Vinegar: A Controversial Subject?

Reader Contribution by Ellen Sandbeck
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For some reason I have never been able to fathom, vinegar seems to be an extremely controversial substance these days. Since I published Green Housekeeping (Organic Housekeeping in hardbound), I have gotten quite a few queries from concerned readers who were worried about the environmental and human health impacts of good ol’ kitchen-variety vinegar. 

Most of these correspondents were polite but concerned, though the very first one vehemently accused me of encouraging people to use a dangerous, environment-wrecking substance (vinegar) that would permanently damage surface-water ecosystems. No matter how much scientific evidence I sent her way, nothing got through to her ironclad mind, and she kept bombarding me with increasingly nasty emails until I finally told her to quit contacting me and blocked her email address. 

Here is an email exchange I had recently with a friendly, open-minded reader. I am grateful that she wrote to me and gave me the opportunity to share some of the cool things I have learned about vinegar in the past few years: 

Hi Ellen,

I purchased your book Green Housekeeping and am using and loving the cleaning advice. I have a question about vinegar… I had a couple bottles of “green cleaners”; one was “holy cow.” In the description of their window cleaner they state that it contains no vinegar or any other harmful chemicals…???  I just wanted to get your take on that.

When using sals suds, mixed with water for cleaning, do I need to rinse?

Last one, Sal suds has SLS as the second ingredient next to water in their suds.  I’ve  spent years looking at shampoo labels, trying to find one without SLS…??

Please advise. Your website looks great!  



Hi Vicki,

I’m very glad to hear that you are enjoying Green Housekeeping! Thank you for writing to me!

I don’t know what planet the “holy cow” people live on, but on my home planet, vinegar is what happens when vegetative matter ferments… It’s not harmful here. In fact, the Department of Defense uses vinegar in bioremediation projects to remove contaminants such as nitrates, carbon tetrachloride (a solvent used in plutonium processing), petroleum, explosive compounds, and even uranium from ground water, and they do this by pouring vinegar down wells!

The common kind of vinegar that one buys at the grocery store is diluted and is “food grade,” meaning that it is safe to ingest full strength — which I frequently do when I eat oil and vinegar salad dressing. I’ve also drunk apple cider vinegar in water as a health drink, and I’m still here. People have been making and ingesting vinegar for millennia … There is such a thing as laboratory grade acetic acid out there, which is quite strong, and is NOT available in regular stores. However, no consumer product would contain that high a percentage of acetic acid. Sal suds are basically liquid soap, so yes, you should rinse.

The only cleaners I know of that don’t need to be rinsed are vinegar and hydrogen peroxide; everything else leaves some kind of residue. SLS is one of those substances that is a bit harsh when used full strength, but pretty harmless when diluted. There are a lot of substances like that out there, and just because something should be diluted before use, does not mean that one should not use it in dilute form. As the label on the Dr. Bronner says: “Dilute! Dilute! Dilute!”

I once read a forum in which people were chatting about Dr. Bronner’s Soap: One person was extremely worried because soap is made with lye, which is very very caustic — she concluded that Dr. Bronner’s was too dangerous to use because soap is made with lye. Well, there is no other way to make soap other than to “saponify” fat with a strong alkali (i.e. lye) and once the fat is saponified, there is a chemical reaction, and the lye is no longer lye.

Another woman complained that her private parts stung after she washed them with full strength Dr. Bronner’s, and stated that she was never going to use Dr. Bronner’s Soap again. Good grief! Of course it hurt! Getting full strength soap on a mucous membrane is going to hurt! Getting soap in your eyes hurts too, but it doesn’t mean that soap is bad, it just means that you should keep it out of your eyes, and, until you dilute it, out of your tender parts.

I always dilute my Dr. Bronner’s Soap down to half strength as soon as I get it home, by pouring half of it into an empty Dr. Bronner’s bottle, and then filling both bottles up the rest of the way with water. We waste far less soap when it is diluted, and we don’t end up with stinging nether regions …

I hope this helps!


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