AD It Yourself

How to Unclog a Sink in 7 Easy Steps

Most clogged sinks don’t need a plumber, they just need know-how
How to Unclog a Sink in 7 Easy Steps
Illustration: Ellie Schiltz/Getty Images

Learning how to unclog a sink is a crucial lesson for any adult who wants to save the time, stress, and money that goes into calling a plumber. Sure, a clogged sink demands immediate attention, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be you that services the pipes. With just a few tools and a bit of self-confidence, you can unclog a sink yourself almost every time. And you can unclog a shower drain or tub drain too. In most cases, all you need when a drain is clogged are common household items like hot water, vinegar, baking soda, a coat hanger, and maybe a plunger or drain snake.

Below, AD outlines exactly how to unclog a sink—whether kitchen or bathroom—and takes you through exactly what you’ll need to do depending on the stubbornness of the clog.

Clearing a clogged kitchen sink

Step 1: Turn off the garbage disposal

First things first: if your kitchen sink is equipped with an electric garbage disposal unit, make sure it is disconnected from power before you start working around down there! (Also, make sure you tried running the disposal, as that may well clear the drain clog.)

Step 2: Use hot water to break up clogs

If your sink is clogged but working slowly—maybe you’re noticing a slow drain, but it’s not so clogged that there’s standing water in the sink—try pouring a large pot of boiling water slowly down the drain opening. This can loosen and break up clogs and solve many minor issues.

Step 3: Use baking soda

Baking soda and vinegar can help clear blockage.

Photo: Getty Images

Baking soda is among the most useful household items to keep in your home-care arsenal. It’s good for baking, cleaning, and surprisingly, unclogging sinks. Again, assuming the clog is not so complete that it prevents all draining, try pouring a cup of baking soda into the drain. Follow up with a cup of white vinegar. Let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes, then try running the tap and seeing if the drain cleared.

Step 4: Grab a plunger

If your sink is still clogged at this point, it’s time to grab a plunger. Moisten the area around the drain fully and let water flow into the stopped-up pipe, then place the plunger flat over the drain and run the tap until the plunger head is partially submerged. Now plunge up and down with quick motions. Hopefully, the clog will be dislodged and flushed.

Step 5: Grab a drain snake

Drain snakes are coiled steel wires that break up clogs.

Photo: Getty Images

Properly called an auger, you can buy a drain snake at any hardware store (or find it online), and easily connect it to almost any common drill. Gently feed the snake down into the drain until it meets resistance, then run the drill. Once you are able to move the snake further into the drain, run the drill again, then try running the water to see if the clog cleared. Note: Don’t snake a disposal unit!

If you don’t own a drain snake, you can try a jury-rigged version using a wire coat hanger. Simply unwind a metal coat hanger into a long, thin wire, pull it straight—and ideally make a little hook at the end using needle nose pliers—and then slowly feed it into the clogged drain, rotating as you go. You may well be able to break up and push the blockage down, or else catch the jammed material and pull it out, unclogging the drain fully.

Step 6: Check the P-trap

Clogs can form in or around P-traps. Removing this piece of plumbing can make it easy to locate blocks.

Photo: Andrey Popov/Getty Images

At this point, we’re clearly dealing with a stubborn clog, so it’s time to attack from another direction—namely, below. And don’t worry about turning off the water for this process, you won’t need to—though there will be some drips. Place a pan under the pipes beneath your kitchen sink (a plastic drawer works well too) to catch that excess water and then identify the P-trap. This is a curved piece of pipe used to ensure a bit of water stays between the open drain and the rest of your home’s plumbing, thus preventing rising odors. Sometimes clogs form in this piece of piping, and removing it can make it easier to clear the backed-up area.

There will be connectors holding this piece of piping in place that can usually be loosened by hand. A rubber glove can improve your grip, and a pipe wrench can be used if needed, but take care not to damage plastic connectors. With the P-trap removed, see if the clog is in this piece of piping or in the pipes on either side of it. If so, use a coat hanger to remove the blockage.

Step 7: Snake the wall

If the clog is not in the P-trap or the pipes right under the kitchen sink, it must be further down in the system. Use your drain snake and drill to try to clear that clog further down in the wall. You will already have easy access to these pipes with the P-trap being removed, so you can simply feed the snake down into those pipes, operating the drill to rotate it periodically. If you still have no luck on the DIY unclogging of it all, call a professional plumber. (Note: These same steps work for most laundry room sinks or utility sinks too.)

Clearing a clogged bathroom sink

The approach to clearing a bathroom sink clog is quite similar to dealing with a clogged kitchen sink. However, it’s often harder to access the pipes, and the pipes are often narrower and harder to work with. Also, these clogs are likely caused by a buildup of hair, soap scum, and other grime (yes, gross) that can be very stubborn. Nonetheless, you can do this! Consider the following steps.

Step 1: Remove the stopper

First, remove the stopper by gently lifting it up and, if needed, rotate it counter-clockwise to remove it from its pivot rod. You’ll reinsert it by doing the opposite. Now, let’s clear that bathroom sink clog!

Step 2: Try hot water

Yep, same as the kitchen sink: Pour a large pot of boiling water slowly down the bathroom sink drain, hoping it loosens and breaks up the clog.

Step 3: Use baking soda and vinegar

Again the same approach: Pour one cup of baking soda into the drain, then follow that with one cup of white vinegar. Let it sit for 10 minutes, then run the water and see if things cleared.

Step 4: Plunge it

Smaller clogs are easy to dislodge with a plunger.

Photo: Andrey Popov/Getty Images

Assuming you can fit a plunger into the bathroom sink in such a way that you can form a seal, go ahead and form that seal. Run the water to submerge the plunger, then pump away and see if the clog dislodges.

Step 5: Try a drain snake

Many bathroom sinks simply won’t accommodate a drain snake based on their narrow shape and the hardware that works the stopper. If a snake does not feed into the first few inches of the drain with relative ease, don’t force it.

Step 6: Remove the P-trap

Like the kitchen sink, removing the P-trap can make it easier to access and remove clogs.

Photo: Getty Images

Your bathroom sink has a P-trap just like the kitchen sink. Unscrew it and look for the clog, which may be in the curved P-trap (which will be installed just like it is under the kitchen sink) or may be just before or after it. Clear it with a wire coat hanger if you find it.

Step 7: Snake the wall

If the clog is not between the sink and the P-trap, go ahead and try to snake the pipes leading off into the wall. If you can’t get things cleared that way, the issue is farther down still and may well be out of your hands. At this point, call a plumber.

Can I use a chemical drain cleaner to unclog my sink?

Chemical drain cleaners can indeed punch through many clogs with aplomb, but they also damage the very pipes they are meant to serve. It’s generally best to avoid their use, or to make them a seldom used last resort. Well, next to last resort, as a call to a professional is always the final move.

How do you unblock a sink drain naturally?

Read through the first few steps mentioned above to learn how to unclog a sink naturally without any harsh chemicals or special tools. The long and short of natural drain unclogging (and proper drain cleaning even without clogs involved) is to use boiling water and a mixture of baking soda and vinegar.

What will unclog a drain fast?

If the natural approach of boiling water and/or vinegar and baking soda doesn’t unclog your drain, the next step to try is a plunger. This can quickly dislodge a clog thanks to the suction and pressure that the plunger creates.

What is the quickest way to unblock a drain?

The fastest way to unblock a drain is, ironically, to be methodical about things. Go through the steps as outlined above, because they are laid out in the order of ease. There may be no need to grab a drain snake and start disassembling pipes when just a good pot full of hot water would have cleared that drain. Try each step, then quickly move on until you have success.

What is the safest way to unclog a drain?

The safest way to unclog a drain is to follow the steps laid out here, stopping if you ever feel you are out of your depth. Sure, anyone can dump hot water and basic household ingredients down a blocked drain, but if you don’t feel comfortable using power tools or taking apart pipes, don’t do it! (And if you do proceed to more advanced steps, wear rubber gloves while you work.) Most plumbers can take care of a clogged drain for less than $100.