference between diluted cleaning vinegar and regular distilled white vinegar? It's all in the concentration.


cleaning vinegar
Many people have a confusing and jumbled mix of cleaning supplies around the house, most of which might just be unnecessary.
JOEY MCLEISTER/Star Tribune/Getty Images

Acetic Acid Makes the Difference in Vinegar for Cleaning

The distilled white vinegar in the food aisle is 95 percent water and 5 percent acetic acid. In contrast, cleaning vinegar is 94 percent water and 6 percent acetic acid. While a 1 percent difference doesn't seem like a big deal, it actually is.

That extra 1 percent of acid in undiluted cleaning vinegar amplifies its power and makes it 20 percent stronger than white vinegar. So, while cleaning vinegar has a stronger concentration for cleaning, it also means one should never consume cleaning vinegar. Cleaning vinegar isn't produced or tested to ensure it meets food-quality standards, and the higher concentration may cause esophageal and intestinal disturbances.


Cleaning Vinegar: Not For Spritzing a Salad

A good rule of thumb is to remember that you can use white vinegar in several ways, from foodstuffs to cleaning, while cleaning vinegar is a single-use product that you should only use to make a vinegar cleaning solution.

Both white vinegar and undiluted cleaning vinegar are made using the same two-step fermentation process. The first step requires introducing yeast that will feed on a sugar or starch from just about any type of plant, including fruits, whole grains, potatoes or rice.


As the yeast feast, the liquid ferments and turns to alcohol, which is then exposed to oxygen and a bacteria known as Acetobacter. For several more weeks — sometimes months — the liquid will continue to ferment with the bacteria to form vinegar.

The end result of this fermentation process is the same; the difference between white vinegar and cleaning vinegar comes into play when the vinegars are diluted in a vinegar and water solution. White vinegar includes more water, and therefore a lower concentration of acetic acid, than cleaning vinegar. Both will work well as an antibacterial cleaner for household chores, with the more concentrated cleaning vinegar packing a greater acidic punch.