You may have heard that apple cider vinegar can eliminate warts, moles, and acne. But when I went hunting for studies to support these claims, what I found instead were reports detailing the bad things that happened to people who tried these home remedies. Vinegar is an acid, which means it can corrode skin cells and cause chemical burns. In one paper, dermatologists at Yale treated a boy whose mother had applied cotton balls soaked in apple cider vinegar to a skin lesion. She covered the cotton balls with a bandage overnight; the next morning, the poor kid had a chemical burn and a 102-degree fever. In a 2015 paper, dermatologists treated a 14-year-old girl who had applied several drops of vinegar to a mole over the course of three days. Although her mole did peel off (yay?), she was also left with skin damage, which, the researchers explained, could lead to scarring. Perhaps more importantly, she had now made it nearly impossible for the doctors to tell if the mole was cancerous or precancerous.
I called one of the doctors who treated her—Andrew Krakowski, the chief medical officer of DermOne, a network of dermatology practices around the country—and asked his thoughts on apple cider vinegar. “It’s great on your fish and chips,” he concluded, “but not so great on your skin.” (Two notable exceptions: If you are stung by a Box jellyfish in Australia, by all means treat it with vinegar, as doing so can prevent the stinging cells from releasing venom. Vinegar has also been used to treat wound infections, but I daresay that if you find yourself in this predicament, see a doctor instead.)
Another popular claim is that apple cider vinegar cures sore throats and colds.
The logic,, is that “most germs can’t survive in the acidic environment vinegar creates.” It’s true that vinegar acts as a disinfectant, which is why it makes a good household cleaner. But there’s no reason to think that gargling or drinking vinegar will kill off the viruses causing your cold and magically eliminate your symptoms. Cold-induced sore throats are the result of your body’s immune response to the infection, so even vinegar does kill a few throat-lingering viruses, it will not make you better. The infection, which sets up shop in the upper respiratory tract, will persist. Drinking vinegar won’t cure your cancer, either. This claim seems to be based on a single study that found that an extract from Japanese rice vinegar stopped cancer cells from growing in the lab. But that’s very, very different from sips of cider vinegar curing cancer in a living human.
The acid reflux and heartburn claims also seem too good to be true.
Heartburn symptoms are caused by stomach acid coming up into the esophagus. The theory behind the vinegar claim is that there are sensors in the lower esophagus that can detect the presence of acid and then respond by propelling food and lingering stomach acid back down where it belongs. Yet only one small unpublished study, conducted as part of a master’s degree thesis, has been done to test whether this actually works. In the study, the researcher tested whether chili with vinegar added to it was less heartburn-inducing than chili without vinegar when given to people with gastroesophageal reflux disease. Yet the vinegar did not help. And some doctors find the very idea of treating heartburn with vinegar ridiculous. “Adding more acid will only make this problem worse,” David Belk, an internist based in Alameda, California, tells SELF. The approach is “about as practical as using tear gas to treat pink eye.” Ouch.
Let’s move on to the weight loss and cholesterol claims.
According to an enthusiastic article over at MindBodyGreen, a 2009 study from Japan found that people who drank one tablespoon of vinegar diluted in 8.5 ounces of water after breakfast, followed by the same drink after dinner, experienced “significant weight loss” after 12 weeks—along with drops in abdominal fat, waist size, and blood fats. Sweet! Well, looking more closely, you might beg to differ that these changes were “significant.” (They were statistically significant, in that the weight loss was probably caused by the vinegar rather than by random chance, but that’s different from being medically significant.) What the study found was that the subjects, all of whom were obese, lost just over 4 pounds on average over the course of nearly three months of drinking these twice-daily drinks. Waist size dropped by only three quarters of an inch, on average, too. More disappointingly, four weeks after the study ended, the subjects had gained almost all of the weight back.
As for why the vinegar induced this mild weight loss, no one’s quite sure; the researchers posit that vinegar might inhibit fat production. Here’s another possibility: According to a 2014 study, vinegar “enhances satiety” in large part “due to poor tolerability following ingestion invoking feelings of nausea.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want to lose weight because I feel too nauseous to eat.
You’re probably getting pretty down on apple cider vinegar by now, so let me perk you up with some good news.
A handful of studies have found that drinking diluted vinegar before a carb-rich meal can reduce food-induced blood sugar spikes by between 20 and 40 percent—an effect that has been shown in healthy adults as well as in people with type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance. This is potentially exciting, because chronically high blood sugar can be bad for lots of reasons. It can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes and it can damage arteries over time, leading to atherosclerosis and heart disease. Chronically high blood sugar also increases the risk for nerve, kidney, and eye damage. As Carol Johnston, associate director of the Nutrition Program in Arizona State University’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, and a coauthor of some of these blood sugar studies explains, the acetic acid in vinegar acts to block the activity of enzymes called disaccharidases in the small intestine that are responsible for breaking down starches. (By this logic, any vinegar should do the trick—it doesn’t have to be apple cider vinegar.) If these starches don’t get fully broken down, they can’t be absorbed by the body as simple sugars and wind up in the blood.
Johnston concedes, though, that we need more and better research before we start claiming that vinegar can cure or prevent diabetes or heart disease. She also warns that people with type 1 diabetes may want to talk to their doctor before drinking diluted vinegar, because the blood sugar reduction might lead to hypoglycemia.
So, no: Vinegar isn’t going to cure everything that ails you.
The blood sugar findings are cool, but we need more research before we know how meaningful the effect really is. And it’s worth pointing out that vinegar is not completely harmless, either. Drinking or gargling vinegar can erode tooth enamel, increasing your risk for cavities. If you drink it straight and accidentally inhale it, you can chemically burn your lungs. People have even died after drinking large quantities of vinegar. It’s always important to remember that just because something is natural or common does not mean it is safe. But if you do decide to start sipping vinegar cocktails in the hopes of, say, controlling your blood sugar, Johnston offers some tips. “Dilute one to two tablespoons of vinegar in eight ounces of water, and drink it during the first bites of a meal,” she says. Or you can use her preferred approach, which is to start meals with a salad dressed in a vinaigrette. Her vinegar of choice, though, is not the one you keep reading about—it’s red wine vinegar. “I never use apple cider vinegar,” Johnston scoffs. “I think the taste is too harsh.”