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What Is Drain Cleaner, And How Does It Work?

Homeowners know the hassle of dealing with a clogged drain. As homeowners, you will probably deal with at least one clogged drain every year.

Drains can only do so much when taking in organic materials from the kitchen or bathroom sink. Grease, food particles, hair, and even paper can clog your pipes or slow down the draining process.

Our first reaction when dealing with these clogged sinks is to grab a bottle of chemical drain cleaner. But did you know that these chemical cleaners can do more harm than good?

drain cleaner in sink

Chemical drain cleaners can come in liquid, gel, or powder form. These are what you’ll commonly find in hardware stores to help you with your blocked drains.

What Is Drain Cleaner?

A drain cleaner is a chemical product that helps unblock or unclog sewer pipes, wastewater drains, kitchen pipes, bathroom pipes, and other plumbing fixtures.

Organic material such as grease, hair, and leftover food bits accumulate in these plumbing fixtures overtime. When these organic materials are clumped up in one spot, they can restrict water flow, resulting in improper water drainage and other plumbing problems.

For the average Joe, it will be too difficult to pinpoint which part of the pipe is clogged, and so they use a chemical drain cleaner.

Chemical drain cleaners can come in solid or liquid form and are available in hardware stores. But the more acidic ones are only sold to licensed plumbers.

Types of Chemical Drain Cleaners

You’ll find three common chemical drain cleaners, each used for different situations.
You’ll only need a caustic or oxidizing type of cleaner for minor clogs. But a more oversized clog will require you to work with an acidic cleaner.

But before you go and buy a chemical cleaner, you should probably know a thing or two about them first:

Caustic Drain Cleaners

Caustic drain cleaners are primarily used for minor clogs in kitchen sinks or grease traps. Caustic cleaners usually contain lye or caustic potash as part of their main ingredients. Lye gives out electrons to the blocking substance, resulting in heat generation. Once the heat is generated, grease becomes thinner and easier to dissolve because it now possesses a soap-like texture. Because they’re heavier than water, caustic drain cleaners can reach the clogged parts through stagnant or standing water.

Caustic drain cleaners are basic solutions, so they will be low on the acidity scale but have a higher pH level.

Oxidizing Drain Cleaners

Oxidizing drain cleaners work like caustic cleaners, but with minor differences. Instead of giving electrons, electrons are taken away from organic matter through oxidation.

Oxidizing cleaners contain ingredients such as nitrates and bleach, and they are the most popular type of drain cleaners on the market.

These drain cleaners generate heat once combined with water to dissolve the clogged material.
Oxidizing cleaners work well on organic matter, often used for shower drains, toilets, and bathroom sinks.

Oxidizing drain cleaners are more acidic than caustic cleaners because of their ingredients. Like the caustic cleaners, oxidizing drain cleaners are heavier than water, so they’ll quickly move through standing or stagnant water.

Acidic Drain Cleaners

The harshest type of cleaner on the market, acidic cleaners, aren’t as frequently used as oxidizing or caustic cleaners.
This type of cleaner contains ingredients such as hydrochloric or sulfuric acid. A chemical reaction is triggered by creating hydronium ions within the clogged material. The ions attract electrons from the clog, releasing heat and melting away the congealed grease.

This cleaner should only be used for the worst types of clogs because they’re harmful to your entire plumbing system and health. You won’t find this cleaner in a hardware store because these are sold only to a plumber (sometimes).

Acidic drain cleaners are the harshest type and are very seldom used. They contain sulphuric or hydrochloric acid ingredients and work by creating hydronium ions in a chemical reaction with the clogged material.

This type of cleaner should only be used in worst-case scenarios. They can be very harmful not only to your plumbing system but also to your health.

What’s The Issue With Chemical Drain Cleaners?

There are a couple of issues we have with using chemical drain cleaners. First, these products generate heat, which will soften clogged materials and your PVC pipes. But the damage to these PVC pipes is rare as long as you follow the instructions.

Another disadvantage here is their effects on our health. Chemical cleaners are incredibly toxic if swallowed and can burn your eyes, skin, and mucous membranes. Acidic cleaners can even burn through clothing.

Some cleaners may even release toxic fumes, and if instructions are not followed correctly, you put yourself at risk for explosions. Chemical cleaners can also kill beneficial bacteria in the septic systems as soon as they go through the pipes.

Safety Tips To Using Chemical Drain Cleaners

  • When using these cleaners, read the directions and follow the instructions accordingly.
  • There will be warnings written on their labels on what else you shouldn’t mix with these cleaners. Take the warnings seriously and protect yourself by wearing rubber gloves while using the cleaners.
  • Be sure that the area you’re going to use the cleaner in is well-ventilated, and keep children and pets away while you’re working.
  • Some drain cleaners will tell you to wait at least 15 minutes after pouring the product before flushing it down with hot water. If the drain is still clogged, you may need to repeat the entire process.
  • Lastly, don’t mix different drain cleaners.

Commonly Asked Questions About Drain Cleaners

How long does drain cleaner take to work?

Some drain cleaners will tell you to wait at least 15 minutes after pouring the product before flushing it down with hot water. If the drain is still clogged, you may need to repeat the entire process.

Does drain cleaner work on hair?

Yes, drain cleaners work on hair and other organic material. Chemical drain cleaners dissolve or burn through the clogs. After 15 minutes or so, you flush it down with running water. What’s left of the clogged material will wash away.

Which drain cleaner works best for grease and food?

Oxidizing chemical drain cleaners work best for grease, food, and other organic materials.

Does drain cleaner work on toilets?

Yes, drain cleaners work on toilets. Just remember not to use a plunger in conjunction with a drain cleaner.

Do Plumbers Recommend Using Liquid Drain Cleaners?

plumber fixing sink

Plumbers err on the side of caution when using drain cleaners, especially if one does not have any plumbing experience or protective equipment.

Your pipes are at risk for corrosion due to the acidic nature of these chemicals. On top of that, there’s no guarantee that the chemical drain cleaners will 100% remove the clogged material.
What happens here is that the clogged material will still be there. The chemical cleaner did just burn a hole or passage big enough to let water through.


The best alternative to chemical drain cleaners is to hire a professional plumber or professional drain cleaning service. They have the necessary equipment and experience to unclog your pipes without compromising your health and plumbing system.

They’ll be using mechanical tools to remove the clogs and even clean your pipes without damaging your pipes, drains, sinks, and kitchen and bathroom fixtures.

If you’re dealing with a clogged drain and need help un-clogging your drain, you can learn more about our drain cleaning services here.


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