Descaling Solution Vs. Vinegar: What To Choose For Descale?

Last Updated on September 20, 2023 by Barry Gray

I admit I’m fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where the concept of descaling is alien to me. It’s just not something I have to think about, and yet I’m aware it’s a real problem for so many people.

Failing to descale your espresso machine can lead to all sorts of problems, and it could even spell the end of your coffee-making exploits. That opens up another question I need to answer: do you use a descaling solution, or will vinegar suffice?

The descaling solution will work significantly better at descaling an espresso machine compared to vinegar. While vinegar can do some descaling, you need to rinse well, or it will taint your coffee. 

Also, you must remember that most brands that manufacture espresso machines will discuss the need for a descaling solution. They don’t really recommend using vinegar, even though some people swear by it, so I have a bit of digging around to do in order to get to the bottom of this.

how to descale your espresso machine

Will Vinegar Work?

I wasn’t exactly surprised that people used vinegar to clean their espresso machines. I was brought up being told that vinegar was capable of doing so many things. My mother even had a book detailing the hundreds of different uses vinegar has around the home.

People see vinegar as being able to clean almost anything, and it kills bacteria, making things sterile. In this instance, vinegar will be able to do something when it comes to descaling, but I have to admit it doesn’t complete the job 100%.

The cool thing is that vinegar is clearly not harmful to us, so it won’t cause any problems if it gets in your coffee. Well, it would make it taste strange, and that’s bad enough.

But there is a bit of a problem when using vinegar to descale your coffee machine. It’s not strong enough.

This is especially true when you have not descaled your coffee machine for a long time. The amount of minerals that can be effectively coated on your machine is remarkable in some parts of the world, and vinegar simply cannot cope.

The problem here is the acid in the vinegar. It will work well with the surface, but it simply cannot penetrate through to the bottom layers. The result is a partial descale, but one that’s not quite as good as it could have been.

Is Descaling Solution Better for Your Coffee Machine?

is descaling solution better for your coffee machine

When I discovered that vinegar was not the best solution, it did get me thinking about what would work better. I knew brands recommended descaling solutions and descaling tablets, but I knew pretty much nothing about them.

It turns out that I was wrong to think vinegar was the best solution. Vinegar simply cannot stand up to the might of a descaling solution.

The reason for this is simple. A descaling solution has been specifically created to tackle this very problem. It’s as if it’s laser-guided to descaling anything that stands in its way, and it’s a solution that won’t let you down.

This solution will break down minerals, blast out bacteria, and basically leave the inside of your coffee machine sparkling clean at the end. Also, they are all entirely safe for use in your coffee machine, and they won’t do us humans any harm either.

It Leaves No Reside or Taste

If you have ever rinsed something with vinegar, you will already know how the smell and taste of it can linger. Well, descaling solutions don’t have that problem.

There really is no scent with it, and nor is there any residue left behind. That’s excellent news, as it means you don’t have the need to rinse and rinse your machine to the point of absolute exhaustion.

I love this because it means you don’t have to worry about it altering the taste of your coffee. The same cannot be said about vinegar, so that’s a massive positive for the solution option. 

Is There Any Particular Descaling Solution to Use?

cleaning coffee machine

I won’t bother taking you through the type of vinegar you should use, as it’s just white vinegar, and there’s nothing else to say about it.

However, you have more options available when it comes to the descaling solution, and I know myself how it can become confusing when you aren’t sure what to buy and worry about getting the wrong thing.

Basically, any descaling solution should be suitable for your coffee machine. They all work in the same basic way, and none of them will be harmful to any part of your machine. 

But I have a word of warning.

The Descaling Product to Avoid With an Automatic Coffee Machine

If you have an automatic coffee machine, then things are different. Here, it will come with a thermoblock water boiler, and the one thing you must avoid with this is citric acid. 

A number of descaling products do come with citric acid as a key ingredient, and it has the potential to cause some damage to your coffee machine over time. So, it’s best to avoid it.

This is the only ingredient that can potentially cause a problem. The other acids that appear in descaling products don’t have the same impact. While doing it once may not cause much damage, it’s not something I’d suggest you repeat.

Why Descaling Products Work With Your Coffee Machine

why do descaling products work with your espresso machine

Earlier, I told you how the acid in vinegar is just not strong enough when it comes to descaling your expensive espresso machine. I don’t think you will be surprised to hear that descaling solutions come with a lot more acid in them, and they are all designed to munch away at those minerals building up in your machine.

Most descaling products will contain three acids: citric, lactic, and sulfamic acid. Each one will chew and bite away at breaking up that sediment, which is then flushed out as you rinse the machine.

It’s a simple process, but it’s a highly effective one as well.

Not every solution will have all three. However, I’d always suggest opting for one that has at least two of these acids listed.

The Pros and Cons of Using Descaling Solution

One thing I’ve managed to learn about myself in life is I’m a real pros and cons kind of guy when it comes to weighing up pretty much anything. So, I’ve decided to do that here as I always feel it makes it easier to reach some sort of a conclusion as to which option is best.

The Pros

First, the pros of using a descaling solution.

  • It’s highly effective at what it does.
  • It doesn’t leave any residue in your coffee machine.
  • It doesn’t leave any taste in your coffee machine.
  • It’s very quick.
  • It’s affordable.
  • It won’t damage your coffee machine.

The Cons

And then there are the cons.

  • Citric acid could damage parts of your machine made from aluminum.
  • While it’s affordable, there are less expensive options.
  • You may have to order the solution as it’s not as accessible as vinegar.

Overall though, I have to say the pros do outweigh the cons when it comes to descaling solution.

The Pros and Cons of Using Vinegar

Vinegar has its own set of pros and cons, and I certainly don’t want to sound biased by not checking them out, so here they are.

The Pros

  • It really is very inexpensive to purchase.
  • It will certainly remove some scale.
  • If you do it regularly, then vinegar will work perfectly.
  • You can always buy some in any grocery store.

The Cons

  • It’s not as effective when dealing with extensive scale build-up.
  • You need to rinse thoroughly as it leaves a taste.
  • You need to do it repeatedly to remove all the scale.
  • It has the potential to change the taste of your coffee.

Which Option Would I Recommend?

So, let me round things off by telling you what I would recommend when it comes to effectively descaling your coffee machine or espresso machine.

The first thing I would say is to encourage you to descale your machine regularly, and this is especially the case if you live in an area with very hard water. Honestly, it won’t take long to build up inside your coffee machine, and then all sorts of things can go wrong.

But that aside, this is what I would suggest.

I would have both a descaling solution and vinegar. I suggest using a descaling solution to get everything clean, and then use vinegar to rinse and cleanse your machine regularly.

After every third or fourth rinse with vinegar, I would then go ahead and run the descaling solution through your coffee machine to ensure everything is perfect.

I feel this strikes a balance. There’s not always a need to go down the route of the full descale when we are talking about so little scale.

But if you do go ahead and use vinegar, you need to flush the entire system several times and then do one extra flush to be on the safe side. Honestly, I’ve experienced coffee with lingering hints of vinegar in it, and that is one thing that will make me spit out my coffee and throw it away.

My Conclusion

If you have to descale your coffee machine, using a descaling solution rather than vinegar will mean a better end result. However, if you only have vinegar at home, it will still manage to make a difference even if it doesn’t reach the heights of a descaling solution.

I think the key is to descale your coffee machine regularly. This prevents a build-up of all those minerals, meaning the descaling solution needs to work harder to get the job done, and why do that when there’s an easier solution.

Keeping your coffee machine in pristine condition and then doing a vinegar rinse could be enough to keep all those minerals at bay.