How to Use a Standard Drain Plunger

Plunger being used to unclog a sink drain

The Spruce / Sarah Lee

A clogged drain is one of the most common plumbing problems a homeowner can face. It's also one of the easiest DIY repairs. In most cases, such clogs occur because hair and soap scum block the drain trap—the curved section of the drainpipe that lies directly below the drain opening. Such clogs are usually easily cleared by using an ordinary drain plunger.

The first step is to make sure you have the right type of plunger. A standard cup-style drain plunger is a type designed for clearing sink, tub, and shower clogs. This plunger has a shallow bell-shaped dome with a flat bottom rim that seals to the basin around the drain hole. A different type of tool, the toilet or closet plunger, has a tall dome and a flange that extends from the dome's bottom edge to seal inside the drain opening in the bottom of the toilet bowl. You can use a toilet plunger on a sink only if you tuck the flange up into the dome; otherwise, it won't seal to the sink basin.​

What Is a Drain Plunger?

A standard drain plunger is a classic plumbing hand tool that dislodges drain clogs using simple hydraulic pressure created when the rubber cup of the tool is sealed against a drain opening and the handle is pushed up and down rapidly. This cup-style drain plunger will work on all sink, tub, and shower drains, but it's not a good choice for toilets, where a special tool, known as a toilet plunger, or closet plunger, is the preferred option.

Drain Plunger vs. Drain Snake

The other common hand tool for clearing drain clogs in the drain snake, also known as a drain auger. It is better suited for clogs that are lodged more deeply in the drain system, such as in the branch drains that extend beyond the drain traps. DIYers are well-advised to own both tools, but always try a plunger first, as it will clear most common clogs. If the plunger doesn't work, the next step is to try a drain snake.

Drain Plunger
  • No disassembly of drain required

  • Works best on trap clogs

  • Very inexpensive tool

Drain Snake
  • Requires disassembly of drain trap

  • Works best on branch drain clogs

  • Inexpensive, though more expensive than plunger

Safety Considerations

Using a drain plunger is not an inherently dangerous project, but there is the chance that dirty, bacteria-infested drain water may be splashed onto your skin or into your face. Thus, it's always a good idea to wear eye protection and gloves when plunging a drain.

How to Use a Drain Plunger

Plunging a drain uses the forces of hydraulic suction and compression. When you pull up on a plunger, it pulls water in the drain upward, beginning the process of loosening the clog. When you push down on the plunger, water is forced downward, moving the clog in the other direction. After a few up-and-down strokes, this push-pull effect loosens and breaks up the clog so the water in the drain can carry it down through the drain system (and out of your life). Keep the two forces in mind when plunging your drain.

Materials and tools to unclog a sink drain

The Spruce / Sarah Lee

  1. Examine the Drain Stopper

    If it's your bathroom sink or bathtub that's clogged, clearing it may be as simple as pulling out the pop-up stopper and cleaning it off. Hair, soap, and other debris tend to collect on the stem below the stopper's plug, as well as on the rod that moves the stopper up and down (the rod extends into and through the middle of the drain pipe from the rear). Use needle-nose pliers or a metal coat hanger bent into a hook to grab hair from these parts. If that doesn't clear the drain, then you'll need to move on to plunging.

    Drain stopper from sink held in hand to examine

    The Spruce / Sarah Lee

  2. Block the Overflow Opening

    On bathrooms sinks or bathtubs you must seal the drainpipe before plunging. Use a wet rag to block the overflow opening, located near the top of the sink rim or on the front wall of the bathtub. On sinks, the overflow opening can be near the back of the sink or the front, often tucked up under the rim. Some sinks may have two overflow openings. Blocking the overflow opening will seal the drain so that the plunger can create the suction and compression necessary; without it, the plunging will have very little effect. On double-basin kitchen sinks, block the drain opening in one basin before plunging the other basin.

    On bathtubs, sealing the overflow may require that you remove the cover on the overflow tube to seal the opening with a rag. Shower drains are generally completely enclosed, with no overflow opening to seal.

    Overflow opening in sink drain blocked with blue towel

    The Spruce / Sarah Lee

  3. Position the Plunger

    Place the plunger cup over the drain opening so it covers the opening fully. Run a small amount of water in the sink—enough to cover the cup of the plunger.

    Plunger cup placed over sink drain with water surrounding

    The Spruce / Sarah Lee

  4. Pump the Handle

    Thrust the plunger in an even up-and-down motion. The suction force of the upstroke is just as important as that of the downstroke. Maintain the seal between the rubber plunger cup and the sink surface throughout this action. You may actually be able to feel the moment when the clog loosens, as the plunger handle may suddenly get easier to pump.

    Plunger pumped to unclog sink drain

    The Spruce / Sarah Lee


    If you're having difficulty getting a good seal between the plunger cup and sink basin, apply some silicone lubricant around the lip of the cup to help seal it against the bottom of the sink.

  5. Check for Drainage

    Pull the plunger away from the drain opening after about six pumps of the plunger, and see if the water drains away. If it does, you have successfully loosened the clog. If not, then repeat the process.

    If the drain isn't clear after several attempts at plunging, the next step is to snake the drain, a process that will require you to disassemble the drain trap. But in most cases, you will have cleared your clogged drain without even getting your hands dirty.

    Faucet running hot water down sink drain to flush

    The Spruce / Sarah Lee

  6. Flush the Drain

    Once the clog is freed, run hot water for several minutes to flush any debris down the drain. This can dissolve soap scum and help prevent new clogs from forming.

    Sink with water going down sink drain

    The Spruce / Sarah Lee

    Keeping a Drain Plunger Clean

    Maintaining a drain plunger is a simple matter of rinsing it off after use and drying it before storing it. Never rub vaseline or another petroleum grease on a rubber or neoprene plunger cup. You can, however, wipe it down with a silicone-based lubricant to protect the rubber or neoprene.

    When to Replace Your Drain Plunger

    Over time, the rubber or neoprene cup on your drain plunger may grow old and cracked, which will prevent it from making a tight seal against the basin around the drain. At this point, it's time to replace this inexpensive tool.