The Pros and Cons of Liquid Drain Cleaners

Paige Bennett
Written by Paige Bennett
Reviewed by Asya Biddle
Updated January 10, 2022
A young man washing vegetables in a kitchen sink
Photo: Westend61 / Getty Images

Drain cleaner is not always a good substitution for a plumber

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You notice water swirling slowly around the drain, and your first thought is to reach for the liquid drain cleaner—it’s a household staple, and for good reason. When it comes to clumps of hair caught in the bathroom drain or food buildup in the kitchen sink, liquid drain cleaner is a quick, easy, and inexpensive solution.

But oftentimes, you could be pouring liquid drain cleaner down the sink only to be dealing with a larger issue, like broken pipes. Still, there’s a time and place for liquid drain cleaners, so learn the pros and cons of these commercial products before using them.

Pros of Liquid Drain Cleaners

Sometimes all you need is a liquid drain cleaner to come to the rescue. 

1. Easy, Quick, and Effective

You can use liquid drain cleaner by simply following the instructions on the back of the bottle. It’s usually as simple as ventilating the working space, pouring the specified amount of cleaner into the drain, and waiting 15 to 30 minutes for the clog to dissolve. If you use the correct kind of drain cleaner for the clog at hand, it should effectively remove any food, hair, grease, or soap scum buildup.

2. Inexpensive

Drain cleaner is an affordable option for clearing clogs. You can pick up liquid drain cleaner at home improvement stores or even your local grocery store for about $5 to $15. This is less expensive than hiring a local plumber to take a look, but note that drain cleaner may not work if you don’t know the cause of the clog.

The cost to professionally clear a drain is about $140 to $340, but keep in mind that a plumber will know the best, safest way to clear the drain, making it a worthy investment if you aren’t sure what’s happening.

3. Works Well on Certain Types of Clogs

Liquid drain cleaners are a great option if you’re dealing with food or hair buildup. Because no matter how many times you may remind your family, they still think it’s okay to dump leftover spaghetti down the garbage disposal or forget to put the hair catcher in the drain before they shower. Luckily, liquid drain cleaners can help remove minor clogs.

  • Oxidizing drain cleaner: This type of drain cleaner is great for removing food-based clogs in the kitchen or clumps of hair in the bathroom drain. Oxidizing drain cleaners are made with bleach, nitrates, and/or peroxides, which will oxidize organic materials, like food or hair, to clear the clog.

  • Caustic drain cleaner: Caustic drain cleaners are made with sodium hydroxide to break up grease or soap scum. This type of drain cleaner can move through water, making it effective at reaching and dissolving the clog.

Cons of Liquid Drain Cleaners

Liquid drain cleaners can lead to serious damage to your pipes if used incorrectly. If you’re dealing with what seems to be a clog, it’s best to hire a plumber to take a look at the issue. A clog could be a sign of a more serious underlying problem that no store-bought drain cleaner can fix.

1. May Damage Sinks, Pipes, and Septic Systems

Always check the label to make sure your liquid drain cleaner is suitable for your sinks, pipes, or septic systems. Some drain cleaners may contain chemicals that can damage the porcelain or enamel of your sink.

Liquid drain cleaners also may cause corrosion or further wear and tear on pipes in older homes built before the 1970s. If you’re concerned that drain cleaner isn’t suitable for your sinks or pipes, you may try a plunger to remove a clog. Still, hiring a plumber is the best option to make sure you don’t cause any costly damage to your pipes.

As for septic systems, liquid drain cleaners may kill the helpful bacteria in the septic tank, leading to waste buildup.

2. Usually Not Eco-Friendly

Close-up of a woman’s hands washing glassware
Photo: bnenin / Adobe Stock

Drain cleaners are meant to be tough against grease and grime that build up in pipes, but that can also mean that they include ingredients that aren’t the best for the environment. Luckily, there are more and more eco-friendly liquid drain cleaners on the market these days, so look for options that are enzymatic biological, meaning the drain cleaners use a natural mixture of bacteria and enzymes to help remove clogs.

You can also make a homemade drain cleaner using baking soda, lemon juice, and hot water, or baking soda and distilled white vinegar.

  • Baking soda, lemon juice, and hot water: Mix three cups of boiling water, one cup of baking soda, and one cup of lemon juice, then pour this solution down the drain. Wait one hour for the clog to clear.

  • Baking soda and distilled white vinegar: Pour about a half-cup of baking soda into the drain, followed by a half-cup of vinegar. Finally, follow both with boiling water, then wait about one hour.

3. Doesn’t Work on All Clogs

Drain cleaners aren’t guaranteed to clear the clog. If your kid threw toy blocks into an open shower drain when you weren’t looking or decided to flush your favorite lipstick down the toilet, no amount of drain cleaner will be able to clear those issues.

Sometimes, drain cleaner can clear a clog temporarily, but it seems to reappear. That’s because liquid drain cleaner won’t address more serious underlying issues, like broken pipes or a sewer line that isn’t working properly.

4. Shouldn’t Be Used In Garbage Disposals

Many drain cleaners can be too harsh to use in garbage disposals and will deteriorate pipes. “We do not recommend homeowners use drain cleaners in their garbage disposals due to deterioration of the disposal pipes and traps," says Asya Biddle, Angi Expert Review Board member and manager of The Dust Busters janitorial company in Williamsport, PA. “The majority of drain cleaners will have directions on the back, which include the quantity to use, the situations in which it should be used, and in what types of pipes or drains that it can be used in.”

 Plus, garbage disposal clogs are often caused by larger items that are too difficult for even drain cleaners to dislodge. Instead, try plunging the drain over the disposal or using a homemade drain cleaner with bleach, vinegar, and hot water. If those don’t work, call a plumber to safely fix the garbage disposal.

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