Blocked bathtub drains are a pain, and as well as being inconvenient, they can also create some nasty smells.
If your drain is blocked, you need to take steps to remedy the situation ASAP – and in this post, we explain several methods for how to unclog a bathroom drain that you can try yourself before you resort to calling out a plumber.
What causes bathtub drains to become blocked?
Before we talk about how to unclog bathtub drains, let’s start by thinking about how they get blocked in the first place – because knowing how they get clogged will help us understand how to unblock them.
The main culprit for bathtub drain clogs is hair. When you take a bath or a shower and shampoo your hair, a few hairs may fall out into the bathwater and be washed away when you empty the bath.
One or two hairs might not be a problem, but with time, the hairs build up into a tangled mass, causing a blockage to form.
Then, once the blockage begins, it also collects any dirt and grime that gets washed down the drain along with soap scum and anything else like fingernail clippings and hair from shaving. Mineral buildups can also contribute.
At first, the tangled mass will cause the water to drain more slowly, but eventually, it will completely clog the pipes, and you won’t be able to drain your bath at all.
This can happen to anyone, but if at least one person in your household has long hair, a bathtub drain clog can develop much quicker.
Some things you can try to unblock a clogged drain
So now we know the basics of how and why bathroom drains become clogged, let’s look at a few techniques you can try to unclog your drain – going from the quickest and easiest to the most extreme.
1. Clean the stopper and strainer
Sometimes, the tangle of hair blocking your drain can form around the stopper or strainer of your bath plug, in which case, it’s very easy to deal with.
What you need:
- Flathead screwdriver or Phillips screwdriver
- Rubber gloves
Step1. Remove strainer and clean it
Put on the rubber gloves and then simply remove the strainer (the piece designed to catch hair and prevent it from going down the drain) and remove any hair and gunk that it has tangled in it.
Step 2. Remove stopper and clean it
Next, remove the stopper from the plug. You may need to use a flathead screwdriver to prize it off, or you may need to unscrew it. Once you get it off, give it a clean and remove any hair and gunk that’s tangled in it.
Step 3. Replace the stopper and strainer
After cleaning the stopper and strainer, put them back in place the way they were before you started.
Step 4. Run water to test
Run some water into the bathtub to see if it now goes down the drain. If it does, you have already resolved the problem.
Tip: There are many different types of bath stopper, so it’s not easy to explain how to remove them because there are so many variations.
Some can be prized off while others need to be unscrewed. If yours has screws, be careful not to drop them down the drain as you remove them.
Most people will be able to work out how to do it from looking at the stopper in their tub, and if not, you can always check the instructions that came with it – if you still have them to hand.
2. How to Unclog a Bathtub Drain with Boiling water
If the problem isn’t due to hair around the stopper and strainer, the next step to try is the boiling water technique. This method is simple and relies on hot water dissolving any soap scum and dirt that might be causing the blockage.
What you’ll need:
Step 1. Boil water
Boil a full kettle of water. Fill it right up because you’re going to use it all.
Step 2. Pour the water down the drain
Pour the water slowly down the drain, being careful not to splash and scald yourself.
Step 3. Check results and repeat if necessary
Run some water into the tub to see if it now drains away normally. If not, you can try repeating the method a couple of times to see if it gives better results. If not, you can move on to the next method.
3. How to Unclog a Bathtub Drain with Baking soda and vinegar
Vinegar contains acetic acid, which helps dissolve blockages. When combined with baking soda – also known as bicarbonate of soda – it can work wonders with blocked drains.
What you’ll need:
- Bicarbonate of soda
- White vinegar
Step 1. Pour half a cup of bicarbonate of soda into the drain
Measure out half a cup of bicarbonate of soda and pour it into the blocked drain.
Step 2. Pour in some vinegar and leave it to act
Pour at least two or three cups of vinegar into the drain. You should hear it bubbling and fizzing as it reacts with the bicarbonate of soda. Leave the mix in the drain for at least half an hour.
Step 3. Run some warm water down the drain
Run some warm water down the drain to see if the blockage has been cleared. If not, you can try it once or twice more – and then move on to the next technique.
Tip: Use cleaning-grade bicarbonate of soda and white vinegar because they are much cheaper than the food-grade versions. However, if you don’t have white vinegar, food-grade vinegar will have much the same effect.
Tip: You can also try pouring a bottle of Coke into the drain with the baking soda – Coca-Cola is slightly acidic, and the carbonation and fizzing will also help to shift the blockage. If you don’t want to use real Coke, generic cola brands usually work just as well.
Method 4: How to Unclog a Bathtub Drain with Plunger
Using a plunger to unclog a drain is a tried and tested method. Here’s how to do it.
What you’ll need:
- Duct tape or old cloth
Step 1. Cover the overflow
For the plunger to work, you first need to cover the overflow drain. You can do this easily by taping over it with duct tape – or if not, you can remove the overflow cover and stuff an old cloth in there.
If you don’t block the overflow, each time you use the plunger, you will just be sucking air in through the overflow, and it won’t have any effect on the blockage.
Step 2. Place the plunger over the drain and fill the tub with a few inches of water
Next, place the plunger over the drain and fill the tub with a few inches of warm water.
Step 3. Push the plunger down and then pull it up several times
Push down in the plunger so it forces air down the drain then pull it back up to suck the air back up again. This should create enough suction to shift the blockage in the drain, and if you give it a few more plunges, it may be enough to dislodge the clog.
Step 4. Allow the water to drain off
Remove the plunger and allow the bath water to drain off. If it goes down the drain normally, you have solved the problem. If not, the drain is still blocked.
If the drain is still blocked, you can try again a couple more times and then move on to the next technique.
5. How to Unclog a Bathtub Drain with Wire coat hanger
If you’ve got this far and the clog still won’t shift, it means it’s likely to be extremely tangled and encrusted, so you’ll need to physically pull it out. You can start by trying to do this with a wire coat hanger.
What you’ll need:
- Wire coat hanger
- Pliers (to bend the coat hanger)
- Plastic bag (for debris)
Step 1. Bend the coat hanger to make a hook
Take the coat hanger and, using the pliers, bend it so you have a small hook on the end of a long piece of wire. The hook needs to be small or it won’t fit into the drain.
Step 2. Remove the stopper
Remove the stopper from the bathtub. How you do this will depend on your tub, as explained above.
Step 3. Push the coat hanger into the drain and try to hook out the blockage
Push the coat hanger into the drain to see if you can feel any soft resistance. If you can, it means you’ve reached the blockage, so try to hook it out with the coat hanger.
If you manage to hook anything, pull it up and put it into the plastic bag. Be warned that it will probably be quite nasty and have an unpleasant smell.
Step 4. Keep hooking until you can’t feel anything else
If you pull anything up, keep feeling around in the drain with the hook to be sure there’s no more down there.
Step 5. Run water to test
When you’re satisfied that you’ve hooked up everything that’s down there, run some water to see if it drains. If it does, the blockage has been cleared. If not, you’ll need to move on to the next method.
6. How to Unclog a Bathtub Drain with Drain snake
If the coat hanger method doesn’t work, it means the blockage is probably further down the drain, in which case, you’ll need to try using a drain snake – also known as a plumber’s snake.
Drain snakes are coils of metal cord with hooks on the end that are designed to go much deeper into the drain to hook out blockages that are further down. Here’s how to use one.
What you’ll need:
- Drain snake (can be bought from a hardware store)
- Plastic bag
- Electric drill (optional)
Step 1. Remove the drain stopper
Remove the drain stopper with the screwdriver. How you do it will depend on the type you have in your bathtub.
Step 2. Push the head of the drain snake into the drain
Begin pushing the head of the drain snake into the drain. Keep going until you meet any resistance.
Step 3. Navigate any bends in the pipe
If the blockage is a long way down the pipe, you will probably have to negotiate a bend or two. You will know when you come to a bend because the snake will hit something hard and won’t go any further.
To get around a bend, keep turning it gently and try to coax it into the bend. Once you manage to get it to go past the bend, continue feeding it into the drain.
Step 4. Hook up the blockage
When you come to the blockage, you will feel a different kind of soft resistance. When this happens, keep turning the snake so that its hooks become firmly attached to whatever is blocking your drain.
Tip: Some models allow you to attach an electric drill to the drain snake to spin it into the blockage without you needing to do this manually.
Step 5. Pull the blockage up
Once you’re happy that you’ve hooked the blockage, wind the snake back up to see what you have caught. Again, if you’ve hooked the blockage, be prepared for a nasty, smelly mess being hooked on the end of the snake. When it comes up, put it into the plastic bag for disposal.
Step 6. Test by pouring water into the drain
Pour some water down the drain. If it drains off normally, you’ve finally solved the problem. If not, you’re going to have to try something more extreme.
Tip: Once you’ve finished the job, make sure you clean all the hair from your drain snake and pack it away for later. Bathtub clogs are common, and you may find you need to use the snake again.
7. How to Unclog a Bathtub Drain with Chemical unblocking product
If you still haven’t managed to unclog your bathtub drain with any of the methods above, you can try a chemical drain unblocking product.
There are many on the market, and they’re all different, so if you want to try, simply buy a bottle, read the instructions carefully and follow what it tells you.
These products are designed to dissolve blockages, so they usually do the job. However, if your drain is still blocked after using a chemical product, you should call in a professional plumber to take a look at your pipes.
Should you use chemicals to unclog your drain?
Using a chemical drain cleaner to unblock a clogged drain should be seen as a last resort only and avoided if at all possible.
In their favor, they are usually highly effective at getting the job done, so you can be fairly certain that once you pour the product into your drain, the problem will be solved.
However, there are many reasons why we shouldn’t use them.
First, they work by dissolving whatever is clogging your drain rather than breaking it up and moving it on – which means that with repeated use, they will also eat away at your pipes. In the end, they will burn holes in your plumbing, and this may cause expensive damage.
Second, if you don’t use them correctly, they can also damage your bathtub and its fixtures, something you want to avoid.
Third, these products usually consist of harsh chemicals that can also damage your skin and eyes, so you need to be very careful when using them.
Finally, they are incredibly bad for the environment. If they seep out of your pipes and into the groundwater, they may poison local plant and animal life – and they can even reach the human water supply, which means you’ll be polluting the water you and your family drink.
So for all these reasons, it’s best to avoid using chemical drain cleaners to unblock your drains – unless you have no other option.
How can you prevent drains from becoming clogged?
The simplest way to prevent drains from becoming blocked in the first place is to stop hair from being washed down there. You can do this by placing a strainer over the plughole to catch the hair when you empty your bath.
Why do clogged drains smell so bad?
If your drain gets blocked, you may notice a musty, sulfurous smell in your bathroom.
This is because the clog collects all the soap scum and dirt that gets washed down the drain and is also a breeding place for mold and bacteria, which create that awful stink.
This is the same reason you should be ready for a foul odor if you manage to hook a blockage out of your drain.
Is it ok to ignore a slow-draining bathtub?
If your bathtub drains slowly but isn’t completely blocked, you might be tempted to ignore it, but this would be a mistake.
A slow-draining tub is a sign that a ball of hair, soap scum and dirt is forming somewhere in your drain, but that isn’t yet big enough or encrusted enough to cause a complete blockage.
This means if you take action now, it may be easier to shift with one of the less extreme methods – but if you leave it to grow into a full blockage, you may find it much harder to resolve later on.
Act early to unclog your drain
As we have seen, there are several ways to unclog a bathtub drain, and many of them don’t require much time or any special equipment.
However, more serious blockages will need tougher techniques to shift, which is why it’s important to clear any potential blockages as early as you can.