Does Vinegar Damage Grout?

Vinegar is a wonderful, natural cleaner that can be used for many household cleaning jobs, but does vinegar damage grout?

Vinegar can be used on grout so long as the grout was installed properly and sealed correctly. However, if the grout is not properly sealed, vinegar can do more harm than good on unsealed grout.

Let’s take a deep dive into using vinegar on grout, as well as some things to consider when trying to clean grout.

What is Grout?

Simply put, grout is a mixture of water and cement. Sometimes, it also contains sand.

Grout is used for filling gaps in construction and often is used as a filler for joints in between floor or wall tiles to set the tiles in place and maintain an even surface. Unlike mortar, grout does not contain lime which adds pliability to mortar.

Most grout comes in a powdered mix which hardens once it is mixed with water and left to cure. Once the grout cures, it needs to be sealed and allowed to fully dry before attempting to walk on the tiles, use a tiled bathroom or shower, or try to clean the tiles or the sealed grout.

What is Vinegar?

Vinegar is a dilute solution of ethanoic acid, an acidic component mixed with water or dilute alcoholic liquids. Vinegar is produced by the oxidation of ethanol by acetic acid bacteria. Vinegar can be made from apples, grapes, malted barley, or oats to make either wine, cider, or malt vinegar.

Generally, ethanol is produced by fermenting sugars using yeast. Vinegar typically contains between 5 and 8 percent acetic acid by volume.

The type of vinegar used in cleaning is white vinegar. This is also sometimes referred to as industrial alcohol or distilled white vinegar.

Distilled white vinegar is usually made by feeding oxygen to vodka-like grain alcohol which causes bacteria to grow. This process forms acetic acid. It is the grain alcohol that creates white vinegar.

Acidic vs. Alkaline Cleaners

There are two basic types of cleaners, and each one has a specific purpose:

  1. Acidic
  2. Alkaline

Vinegar is an acidic cleaner. Acidic cleaners are best for removing mineral deposits, discolorations, and rust stains.

Alkaline cleaners are great for breaking down fatty or oily deposits.

Why is Vinegar a Good Cleaning Product?

Vinegar works well as a cleaning agent because of its germ-killing and bleaching ability. Vinegar is often used for household cleaning, and can be used on a lot of different surfaces such as carpet or laminate. It is a natural, more gentle way to clean as opposed to using bleach or harsh chemicals.

Vinegar is also used to brighten surfaces. To be safe, however, some opt to only use vinegar occasionally and otherwise opt for an alkaline-based cleaner instead.

Never Use Vinegar on Unsealed Grout

While vinegar is safe and effective to use on grout that has been properly sealed, never use it on unsealed grout.

If your grout has cracks, it is not sealed. If vinegar is used on grout that has not been sealed well, problems may arise that include vinegar becoming trapped in air pockets inside the grout and creating corrosion, the sealer will begin to break down, changing the pH level of the grout, and attract dirt which leads to discoloration.

You will eventually be forced to regrout, which is quite tricky to get right.

Trapped in Air Pockets

If you use vinegar on unsealed grout, it will sink down into the openings and small crevices no matter how tiny they are. Once it soaks into the unsealed grout and gets trapped inside air pockets, it will eat away the grout from the inside and begin to corrode it because of its acidic nature.

This corrosion won’t happen immediately, but over time you will notice our grout wearing down or disintegrating and crumbling because of the acidic vinegar that has seeped down inside the grout.

Sealer Begins to Break Down

Grout sealer breaks down when it comes into contact with the acidic makeup of vinegar. When vinegar is used on unsealed grout directly, it will begin to break down the grout by dissolving and eventually deteriorating the grout.

Change pH Levels

When the vinegar begins to eat away at the grout from the inside, it will not only loosen the grout and any sand particles that may be in the grout, but it will also start to dissolve the protective sealer that remains by changing the pH level.

If acetic acid cleaners, like vinegar, are used on grout that is not sealed well, it will shift the pH levels.

When the pH levels shift, it will trigger a reversal in the reaction process that is used for grout sealing. In other words, it will leave the sealer in its original raw material state of liquid.

Sand Etching

The grout beginning to disintegrate is only the beginning of so many more issues that will start to happen with grout that wasn’t sealed properly. If sand was mixed with the grout and becomes loosened, it will get caught on the bottom of shoes and feet as family members and guests walk across the floor.

When the sand comes loose and attaches to the soles of feet, it will cause shallow scratches, known as etches, along the grout lines and the tiles.

Attract Dirt and Discoloration

Once the grout sealer is eaten away, the grout becomes exposed.

Once the grout is exposed, it will absorb dirt particles that sink down into the tiny air pockets deep in the grout. Once the dirt has penetrated the grout, it will continue to accumulate.

Eventually, the grout will become discolored and extremely difficult if not impossible to get clean. It may mean replacing the grout entirely.

Additional Cleaners to Avoid

In addition to avoiding using vinegar on unsealed grout, there are a few other cleaners to stay away from.

Also, never use:

  • Chlorine-based bleach
  • Harsh chemicals
  • Too much water
  • A metal brush

Each of these cleaning methods has the potential of destroying grout as well, even if it was sealed properly.

How To Know If Grout Is Not Sealed

It is important to examine your grout on a regular basis especially if you use vinegar or other acidic cleaners.

If you notice etching or cracks in the grout, it’s time to reseal it. Make sure you properly seal it and allow time to fully cure before cleaning the grout with vinegar again.

One easy way to tell if your grout needs to be resealed is to pour a drop or two of water on it.

Watch what happens to the water as it hits the grout. If the grout changes color or becomes darker, it is needing to be resealed. If there is no change, the grout is well sealed. This is exactly the same procedure as testing a hardwood floor seal!

Location Matters

Where the grout is located also has an impact on how it should be cleaned and how fast it will wear out.

Of course, if your grout is situated outside or near a pool, it is going to need to be resealed more often than grout that is inside in a low-humidity room.

Tiles in humid areas, like showers, are also going to require proper maintenance and observance to make sure you reseal as soon as you notice the grout chipping away. First, check with the tiling and grout manufacturer to see how often they recommend resealing.

How to Clean Grout with Vinegar

Provided the grout is properly sealed, and you use the vinegar correctly, white vinegar works great to clean grout. Before you use vinegar to clean the grout, however, make sure the surrounding tiles are not made out of marble or travertine, calcium carbonate, or stone, which can be dulled and damaged by using vinegar.

Follow this six-step method for properly cleaning well-sealed grout with vinegar:

  1. Dilute two parts vinegar with one part water in a spray bottle
  2. Spray the solution onto the grout
  3. Let it sit for 15 minutes until the surface is wet
  4. Use a wet sponge, a small scrubbing brush, or an old toothbrush to wipe all the vinegar solution off of the grout
  5. Use hot water to rinse off excess paste
  6. Wipe the grout dry by rubbing along the grout lines with a microfiber or other soft, clean cloth

A couple of additional tips for cleaning grout properly with vinegar include:

  • If you want to use more than just water, baking soda works well to neutralize the acidic nature of vinegar
  • If you want to add a pleasant aroma to the mixture, add some lemon essential oil or pure lemon juice

Benefits of Cleaning Grout with Vinegar

Because of the bleaching effects of acidic acid in vinegar, white tiles look great after being cleaned with vinegar. If your tiles are white, the grout lines will tend to look even whiter and brightened after using vinegar to clean them.

Vinegar is also great to use for removing old or leftover grout sealer when you want to reseal the tiles or after a new floor has been tiled and some excess grout was left behind.

Final Thoughts

White distilled vinegar is safe to use for cleaning grout and will not damage it so long as the grout has been properly sealed.

Never use vinegar on grout that has cracks in it or if it is not sealed well. Also, be aware of what the tiles surrounding the grout are made of as some tiles will become dull or damaged when exposed to vinegar.