Vinegar is a popular laundry product known for its abilities to brighten, whiten and disinfect garments. Due to its impressive cleaning features, many wonder if vinegar can actually be used to bleach clothes.
This article explores the status of vinegar as a laundry bleach and the best practices for using vinegar in the laundry.
Can vinegar bleach clothes?
Vinegar is not a traditional bleach, so it will not bleach fabrics in the same way that chlorine or oxygen bleach does. However, vinegar does have stain removal properties which allows it to whiten white fabrics or intensify the colors or darker fabrics.
In order for you to properly understand how vinegar bleaching works and how it differs from chlorine bleaching, let us understand how both products work to tackle stains in fabrics.
How does bleach work?
Bleach works by targeting and breaking down colored organic compounds such as natural pigments and dyes that give fabric its color. In the process of this breakdown, the organic compound loses its color and becomes colorless which makes the cloth appear whitened.
The main ingredient in chlorine bleach responsible for the breakdown of organic compounds is an oxidizing agent called Sodium Hypochlorite (NaOCl), and it would only be effective in doing so if the fabric isn’t color fast to the bleach — usually indicated on the fabric’s care label.
The hypochlorite ions in this compound is what targets and separates the chemical bonds in the pigments and dyes which results in an overall “transparent look” of the dye.
If a stain molecule (colored organic compound) happens to be in the way of the bleach as it attacks the fabric dyes, then it is also broken down to become colorless, then we say that the stain has been removed.
This principle of turning pigments, dyes or stains from their colored states to a colorless one is what makes bleach very effective at cleaning whites but detrimental to dark clothing.
Whites can easily hide spots that are transparent, but darks wont, thus they’ll appear discolored.
Nowadays, color safe bleaches exist that are designed to not attack the dye molecules on fabrics and cause them to turn colorless. But if the cloth itself is not color fast enough to the color safe bleach, then the color safe status of the bleach becomes useless because the colors will run off regardless.
Colors safe bleaches are also called oxygen bleaches or bleaches for colors.
Now that we’ve seen how chlorine bleach works. Let us see how vinegar does its magic of whitening and brightening garments.
How does vinegar work to remove stains in laundry?
The way vinegar brightens or whitens clothes is simple. It relies on its acidic nature to remove the soap residue that persists on clothes (after every wash) and builds up over time. Such removal is what gives the impressions of brightening or whitening.
If there are stains on a fabric too, the acetic acid in vinegar helps to tackle that too. So unlike bleach, vinegar doesn’t always react with the colors of the dye and cause them to turn transparent.
So vinegar will not bleach your fabrics (but it can cause fading over time if used too frequently or in too high of a concentration).
Will vinegar weaken fabrics like bleach?
Bleach reacts with organic compounds in fabrics and sometimes the ones that give strength to them, which is why over time, you discover that garments washed with bleach become weakened. Vinegar on the other hand, does not react with the organic compounds in fabrics and so will not weaken them.
It is important to note that laundry products like detergents and softeners too can contain ingredients in them that can react with organic compounds in fibers and cause them to weaken, so also the agitation of the washer together with hot water wash which can also do the same damage.
So it’s not only bleach that can cause fabrics to weaken over time. Other factors are as big of a culprit.
What is the purpose of vinegar in laundry?
Vinegar serves a lot of functions in laundry. Some of them include:
Brightening and Softening: Vinegar aids in the removal of alkali build up on clothes which makes them stiffen up when dried and also look dull. For this reason, vinegar is a great fabric rinse as well as softener.
Stain remover: The acetic acid in vinegar helps to break down stains compounds when left in a vinegar solution for a long time. Vinegar is especially effective against grass, sweat and soil stains. You can pretreat the stains with (¼ cup of vinegar plus 1 cup of water) for 30 minutes or more. Then launder or dry straight. Or, you can soak the entire fabric in the diluted vinegar solution for 30 minutes (making sure the stained spot is covered), then launder or dry straight.
Odor remover: The chemicals in vinegar are great at neutralizing odor that bacteria produce from breeding on stains. A cup of it added to the wash cycle is all it takes.
Disinfectant: Vinegar isn’t a great disinfectant like bleach, but for clothes you suspect should have a moderate load of bacteria, vinegar should do just fine to disinfect it. Typically, a single cup per wash cycle should suffice.
Now it’s important to note that vinegar, despite all its good, contains acid in it which has the potential to cause damage to natural fibers such as silk, leather that can be damaged by acidic substances. So avoid using vinegar of silk or leather fabrics, or those that fall under the category mentioned above.
Also, some fabrics are made with special chemical additions to impart extra qualities such as wrinkle resistance or flame retardant. Using an acidic substance on these can cause the coating to strip off. It’s best to wash them with a detergent (like Woolite) that doesn’t contain harsh ingredients.
For all other fabrics that you treat vinegar with, it’s still advisable to check the care label to be sure it allows the use of products with acids in them, and also do a patch test in an inconspicuous area of the cloth to find out how it will react to vinegar, before you go full force.
What kind of vinegar can you use for laundry?
The best and recommended type of vinegar to use on laundry is the distilled white vinegar of 5% acetic acid in it. It is clear, has a mild odor and is even cheaper to get compared to other types of vinegar and it works wonders.
It’s clear and light odor nature means it won’t stain garments and make them smell respectively. It’s cheaper means is more cost effective!
The concentration of the acid in 5% White Vinegar is just about right to help tackle stains, remove odor and cause brightening of garments without harming the fibers of the cloth.
That said, other types of vinegar can still be used, like the popular apple cider vinegar or even the rice vinegar. Both can be used for the same purpose as white vinegar in laundry, but the effectiveness of rice vinegar may be limited due to its lesser acidic nature and the choice for cider vinegar may be limited by its colored nature which could potentially leave stains on clothes..
If you must use these, just like with white vinegar, use a small amount of diluted vinegar (between ¼ – ½ cup) per normal load and always do a patch test in an inconspicuous area of the cloth to find out how it would react with the vinegar. And also make sure to check care label and be sure there is no warning issued out against the use of products like vinegar.
How to brighten garments using vinegar
One of the important benefits of using vinegar in laundry is it’s brightening and whitening properties
To brighten colored garments using vinegar, add ½ cup of undiluted vinegar to the rinse cycle.