ELI5: Why does adding white vinegar to the laundry take care of bad smells and why don’t laundry detergents already contain these properties?

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Vinegar helps break down protein and minerals, like salt and calcium. So vinegar will help remove smell from dirt, sweat, etc. Because vinegar also breaks down calcium, it softens your clothes and helps clean your washing machine in good shape by preventing scale. Commercial laundry detergents are designed to make your clothes very fluffy and scented and to make you, as a consumer think that scent is a necessary part of cleanliness and therefor keep you buying the product.


General rule of thumb, most of the stains you’re trying to remove require a high pH(more basic/alkaline). Vinegar, being an acid, actually lowers the pH making commercial laundry detergents less effective. The smell is likely coming from your washer itself, which the vinegar helps to remove odors from. Source: I work for company that supplies raw materials for making Laundry Detergents. Edit: Whoa, my first silver! Thanks Anonymous Redditors! Finally putting my chemistry degree to good use.


We used vinegar in our front load washer for about a year before it broke. Turns out the vinegar caused some kind of reaction between the aluminum and stainless steel used in the drum, and caused the aluminum to basically dissolve. Electrolysis of some kind. The repair shop said that happens often when people use vinegar in some washers. It was actually in the manual not to use vinegar in the machine. So our bad. And not covered by the warranty. Our new washer actually says you can use vinegar to clean it when using the tub cleaning cycle. So we use vinegar in the laundry too.


“Adding” used here is confusing. You do not add vinegar, you use it instead of detergent, or use it in the rinse cycle. Cleaning clothes requires a ph of about 11. Most water is a ph of 7. So borax or washing soda will help your detergent clean better, because the ph is raised (by the soda or borax). Deodorizes as well. Detergent works by having two heads. One head is sticky and picks up dirt and grease and the other head is water soluble and is washed away, carrying the grease with it. When either too much or too little detergent is used, the sticky heads remain in the laundry with the smelly smells. The vinegar carries these away. Understanding the process makes it easier to remember, for me at least. (Please forgive bad sentence structure and spelling, I have a broken finger.)


Modern washers can stink because, unlike the olden days, a lot less water is used so a lot of stuff gets left behind when the water is drained away. Dead skin, hairs, oils, dirts, even detergent leftovers stay behind and start to decay and get smelly. Less water also means that you can not use a lot of detergent, because it does not always breakdown all of the soap, which gets left behind. Front load washers are the bane of my existence because that seal around the door retains water and gets funky. You must always dry that entire seal, even behind it, when you are done using the machine. If you pull back the seal at the bottom you will see some holes made to drain out excess water. Those drain holes are usually clogged with hair, socks, coins etc and the water will puddle there and get funky. If you buy a front loader be prepared to do a lot of cleaning chores. Front loaders get the funk. Once the funk takes hold it is hard to get rid of and it smells like low-tide at the marsh. I work on these machines as part of my job.