What not to flush down the toilet

Updated August 25, 2023

There aren’t many household appliances that work as hard as the toilet. But they’re not invincible—toilets aren’t black holes meant to guzzle down the totality of your household waste.

In fact, there are actually very few things that you should flush down the toilet, lest you clog it up.

On this page, we’ll cover the top unflushable items and how to unclog the toilet if you’ve accidentally flushed the unflushable. Plus: does insurance cover overflowing toilets?

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The top 10 unflushable items

To put it bluntly, there are basically two things that you can flush down the toilet: human waste, and toilet paper. Despite that, people flush all sorts of things all the time. In some cases, that can lead to a clogged toilet; in worse cases, it can lead to a blockage deeper in the plumbing system and thousands of dollars in damage to your home (as you’ll see below).

This all applies if your home has a septic system, too. In fact, those with septic systems should be even more careful about what they flush down the toilet.

Here is our list of the most common unflushable things that people still try to flush:

1. Flushable wipes

Let’s start at the height of irony, with so-called “flushable” wipes. Spoiler alert: they’re not flushable.

Toilets, plumbing, and sewer systems are all meant to handle materials that break down in water. Flushable wet wipes are designed to maintain their integrity while they sit, wet, in their packaging. Accordingly, they tend to also maintain that integrity while they’re moving through your plumbing system.

If you use wet wipes in your home, dispose of them in the trash instead.

2. Paper towels

Like wet wipes, paper towels are designed to hold together when they get wet. In fact, that’s kind of their main marketing tactic. They may seem similar to toilet paper, but toilet paper is designed to break down quickly as soon as it gets wet.

If you flush paper towels, they won’t break down in your pipes. They can easily get stuck somewhere and cause a serious blockage.

3. Hygiene products

Continuing along the lines of “stuff that’s meant to hold together when it gets wet” we have menstrual hygiene products. Items like tampons and pads not only maintain their integrity when they get wet, they absorb liquid and expand.

Aside from their intended use, they’re almost perfectly designed to block your toilet and your plumbing. Don’t flush them—put them in the trash.

4. Diapers

You might not think that anyone would think of diapers as flushable, given their size (even before they absorb a bunch of water). But, we’ve seen it happen.

Diapers are absolutely not going to dissolve when they get wet, so dispose of them in the trash and not the toilet.

5. Kitty litter

Most kitty litter is made with clay. And when you combine small pellets of clay with a bunch of water, you get a substance that can clog up the toilet and the plumbing system with ease.

You may think it’s harmless, but we’ve seen flushed kitty litter cause over $60,000 in damage to a home. Think about that before you try it.

6. Medication

While medication may not cause problems with your plumbing, you still shouldn’t flush it down the toilet (or dump it down the sink). However, old pills or other medicines can dissolve in water and end up polluting waterways and groundwater.

If you need to dispose of medication, don’t throw it directly in the garbage. You can take it to a pharmacy to dispose of, for one option. Otherwise, remove them from their original packaging and mix them in with something like coffee grounds or kitty litter. Then, seal them in a plastic bag and toss them in the trash.

7. Cigarette butts

Much like medication, cigarettes are full of all sorts of things that we’d rather not have leeching into the water. Cigarette butts may not plug up plumbing on their own, but they can get caught in existing blockages and make them worse, ending with clogged up plumbing and water damage in your home.

8. Random bathroom trash

Bathrooms generate a lot of trash, and much of it is small enough to appear flushable—but it’s not. Cotton swabs, dental floss, makeup removal pads, and all sorts of other small bits of trash get flushed on a regular basis. We’ve even seen a flushed shaving cream cap cause over $2,000 in damage.

Again, many are small enough that they won’t block pipes on their own. But, if they get caught in an existing blockage, they’ll make it worse. If that blockage happens deep inside your plumbing system, you might never find it. You’ll only know about it after things start backing up and damaging your home.

9. Fats and oils

People commonly dump cooking oils and leftover fats down the sink rather than the toilet, but neither one is a good idea.

These things may be liquid when you dump them, but when they meet cool water or undergo various chemical reactions in the sewer system, they become very solid. Fat blockages can be a major problem for your home plumbing system, and a catastrophe for your city’s sewer system.

10. Excess toilet paper

Flushing toilet paper is fine—that’s what it’s for. But too much at once can bunch up and clog your toilet or block your pipes.

While toilet paper will eventually dissolve in water, there’s an interim period between getting wet and dissolving where it acts more like paper mâché. That can result in thousands of dollars in water damage (we’ve seen toilet paper cause over $5,000 in damage before) if the toilet overflows.

Speaking of which, now that we’ve reached the end of our list of unflushables, let’s move on to solutions.

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What to do if your toilet is clogged

Despite our best efforts, sometimes toilets still get plugged up. Either you’ve accidentally flushed something on the unflushable list, or you’ve flushed too much of something that normally is flushable… in any case, here’s what to do if you find your toilet not flushing properly.

Stop the water

Plugged toilets can cause a lot of damage—and water damage in your home is no joke.

Toilets are designed to shut themselves off after they’ve flushed and refilled themselves. Usually, even when the toilet is plugged, it won’t overflow as long as you only flush once. If your toilet appears blocked, don’t flush a second time. Try to clear the blockage first.

Nevertheless, if your toilet seems poised to overflow, shut off the water supply as quickly as you can to avoid widespread water damage. You’ll find the shutoff valve behind the toilet itself. It should look something like this:

Water shutoff valve located underneath and behind toilet
Source under license CC BY-SA 3.0

Grab a plunger

Once you’ve got the water flow situation under control, grab your toilet plunger. If you don’t have a plunger, you’ve forgotten rule number one of plungers: the best time to buy a plunger is before you need it. (Skip ahead a bit if you don’t have one.)

There are actually three types of plungers: cup plungers, meant for unclogging sinks, and flange plungers or accordion plungers, either of which you’ll need for your toilet.

Below is an example photo of cup, flange, and accordion plungers (in that order):

Comparison of cup plunger, flange plunger, and accordion plunger

Place the plunger inside the toilet, pressing the flange (the bottom part) into the drain opening at the bottom of the toilet. If there’s too much water in the toilet bowl, remove some with a bucket first—this process can get messy.

With the plunger secured inside the drain, push and pull on the handle with quick up-and-down motions. Repeat this for 10-20 seconds, or until the water drains (this should happen very suddenly when the clog clears). Most blockages will clear easily after a few plunges.

Unclogging a toilet without a plunger (or when a plunger doesn’t work)

If plunging didn’t work, or if you need to unclog the toilet without a plunger, there are a couple of things you can try.

  1. Pour some dish soap into the toilet, followed by a couple litres of very warm water. Make sure there’s enough room in the bowl to pour the water in without any overflowing. Wait at least 15 minutes and see if the clog has loosened (the water should be draining if it is). If that didn’t work, repeat as necessary.
  2. Pour a mixture of baking soda (1 cup) and vinegar (2 cups) into the toilet bowl, and let it sit for a half hour or so. Then, carefully try to flush the toilet, but take care that you don’t allow it to overflow.
  3. If you happen to have a drain snake or, preferably, a toilet auger, you can use these devices to clear the blockage. But of course, if you don’t have a plunger, you’re unlikely to have these.

It’s also worth trying one of the alternate options followed by another attempt at plunging afterward if they don’t work.

If you feel like you’ve tried everything and nothing works, you may have no choice but to call a plumber.

Clogged toilets and home insurance

It should now be clear that clogged toilets can cause real damage to your home if they’re left to overflow. Hopefully, you’ve learned enough about avoiding and fixing clogs that you can avoid it… but accidents do happen.

If your toilet overflows and causes damage, will your home insurance policy cover the repair and remediation costs?

Generally speaking, yes. Though, the specifics vary between policies and providers. While many providers offer coverage for water backups, sometimes you’ll need to specifically add it. Additionally, you should be aware that toilet backups resulting from heavy rainfall or overland flooding (a whole other can of worms) would be treated differently than those resulting from a blockage in your toilet or pipes. Often, there will be a separate deductible that applies to water backup claims.

If you’re unsure whether your policy would cover damage from an overflowing toilet, check your policy wordings or ask your provider. Coverage for water backup is automatically included in every eligible policy sold by Square One.

Commonly asked questions

Are flushable wipes flushable?

Flushable wipes are not flushable, despite their name. Unlike toilet paper, flushable wipes are designed to maintain their integrity while they’re wet, so they won’t break down in your plumbing system the way toilet paper does.

Is Kleenex flushable?

Kleenex (or any other facial tissue) shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet. While they seem very similar to toilet paper, they’re far more durable, and won’t break down in the water quickly enough, causing potential blockages.

What is the fastest way to unclog a toilet?

The fastest way to unclog a toilet is the most straightforward method: plunging. Assuming the blockage isn’t too severe, it shouldn’t take more than 30 seconds to unclog a toilet with a plunger.

Want to learn more? Visit our Home and Personal Safety resource centre to find more information about protecting your family and your home. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.

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