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Which Over The Counter (OTC) Laxative Is Right for You?

There Are Five Types of Over-The-Counter Laxatives to Choose From

By Nancy Larson

Updated February 19, 2009

(LifeWire) - We might not talk about it much, but almost everyone has experienced the misery of straining to pass hard stools. To relieve constipation, you can choose from among five types of over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives.

Bulk-Forming OTC Laxatives

Active ingredients: methylcellulose, polycarbophil, psyllium.

Common brand names: FiberCon, Metamucil. Generics available.

How they work: The most widely used category of laxatives, they increase the size and weight of the stool by absorbing water, stimulating the bowel to pass it.

How/when to take: These powders, liquids and capsules are the only laxatives recommended for daily use for as long as necessary.

Important information: Take pills with water to prevent choking; rapidly swelling capsules can catch in your throat. Start regular regimen gradually.

Lubricant OTC Laxatives

Active ingredients: mineral oil, glycerin.

Common brand names: Sani-Supp, any brand of mineral oil. Generics available.

How they work:  Mineral oil and glycerin coat stool for easier passage and coat intestinal wall so water is retained in stool. Glycerine suppositories lubricate anus.

How/when to take: Take powders and liquids at bedtime or in the morning. Results come in 30 minutes to eight hours. Take suppositories at any time; results in as few as 15 minutes.

Important information: Do not take mineral oil for more than one week; doing so can result in vitamin deficiencies.

Stool Softeners

Active ingredient: docusate sodium.

Common brand names: Colace, Dulcolax Stool Softener, Phillips' Liqui-Gels. Generics available.

How they work: Bring fluid into stools, making them easier to pass.

How/when to take: In tablets, liquid or enema form.  Best taken at bedtime. Results in two to five days.

Important information: Do not take without calling your doctor if you have stomach pain, nausea or vomiting. Do not take more than seven days.

Saline or Osmotic OTC Laxatives

Active ingredients: sodium bicarbonate, sodium phosphate, milk of magnesia, magnesium citrate, hydroxide, magnesium oxide and sulfate.

Common brand names: Miralax (polyethylene glycol), Ceo-Two Evacuant (also contains potassium bitartrate), Phillips' Milk of Magnesia. Generics available.

How they work: Attract fluids into bowels from nearby tissues to soften stools.

How/when to take: Available as tablets, liquids, suppositories or enemas; amount determined by form.

Important information: Do not use saline laxative for more than seven days.


Active ingredients: bisacodyl, sennosides, senna, castor oil.

Common brand names: Dulcolax, Ex-Lax, Senokot. Generics available.

How they work: Stimulants irritate the bowel to produce contraction, thereby producing a bowel movement.

How/when to take: Usually taken at bedtime, they generally work by morning, although it can take 24 hours to produce a bowel movement. Stimulants come in liquids, tablets, powders and suppositories. Generics available.

Important information: Stimulants can cause stomach cramps and are used primarily on a doctor's advice to prepare for a bowel examination or to prevent bowel strain after surgery. Do not use for more than one week.

More advice

Many products combine more than one type of laxative, such as stool softener and a stimulant.

Wait two hours after taking any laxative before taking other medication because laxatives can reduce a drug's effectiveness.


"Docusate." myhealth.ucsd.edu. 14 Feb. 2004. University of California San Diego. 5 Feb. 2009 <http://myhealth.ucsd.edu/library/healthguide/en-us/DrugGuide/topic.asp?hwid=d01021a1&>.

"Laxatives: OTC Products for Constipation." familydoctor.org. Dec. 2006. American Academy of Family Physicians. 5 Feb. 2009 <http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/otc-center/otc-medicines/861.html>.

"Laxative Type." familydoctor.org. Dec. 2006. American Academy of Family Physicians. 5 Feb. 2009 <http://familydoctor.org/online/etc/medialib/famdoc/docs/otc-laxatives.Par.0001.File.dat/otc_laxatives.pdf>.

"Mineral Oil." cancer.org. 2009. American Cancer Society. 5 Feb. 2009 <http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CDG/content/CDG_mineral_oil.asp>.

"Prescription Miralax Laxative Now Available Over-the-Counter." colorectalcancer.org. 2 Apr. 2007. Colorectal Cancer Coalition. 5 Feb. 2009 <http://fightcolorectalcancer.org/research_news/2007/04/prescription_miralax_laxative_now_available_overthecounter>.

"Saline Laxatives (Systemic, Topical)." ashp.org. 2008. American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. 5 Feb. 2009 <http://www.ashp.org/mngrphs/essentials/a382515e.htm>.

"Stimulant Laxatives." nlm.nih.gov. 1 Sep. 2008. National Institutes of Health. 5 Feb. 2009 <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a601112.html>. 

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Nancy Larson is a St. Louis-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in dozens of local and national print and online publications including CNN.com, The Weather Channel, Health magazine and The Advocate.

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