What Are The Common Uses Of Acetic Acid?

by Kate Onissiphorou

Acetic acid is an organic acid with a wide range of culinary, medicinal, and industrial applications. For thousands of years, humans have used acetic acid in the form of vinegar.

Around 10% of acetic acid is produced through the natural fermentation of sugar or ethanol, with the remaining 90% made using synthetic processes.

An estimated 75% of acetic acid produced for the chemical industry comes from the carbonylation of methanol.

What is the use of acetic acid?

  1. Food preparation
    The most well-known application of acetic acid is in the culinary industry, where it’s used in the form of vinegar. A product of fermentation, vinegar contains about 4% to 6% acetic acid. It’s been used as a condiment, flavouring, and preservative in the pickling process since ancient times. Vinegar is also a common ingredient in many processed food products, like mayonnaise.
  2. Medicinal use
    Acetic acid, or vinegar, has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. There’s even evidence to suggest the ancient Egyptians documented its medicinal properties. Vinegar’s antiseptic qualities make it an effective disinfectant for wounds and infections.
  3. Household use
    Acetic acid in the form of vinegar is one of the most common chemicals found in households. It’s used to cook various dishes and is a popular condiment. Vinegar also makes a great cleaning solution and is often used to remove stains around the home.White vinegar in a glass bottle with a cleaning cloth, sponge, and brush.
  4. Industrial applications
    Acetic acid has various industrial applications. Not only does it act as a precursor or reagent in many chemical processes, but it’s also used to produce several synthetic products. One of the main applications of acetic acid is the production of vinyl acetate monomer, which accounts for a third of the acid’s global consumption. The monomer is polymerised into polyvinyl acetate or another type of polymer and is then used to manufacture paint and adhesives.Esters, which are used as solvents for inks and coatings, are also produced using acetic acid. They’re synthesised from the catalytic reaction between acetic acid and alcohol.An important acetylation agent, acetic anhydride is used to synthesise various materials, such as cellulose acetate. Some medicines are also made via the acetylation process. For example, acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) is produced through the acetylation of salicylic acid.
  5. Cosmetic products
    Various cosmetic products have acetic acid in their formulations. Acetic acid is used as an ingredient in hair conditioners, shampoos, and other hair care products. Derivatives of acetic acid such as alkyl acetates and acetate salts are also used to make perfumes and skin conditioners.

What is acetic acid used for in medicine?

Acetic acid has antiseptic properties, so it can be used in medicines which treat bacterial and fungal infections. It can inhibit the growth of various species of bacteria such as streptococci, staphylococci, pseudomonas, and enterococci. A 3D illustration of the bacteria streptococcus thermophilus.

Particularly effective against skin infections caused by pseudomonas strains that are resistant to antibiotics, acetic acid is also used to flush the bladder of those who have a urinary catheter to prevent blockage and infection. 

It’s also very useful as a screening agent for cervical cancer. Acetic acid is applied to the cervix and if some areas turn white, the test is positive. It’s also used in chromoendoscopy for detecting the early stages of gastric cancers.

What household products contain acetic acid?

Vinegar is the main household product that contains acetic acid, albeit in a very low concentration. As we’ve already mentioned, vinegar is used as a condiment and food flavouring. Other household products that contain acetic acid include window cleaners and some dishwashing liquids.

You can also make your own cleaning liquid by diluting acetic acid or vinegar. Not only is it effective in removing stains from ceramic surfaces like floor tiles, but it can also prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi on kitchen countertops. Plus, unlike other cleaning agents, acetic acid is non-toxic and biodegradable.

What foods contain acetic acid?

Acetic acid in the form of vinegar is a common food flavouring ingredient. Many recipes contain acetic acid, including warm potato salad with shallot dressing, chicken adobo with fried rice, and stewed steak ragù.

Is acetic acid in vinegar?

Vinegar is an aqueous solution of acetic acid with a concentration of about 4% to 6%. It also contains trace impurities of minerals, starch, and sugar.

Other foods containing acetic acid

Aside from dishes that have vinegar as a main ingredient, acetic acid can also be found in many processed food products. These include:

  • Marinades
  • Mustard
  • Salad dressings
  • Sauces
  • Canned fruits
  • Mayonnaise
  • Pickled products

Is acetic acid harmful to humans?

At low concentrations, such as those found in vinegar and processed food products, acetic acid is not harmful. It has to be at a concentration of least 25% before it can inflict serious injuries. Contact with highly-concentrated acetic acid can cause burns and may even damage the eyes.

Visit our online shop to buy acetic acid from one of the UK’s leading chemical suppliers.

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