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How to choose the best drain cleaner for your clog



We’ve all felt that rising sense of dread when a bathroom or kitchen sink, shower, bathtub or toilet backs up slowly with rising water that you hope doesn’t overflow onto your floor.

The good news is that you might be able to unclog the drain yourself. Start by plunging the drain or using a drain snake or drain auger. Or try a homemade concoction of boiling water and baking soda. If these don’t work, it might be time to look for a drain cleaner.

You have a lot of choices when it comes to drain cleaners and dealing with stubborn clogs, ranging from universal and eco-conscious drain cleaners to specialty ones for hair, mineral deposits and other obstructions.

There’s no need to let clogged drains be a draining experience. Here’s how to choose the best drain cleaners for your DIY needs.


What’s the best drain cleaner?

There are many drain-cleaning products on the market, but they might not all work for your needs. The best drain cleaner depends on your particular drainage problem.

Best universal drain cleaner

As the name suggests, a universal drain cleaner is good at cleaning different types of clogs. If your rising-water misery includes dealing with hair, soap scum and other gunky clogs, then you’ll have to find something with well-rounded fighting power for penetrating standing water.

This clog remover should work in 15 minutes or less; if it needs to be left overnight, it should have an ingredient that protects pipes from corrosion. Follow the instructions and precautions on the label for safety’s sake (you don’t want a corrosive splash in the eyes). If you use a plunger after pouring in the drain cleaner, you might risk splashes as you pump away.

Best drain cleaner for hair clogs

Don’t scratch your head about this one — it will only add to the problem. You want a drain opener formulated to dissolve hair and powerful enough to deal with toilet paper, flushable personal care wipes, soap scum and other organic matter that might infest your drains and pipes.

It should be safe in pipes, toilets, sinks, tub drains, shower drains and septic systems. It shouldn’t be corrosive and shouldn’t include bleach or sodium hydroxide. Having a biodegradable formula would be nice; it should also be odorless.

Best drain cleaner for mineral buildup

Mineral deposits can occur when there’s a high concentration of magnesium, potassium, calcium and other minerals in your water (picked from groundwater flowing through soil and rocks). If not removed or prevented, this “hard water” can cause tough clogs in your drains and pipes.

You can buy a water softener to prevent calcium buildup (limescale) and other mineral clogs, which can help make the water easier on your washing machine, dishwasher and toilet. You can also buy a powerful liquid drain cleaner formulated to get rid of mineral buildups. 

Check to see that it’s fragrance-free; safe for use in kitchen and bathroom sinks, toilets, showers, drains, garbage disposals and grease traps; and easy on drains and pipes. It should provide a safe alternative without phosphates to the usual mineral drain-cleaning chemicals.

Best eco-conscious drain cleaner

Drain cleaners can be known for their harsh chemicals. It’s good to look for a green, eco-conscious product if you want one that’s easier on you and the environment. Look for a green-colored label or package design.

The best biodegradable drain-cleaning products have a plant-based solution with no artificial fragrances or dyes. They rely on biodegradable ingredients that are not animal-tested. They might also include a mix of live enzymatic cultures that can break down buildup in pipes and drains into tiny particles that easily wash away.

Not only should the green drain-clog remover solve your slow-water headaches, but it should also work as a deodorizer to prevent odors emanating from your pipes.


How does a drain cleaner work?

There are a variety of chemical drain cleaners out there, including:

  • Caustic drain cleaners: These use substances like lye and caustic potash as bases, which impart electrons to the clogging substance. Then their hydroxide ions set in motion a reaction that clears the drain clog. Their alkaline chemicals also release heat and change grease clogs into a soapy substance that dissolves easily.
  • Oxidizing drain cleaners: Household bleach, peroxides and nitrates are often included in this class of cleaners. They make the clog’s organic material lose electrons and become oxidized. The cleaners are heavier than water, releasing heat and gas as they move through standing water and clear clogs.
  • Acid drain cleaners: These are very harsh, industrial-strength drain cleaners, normally only used by professional plumbers. ​​They include ingredients like sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid and create hydronium ions in a chemical reaction with the clogged gunk. They release heat during the chemical reaction, which helps melt congealed grease. Use these cleaners with care because they can harm pipes and affect human health.

What can’t drain cleaners fix?

In some cases, drain cleaners might not be able to clear clogs in your drains and pipes. This might be because some foreign object is wedged in there, such as a shoe or ball (don’t laugh, it’s happened). There might be something structurally wrong with your plumbing system, or a tree root might have grown through the sewer lines running from your property.

Even the common issues drain cleaners are designed to fix might pose too much of a problem if they’re too advanced. For example, grease can build up in your pipes to such a degree that they narrow and catch other items going down the drain, creating hard-to-surmount grease clogs.

And then there are paper products. While toilet paper is designed to be flushed, other paper products — including paper towels, diapers and hygiene products — can cause major blockages. Coffee grounds, dental floss, cotton swabs and large food particles are also on the no-go list.

If you can’t clear a clog with a plunger or drain cleaner, it might be time to call a professional plumber.


What to look for when choosing a good drain cleaner

When selecting a drain cleaner, make sure the product is intended for your system. You should also match the product to the type of clog you have and the fixture plugged up, whether it’s a sink drain, tub, shower or toilet.

Is it right for your system?

Check whether the drain cleaner is suitable for the type of pipes you have. Plastic or PVC pipes might be more liable to damage than metal pipes (although heavy-duty cleaners can also harm copper pipes and stainless-steel parts). If you have a septic tank, make sure the product is labeled for use with septic systems. This is important because septic tanks use bacteria; the wrong cleaner can kill the bacteria and harm how the system works.

Is it right for your fixture?

You should check whether you can use a drain cleaner with the fixture you’re unblocking, such as a bathtub, shower, toilet or sink. For example, harsh drain cleaners might harm the enamel of a sink or bathtub.

Other drain cleaner considerations

Because of the harsh chemicals used in some drain cleaners, you might want an eco-sensitive option. These cleaners work with enzymes and natural ingredients that are easy on your skin, your plumbing system and the planet. Natural drain cleaners can effectively degrade fats, oils, greases, food waste, soap scum and hair while remaining safe for pets, people and the environment.

You should also be careful mixing different drain cleaners (for example, using another if the first doesn’t work). They could contain different chemicals that can cause toxic fumes when mixed. It’s a good idea to store drain cleaners safely away from children due to the dangers they pose.


Protect your plumbing from costly repairs with Cinch

If you want to further protect your plumbing system from unexpected breakdowns and repairs needed due to normal wear and tear, it’s worth checking out the home warranties offered by Cinch Home Services. The Cinch Built-in Systems plan covers your plumbing system and other built-in systems, such as heating and cooling. 

You’ll find that we offer peace of mind by providing home protection coverage that fits your budget, so there’s no need to flush money down the drain. Request a free quote today.


No need to let a clogged drain become a draining experience. Here’s what you need to know about different drain cleaners to solve the problem.