What are Laxatives?

Laxatives are commonly used medications for treating occasional constipation. They are available over the counter (OTC) and based on how they work, they can be categorized into osmotic agents, stimulants, bulk-forming agents, and stool softeners.

Understanding Laxatives

What are the different types of laxatives?

Osmotic agents

Agents such as polyethylene glycol (PEG), lactulose, and magnesium hydroxide are water-loving substances that attract and retain water in the colon to ease and enhance stool passage Polyethylene glycol (found in RestoraLAX®) increases stool frequency and softness in individuals with constipation. It works with the water in your body to hydrate and soften stool, unblocking your bowel.

Stimulant laxatives

This type of laxative makes your body go by directly stimulating the nerves in your colon. This causes the muscles of the intestinal wall to contract and helps to push the stool along. This action can be effective for relieving occasional constipation. Senna and Bisacodyl are the most commonly used stimulant laxatives and are found in brands such as Senokot®, Ex-Lax®, and Dulcolax®.

Bulk-forming agents

Bulk-forming agents are fibre supplements that trap water in the stool to increase stool weight and improve stool consistency. Commercially available fibre supplements include psyllium and bran. They may be appropriate for people who do not consume enough fibre in their diet. Some powder fibre supplements can be gritty and viscous when mixed into a beverage, which some people may find distasteful. Adequate fluid intake is necessary for bulk-forming agents to work; lack of water may enhance bloating. Bulk-forming brands include Benefibre® and Metamucil®.

Stool softeners

As the name suggests, stool softeners, such as docusate sodium, moisten and soften stool, making it easier to pass. They may work well for people with hard stools. Stool softener brands include Colace®.

A Guide to Over the Counter Laxatives

Osmotic Laxative‡* Bulk-Forming (Fibre) Laxative* Stimulant Laxative
Illustration of water moving through the human intestine
Illustration of the human intestine
Illustration showing the human intestine
Example of Brands RestoraLAX®, Phillips Milk of Magnesia Metamucil®, Fibre ChoiceTM Senokot®, Ex-lax®, Dulcolax®
Examples of Medical Ingredients Polyethylene glycol, Magnesium hydroxide Psyllium, Inulin Sennosides, Bisacodyl
Mode of Action Retains water in the bowel to soften stools and increase the frequency of bowel movements. Adds bulk and allows more water to remain in stools; making them larger, softer, and easier to pass. Works by stimulating the muscles of the bowel to accelerate the stool’s journey through the colon.
Form Generally available in powder form. Generally available in powder and oral pill form. Generally available in oral pill, liquid, or suppository form.
Osmotic Laxative‡*
Illustration of water moving through the human intestine
Example of Brands RestoraLAX®, Phillips Milk of Magnesia
Examples of Medical Ingredients Polyethylene glycol, Magnesium hydroxide
Mode of Action Retains water in the bowel to soften stools and increase the frequency of bowel movements.
Form Generally available in powder form.
Bulk-Forming (Fibre) Laxative*
Illustration of the human intestine
Example of Brands Metamucil®, Fibre ChoiceTM
Examples of Medical Ingredients Psyllium, Inulin
Mode of Action Adds bulk and allows more water to remain in stools; making them larger, softer, and easier to pass.
Form Generally available in powder and oral pill form.
Stimulant Laxative
Illustration showing the human intestine
Example of Brands Senokot®, Ex-lax®, Dulcolax®
Examples of Medical Ingredients Sennosides, Bisacodyl
Mode of Action Works by stimulating the muscles of the bowel to accelerate the stool’s journey through the colon.
Form Generally available in oral pill, liquid, or suppository form.

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*for occasional constipation

for constipation and/or regularity

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