9 Ways To Use Vinegar To Clean, Whiten & Deodorize Clothes

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
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Buy it for the salad dressings; keep it around for the spot cleaning. White distilled vinegar is a kitchen staple with a high acidity that makes it an effective cleaner and deodorizer, too. It can be used to freshen up everything from dishwashers to ovens to some tabletops.

In the laundry department, the workhorse ingredient cleans washing machines and deodorizes, brightens, and softens clothes. Unlike other high-acidity vinegars, it's white and won't stain fabrics. And while it may smell a little funky in the bottle, when used correctly, it won't make your delicates stink like a pickle jar. Plus, it's safe for those with sensitive skin that tends to flare up with traditional chemical-heavy detergents and gentler on the environment than petroleum-based laundry products that can pollute waterways once washed down the drain.

Here are nine ways to sub white distilled vinegar into your laundry-day routine for clean clothes on a clear conscience:

1. Use it as a detergent.

This tip is from environmental toxin expert Tonya Harris, M.S.: To freshen up old clothes that have smelled better days, add a half-cup of distilled white vinegar to the detergent compartment of your washing machine, and run as usual. You won't need to add any detergent. "Surprisingly enough, the strong scent of vinegar neutralizes odors," Harris explains, "and the vinegar scent fades very quickly, leaving no scent behind."

If your machine doesn't have a detergent compartment, you can pour the half-cup of vinegar into your main drum after diluting with a cup of water. The water is important here: Since vinegar is acidic, you don't want to put it directly onto your clothes.

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2. Use it to pretreat clothes when hand-washing.

No laundry machine? No problem. Before hand-washing smelly clothes, let them soak in a vinegar-and-water bath for several hours or overnight, and then launder as normal. Harris says that a dilution of 1 cup of vinegar to 1 gallon of warm water should do the trick for most fabrics; just be sure to read the care label first to make sure they don't have any special washing instructions.

3. Use it as a fabric softener.

Fabric softeners are notoriously harsh on clothes and the environment, but eco-minded folks can easily sub them out for vinegar. Harris recommends using a similar process here that you would use for detergent: Simply add ½ cup of vinegar to your fabric softener drum or, if you don't have one, pour a ½-cup-vinegar-and-1-cup-water mixture on your clothes at the beginning of the rinse cycle.

4. Use it to freshen up towels.

According to Marcela Barraza, the founder of NYC–based natural cleaning service MB Green Cleaning, vinegar works especially well to clean dirty towels: "It will eliminate odor and also work as fabric softener," Barraza tells mbg. Use on towels as you would detergent on normal clothes (see Tip No. 1).

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5. Use it to revive your whites.

If your bright-white tees or socks have lost some sheen over time, Harris says vinegar can help out there, too: "Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stovetop, and add 1 cup of vinegar. Remove from heat and let the items soak overnight, and then wash as usual."

6. Use it to remove stains.

Vinegar isn't necessarily strong enough to tackle deep stains. For those red wine and turmeric spills, you'll likely need a hydrogen peroxide-based mix. However, light surface stains can loosen up when pretreated with a mix of 1 tablespoon of white vinegar and 1 tablespoon of its cousin, apple cider vinegar. "Apply to the stain on clothing and let sit for a few minutes, then immediately wash the item normally," JJ Smith previously wrote on mbg.

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7. Use it to brighten shower curtains.

Cloth shower curtains can get moldy over time and should be cleaned monthly. Natural-cleaning expert and founder of Clean Mama Becky Rapinchuk recently shared her recipe for a shower curtain cleaner and—surprise, surprise—it features white vinegar: When machine-washing your curtain, adding a half-cup of white vinegar distilled in a cup of water to your drum (in addition to your normal detergent) can get your curtain looking as good as new.

8. Use it to clean the inside of your washing machine.

Once your clothes are ready, you can show your washing machine some love by giving it a deep clean. Green-cleaning expert Melissa Maker recently walked mbg through how to do it: "Begin with an empty washing machine and add about 2 cups of baking soda directly to the machine. Next, add in 2 cups of plain white vinegar and 10 drops of an essential oil like tea tree or lavender," she explained. "Run another cycle through and set it to the longest, hottest, largest load setting you can. The vinegar will help break down any deposits and further remove moldy smells." You'll want to give your machine a refresh whenever it starts to smell, or at least quarterly.

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9. Use it to clean the outside of the washing machine.

And finally, you can use any leftover vinegar to freshen up the outside of your washer, dryer, and other hard surfaces in your laundry room—though Barraza notes that it can damage porous stones like marble, granite, and limestone and shouldn't be used on those. For a quick all-purpose cleaner, simply combine one part vinegar and two parts water in a spray bottle, then add essential oils for a smell-good factor.

Convinced yet? With countless (well, at least nine) applications for laundry day and beyond, white vinegar earns a rightful spot in anyone's green-cleaning repertoire.

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