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Cheap White Vinegar Deserves a Health Award

It costs nothing; it kills everything.
Image: eskaylim/Getty

Open your cupboard and dig around. Reach way back there. Farther. Farther. There it is—a dusty old jug of white vinegar, abandoned behind all the things you actually use.

That's powerful stuff in that jug, and odds are you haven't been using it to its full potential. Common household vinegar, which boasts the active ingredient acetic acid, isn't just dirt cheap; it's also wickedly potent. Vinegar's history traces back to ancient Egypt, where people used it to ward of bacteria and infection. And while we know it works, we still don't totally understand how, says Howard Takiff, a researcher at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation in Caracas who has studied vinegar. Acetic acid has proven to be a difficult compound to crack. But we do know that even drug-resistant bacteria often fall to its kill-all powers.


Why should you care? Let us count the ways.  It will disinfect your house
Your grandma's habit of soaking the counters in vinegar isn't so crazy after all. Actually, science says she's probably a genius. Takiff and a team of researchers poured vinegar on the drug-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, and their findings, published in 2014 in the journal mBio, found that 6 percent acetic acid (commonly called "cleaning strength") could destroy the bacteria in 30 minutes.

But you don't necessarily need to clean your countertops for half an hour. Most common kitchen germs die much faster. "Mycobacteria are generally the most difficult of bacteria to kill, probably because they have a thick, waxy outer wall," Takiff says. Plus, unlike commercial cleaners that tend to contain ingredients like chlorine and ammonia, vinegar is safe and non-toxic. Use it to wipe down your sink, countertops, and any other solid surface in your home. Let them soak for five minutes, and then wipe the vinegar away with a damp towel. Or for a highly concentrated citrus cleaner, steep a few discarded orange and lemon peels in vinegar overnight. Then remove them and pour the vinegar into a spray bottle.

It defends you from the evil forces of sugar
As they pass through your stomach and esophagus, simple carbs—like those in white rice, bread, and pasta—break down into simple sugars, which pass into your bloodstream as glucose. Consistently high blood glucose is a driving factor in chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. So before you square off against a tower of pancakes or heaping plate of pasta, it's wise to plan a defense strategy.

"At mealtime, acetic acid partially blocks the digestion of starch," says Carol Johnston, associate director of nutrition and health sciences programs at Arizona State University. The upshot is that you have less sugar hitting your blood, causing less damage to your liver and vascular walls. "The goal is to get the vinegar into the GI tract ahead of most of the starch," Johnston says. To do that, mix one to two tablespoons of vinegar with 8 ounces of water and drink it with the first few bites of your meal so it can effectively block digestion and minimize the sugar spike. You might also try apple cider vinegar—it tastes a little better, but still delivers the acetic acid payload. Oh, and just to be clear: Acetic acid does not give you permission to binge freely on cupcakes and doughnuts. Vinegar's good, but it's not that good. It can help your wounds heal
Here's a case study in germ killing: The genus of bacteria pseudomonas is a common source of infection, particularly in burn wounds. It also causes folliculitis, commonly known as "hot tub rash," which is characterized by red pimples on your hair follicles. A 2015 study review found that acetic acid in concentrations up to 5 percent—the amount in most household vinegars—effectively put and end to 85 percent of infections from pseudomonas.

"Exactly how acids kill bacteria is not very well understood," says Mark Webber, a senior research fellow at the University of Birmingham. "But we think the acid gets into the cell and breaks down, causing damage inside the bacteria." Webber co-authored a separate study on burn wounds, which showed that acetic acid could inhibit the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. And in addition to preventing infection, there's anecdotal evidence that acetic acid treatment can also speed wound healing—though it hasn't been thoroughly studied, Webber says. But for your own cuts or wounds, mix a tablespoon of vinegar with a cup of water. Use the mix to soak a cotton ball or gauze pad, and apply for five minutes once a day.