Older readers may have fond memories of parties that centered around a huge bong. Younger ones who grew up in the era of vapes and dab rigs may only know about bongs from seeing them displayed in smoke shops or from watching movies like Pineapple Express.
Bongs are far from extinct, though. Plenty of people own the oversized water pipes, whether they’re used as part of a cool décor, or they’re regularly pulled out of storage for use when a company comes over.
Anyone who’s had the experience of smoking out of a bong knows two things about these devices. One is that the smoke is cooler, thanks to the water that filters it before it gets to your lungs.
The other is that bongs can get very nasty very quickly.
That means you have to clean them properly. Let’s discuss.
How Bongs Work
Bongs have been around for thousands of years. Back then, they were made from materials like gold and bamboo. 20th and 21st-century bongs are mostly glass. A smaller number are made from acrylic, silicone, or ceramic.
There’s a simple reason that bongs can get so gross: they’re much more intricate than regular pieces. Generally speaking, they have five components.
- The Base: The bottom of the bong, which sits on the floor or another flat surface. The outside is usually decorated in some way, but the most important part of the base is the water chamber it contains.
- The Bowl: This is where the weed goes.
- The Downstem: This connects the bowl to the base, allowing weed smoke to travel to the water chamber in the base.
- The Cylinder: Also called the tube, this is where smoke accumulates after it’s been filtered by the water.
- The Mouthpiece: Where you inhale the smoke.
Many bongs also have carb holes that you cover until you’re ready to inhale. When you uncover the carb, the smoke is forced up the cylinder and into the mouthpiece. Some models have a removable bowl that’s called a slide carb, and removing it performs the same function as the carb.
There are all sorts of extras that you’ll find on more elaborate bongs. For example, they may have percolators that provide additional filtering for the smoke or ash catchers which prevent ash from making it into the chamber — and eventually into your mouth and lungs.
That’s obviously a lot more complicated than a pipe or a joint, and it means there are a lot of areas where small pieces of herb, ash, and sticky resin can accumulate.
Even worse, a dirty bong can make you sick.
The Hazards of Dirty Bongs
Accumulated resin and other gunk can make smoking more difficult because they block airflow. Everyone who owns a pipe knows that.
The bigger problem, though, is that the water in bongs doesn’t just provide a smoother, cleaner smoke to the user. It can get funky quickly, and that’s because it’s often a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus.
The water surface in the bong can be a tip-off that there’s some bad stuff growing. Stagnant water is prone to developing a visible film that’s known as biofilm, and everything from E. coli to dangerous black mildew can be hiding there. Other parts of the bong also get moist and can harbor problematic fungi like fusarium, which is known to love cannabis almost as much as you do.
Even if nothing can be seen growing, the water still is likely to contain mold spores, which is one good reason why you should never drink bong water. Inhaling those spores or other microbes can quickly lead to the development of serious health issues. Smokers are particularly at risk for respiratory diseases caused by those germs.
This isn’t just a “maybe it could be bad for you” issue. It’s a real one. There haven’t been many scientific studies of bongs, but an investigation of water pipes used for tobacco smoking found that 82% contained a wide range of pathogens, including staph, strep, and E. coli. 96% of the offending pipes had contaminated water in their chambers.
You’ve probably been convinced at this point that it’s essential to regularly clean bongs. Here’s how to do it.
Cleaning a Bong
We can hear most of you muttering, “Great, how often do I have to do this?”
Don’t worry. It isn’t as big a chore as you might think, and it should take less than an hour. However, a bong should ideally be cleaned after every use. If that’s too much for you, the water should definitely be changed after each smoke sesh, and the entire bong should be cleaned at least once a week.
A preliminary warning probably isn’t necessary, but we’ll pass it along anyway. If you have a glass bong, the glass will break easily. It might be a good idea to wait until you’re feeling sober before taking your bong apart.
- Disassemble the bong, taking the downstem and the bowl and putting them into two separate Zip-loc bags. (They could break if you put them into the same bag.) If you have a removable mouthpiece, it should come off as well and go into its own bag.
- Pour enough 99% isopropyl alcohol (that’s stronger than standard rubbing alcohol) and coarse salt into each bag to completely cover each part of the bong.
- After letting the salt and water sit for a little while, shake each bag firmly until you see a good amount of resin and other debris from the parts floating in the bag. If the parts aren’t clean enough when you take them out, repeat steps 2 and 3.
- Empty the bong water, and then pour enough salt into the cylinder to cover the bottom of the chamber. Add ¼ cup of 99% isopropyl alcohol and let it sit for a while.
- Cover the holes where the mouthpiece and downstem attach. Most people use their hands or waterproof tape, but you can purchase stoppers that will fit the holes. Shake the bong vigorously until most of the gunk is loose.
- Rinse the bong and all parts with hot water. If your bong has percolators or other add-ons, clean them separately using Q-tips or pipe cleaners to reach inside.
- Let everything air dry, and reassemble.
- Don’t forget to change the bong water after the next time you smoke. It will make this whole process much easier.
How to Clean a Bong: FAQ
Q: I’ve just been using soap and water to clean my bong. Am I wrong?
A: Not necessarily, and many believe that’s the best way to clean a silicone bong because it’s more likely to accumulate resin. Just be sure to use gentle dishwashing soap since it will contain a degreasing substance that helps remove gunk without damaging the pipe.
Q: The person who taught me about bongs said to always clean them with baking soda and vinegar.
A: That method also works, but it’s more involved and takes longer. You have to simmer the bong in water for an hour or more, scrub the inside with a bottle brush afterward, and all of that can make a mess. Using salt and alcohol is faster, easier, and much less likely to stress you out so much that you’re ready for another bowl.
Mahapatra, A., Padhi, N., Mahapatra, D., Bhatt, M., Sahoo, D., Jena, S., … & Chayani, N. (2015). Study of biofilm in bacteria from water pipelines. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research: JCDR, 9(3), DC09 .
Safizadeh, H., Moradi, M., Rad, M. R., & Nakhaee, N. (2014). Bacterial contamination of different components of the waterpipe. The International journal of tuberculosis and lung disease, 18(8), 988-991 .