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?
Truth is, you don't always need the strength of a chemical drain cleaner. A slow drain often can be cleared with a homemade drain cleaner concoction consisting of boiling water and a mixture of baking soda and white 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, which can loosen up clogs so they can be washed down the drain. Paired with boiling water, which helps to wash out any clogs or debris, you've got a reliable recipe for fighting clogs.
Start by using a small amount of drain cleaner to start—less is often more.
Safe Homemade Drain Cleaner Recipe
Equipment / Tools
- Drain stopper
- Boiling water
- 1/2 cup baking soda
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
Clearing Clogs With a Homemade Drain Cleaner
Clear out Standing Water
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, shower, or tub should be mostly empty so your drain cleaner can get as close as possible to the clog.
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.
Pour Boiling Water
Pour a small panful of boiling water into the drain.
Be cautious while pouring the boiling water, as the water may splash or splatter and will be very hot.
Add Baking Soda
Pour 1/2 cup of baking soda into the drain.
Pour 1/2 cup of vinegar into the drain.
Cover the Drain
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.
Let the Mixture Work
Wait 10 minutes.
Add More Boiling Water
Pour another pot of boiling water into the drain. This will help wash away any clogs that the baking soda and vinegar loosened up.
Clear the Drain
Flush the drain with hot water from the tap to help remove any remaining debris from the drain pipe.
Repeat as Needed
It can take a few tries with this low-cost, eco-friendly drain cleaner to completely clear your drain, particularly if your drain is especially slow or clogged. If you notice some improvement after the first attempt, try the drain cleaner again. If the drain is still slow after multiple attempts, you may need to try a more extreme solution.
Once your drain is clear, make a habit of flushing it out semi-regularly by pouring boiling water down the drain. This regular maintenance can help wash away or break up debris before they form clogs.
If this remedy doesn't clear the clog, it's time to consider disassembling the drain trap, if possible, and/or snaking the drain with a drain snake. Place a bucket under the trap before removing it to catch water (and crud). The nice thing about using a homemade drain cleaner is that you don't have to worry about nasty chemicals pouring out along with the water.
The Science Behind Homemade Drain Cleaners
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