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Vinegar and concrete seem to belong in different worlds. One is usually found in the depths of your pantry, while the other is more commonly associated with sidewalks. But whether you’re looking for an alternative for commercial cleaners in your home, or trying to clean dried cement off old tools, there’s a good chance these substances will cross paths in your home at some stage!
Vinegar does not dissolve concrete itself but can degrade the cement that binds concrete together. As a weak, dilute acid, vinegar will cause only minor damage to concrete but can take the shine off polished surfaces. It can, however, be used to remove small amounts of cement from tools.
The interaction of vinegar and concrete comes down to chemistry. If that gives you nightmare flashbacks to high school, don’t worry. It’s possible to understand what vinegar does to concrete without getting into too many technical details. Read on to find out more.
What Does Vinegar Do to Concrete?
In essence, acidic vinegar does have the ability to degrade concrete by dissolving the cement that binds concrete together. To understand how this happens, you’ll need to know something about how concrete is formed and what makes it so strong.
Concrete and the Cement Base
Concrete is a catch-all term for a very versatile material that makes up a large part of the modern building environment. Think of the office block in which you work, the highways and bridges on which you drive, and the pipes that carry sewage and stormwater away. All of these structures rely on concrete.
Despite its modern identity, concrete is an ancient material. The Mayans, Egyptians, and Romans all used it to build their cities, and many of those structures survive to this day (source).
The popularity of concrete through the ages is due to its versatility and strength. Concrete can be poured into molds of any shape, reinforced with steel to make columns and cantilevers, mixed with foam to create lightweight concrete, covered with tiles or carpet, or polished into a high-finish surface. It is incredibly fire-resistant, durable, and thermally efficient.
What is Concrete Made From?
At its most basic level, concrete is an aggregate, meaning gravel and sand, mixed with a paste, which is composed of water and cement.
The cement in today’s concrete is almost always Portland cement, a fine powder made from calcium, silicon, clay and metals like iron ore.
As you add water to cement, a chemical reaction between these ingredients causes the cement to set and harden. This binds the gravel and sand together into a solid, extremely strong material (source).
To learn more about mixing concrete, and what ingredients are needed to create strong concrete, read “Can I Make Concrete Without Gravel?”
When Vinegar Meets Concrete
You might think that your tasty apple cider vinegar would have no effect whatsoever on heavy, brutal concrete — but think again! When acid meets concrete, a chemical reaction takes place, and it can have some surprising results.
The Chemistry of Vinegar
Vinegar is a mixture containing acetic acid, water, and other organic compounds that give it flavor and color. It is usually used to add sharp flavor to food but, because it is acidic, it is also often used as a household cleaning agent.
Acetic acid is a weak acid, and vinegar usually contains only about 5% acetic acid. So, vinegar is a very dilute solution of a mild acid, which means it is not very corrosive.
This mild acidity is why it’s safe to consume vinegar. In contrast, even a diluted solution of a strong acid like hydrochloric acid would be dangerous to drink, causing damage to the soft tissue in your mouth and throat.
The Chemistry of Concrete
When the cement portion of a concrete mixture comes into contact with water, a chemical reaction takes place. This reaction forms a calcium-silicate compound that is very alkaline (source).
When an alkaline compound is exposed to acid, another chemical reaction takes place, forming a salt and water. In this case, the calcium in the concrete forms part of the salt and then dissolves, leaching out of the cement (source).
As a result, the hard cement bonding the concrete together will gradually degrade. The gravel and sand will likely not dissolve in the acid, but as the “glue” holding them together disappears, these particles will wash away, weakening the structure of the concrete.
Uses and Risks of Vinegar and Concrete in the Home
There are pros and cons when it comes to the chemical reaction between vinegar and concrete. Vinegar is a mild acid that won’t cause much damage to the concrete surfaces in your home, but it can spoil a polished finish.
On the other hand, you can use vinegar safely to remove small unwanted amounts of cement from other surfaces, but it may not be strong enough to do the job.
Help! I Spilled Vinegar on my Concrete Floor
Knowing that acids can react with cement to dissolve and gradually degrade the structure of concrete, you might be terrified that spilling a little vinegar on your polished concrete kitchen floor will result in a gaping hole. But don’t panic just yet.
Remember that vinegar is weak, dilute acid. Concrete is relatively resistant to small amounts of a weak acid, especially when the acid does not spend much time in contact with the concrete surface (source).
In addition, most bare concrete surfaces in the home, such as countertops and floors, are treated with a protective sealant. This sealant will prevent the acidic vinegar from reaching the concrete itself so that no destructive chemical reaction can take place.
So as long as you clean up any spills quickly, your kitchen should be safe. If you’re worried, make sure to rinse the area with plenty of clean water to dilute any vinegar that might be left behind after you’ve wiped up the spill.
Is Vinegar a Safe Cleaning Product to Use on Concrete?
Home remedies such as vinegar and baking soda can be a non-toxic replacement for commercial cleaning products, which may be harmful to both the environment and your family. But when it comes to stone, wood, or polished concrete, it’s best to stay away from the vinegar.
The acid in the vinegar, combined with any abrasive material you might use to scrub stains, will easily break through the protective sealant layer on your concrete surfaces, leaving the raw concrete underneath exposed.
The vinegar will then also begin to damage the concrete. It might not leave much damage, but it will certainly take the shine off.
The same goes for stone floors and counters — for example, those made of marble or travertine. Vinegar dissolves the calcium carbonate in the stone itself, causing pitting and leaving the surface dull and scratched-looking.
Is There Anywhere I Can Use Vinegar?
In other parts of the home, where concrete is less of a feature and more of a functional surface, vinegar can come in handy if used with caution.
Concrete driveways and garage floors may accumulate dirt and grease that is hard to scrub away with soap. Soaking the concrete with a mixture of vinegar and water, then spraying and scrubbing the surface, can be an effective way to clean these areas.
Remember that you are removing a thin layer of the concrete itself along with the dirt. Since these areas are for rough use and probably don’t have beautifully-polished surfaces, this shouldn’t be a serious problem. But don’t resort to this method too often as you will eventually cause visible damage.
Vinegar can also be used to clean tile grouting. As with concrete, vinegar dissolves the cement in the grout and removes the dirty top layer of grouting, revealing a “clean” new layer underneath.
This can be an effective way to get a fresh look for your tiled surfaces, but remember that you are wearing away at the grout, which can eventually damage it, leaving a pitted surface that will allow even more dirt to accumulate.
In general, it’s safest to stick to cleaning products designed for the surfaces you are using them on, rather than home-made remedies that might cost you in the long-run.
Can I Use Vinegar to Remove Concrete?
Sometimes, the cement-dissolving properties of vinegar can come in handy rather than causing damage.
If you’ve ever engaged in a little bricklaying or tiling around your house, you’ve probably forgotten to clean a tool or two only to come back to find them unusable, caked with dried cement or tile adhesive.
If you are an amateur tiler, you know how messy the job can get, and you may find dried blobs of adhesive in forgotten corners when it’s too late to clean them up with water and a sponge.
The good news is vinegar can help with these home projects. For all the reasons we’ve already discussed, strong acids are often used in products sold to help remove old tile grout, adhesive, and cement.
But these acids are corrosive and dangerous. You need goggles, gloves, and sometimes a respirator mask to use them safely. So, if you are dealing with small amounts of cement, you might want to try vinegar before investing in a stronger acid and safety equipment.
The vinegar will only dissolve the cement it comes into contact with. Keep in mind that you’ll need to scrub the surface pretty hard and use quite a lot of vinegar to remove big blobs of cement.
The good news is vinegar can also remove the rust from old tools so, with a bit of work, you’ll have them looking like new!
For such a common household item, vinegar has a surprising strength when it comes into contact with concrete. Who would have thought that a substance we safely eat could damage the finish on your solid floors and countertops?
But thanks to the basic chemistry of acids and alkalines, vinegar can degrade the cement in concrete and eventually damage it. While this can be handy when it comes to cleaning old tools, it means you should approach with caution when it comes to using vinegar as a cleaning agent.