Why You Should Never Combine Vinegar- & Bleach-Based Cleaners
I'm going to go on record and say that white vinegar is the most versatile ingredient around. What else can you use as a pickling liquid one minute and clothing brightener and window cleaner the next? There are few things this affordable staple can't do in the scrubbing and brining department—but there's one caveat.
When mixing up your own vinegar-based cleaners, it's important to never invite bleach to the party.
Why you shouldn't mix vinegar with bleach.
Household bleaches and vinegars are best kept separate since "combining these creates dangerous fumes that can be harmful or even fatal," explains green-cleaning expert Tonya Harris.
The danger lies in the chemical reaction that happens when these two meet.
Most chlorine bleach is made from sodium hypochlorite diluted in water. Vinegar gets its cleaning power from acetic acid. When sodium hypochlorite is mixed with acetic acid (or any acid, for that matter), it creates toxic chlorine gas1.
If you come in contact with chlorine gas, it can severely damage the lungs and cause chemical burns, shortness of breath, and vomiting. It can also be lethal depending on the severity of the exposure.
The gas allegedly smells similar to bleach, but it's slightly more pungent. If you smell something funky after combining cleaners, leave the area and head outside or to a window for some air to be on the safe side.
And if you suspect that you've been exposed to these toxic fumes, call poison control or seek medical attention immediately.
Is it okay to combine them in small doses?
Adding bleach to a vinegar-based cleaner is never a good idea. At the end of the day, these two categories of cleaners serve different purposes and should be kept separate anyway.
While vinegar is good at removing germs from surfaces, it's not a disinfectant, so it doesn't actually kill these germs. Bleaches, on the other hand, are powerful disinfectants.
"I would also caution against using them together in a small space with no windows, such as a bathroom," Harris adds. "For instance, do not let vinegar-based DIY toilet bowl cleaners sit in the toilet bowl while using the bleach-based cleaner on the toilet seat."
Mixing bleach with other disinfectants can also be dangerous. Ammonia or rubbing alcohol, in particular, can also emit chlorine gas when mixed with bleach.
There's a knowledge gap here: According to 2020 published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report2, a weekly epidemiological digest by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 35% of those polled knew not to mix bleach with vinegar, and 58% knew that bleach should not be mixed with ammonia.
How & when to use both cleaners:
If there is a situation where you need to be diligent about disinfecting your home, the CDC recommends using bleach, hydrogen peroxide, or another alcohol-based disinfectant. If you do, follow the product's instructions diligently, wear gloves, open windows, and—say it with me this time!—don't mix it with other cleaners.
If you're just looking to refresh surfaces or get rid of greasy buildup, that's where vinegar-based cleaners come in handy. They don't come with as many health concerns and are suitable for many types of materials.
Simply combine vinegar (white or apple cider, but white tends to be more effective) with an abrasive like baking soda for a quick cleaner to clear up bathroom or kitchen drains, refresh washing machines, clean toilets, and more. (Check out 8 DIY recipes that incorporate vinegar here.)
You can customize your vinegar-based cleaning solution with essential oils for a nice scent or add some Castile soap for a more powerful clean.
Again, to exercise extra caution, don't use them on or near surfaces that you've already cleaned with a bleach-based product.
The bottom line.
White vinegar is a versatile ingredient that can form the basis of an effective, safe household cleaning product. But one thing you should never add to it is bleach, as it can cause a dangerous reaction that ends in toxic chlorine gas. Safe cleaning!
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.