Are Flushable Wipes Really Flushable? Here’s What Plumbers Had to Say

published Nov 6, 2022
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Close up hand holding a tissue to be thrown into the toilet bowl.
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Flushable wipes are a convenient way to stay fresh and clean when regular toilet paper simply doesn’t cut it. That convenience, though, can turn out to be a major hassle, as those very wipes that are marketed as flushable can be known to cause plumbing problems.

Are flushable wipes truly flushable?

Many personal hygiene wipes are marketed as flushable, with some even touting that they have been developed with plumbers’ input to keep those pipes safe.

But even then, buyer beware, says many plumbers.

“Most flushable wipes are not actually flushable and may end up clogging your plumbing,” says Alex Woollam, licensed plumber and the founder and CEO of Waterline Plumbing Ltd. in North Vancouver, Canada. He explains that these “flushable” wipes are made from plastic materials that can’t dissolve in water. Over time, the wipes can accumulate in the sewage system, causing blockages and eventually flooding or even structural damage to your home’s foundation. 

The same is true for septic systems. When wipes aren’t made with biodegradable materials, they can clog up the septic system and cause it to eventually fail. “Additionally, these wipes can also contain chemicals that may be harmful to the environment,” Woollam says.

The reason flushable wipes aren’t truly flushable is that many are “designed to be stronger and tougher than toilet paper,” says Jake Romano, general manager for John The Plumber Toronto

“While they will degrade in water, they don’t degrade nearly as quickly as toilet paper,” he says. “Therefore, the risks of a main drain blockage become much higher if you’re a frequent user of flushable wipes.”

Flushable wipes are good for business, says Romano. ‘“As a plumber, I love flushable wipes because they result in many jobs a week … But I would strongly suggest against [flushing them] to my friends and family.” 

Are any flushable wipes safe to flush?

The marketing teams behind some flushable wipes aren’t lying to you — not completely, anyway. 

Woollam says wipes made with polyethylene and cotton microfibers are known to be flushable, but there’s a catch. “While [polyethylene] may eventually degrade over a vast period of time, they are not biodegradable in any sense that would warrant them being flushed,” Woollam says. Cotton microfiber materials are marketed as being more biodegradable, but they, too, can eventually wreak havoc on your plumbing. “Any wipes made wholly from polyethylene should never be flushed under any circumstances,” he says.

As for paper towels, cotton balls, and other non-toilet paper items you’re thinking of flushing, don’t do it, says Woollam. They don’t break down easily and will only cause blockages eventually. “Instead, you should throw them away after use or alternatively put them into the garbage disposal, where they will eventually decompose naturally,” he says.

Credit: Jessica Rapp

What about using flushable wipes in apartment buildings or commercial plumbing systems?

If you live in a large apartment building and think that the system is built to handle flushable wipes, think again, says Tom Diciolla, owner of Restore Plumbing and Drain Inc. in Elgin, Illinois. 

“In any type of large building complex, like an apartment building, pipes are generally connected together so when you flush something down, it goes into the same pipe as all your neighbors,” he says. “If there’s something that shouldn’t go down there that creates a clog, that in turn creates a backup in the system, which is usually seen on the lower levels first but can then build from there.”

The same holds true for commercial plumbing systems, says Woollam. “I had a client using flushable wipes in his commercial food premises, which cost thousands in repair, causing him significant financial hardship, as a food business cannot operate without access to running water,” he says. “His system was shut down for weeks, and the loss of trade was devastating.”

The bottom line on flushable wipes

Does this mean you will destroy your plumbing with a single flushed wipe? Probably not, says Romano. “However, the chances of needing a main drain cleaning jump drastically if you flush any type of wipe,” he says.

Woollam agrees. “In my experience, it’s best to avoid all these types of wipes altogether, even if they are indeed marketed as safe for toilets,” he says. “Unless the material breaks down in the same way that toilet paper does, which almost all available products do not, then you are putting your plumbing at great risk. And the cost can be significant.”

Woollam’s advice in general is to not flush anything other than toilet paper. “Even then, I would advise adopting a more European approach and having a waste paper bin to the side of the toilet.” However, he does admit, “This may be one step too far for certain sensibilities.” 

Alternatives to flushable wipes

Perhaps the trash bin for toilet paper is a bridge too far for most people. But if you like the fresh feeling of using wipes and want your plumbing to remain fully functional, a closed trash bin with a plastic liner inside could be a good solution for disposing flushable wipes.

Another solution is to add a bidet to your bathroom. This eco-friendly appliance has been around for centuries in some form and is a must-have for bathrooms all around the world except for a small minority of toilet paper-loving Americans. In brief, a bidet sends a gentle stream of water exactly where you need it to freshen up after a bathroom break.

Contrary to popular belief among Americans, bidets are sanitary. Most bathroom designs simply don’t account for one being installed in addition to a toilet, but there are bidet attachments that you can hook up to an existing toilet. For instance, the aptly named company TUSHY sells bidet attachments (and a host of other eco-friendly toilet products) so you can feel fresh as a daisy without having to do a full-out bathroom renovation.

It’s certainly an idea to, well, sit on. But in the meantime, don’t flush those wipes unless you want to have a standing appointment with your plumber.