Heavy-duty disinfecting the non-toxic way with hydrogen peroxide and vinegar

Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells
Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH

The comments on yesterday’s post indicated some general interest in strong disinfectants, and questions as to whether vinegar really was a good disinfectant. Vinegar is an acid and as such it does kill wee beasties, though not as many wee beasties as the nuclear options such as bleach or Lysol will. For everyday use, I think vinegar does a fine job. But I admit there are times, like when you’re cleaning chicken juice off a cutting board, where you might want something stronger.

Here’s a safe, super-strong way to disinfect. We covered it in The Urban Homestead, and it floats around the interwebs, too, so it may be review for some of you.

1) Take a bottle of hydrogen peroxide (3% solution, the kind you buy in the drugstore). Leave it in the  brown bottle it comes in because hydrogen peroxide is light sensitive. Screw a spray bottle nozzle onto the brown bottle.

2) Fill another spray bottle with undiluted white vinegar.

3) Mist the surface you wish to disinfect with one spray bottle first, and then the other, immediately after, like a one-two punch. Do not combine the two liquids in one bottle for the sake of efficiency. That doesn’t work. It makes a new chemical altogether which is not effective for this. Keep them separate. Always apply in the form of mist.

This methodology was developed in the mid-90′s by Susan Sumner a food scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. She actually developed this technique to remove salmonella from the surface of meat and vegetables. Yes, it can be applied directly to the food! I gather you rinse it off after application. It is said not to leave lingering flavors, but I haven’t tried it.

This combo works like gangbusters at killing salmonella. Nothing else works better. The magic is in the mix, somehow. As Sumner told Science News Online,

“If the acetic acid got rid of 100 organisms, the hydrogen peroxide would get rid of 10,000, and the two together would get rid of 100,000.” 

This one-two punch spray is very effective at killing germs of all sorts wherever it meets them, not just on food, so you can use it in on your cutting boards, in the bathroom, in garbage cans…wherever you need the extra assurance. And it’s so safe, it’s edible.

So no more excuses for clinging to your bleach, people. Ditch the poison!

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38 Comments

  1. This is great! Thank you. I’m a beginning hard cheese maker, I wish there was an option other then bleach fro sanitizing all the equipment. I’m a vinegar and baking soda gal as you know from yesterdays comment and I don’t really want to add bleach to my cabinet just because of the cheese. Will vinegar be good enough? Why do all the book recommend bleach for cleaning equipment? They say it’s for removing milk stone.

    • In answer to KC Pagano:
      As far as I know, it is an accepted standard practice to use food grade H2O2 for the sterilisation of certain food equipment, especially in cheese production. H2O2 is also sometimes used in milk itself in order to reduce bacteria levels.

      H2O2 It leaves no residue, no taste, etc. For commercial use you would buy at least 35% concentrate, and then dilute accordingly.

      I imagine can find the industry standard recommendations for concentration in food processing books and web sites.

      You may also be interested to learn about Vinoxide. You can read about that here: http://www.ahjs.biz/pdfs/Vinoxide-HTC.pdf

      Regarding vinegar. As Sada has pointed out, much of the cheap commercial vinegar we find in shops is anything but “natural”, in the sense that it does not occur naturally. It is manufactured from petrochemicals. That’s a concern for some people, and not for others. I certainly avoid eating anything with cheap vinegars in them.

      But as cleaning products the refined and distilled vinegars are likely the best as they won’t leave a residue (unlike natural unfiltered apple cider vinegar which contains a lot of particulates… as does decent balsamic). It is also possible to buy acetic acid and make your own vinegar-like solution. But that’s likely more hassle than it’s worth for most people. Distilled white vinegar should do the trick.

  2. Would this work for the semi-annual chicken coop scrubdown? I will be needing to do that in the next month or two, and am starting to worry about the bleach, the ground, etc. BUT I want to kill any of those wee beasties that might be out there….

  3. @KC: Well, I think this technique might work for some of equipment, but if you want something you can soak your tools in, you might want to look into iodine sanitizers, e.g. Iododophur (but there are other brands). We use this to sanitize our beer making equipment. Buy it at restaurant supply places or brew shops.

    @Dree: When I clean my coop, I use vinegar and a scrub brush and a hose (and take anything moveable out into the sunlight for the day) but yes, I think this would be stronger. Maybe do basic cleaning first w. vinegar and/or soapy water and then, when you’re done, spray down all the surfaces with the one-two punch.

  4. As for cleaning the odor from meat, I have been known to use plain water, vinegar alone, baking soda alone, and Dawn. I don’t soak the meat in anything. It is just a quick dowsing and rubbing of the surface. Even the Dawn leaves no residue or taste. I don’t apply Dawn directly. It is diluted first.

    I rarely use bleach, but I believe it has a place in a home. In a water emergency, it can be used to purify the water. I keep bleach but rarely use it and never in the washing machine. The fumes overwhelm me.

    It seems she used the vinegar first, wiped it down and dried. Then, she used the peroxide for the rest of the disinfectant. I will have to read the article again.

  5. Hydrogen Peroxide breaks down into water and oxygen when exposed to sunlight (2H2O2 -> 2H2O +O2). Most powdered beer brewing sanitizers (steri-san and the like) utilize this chemical and they recommend a quick cold water rinse only to get the residue out (it tends not to completely dissolve in cold water), but will probably not be harmful by the time it gets to you at the concentrations you describe.
    -Nick

  6. I have a question and am hoping you (or one of your followers) will have some advice. Before moving to Fallbrook CA, I washed everything with soap -laundry, the bathtub, dishes, etc- and it worked really well. I especially loved cleaning the tub with the baking soda and liquid castille soap ‘frosting.’ But now instead of getting anything clean it’s more like I’ve painstakingly applied a layer of soap scum. I think it’s the hard water. How do you counter that? Vinegar?

  7. @Joss: It’s definitely the hard water.

    You know, I think you might be able to pull off a direct switch in all those activities from liquid castile soap to Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds. It’s a detergent, technically, not a soap, but is responsibly made. And detergent doesn’t produce scum in hard water.

    But yes, vinegar rinses do help with soap scum.

    • I’m up here in Calgary and I defy anyone to have harder water than we do! I clean most things with combinations of vinegar, baking soda, and castile soap, with a little bit of borax and, yes, occasional very dilute bleach. I’m not afraid of it making VOCs in combination with other compounds; first, I’m not using other commercial products, and second, I use it once in a blue moon. But on the rare occasion I’m really dealing with nasties, it’s cheap, easy and reliable.

      Back to hard water. In my experience vinegar rinses do work on soap scum, scale, and leftover baking soda grit, but in really hard water you wind up using a lot, and, I’ve found, having to let it sit, which is next to impossible on, say, the walls of the tub. Citric acid (had to order it from the pharmacy; a bit pricy but a little goes a long way) is food safe and works like magic. Especially in the dishwasher, hallelujah.

  8. All right, all right…I’ll stop buying the bleach cleaner. But I might as well use up what I’ve got, because otherwise I’m just pouring it down the drain, right? Might as well get some use out of it while it’s still in the house.

  9. Lyssa, you could take it to the household hazardous waste collection site.

    I use hydrogen peroxide for other things too. It gets blood stains out of fabric like magic. I also pour it in my ears to clean excess wax without digging in there with a q tip

  10. I’ve heard that there are some hospitals that use grapefruit seed extract in certain cleaners. Not sure if that’s true or just internet rumor, but either way I use a few drops in my cleaner for an extra boost.

  11. You really dont need to disinfect most things. In microbiology class this semester we did a test of normal handwashing, alcohol wipes, and an uncleansed hand and the handwashing was just as effective as the alcohol wipes at getting rid of bacteria. It wasnt even antibacterial soap.

    We also learned a lot about how overused antibiotics are and how that contributes to the rapidly increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

    If we just learn proper handwashing techniques and other normal hygiene, we dont need to really worry.

  12. @Meghan: Thank you for affirming what I’ve always believed. I’m all about the soap and water myself. I’ve watched the rise of “anti-bacterial” products with a good deal of concern over the last 15 years or so. It’s so sad, too, because all this fear is a product of of marketing–creating new demand for unnecessary products.

    But I figure if you think you have to disinfect something, this technique a good way to go.

  13. My name is Teresa S. and I’m a bleach-aholic.

    In defense of bleach – it only takes 1 teaspoon to a quart of water to sanitize surfaces. If you went through a quart of this cleaner a day (which you wouldn’t) it would take 2 years to go through a gallon of bleach. It evaporates on surfaces and leaves nothing poisonous behind.

  14. @Teresa:

    Hi Teresa!

    I respect your love of bleach and hope you don’t think I’m picking on you and other bleachaholics! It sounds like you’ve got a system that works for you. Using it vastly diluted, as you do, does make me feel easier about it, definitely. All I’ll say is maybe you’d want to read the Wikipedia article on it–see the Safety section:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_hypochlorite

    What’s interesting about bleach is that while it is volatile, which means, as you say, it doesn’t leave poison residue behind and breaks down pretty fast in open water, it does react with many other substances in interesting ways. Not only the dreaded ammonia reaction (which includes urine, I just found out), or the equally dreaded acid/bleach reaction (folks, don’t mix it with vinegar!), but more exotically, it turns out that bleach creates VOCs in combination with various surfactants and perfumes found in other household cleaners. This study is in the wiki article.

    Using bleach, in short, can lower indoor air quality. Now, how much does it do so, especially if you’re using it diluted, as you do? I don’t know.

    I kind of picture it letting out tiny puffs of VOCs and poison gases here and there as it encounters chemicals to react with,just teeny tiny puffs–not enough to bother you in the moment, but maybe enough to bother you over time???

    Really, I don’t know and know one may know for sure. It’s one of those things Erik calls a Black Swan. It may not be worth worrying about, but in these cases, where there are alternatives, we take the conservative route and just avoid the doubt. But hell, toxins of different sorts are part and parcel of every day existence. And even though I’ve tried to eliminate a lot of this stuff from my life, I can still name a few ways I knowingly expose myself to toxins. For example: I like my toenail polish! So I guess it comes down to where you want to take the hit.

  15. While I agree with your concerns regarding bleach and applaud your efforts at “greener cleaning” (as well as educating people on the topic), I wanted to pass along some info you may be unaware of.

    The short version:
    Unless you are using white wine vinegar, or rice vinegar, or an organic vinegar–something that has been distilled–you haven’t gotten as far away from the nasty chemicals as you may think. It appears that the “cheap” white vinegars (which your bathroom cleaning post mentions using, although I am not familiar with that specific brand) are actually diluted laboratory-created acetic acid derived from petrochemicals (in a process invented by none other than Monsanto).

    More info here:
    http://www.theecomum.com/1/post/2011/11/eco-myth-busting-myth-3-white-vinegar-is-the-greener-cleaner-nope.html

  16. Well that’s a relief at least that the Heinz white vinegar I get from the grocery store says “distilled” on it. I’m not sure I’ve actually seen this other kind. Not sure either what her distinction is between a brewery and a lab. If someone made water “in a lab” I’d probably drink it and feel better about it (provided it was still just two hydrogens and an oxygen) than drinking, say, “naturally occurring” water flown in from Fiji.

    This topic is surprisingly complicated. I *had* a system using just liquid castille soap, baking soda, and white distilled vinegar. But then we moved to a place with hard water (meaning lots of soap scum), septic (which made me wonder if, like gray water, we shouldn’t be sending a bunch of salts out to the yard), and stone floors and counters (so allegedly no acid cleaners, like vinegar). And past that, there’s the occasional nagging of “but I couldn’t make any of this stuff.” It’s a thought that is a waste of time; if we were suddenly in that kind of doomsday scenario, I hardly think I’d have the luxury of making vinegar just to clean my windows with it. But it’s there anyway.
    So with the criteria of “cheaper”, “greener”, sustainable, and could-make-it-in-the-Zombie-pocalypse I find it hard to get anywhere. I might find a homemade laundry detergent recipe that is cheaper but still somewhat toxic. Or something that is green like soap nuts but not sustainable in that they are shipped from far, far away (or baking soda which is harmless but an industrial product). I’m just going to scour my dishes with gravel from the yard and go naked. Sigh.

  17. @Sada: So much of this stuff is a choice of the lesser evil. I think most of white vinegar I’ve used has said “distilled” on the label (I’ll pay more attention to that now), but even if it were lab-produced acetic acid, the end product is not damaging to my health, which is at least a step in the right direction.

    Which leads me to–

    @Joss: Yes! It’s complicated stuff! I almost tore my hair out while I was writing Making It. The variables are exceedingly complex. There’s what you can make all by yourself, there’s what’s best for the watershed (though it depends on where the waste is going–river or ocean), what can be sourced locally, what’s cheaper, what works best, and what’s best for human health. These considerations don’t always align.

    (And an aside to your hard water problem: Water is the determining factor of the efficacy of homemade cleaning products, shampoo and laundry detergent. The same recipe will work great for some people and not at all for others–because of their water. Modern detergents were developed to deal with hard water, so that there could be uniform results across the board.)

    As to what we can use to after the apocalypse….Well, for those of us who haven’t lost our arms to gnawing zombies, the answer is we’re going to be scrubbing with soap, soap, and more soap. Soap, sand, boiling water and lots of scrub brushes. Which is pretty much all we had until the 19th century.

    We’ll also become familiar with lye again. Lye was used for bleaching laundry and also as a caustic cleaner.

    And yes, vinegar will be too valuable as a food and as a medicinal (and as a rinse for your soapy hair!) to use for cleaning. Vinegar infused with antiseptic herbs, or distilled alcohol, will be our disinfectants of choice.

    You probably won’t have access to baking soda anymore (if you do you’ll be buying it in small quantities for baking) much less industrial chemicals like bleach or hydrogen peroxide or Toilet Duck.

    But back to the present. For now, all I can say to you or anyone is to do what works best for you in your situation. Choose what doesn’t make you crazy. Life is too short to worry about housecleaning.

    And don’t hold on to guilt because you decide, for instance, that you really like Tide and don’t want to make your own laundry detergent. Or because you love your paper towels and won’t trade them for cloth. That’s fine! Don’t obsess on it. Focus on all the other little changes you’ve made in your lifestyle and the good that’s doing for both your health and the environment. It all adds up.

    • I should add that a good example of one compromise that I have made is our dishwasher. We get some flack for having one, and I daresay there’s bleach in that detergent. So, yep, I’m pretty much a hypocrite–but on the good side, my marriage is intact!

  18. I think it’s the fact that the non-distilled vinegar may be petroleum based that’s the concern, rather than the fact it’s lab-based.; I remember reading a recommendation for Heinz vinegar in a book a few years ago, because it’s made from corn rather than petroleum. I have no idea whether that is preferable or whether Monsanto is developing a monopoly on vinegar by selling the corn seed used to make the Heinz vinegar…
    It’s a bit different here in the UK. A flavoured mix of acetic acid has to be labelled non-brewed condiment, otherwise it’s fermented vinegar.

    I tried to find a very funny rant by a British comedian about anti bacterial cleaner adverts and how the fact that there are more germs on your cutting board than your toilet seat must then be okay as we are all still here…
    But I could only find this. Same comedian, different show, same message.

    I find that people forget to physically clean things before they zap it with antibacterial cleaner. And anti-bacterial soap seems to be the norm now, which is a bit depressing. I find that even people who wouldn’t dream of spraying surfaces with Detox have it in their bathrooms.

  19. Off topic, but can anyone recommend some lead-free gardening gear? I just noticed this label on the package for my Mint Craft spray nozzle today when I was in the hardware store: “This product contains chemicals including lead known to cause birth defect and other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.”
    Since I “handle” this often as do my kids who love watering the garden and because we, you know, use this stupid thing to water our food, I’m getting rid of this thing and replacing it as soon as I can find a good alternative.

  20. I’ve been using hydrogen peroxide to sanitize my pruners after cutting something diseased. I always thought it was more Earth-friendly and now am glad to find out it is so.

  21. @ Alison: This technique was developed specifically for food sterilization–for vegetables as well as meat–so it is the alternative. It’s supposed to not leave flavor behind after rinsing, but I’ve never tried it on food. If you do try it, remember to use two different bottles–never mix the hydrogen peroxide and vinegar in one bottle. It’s meant to be used as a mist.

  22. In response to:
    “Do not combine the two liquids in one bottle for the sake of efficiency. That doesn’t work. It makes a new chemical altogether which is not effective for this. Keep them separate. Always apply in the form of mist.”

    You may want to read: http://www.ahjs.biz/pdfs/Vinoxide-HTC.pdf

    It gives a specific protocol for mixing the two, in order to produce Vinoxide – said to be a powerful steriliser, along the lines of what your excellent article is describing.

  23. Hi guys!
    Do you know if you could use this to clean brewing equipment, mainly carboys and bottles? I don’t know how I would get this solution into the bottles or if it would work. We keep bleach around purely for the fact that we need to get those bottles spic and span and super sterilized in between batches. I would love to have a safe green alternative!

    • I don’t know. I noticed on some homebrew forums that people were talking about using hydrogen peroxide but I haven’t tried it myself. What I use is Star San which is made from phosphoric acid. That being said, I’ve been meaning to do a post about my sanitation problems. I’ve ruined the past three batches of beer.

  24. NO ! NO NO NO !

    Some woman in the 90s DID NOT INVENT this method.

    peracetic acid has been used since the 50′s to make chiken, pork and cattle CARCASES (DEAD).. EDIBLE.

    1950s PREDATES the 90s by 40 years or so…

    they would spray near rotten animals and then proceed to use it for human food !!!!!

    Peracetic acid has been well known as a VERY potent anti microbial that was easy to make for decades..

  25. “If the acetic acid got rid of 100 organisms, the hydrogen peroxide would get rid of 10,000, and the two together would get rid of 100,000.” Not at all.The correct math is a total of 10,100 & note the quote is preceded by the word “If”. The combo of acetic acid & peroxide is called ‘peracetic acid’.Please web search “Disinfecting 101″ to check efficacy of disinfectants.

    • I think you’re missing the point of what she’s saying. It’s not a direct 1+1=2. You can use one or the other, but if you use both together they boost the efficacy of one another. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

  26. From center for food security:”Hydrogen peroxide in the home is in diluted form (3-10%) whereas industrial use involves
    concentrated solutions (30% or greater). Hydrogen peroxide (at a 5-20% concentration) is
    considered bactericidal, virucidal (non-enveloped viruses may be resistant), fungicidal and at
    high concentrations sporicidal. Its activity against mycobacteria is limited.” Common household peroxide is 3%.

  27. Pingback: 30 Uses For Hydrogen Peroxide You May Not Know - A-1 Cleaning Service, LLC

  28. Good article on using H2o2 except for one thing. Buying the peroxide in the little brown bottle.
    This is ” tech grade ” it contains stabilizers which are harmful .
    Food grade is pure with no stabilizers. Once reduced down with pure water it is just as cheap as tech grade.

  29. Go to my information website.
    My hair stands on end when I hear
    And see everyone using ” Tech grade ” do not soak your vegetables etc. with this low grade crap!
    There is a reason why there is ” Food Grade” and “Tech grade”!
    I have over 25 years of experience with H2o2. I’m not here to sell you anything , just to get people informed. My website has the uses of Food Grade and will be adding videos . http://www.ecoh2o2.com

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