We keep hearing that it’s not safe to use “harsh” chemicals for drain cleaning, but there’s little clear intelligence available on what constitutes a harsh chemical. When you have a clogged drain, whether it’s the kitchen sink drain or a shower drain, the first thing you usually do is buy a drain cleaning chemical from your local supermarket or hardware store. Most homeowners don’t have any real idea what they are using, however, or what the results are likely to be. This information will help you to avoid causing damage to your drains by using the wrong types of drain cleaning products.

Alkaline Drain Cleaners

Alkaline products for drain cleaning are easy to buy in your local grocery or hardware store. They are really only good for dissolving the most basic blockage, such as clumps of hair in the shower drain or kitchen grease in the sink drain. They generally contain one of the following chemicals as a base:

  • copper sulfide
  • sodium hydroxide
  • sodium hypochlorite

These chemicals are used without dilution, and you can pour them directly into the drain. They are not too harsh on the pipes but are also not very effective at resolving long-term blockages.

Acidic Drain Cleaning Products

Products containing hydrochloric or sulfuric acid are powerful drain cleaning solutions but are much more dangerous to use. They will remove pretty much any obstruction in the drain, but can also cause significant damage to the material it comes into contact with. Hydrochloric acid can cause damage to porcelain, metal and a variety of other surfaces, while sulfuric acid is a little milder but can still damage aluminum and stainless steel. Pouring it down your kitchen sink drain can cause the start of corrosion that builds over time and becomes a magnet for food particles and grease. If your drain needs this level of cleaning, it’s best to leave it to the professionals.


Enzyme-activated drain cleaning products contain organic ingredients such as bacterial cultures, which are generally non-corrosive but have been known to contain harmful bacteria such as salmonella. They don’t last long on the shelves, so you usually have to buy them from stores specializing in organic produce. Because they work on an organic level, effectively “eating” the blockage away, drain cleaning using these products takes time. You may have to wait up to 24 hours for them to work and might need to repeat the treatment. Enzymatic drain cleaning products are therefore not the fastest or most efficient option, but they are the safest for both the handler and the drains.

Copper Root Repellent

Copper root repellent is a specialized drain cleaning product, which works to prevent tree roots from blocking your drains. At one time, plumbers would wrap the pipes with copper wire to repel the tree roots, but now it’s possible for the homeowner to do the job himself. It’s usually necessary to repeat the application twice a year for the best results. Once the tree roots are grown into your drains, however, copper root repellent isn’t going to help and you will need to call a plumber to deal with the problem.

Ultimately, you can keep your drains relatively clean and healthy by using suitable drain cleaning products on a regular basis. You can actually make the problem worse, however, if you use the wrong product for the application, so unless you know what you are doing, it’s best to contact your local plumber for advice before you act.