Stinky Shower Drain? Try These Easy Fixes Before You Call the Plumber

Alexandra Beuter

A guide to identifying the causes of drain odors and how to fix them yourself.

You can spend countless hours on regular cleaning routines and you may even have a coveted lineup of your holy grail cleaning products under the sink. But despite your best efforts, you’ve likely encountered a less than ideal odor coming from your shower drains.

Shower drain odors are common, but luckily, relatively easy to solve when addressed right away. If you notice a drain that’s far from the clean you’re used to, operating slower than normal, or even one that’s stopped working completely, try the tips I’ve outlined below.

What’s that smell?

Shower drain odor can be caused by a multitude of issues, most of which are easy to remedy. More likely than not, your shower odor is caused by one of the following:

  • Clog beneath the drain cover. Do you notice that water is lingering on the shower floor longer than normal? Clogs from a slow accumulation of hair, skin, dirt, mineral deposits, mold, soap scum, or biofilm are the cause of most pesky shower drain smells.

  • Dry Drain. Do you notice a maddening sewer gas smell? This is another common culprit and is usually nothing more than a dry P-trap which is easily treatable.

  • Leaky pipes. Leaky pipes are unfortunately quite serious cause and can be costly to repair.

To remove the cover, or not to remove the cover…

Most smells mean a clog has formed beneath the drain cover. First and foremost, check the strength of the flow down the shower drain. To identify the cause of your smelly drain, you might want to consider removing the drain cover. This is not mandatory, but if your drain smell is caused by a clog, it’s likely higher up than you think. It could help you remove your clog with significantly less product and time. Depending on the style cover your shower is built with, use a screwdriver and counter-clockwise motion to lift it away for easy access to the cause of the odor. I highly recommend removing any hair or other obstructions that are within reach. This will help you to minimize the likelihood of further issues deeper within your plumbing system.

If you haven’t removed the drain cover, and water flow is slow, you can skip straight to using a drain snake, which is available at most hardware stores. A 25-foot snake is plenty for most homeowners and is safer for your pipes than harsh chemical cleaners. As you uncoil and move the snake further into your pipe, it will undoubtedly dislodge any less serious blockage in a matter of minutes. You can test the snake’s effectiveness by running water for 30 seconds to one minute. Heavy-duty obstructions that fail to pass with a drain snake, and even a plunger, may require a professional using a pressurized stream of water known as hydro-jetting.

Possible causes of a smelly Drain

Biofilm and mold

The smell you’re experiencing from these offenders will be damp, musty, and mildewy—maybe even reminiscent of rotten eggs. Because both substances are common causes of drain odor in showers, bath tubs, and sinks, with or without clogs, I like to keep a Febreze Light Odor-Eliminating Air Freshener Candle in my frequently used bathrooms to gently eliminate air odors with its essential oils. Biofilm, which has a pink-orange tone and a slimy texture, is hazardous to your health as it is made up of multiple species of bacteria and their waste. And because it accumulates slowly over time, preventing its buildup is an especially important reason for regular drain maintenance.

Dry drain

If your drain odor is coming from a shower that’s not regularly used, like in a guest bathroom, you may be dealing with the most easily solved problem of them all: a dry drain. If you suspect this to be the case, you can start by testing your P-trap, a windy pipe under your sink and shower that holds a small amount of water at all times and blocks the sewer line from direct contact with your drain—which in turn blocks pesky odors. To test it, run the water for a few minutes and if the smell quickly dissipates you’re dealing with nothing more than a dry drain. Even if this shower is only used sporadically, run the water occasionally to keep this U-shaped pipe filled.

  • Pro tip: I personally love keeping a Febreze Small Spaces Air Freshener in the Bamboo scent in my guest bathroom to keep it smelling fresh, even when no one is using it. It lasts 45 days so it’s the perfect “leave it and forget it” tool. Not to mention, the perfect reset after fixing a stinky dry drain. While you’re at it, check out these 25 tips to make your whole home smell good.

Preventing and fixing a clogged, smelly shower drain

General tips

  • Make it a habit. Add cleaning your shower drain to your bathroom cleaning routine — no less than once a week for a shower that’s used daily by multiple people. Regular maintenance can help prevent the clogs and odors that build up slowly over time. Though you can’t see the issue forming beneath the surface, you can help prevent it in a matter of seconds.

    • Pro tip: Some hygiene products leave behind significantly more soap scum than others. Using liquid products rather than a bar of soap is a great way to lessen the potential build up on all surfaces of your shower.
  • Keep it simple. Make a DIY solution combining common household ingredients like vinegar and baking soda with hot water. Then use a scrub brush to help break up surface buildup. This approach will target the toughest parts of your dirty drain, lessening the time it takes to achieve an odor-free shower.

  • Avoid outdated practices. Common drain cleaning recommendations include pouring boiling water to ensure a thorough rinse of your smelly drain. But this can actually cause more harm than good. Most homes built today with a modern plumbing system are made with PVC piping as opposed to metal, which can be damaged by boiling water.

DIY solution

  1. Pour half a cup of baking soda down your drain and let it sit for a few minutes. It will adhere to much of the gunk and grime covering the interior of your drain pipe.

  2. Add half a cup of vinegar. You will immediately hear a fizzing sound as the two substances work together. Let this solution sit for up to an hour.

  • Pro tip: Use your scrub brush and any remaining solution to clean your drain cover. It’s the first layer of defense against buildup in your pipes and also needs maintenance.
  1. Use hot water to rinse your drain clean.
  1. Repeat as needed, then enjoy a sparkling clean and odor-free shower drain fit with the rest of your carefully cared for bathroom!

If all else fails…

If you’ve tried the above methods to no avail, it may be best to get a second set of eyes with more experience to ensure you’re not causing harm. At this point, the smell you’re experiencing might be indicating damage to other areas of your home, like a wet wood or wet drywall scent if the water reaches deeper layers of your home, and you may see water damage in the ceiling of the room below your bathroom. Calling in an expert will ensure there are no deeper issues at play.

Alexandra Beuter

Article by Alexandra Beuter

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