How to Unclog a Shower Drain Like a Boss

published Feb 3, 2018
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(Image credit: Diana Paulson)

Hair, soap scum, and mineral build-up are all bathroom realities, and at some point in your life, you’ll have to ask yourself, “How do I unclog my bathtub? How do I clear my shower drain? How do I keep them from getting clogged in the first place?!?” These ten methods — listed in order of increasing intensity, from “Keeping Things Clear” to “Renting Power Equipment” — will keep your bathtub and shower truly clean, inside and out.

#1: Clog Prevention & Cleaning with Baking Soda

To avoid getting major clogs in the first place, use this method from Martha Stewart once a month:

Drains are one of the trickiest (and often yuckiest) areas you have to clean in a bathroom. When you use baking soda, however, you have a safe and very effective way to deodorize drains. Pour about 1/2 cup baking soda down the drain and wait for it to bubble up. Let it sit for about 10 minutes before pouring very hot (not boiling) water down the drain. Read more...

Here Bob Vila disagrees: he recommends using boiling water if you have metal pipes, but not if you have PVC pipes.

#2: Baking Soda & Vinegar

Jolie Kerr, queen of clean and my go-to resource for all cleaning matters, has a technique for improving your slow drain situation before a full-fledged clog develops. Spoiler alert: you get to make a volcano!

Pour a half cup of baking soda followed by a half cup of vinegar down your drain. Let that combination — which will bubble and foam up when mixed — work its way through the drain for 15 to 30 minutes. When the time is up, flush the drain with very hot water . . . If, after performing that bit of sorcery, the drain is still running a bit slowly, repeat until the water drains freely. Read more…

Again: boiling water increases the magic if you have metal pipes, but use hot water if your pipes are PVC (or you’re unsure).

#3: Plunger Method

Jolie Kerr mentioned in passing that plungers “can be used on sink and tub drains as well as toilets,” so I had to investigate. Here’s Bob Vila’s detailed plunging method:

Using a standard cup plunger, start by covering the overflow drain, if there is one, with a wet towel . . . To further improve the plunger’s suction power, create a tighter seal by lining the rim of the cup with a small amount of petroleum jelly.

Next, place the rubber bell securely over the sink or shower drain and completely submerge the bell in the standing water . . . Push down on the handle—gently at first—forcing the air out. Then continue plunging with quick and deliberate thrusts, directing the pressure down the drain without lifting the plunger enough to break the seal. Continue this action for approximately 20 seconds. When you pull the plunger away, the clog should be cleared. Read more…

This is a method that does require some muscle, obviously, but it’s quick and relatively mess-free—and you probably already own a plunger.

#4: Wire Hanger Method

A clogged drain is one of those household situations that doesn’t occur very often (so you don’t want to buy specialized equipment to deal with it), but when it does occur, you really need to deal with it. Now. Bob Vila has a technique that’s quick and makes use of those random dry cleaning hangers you have lying around.

For a really nasty clog, you’ll need to roll up your sleeves and snake the drain. It’s easier than you think (though every bit as disgusting as it sounds): Put on rubber gloves if you have them, then use a screwdriver to unscrew or pry off the shower drain cover. Once that’s removed, straighten out a wire coat hanger, retaining a tiny hook on the end. Feed the wire down the drain to fish out any hair, accumulated soap scum, or other debris that’s causing the clog. After you’ve pulled out all that you can, pour boiling water down the drain and replace the drain cover. Read more…

Remember, only use truly boiling water if you’re sure your pipes are metal.

#5: Zip Tie Method

SF Gate featured the super cheap, super easy (but still gross) method that we use in my household. I guess it’s too late to patent it:

Cut notches in a long zip-tie cable to form “teeth,” and then shove one end in the drain to remove clogs. Several zip ties can connect together to form a longer snake. Keep the trash can nearby as you snake the drain; this will decrease the likelihood of goop getting on the floor. Cotton swabs and tissue can also help remove goop that drops partially in and partially out of the drain. Use care when snaking a drain so the end near the drain doesn’t whip up and hit you or fling drain scum. Read more…

That final sentence is so traumatizing; please promise me that you’ll all protect yourself from flying drain scum.

#6: Cable Auger

If plunging didn’t do the trick, you’ll want to buy a cable auger, also known as a drain snake. They’re about $20, or a bit pricier if you need a quite long model. Once you have your auger, head over to This Old House for the detailed methodology. Here’s the gist:

Remove the overflow plate from the end of the tub; the stopper linkage will come out with it. Feed about 30 in. of cable down the overflow tube. Push forward while turning the hand crank . . . Keep cranking on the auger until the cable passes all the way through the P-trap that lies underneath the tub. Retrieve the cable, then run several gallons of hot water down the drain. Read more…

To reiterate, you’ll be snaking the overflow hole, not the drain!

#7: Electric Power Auger

I can’t imagine you’d ever need to own a power drain cleaner, so this is a rental situation for sure. An electric auger will set you back about $25/day, and it’s exactly what you need if your situation is as described by This Old House:

For a very large clog or one that’s far from the fixture, rent an electric power auger . . . This machine—basically a large cable auger powered by an electric motor—is very effective at cutting through virtually any clog, even tangled tree roots. Read more…

If it can handle tree roots, it can totally handle your hair!

#8: Enzyme Cleaners

Consumer Reports recommends mechanical unclogging methods such as the ones above, but acknowledges that biological cleaners (or enzyme cleaners) can be effective—they just take their sweet time about it. If you have more time than elbow grease, this might be the perfect method for you:

Biological methods use enzymes and bacteria that feed on organic matter in clogs to clear drains. But they require time to work, and cleaning products with bleach can destroy their bacteria and enzymes, and stunt their effectiveness. Read more…

Their highest-rated enzyme cleaner—scoring only 55%—was CitraDrain. It is available from Amazon, and the instructions recommend not using the shower for 8 hours after the product has been used.

#9: Thrift Pipe Cleaner

Chemical drain cleaners are very dangerous—to your body and potentially your pipes—and should be used as a last resort. Let’s face it: no matter how much we might care about our health and our pipes, not all of us can afford a $100+ visit from a plumber and might need to try a $10+ option first.

When Consumer Reports did its major review of drain cleaners in 2006, it staunchly did not recommend using chemical cleaners, so please proceed with caution. However, there is a cleaner that they did not review that also garnered praise from Jolie Kerr: Thrift Pipe Cleaner. She notes that while chemical cleaners can corrode pipes, this one “gets high marks for its good work.” It’s also garnered 4.4 stars on Amazon, and is only $14.29 for a one-pound bag. The main ingredient is sodium hydroxide, so proceed accordingly.

#10: Call The Pros

We’re hoping that one of the above methods does the trick for you, and while we recommend working your way through a few of them—in order of increasing intensity—there are times to admit defeat. While a plumber’s visit is not cheap, hiring a pro could save you money down the road. As This Old House reminds us:

Remember, if you can’t clear a clog after a few attempts, turn the job over to a drain-cleaning service or licensed plumber. Exerting too much force can permanently damage a pipe or fixture.

Don’t think of it as admitting defeat! Think of it as making an informed decision that’s the best option for the health of your home—and your peace of mind.

How do you unclog your shower drain? Please share what has worked—and hasn’t worked—for you!