Chemical drain cleaners are dangerous to use, highly poisonous, and so caustic that they can cause skin burns. Even worse, they're not always effective, leaving you with a sink full of toxic chemical water that's stopped up by the same clog you started with. By contrast, a homemade drain cleaner can be perfectly safe, not to mention perfectly inexpensive. To be clear, a homemade cleaner is not more effective than a commercial cleaner, but if neither is going to work, wouldn't you rather have a sink full of a harmless cleaner than a toxic one?
And the fact is, you don't always need the strength of a chemical drain cleaner. A slow drain often can be cleared with boiling water and a mixture of baking soda and vinegar. If you've ever made a model volcano erupt with this household concoction, you have an idea of why it works on drains. Baking soda (a base substance called sodium bicarbonate) and vinegar (a mild acetic acid) react together to create a fizzy, bubbly action that releases carbon dioxide. So why not have a little fun while clearing your drain?
Start by using a small amount of drain cleaner to start—less is often more.
Watch Now: Safe Homemade Drain Cleaner Recipe
Clearing Clogs With a Homemade Drain Cleaner
If your sink (or tub or shower) is full of backed-up water, bail out as much of the water as you can, using a cup and dumping the water into a bucket. It's fine to leave a small amount of water down in the drain opening itself, but the sink should be mostly empty, so your drain cleaner gets as close as possible to the clog. Also, if you're working on a sink or tub drain, remove the sink pop-up stopper or the tub stopper to gain better access to the drain. This may involve pulling out the drain linkage temporarily to open up the drain. Now you're ready for the homemade drain cleaner:
- Pour a small panful of boiling water into the drain.
- Pour 1/2 cup of baking soda into the drain.
3. Pour 1/2 cup of vinegar into the drain.
4. Cover the drain with a stopper, if available. The baking soda and vinegar will fizz and bubble a lot; covering the drain forces the reaction downward instead of up and out of the drain, but it's not critical that you cover the drain.
5. Wait 10 minutes.
6. Pour another pot of boiling water into the drain.
7. Flush the drain with hot water from the tap to help remove any remaining debris from the drain pipe.
If this remedy doesn't clear the clog, it's time to consider disassembling the drain trap, if possible and snaking the drain with a drain snake. Place a bucket under the trap before removing it, to catch water (and crud). The nice thing is you don't have to worry about nasty chemicals pouring out along with the water.
Did You Know?
For the science buffs in the family, the chemical reaction in the baking soda-vinegar mixture can be written as CH3COOH + NaHCO3 = CH3COONa + CO2 + H2O. In addition to making great "lava," the chemical reaction of baking soda and vinegar can propel model rockets and other vehicles.
Mckenzie, L. B., et al. Household Cleaning Product-Related Injuries Treated in US Emergency Departments in 1990-2006. Pediatrics, vol. 126, no. 3, 2010, pp. 509–516., doi:10.1542/peds.2009-3392