Already, I can hear those with an environmental conscience gasping. Acid? In cleaning? Mental pictures of acid rain and its catastrophic effects spring to mind, alongside visions of yet more industrial strength acid being tipped down drains to poison poor harmless fish and kill the vegetation in our long-suffering waterways.
Relax! Yes, acid does get used for industrial cleaning (it’s used for cleaning metals, as it corrodes away the outer layer of whatever it is, taking the dirt away and revealing a new, shiny layer below). And strong sulphuric acid down the drains will harm the environment. But this isn’t what I’m talking about – after all, it’s not as if we see sulphuric acid sitting on the shelves among the commercial cleaning products in our local supermarket aisles here in Britain. (You can in South America, but that’s another story. It’s sold as a drain cleaner and super-strength disinfectant – eek!)
But milder acids can and should be used for cleaning around the home. Acid in general is a very natural substance, and many if not all living things produce acid. Even your stomach contains one of the most ferocious acids known – hydrochloric acid. And natural acids break down fairly easily and naturally, so we can use them with a clear conscience – and clear kitchens, complexions and bathrooms.
The best cleaning acid that we have available is vinegar. Ordinary white vinegar. The boffins call ordinary white wine vinegar a form of acetic acid and tell us that it has a pH of about 4, which makes it a medium-strength acid. Vinegar can be used for glass cleaning, window cleaning, cleaning vinyl surfaces, cleaning table tops, cleaning metal and much, much more. Increase the cleaning potential of vinegar even further if you mix it with other stuff – mix it with linseed oil for cleaning leather upholstery. As the acetic acid in vinegar breaks down mould spores, it’s great for tackling mildew. And because your skin is mildly acidic, using vinegar for cleaning won’t hurt your skin like other cleaning products – it will do your skin good, if anything.
It’s easier to say what you should not use vinegar for when cleaning. Don’t use vinegar for cleaning marble or pearls, or limestone, as the acid will attack these and wreck them.
The other commonly used cleaning acid is citric acid in the form of lemon juice. The real beauty of lemon juice as a cleaner is that, with the help of ultraviolet light, it acts as a bleach. Lemon juice dabbed onto white fabric and exposed to sunlight is great for removing mildew marks and rust stains (this method also works a real treat for putting highlights into blonde/brown hair, and was an old-fashioned method for bleaching freckles and age spots in the skin). Lemon juice is considerably stickier than vinegar, so it’s not all that good for cleaning glass and other things where you don’t want a residue left. But a lemon is great for cleaning the inside of a microwave – put the lemon in a bowl with a bit of water and put the microwave on high until the water all evaporates. Leave the mix of lemon and steam to attack the caked on grease and grime, then open the door and wipe everything out. Half a lemon left in the fridge is also supposed to be a good way to remove stale smells, but this seems like a waste of a perfectly good lemon – use baking soda instead.