How to Use Vinegar in Laundry (and When It's Best to Avoid)

Here's what you need to know to avoid damage to your clothes and washer.

Do you feel like you're suddenly hearing a lot of talk about using white vinegar in laundry? Whether you're looking for gentler alternatives to commercial laundry products, or you've just seen an attention-grabbing TikTok laundry hack, you might be inspired to add vinegar to your washday routine.

While vinegar does have many uses in a laundry room, there are safety measures to be aware of before using it, as well as some best practices to help you make the most informed decisions about when, and when not, to use this inexpensive natural cleaner. This guide covers the uses of vinegar in laundry as well as the potential drawbacks.

laundry stain removers white vinegar

Jay Wilde

The Benefits of Using Vinegar in Laundry

There are many uses for vinegar in laundry, including stain removal, odor elimination, and mold and mildew eradication. Vinegar can also be used as an alternative to commercial fabric softeners.

  • Stain Removal: As a stain remover, vinegar is effective at treating low-pH stains like coffee, tea, fruit juice, wine, and beer. To use it, soak the stained item for 30 minutes up to overnight in a solution of white vinegar and 1 Tbsp. liquid laundry detergent prior to laundering.
  • Mold and Mildew Removal: Distilled white vinegar is also a powerful agent for removing mold or mildew from fabrics.
  • Odor Removal: Vinegar is also excellent at removing product buildup that can trap odor-causing bacteria, causing freshly laundered items to come out of the wash smelling less than clean.
  • Fabric Softener: It also has natural fabric-softening properties.

However, vinegar is not an ideal part of a regular laundry routine because it can cause damage to washing machines. In addition, there are certain fabrics that should not be overly exposed to vinegar, as well as laundry products it should not be combined with. 

laundry room behind barn doors
Marty Baldwin

When Not to Use Vinegar in Laundry

With Chlorine Bleach: First, and most importantly, it is critical that vinegar not be used in conjunction with chlorine bleach, or with any products that contain chlorine bleach. When vinegar and chlorine bleach are mixed, they create a chemical reaction that results in dangerous fumes that are extremely harmful and can be fatal.

With Regular Use: Secondly, vinegar should not be used as a part of your regular laundry routine, as the acid in vinegar can damage seals and hoses, causing leaks. "White vinegar is an acid that can break down the rubber gaskets and hoses in your washing machine, leading to costly damage," says Jennifer Kaminski, a product and brand manager for Affresh appliance care. This is especially true of front-loading washers, with their thick rubber gaskets around the door. While vinegar is often touted as a natural alternative to fabric softeners, regular use of it is not advised because of the ill effects it can have on a washing machine.

With Elastic: Finally, it is best to avoid the overuse of vinegar when washing gym gear or other types of clothing with elastic in it. While vinegar is excellent at stripping odor-causing buildup from the over- and misuse of laundry products, over time, the acidity can break down elastic, shortening the lifespan of anything with stretch in it.

When to Use Vinegar in Laundry

The best use of vinegar in laundry is for mold and mildew remediation. While chlorine bleach can be used in the wash to eliminate mold or mildew from clothing, towels, or bedding, it can only be used on whites, making vinegar a more universal choice for washing items that have gone moldy. As a reminder, never mix vinegar and chlorine bleach; use one or the other, but never both.

Warning

Never mix vinegar and chlorine bleach; use one or the other, but never both.

Vinegar is also excellent as a laundry triage agent, which is to say that it is best deployed when there is a laundry problem in need of solving, rather than as a preventative measure. An example of using vinegar to solve a laundry problem is towels that have taken on a musty odor, even when clean. The use of fabric softener and incorrect laundry detergent dosage is typically to blame, and vinegar is an inexpensive and gentle way to strip towels of the product buildup causing this type of malodor.

Another example of using vinegar as a one-off to address the presence of malodor due to product buildup is with athleisure and other types of clothing with stretch in it. However, once that buildup has been eliminated, it is better for both the fabric and for your washer to address the problem at the root, by making informed changes to laundry products, rather than continue to use vinegar as a regular part of your laundry routine.

Alternatives to Using Vinegar in Laundry

As fabrics and consumer behaviors change, the makers of laundry products have taken note and brought new products to market as an alternative to the use of vinegar in laundry.

The rise of athleisure, in particular, created new fabric care challenges. Synthetic fibers, especially those that contain stretch, need to be laundered differently from natural fibers and the use of go-to laundry products like liquid fabric softener or dryer sheets caused problems, especially with malodor, that needed solutions.

The use of white vinegar was a solution, though not specifically designed to treat this modern issue. "While vinegar is easy to find in stores, it’s not optimized for the laundry process," says Sammy Wang, a senior scientist at Downy, which introduced its Rinse & Refresh this year as an alternative to traditional liquid fabric softener. Wang describes it as being akin to a clarifying shampoo. "Unlike a traditional fabric softener that deposits conditioners to soften fabrics, Downy Rinse & Refresh dissolves and helps remove odors and residues."

Downy isn't the only brand to innovate in the athleisure fabric care space. HEX, which makes detergents designed specifically to clean and protect activewear, introduced its wet dryer sheets as an alternative to traditional dryer sheets. 

Simplifying your laundry routine by removing fabric softeners and their alternatives is another smart approach to washing modern fabrics. Dryer balls—reusable wool or plastic balls that prevent laundry from clumping, thereby speeding up drying time, reducing wrinkling, and lending softness to clothes—can help fluff items up in the dryer, eliminating the need for costly and wasteful fabric softeners.

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