4 Shower Products That Are Ruining Your Pipes, According to Plumbers

published May 26, 2020
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Credit: Minette Hand

You finally make it into a hot shower after a long day, only to realize the water isn’t going the direction it’s supposed to—you know, down the drain. Instead, you may experience a backup of black or gray sludge, or water pooling around your feet. Here’s the bad news: Common beauty and cleaning products may be to blame. Thankfully, experts have the low-down on what to skip, what’s safe, and how to fix any problems that do pop up. Read on for pro advice.

Skip: oily products

Beauty products containing oil, such as bath bombs, are an issue. They’re beautiful and they smell amazing, but are they worth a plumbing problem? Aaron Mulder, co-owner and operations manager for Mr. Rooter Plumbing of San Antonio, is a second-generation licensed plumber in the state of Texas for 10 years and the operations manager of Mr. Rooter Plumbing of San Antonio for three years. He has seen his fair share of bath bomb dilemmas.

“Epsom salt and baking soda are common ingredients that typically dissolve in water, but other common additives, including essential oils, cornstarch, cocoa butter, bits of flowers, and even glitter, don’t dissolve well. These additives leave behind residue that may stick to the inside of your pipes,” he says. “Oils often solidify as they cool, and cornstarch can harden in pipe elbows or curves as it dries. Over time, these deposits may collect soap, hair, and other substances, eventually leading to nasty clogs.”

To prevent the buildup, stick to products that use ingredients that dissolve in water, like salt or sugar scrubs. Body washes, shampoos, and conditioners are safe, too.

Skip: toothpaste

Brushing your teeth in the shower is a no-no. The toothpaste hardens in the drain, causing a potential backup. While this is also true of the bathroom sink, it can be more of an issue in the shower since it doesn’t get flushed out as frequently. If you’re experiencing a blockage in the drain due to potentially hardened toothpaste or other products, you have a few options. Mulder recommends some easy DIY solutions, such as pouring boiling water down the drain, which helps soften gunky toothpaste so it can wash away.

Another potential solution for any issues includes using a plunger: “First, you should plug the overflow drain to create a vacuum. To do this, remove the cover plate below the bathtub faucet and insert a washcloth or hand towel into the hole so air can’t escape. Next, set the plunger over the drain and fill the tub with a few inches of hot water. Apply several thrusting motions to attempt to get things moving,” he suggests. Baking soda and vinegar is also a common DIY solution to dissolving clogs from gunk.

Skip: small items, like bobby pins, razor blades, and hair clips

Many times, plumbers see objects obstructing the flow of dirty water leaving the shower. Plumbers are used to pulling a variety of small items out of shower drains, including bobby pins, hair clips and bows, and hair itself. Preventing clumps of hair (and accessories) from ever making it to your drain will help, so remove those before popping in the shower and invest in a drain cover that lets only water through its holes.

If you do already suspect an item is lodged in the drain, remove the drain cover and bend a wire coat hanger into a hook using needle-nose pliers. Do this with care, though, or you could puncture a trap filled with water intended to keep sewer gasses out of the home, Mulder warns. If that doesn’t work, it may be time to call a certified professional. 

Skip: abrasive, chemical-filled cleaners

If it isn’t enough that they aren’t healthy for humans to touch or inhale, some cleaners are doing more harm than good to your shower. Bleach and other harsh chemicals can harm your drain—and potentially your plumber who is working on it—so it’s always important to notify your plumber of any harsh chemicals you’ve put down your drain. Even drain cleaners typically recommended for fixing this exact problem can cause “permanent pipe damage” if overused.

Mulder recommends enzymatic drain cleaners if you are attempting to use a product to clean your drain pipes. “They are safe and ‘green’ because they contain bacteria or enzymes that eat the organic components of the clog to eliminate it,” he says. Boiling water and baking soda and vinegar mixes are two other gentle options for loosening up clogs.