Caustic vs. Non Caustic Drain Cleaner

According to Cornell University, College of Human Ecology, drain cleaners are the most caustic chemicals in most households. Drain cleaners contain harmful acids developed for dissolving grease, hair and food particles in clogged drains. Commercial drain cleaners are available in both liquid and crystal form. Both of these cleaners contain sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid. Non-caustic drain cleaners made from ingredients that are safe for your family and your plumbing pipes.

Sodium Hydroxide

Consider the facts about caustic and non-caustic drain cleaners before deciding which to use.
Sodium hydroxide is an ingredient in many drain cleaners.

The Environmental Health and Safety Board classifies sodium hydroxide as a severe poison. A more common name for sodium hydroxide is lye. If you inhale sodium hydroxide, it causes irritation or severe damage to your lungs depending upon your exposure.

Swallowing sodium hydroxide results in serious burns and scarring to your mouth, esophagus and stomach. Ingesting this poisonous chemical often causes death. Even if you do not show immediate symptoms of bleeding or vomiting, they can show up days after you ingested the chemical.

If you get any sodium chloride on your skin or in your eyes, serious burns can occur. Scarring of skin and blindness is possible.

Sulfuric Acid

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) classifies sulfuric acid as a toxic chemical that is hazardous to skin and the respiratory system. This acid burns your skin and harms your teeth and gums. NFPA also states that sulfuric acid can result in cancer if you inhale too much or expose your skin to the chemical for too long.

Hydrochloric Acid

The NFPA rates hydrochloric acid as a severe poison. Ingredient labels may also list this chemical as muriatic acid or hydrogen chloride. If you inhale hydrochloric acid fumes, it can cause choking, nose irritation, damage to your lungs and even death.

Swallowing hydrogen chloride will burn your mouth, throat and intestines. Vomiting and diarrhea are other symptoms that could occur.

Touching hydrogen chloride will burn your skin or eyes. Discoloring of your skin and skin ulcers can occur, depending upon the concentration of hydrogen chloride.


A plunger can dislodge many drain clogs without using caustic chemicals.

William Hammet, housing specialist of North Carolina State University, cautions consumers about labels that say “non-toxic.” The federal government does not regulate this term and many household cleaning products actually contain poisonous chemicals even if the label says otherwise.

Homemade drain cleaners ensure that none of the ingredients cause harmful side effects. Hammett recommends using a ratio of half baking soda to half of white vinegar and pouring the mixture into the clogged drain. After about five minutes, pour boiling water into the drain to dislodge the clog.

Another method for unclogging a drain without the use of any chemical products is a flexible snake. A snake is a long, coiled, metal rope that you insert into the drain, moving it back and forth until it breaks through the clog.

Try using a plunger to unclog the drain. After a few plunges, the clog usually dislodges and moves down the drain.

About the Author

Karen Curley has more than 18 years experience in health and nutrition, specializing in healthy food choices for families. She received USDA certification in food components, nutrient sources, food groups and infant/child nutrition, and holds a B.A. in English from the University of Massachusetts. Curley is also an avid gardener, home renovator, Collie breeder, dog groomer and dog trainer.