How To Plunge a Toilet the Right Way, According to Experts

A plunger can easily clear most toilet clogs, as long as it's the right type. Here's how to do it the right way, according to experts.

Next Project

An hour or less




Less than $20


Clear that clogged toilet in minutes.

Tools Required

  • Flange toilet plunger
  • Rubber gloves
  • Towels

Materials Required

  • Duct tape

You often hear plumbers claim a plunger can clear 95% to 99% of toilet clogs. That may be a bit optimistic, but a plunger definitely works most of the time. I would say it’s the first tool you should reach for when your toilet backs up.

Art Dann, who owns a construction company in California, doesn’t necessarily agree. He managed many multiple-family dwellings over the years and resolved countless minor plumbing problems, like clogged toilets. “I have a plunger,” he says. “But I also have a toilet auger, and I use it more often.”

I also consulted with Mark McShane, who delivers training courses for plumbers and gas engineers in the United Kingdom. His advice, together with tips I’ve learned through my experience, may give folks like Dann more respect for this must-have plumbing tool.

Which plunger do you use for the toilet?

“There are two types of plungers: the dome plunger and the flange plunger,” says McShane. “The first one is perfect for flat surfaces [sink, bathtub, etc.], whereas the latter is suitable for toilets due to its extended rubber flap.”

You need a flange plunger for a toilet. It’s usually shaped like a bell or bellows, with a cup that terminates in a tapered opening that fits inside the toilet’s waste inlet.

Red PlungerImagePixel/Getty Images

When to call a pro

If the toilet drains slowly, there’s a partial clog. It might be due to a buildup of solids in the waste line or sewer. But if flushing has been sluggish for a while, it could be a systemic problem, like tree roots in the sewer pipe or a blocked vent.

You may improve flow by plunging. But if the problem persists, call a professional drain service for a more permanent fix.

About the Experts

Mark McShane completed a four-year Level 3 plumbing and heating apprenticeship at Glasgow Clyde College. He’s the managing director for Skills Training Group, which provides training courses for plumbers and gas engineers.

Art Dann, the semi-retired owner of Dann Construction in Santa Cruz, California, has managed multi-family dwellings.

Project step-by-step (4)

Step 1

Test the drainage

  • Open the toilet tank, lift the flapper, allow a cup or two of water to drain into the bowl and watch what happens.
    • If it stays put, chances are the clog is in the toilet’s internal trap or the waste line. That’s the easiest type to remove with a plunger.
  • Put on rubber gloves and lay towels on the floor, because there’s a good chance of overflow while you’re plunging.

Testing the FlapperFamily Handyman

Step 2

Fill the cup with water and seat it

  • Insert the cup of the plunger into the toilet bowl and tilt it so it fills with water. If you have a bellows-style plunger, fill it with water before you put it in the bowl.
    • The reason for this is simple. Air is compressible, and some will inevitably get in the toilet trap. You’ll waste most of the energy you put into plunging by compressing it. Water, on the other hand, is not compressible, and will transfer all the force you generate to the clog.
  • Insert the plunger in the toilet’s waste inlet. Be sure to make a good seal.
    • “A well-performed plunge creates suction through the tight seal between plunger and drain,” says McShane.

Unclogging the toilet with plungerFamily Handyman

Step 3

Start pumping gently and increase the force

  • Pump gently a few times to force out any air that remains in the cup.
  • As soon as you hear water squishing back and forth, increase the force and pump vigorously.
    • The combination of pressure and suction should break up the clog enough for water to start draining. When that happens, McShane says, “plunge a few more times just to be sure the blockage has been cleared.”

 plumber using plunger in toilet bowl during flushing in modern restroom with grey tileLightFieldStudios/Getty Images

Step 4

Block overflow holes

When a stubborn clog won’t move despite your best efforts, McShane advises blocking any overflow outlets in the bathroom where air can escape.

  • Cover the sink, shower and tub drains, as well as the sink overflow holes, with duct tape.
    • I’ve done this, and always found the tape easy to remove. Plus, it isn’t on long enough to leave a residue. If the clog is in the waste line and not the toilet itself, this will amplify the force on it and help break it up.

Water running from bathroom tapJohner Images/Getty Images


What if your toilet won’t unclog with a plunger?

When plunging fails, use a toilet auger, as Dann does. If that doesn’t work, you may have to remove the toilet and manually clear the clog from the base or the waste opening.

If the clog is farther down in the waste line, you should reach it with a sewer auger inserted through the waste opening or through a clean out fitting in the waste line. If you need to dig deep into the waste line, it’s probably time to call a pro.

Do you plunge a toilet while it’s flushing?

You can plunge while the bowl is filling, but you’re risking a messy overflow. Wait until the flush is complete before you start plunging.

Does Drano or something similar work on a clogged toilet?

No. Putting a caustic drain cleaner like Drano in your toilet is dangerous and probably won’t work. And don’t take our word for it — even the Drano website recommends plunging to clear clogs.

You can, however, use a product like Drano Max Buildup Remover to prevent clogs from forming in the first place. And you should always keep the toilet lid closed to prevent solid objects from falling in.