How to Clear a Clogged Sink or Tub

Clear your drains using a combination of mechanical methods to remove hair and chemicals to kill bacteria.

When a drain becomes clogged in a bathroom sink or in the bathtub, the culprit -- more often than not -- is hair. As strands hook onto the strainer or the pop-up stopper mechanism, they collect soap and other debris, and eventually water slows down and finally stops flowing altogether. When that happens, it would be great if you could just pour a chemical into the drain to fix the problem, but things are seldom that easy.

Using Drain Cleaners

The Big Guns

The ingredients in many commercially available drain cleaners are either highly alkaline or highly acidic. Some of these chemicals include:

  • sodium hydroxide, otherwise known as caustic soda or lye
  • sulfuric acid
  • hydrochloric acid
  • sodium hypochlorite, or bleach

While drain cleaning formulations containing these chemicals are powerful tools in the hands of a plumber trying to clear a blocked sewage line, they must be handled with care and are probably best avoided by homeowners.

Gentle Drain Cleaners

Recognizing that sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid and bleach may be drastic choices for occasional use, many manufacturers offer safer options, including:

  • citric acid
  • phosphoric acid
  • enzyme-based drain cleaners

Use any of these products according to the directions on the containers and give it plenty of time to work -- anywhere from several hours to one or two days.

In addition, vinegar is often recommended on DIY sites because of the acetic acid it contains. Mixing it with baking soda -- which is alkaline -- produces a cleansing foam that can dislodge debris while deodorizing the pipes.

You may be able to clear part of the clog with a drain cleaner. You need one that dissolves soap, and while there are many candidates, not all are chemicals you want to introduce into your pipes, the municipal sewage system or the septic tank.

Procedure for Clearing the Drain

Because drain cleaners aren't always effective in removing hair, it's usually better to do this manually. Once you've cleared it out, an enzyme cleaner or a vinegar/baking soda volcano can get rid of the odor.

  1. Remove the tub strainer or stopper or the sink stopper. Some disassembly is usually required.

  2. Pull hair out the drain manually, using a coat hanger or a plastic zip tool. In some cases, you may beed to disassemble the sink P-trap to get debris out.

  3. Fill the tub or sink with an inch of water and plunge the drain to move debris that you can't reach. If you don't notice an improvement in water flow, clear this debris with a drain auger.

  4. Pour an enzyme-based drain cleaner down the drain as soon as water starts flowing. Avoid using the fixture for a day or so to give the cleaner time to work. As an alternative, pour 1/2 cup of baking soda in the drain and follow this with 1/2 cup of vinegar. Close the drain while the mixture foams, then flush with hot water after 10 minutes.

  5. Tip

    If your drain is stopped, and you just want to get it flowing again, pour in a bottle of cola and wait overnight. The soft drink contains phosphoric acid, which should eat its way through the blockage. Later, when you have more time, you can manually clear out the hair and gunk.