Eco-Friendly Drain Cleaners

Posted on July 2, 2009 by Courtney

Please welcome today’s guest poster, Stefanie, who blogs at Stefanie Says.

Science has never been my strong suit (I was an English major; words have always been more my thing), so I remember how confused I was the day in college when my Chemistry professor’s TA called to ask me if I’d be interested in tutoring the class. “Me? You must have the wrong number,” I wanted to say. It’s sort of how I felt when Allie and Courtney asked me to guest post about eco-friendly cleaning products. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t quite live in filth and squalor, and I do care a great deal about the planet and my impact on it. But if I were making a list of my areas of expertise, eco-friendly cleaning products wouldn’t be at the top of it. Need someone for your Gilmore Girls trivia team? I’m your woman. Eco-friendly cleaning products? Well, we shall see.

That disclaimer out of the way, I do think there’s a benefit to my amateur greenist status. As Allie says, going green is a learning process, and I’m looking forward to learning along with (and from) the rest of you. Like many of us, I’m trying to make more responsible choices whenever I can, but I generally don’t think about those choices until I’m faced with them. For example, when I’m staring at a shelf full of drain openers at the store a few hours after taking a shower in three inches of standing water.

It doesn’t take an environmental scientist to suspect that any of those clog-busting products on the market are packed with chemicals that require a warning label. But how bad are they, really? Having been an English major and not a Chemistry one, I’ve never known the specifics, but this is the Internet age; information like this is easy to find. The active ingredient in most commercial drain cleaners is sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye. Whenever I’ve guiltily dumped a bottle of drain cleaner down my sink or shower, I’ve worried a bit about where it’s going and what it’s doing when it gets there. (Blinky the three-eyed fish on The Simpsons comes to mind.) As it turns out, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, sodium hydroxide isn’t actually considered a pollutant specifically, because it breaks down fairly quickly into other, relatively harmless elements on contact with water or moist soil. But I think we’re all smart enough to know that still doesn’t give drain cleaners a green light.

Obviously sodium hydroxide has other problems, aside from environmental ones. It’s a dangerous irritant that can cause severe burns on contact. Inhalation can cause respiratory problems as well. And in an old house like mine, repeated use can damage and corrode drain pipes, causing much bigger issues than a clog later on.

Safer, environmentally friendly alternatives are available, of course. I’m hesitant to mention any products by name because I haven’t actually yet tried them myself, but a quick Internet search will turn up several. You can also try a home-made remedy: pour a half cup of baking soda down the drain, followed by a half cup of white vinegar. Cover the drain (or close the stopper) and let it sit for at least a half hour; then flush with a kettle of boiling water. The reaction of the baking soda and vinegar is the same as you’ve seen in that volcano experiment you may have tried as a kid, and it will help blast through whatever’s gunked up in your drain. (Side note: I never actually tried this experiment as a kid myself, but where my own memories have a gap, I can often substitute a TV memory quite handily, and I remember this experiment causing impressive results on The Brady Bunch.)

The problem with many of these natural and home remedies is that for a tough clog, they will never be as immediately, satisfyingly effective as the nasty chemical options. Natural solutions work well to keep drains clean when used on a regular basis, but they may not be powerful enough for a clog that’s already built up.

In that case, one product I can personally recommend is the Zip-it gadget. The Zip-it is a long, flexible strip of plastic edged with little spikes. Slide it down into your drain, and it will pull out all the hair and gunk collected around the stopper and the area of pipe below. It’s brilliant in its simplicity, of course: why pour anything into your drain to try to force a clog down when you can actually pull what’s clogging the drain out instead? In my case, what’s typically clogging my drain is a mass of long brown hair, slimy with remnants of shampoo and shower gel. Pulling something that looks not unlike a small wet rodent out of the drain is not for the faint of heart, but it’s immensely gratifying nonetheless.

The Zip-it is billed as disposable, but since I hate to throw away plastic more often than necessary, I’ve tried to get a few uses out of one. It can be done, if you have the patience to clear all the hair and debris from the plastic spikes, but it’s hard to get more than a few uses out of one Zip-it before the spikes become worse for wear.

I first found Zip-its in the cash register lines at Menards for about two bucks apiece. Since then, I’ve seen Target start carrying them as well, at twice the price, but with two Zip-its per pack. The Zip-it web site lists several retailers as well, so there’s sure to be one somewhere near you.

Do you have another safe, environmentally friendly solution to recommend? Tell me, what methods have you used to keep your drains running clean?


  1. Plunging regularly…
    It’s like insurance.

    When I clean I plunge, even if it doesn’t need to be plunged.

    I have a septic tank so drain cleaners are not recommended at all.

    If my shower drain starts to run slow I remove the little strainer from the tub and usually find a hairball to throw away…and not down the drain either.

    I have never used chemicals down the drain and probably never will.


    July 2nd, 2009 at 1:32 pm
    Comment by Robert
  2. I lived with a long-haired girlfriend in a home with old plumbing, so after the third or fourth time the shower drain clogged, I invested in a good ‘ol drain snake; a Ridgid Kwik-Spin:

    It was about $28, involves no nasty chemicals, and has already paid for itself. Requires a little bit of elbow grease, but it’s very functional for not only tub clogs, but kitchen sink clogs as well.

    July 2nd, 2009 at 2:24 pm
    Comment by steve
  3. Guilty as charged for using drain cleaner. I have invested in multiple over-the-drain style hair catchers over the years, but there is still a ton of hair that goes through. I did purchase a Zip-it (I am sure Stefanie has mentioned it before?) but have not had luck getting it down the drain. I unscrew the drain cover, but the zip-it does not go down very far. Have also tried the baking soda/vinegar solution, but have not had much success with it.

    July 2nd, 2009 at 3:16 pm
    Comment by badger reader
  4. We bought a mini plunger especially for the tub and sink. Me getting my hair cut short several years ago helped a lot, too. :-) Now that my hair is longer again, it is becoming an issue again.

    July 2nd, 2009 at 3:39 pm
    Comment by 3carnations
  5. This is a great post Stefanie. I got a few great tips from it, and your personal anecdotes are a pleasure to read.

    July 2nd, 2009 at 3:50 pm
    Comment by Carrie
  6. I love the Zip-It! Plus, a good old-fashioned wire coat hanger does the trick in a pinch, just not as unfrustratingly as the Zip-It does.

    The Zip-It is a bit gross, though, that’s for sure.

    July 2nd, 2009 at 3:52 pm
    Comment by Lara
  7. I’m with Lara, I’ve been using a coat hanger for ages. Maybe I should go with the short-haired option instead? I will admit to caving and giving into the drain cleaner a couple of times, but only to save the embarrassment of my landlord pulling out clumps of my hair.

    July 2nd, 2009 at 6:25 pm
    Comment by nancypearlwannabe
  8. I have used vinegar followed by boilng water on very sluggish drains and it worked great. I will try baking soda with it next time.

    July 2nd, 2009 at 9:20 pm
    Comment by Roger Nehring
  9. We have had pretty good luck with a Hair Snare (about $2 at Ace Hardware). It is a sort of upside-down rubber basket with tiny holes that is placed over the drain and catches almost everything. Before the Hair Snare, I used the baking soda and vinegar solution every time I cleaned the bathroom; I found that consistency was key in preventing build-up. Also, I used more than a kettle of boiling water, sometimes 2 or more at a time. We still get clogs in the bathroom sink. (I think it must be due to my fiancé’s beard trims because I never had this problem while living alone!) We use a good, old wire coat-hanger, as many of you have suggested. But perhaps we should really invest in one of those new-fangled Zip-its everyone is raving about. :) I wonder if there is a decent-looking strainer out there (something like the Hair Snare) for sinks…

    Thanks for a great post, Stefanie! I look forward to reading more.

    July 4th, 2009 at 12:00 pm
    Comment by Jamie
  10. [...] like Stefanie last week, I was both flattered and a little surprised when Allie and Courtney asked me to whip up [...]

    July 6th, 2009 at 5:00 am
    Pingback by Bridging the Gap in Schools
  11. Really good article, I think it is cool that loads of people are trying to become greener and more eco friendly. I am trying to make some changes to my lifestyle. I have started using eco friendly bath and shower products, and send my friends free egreetings rather than paper or card greetings. Don’t get me wrong traditional greetings are fine as long as people remember to recycle them, which I am sure that some people don’t. I also try and walk or share lifts rather than using more cars than needed. Does anyone else have any other ideas?

    July 7th, 2009 at 5:26 am
    Comment by Elaine
  12. I have lots of hair so I always have to clean drains out. I didn’t have a snake so I ended up using a wire hanger I unbent, like some others. Good use of an item you may get with clothes or have around plus it worked!

    I’ve also done the bakig soda and vinegar thing. It works okay, but needs to be done often if you shed a lot of hair.

    Also, if you are trying to unclog the sink, make sure you unhook the stopper mechanism underneath so you can completely remove the stopper. Cleaning that off helps, too, as it’s usually nasty.

    July 8th, 2009 at 10:49 am
    Comment by Melissa
  13. I would be careful using the vinegar/ baking soda method of drain cleaning because it may not be as green as people think. Vinegar reacts very badly with some metals and galvinized coating causing a toxic vapor it is also a corrsive agent to steel and other metals and has been used thoughout history to etch or strip them.

    September 5th, 2009 at 10:56 pm
    Comment by Joel
  14. Baking soda, vinegar and boiling water does the trick. It just loosens up things so things wash off and don’t get stuck…

    November 8th, 2009 at 2:49 pm
    Comment by eco
  15. I always try not to use any cleaning or unblocking products as I don’t like the idea of using a product with so many chemicals. I have used vinegar and baking soda in the past which can unblock my sink many times but I’m always looking for other methods to use. I want to thank you for this helpful post and the comments, I’ve found some really helpful tips, thank you.

    July 21st, 2011 at 4:36 am
    Comment by Stoke Blocked Drain

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