The cleaning aisle is full of brightly-colored potions, each designed to catch your eye and convince you it will be the answer to making your cleaning routine easier, faster, and your home healthier. Hand washing dishes is a necessity from time to time, and it can be difficult to select a dish soap that will clean your dishes without poisoning the environment and drying out your hands. How to choose? Call-out text tells you products are stronger, cut out grease, are all-natural—there are so many choices. Keep reading for shopping tips and recommendations that will help you choose the best dish soap for your kitchen.
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Dish Soap
There are a number of elements to consider when buying dishwashing liquid to ensure that you buy the best one for you.
Hard vs. Soft Water
Knowing the difference between hard and soft water can make a material impact on the dish soap that best suits your kitchen.
- Hard water contains a high concentration of naturally-occurring minerals such as calcium, copper, or magnesium. These minerals are collected as rainwater drains through the soil, and provides natural mineral supplementation to people when they drink it. Since the minerals tend to fall out of the water as it is heated and dried, however, hard water can leave cloudy droplets on glassware.
- Soft water is naturally occurring, and rainwater is naturally soft. As it filters through the soil and drains, it picks up the minerals that make it hard, and so must be treated to strip it of all minerals except for sodium, before it can be delivered to public water systems as soft water.
To determine which type of water you have, simple test kits are available at home improvement and hardware stores. However, if your white clothes start to look gray after a few washes or you notice spots on glasses that you’ve air-dried, you probably have harder water. One quick way to tell if you have hard or soft water is to see how sudsy your water gets when dish soap is added: if suds develop quickly when just a small amount is added, your water is most likely soft. When dish soap is added to hard water, the detergents are busy dissolving minerals, resulting in far fewer suds.
All dish soaps include surfactants and anti-grease agents. For those with very sensitive skin or who need to wash a lot of dishes and prefer not to wear gloves, these substances can cause irritation, rashes, dryness, and itching. Those buyers should look specifically for sensitive-skin formulations or choices without dyes, fragrances, or sulfates, which are likely to cause additional skin irritation.
Those same substances are washing down your drain, where they’ll eventually be released into the wastewater stream. Think carefully about what you want to contribute to groundwater with your dish soap choice. Products labeled as eco-friendly will include fewer or no chemicals that may be damaging to plant and animal life. Keep an eye on packaging: the bottles are ideally made of recycled material and/or can be recycled themselves. They may be available in large containers that can be decanted, instead of having to buy many small bottles over time.
Budget is a consideration for many shoppers, but when purchasing dish soap, a lower price doesn’t necessarily mean less expensive overall. Many discount dish soaps are weak versions of similar more expensive products, so you’ll end up using (and buying) far more of a less expensive soap, resulting in a higher cost overall—so the more expensive product may be more efficient spending. In addition, some bargain products compensate for gentler, more expensive chemicals by using harsh detergents that cost less to manufacture—your hands, dishes, and the environment will pay for those.
Our Top Picks
Balancing cleaning capability against environmental safety is a difficult task: these top-performing recommendations manage it well.
Seventh Generation is a name that is synonymous with high-quality cleaning products that work well and use no fragrances, dyes, or unnecessary chemicals. Seventh Generation is open about the purposes of its ingredients: this dish soap is dermatologist-tested to be hypoallergenic and free of dyes, phosphates, and triclosan, and the bottle states the benefits of the chemicals it does include—glycerin, for example, is part of the formulation because it is soothing to the skin and also stabilizes the foamy suds produced by the soap.
The Seventh Generation Dish Soap is made mostly from sustainable plant materials and was awarded certification from the EPA as a Safer Choice product, containing 95% biologically-based ingredients. The dish soap is not tested on animals and the packaging is made from recycled materials. All this gentleness, however, doesn’t mean that the Seventh Generation Dish Soap is weak: it powers through grease and food particles, leaving your dishes sparkling clean. This dish soap can be purchased in 25-oz bottles in a pack of 6, so you’ll have lots on hand.
Dawn’s Ultra Concentrated Dish Detergent contains more than three times the grease-cutting detergent per drop than its closest competitor. This formula is ultra-concentrated, so only a few drops are necessary to clean a sinkful of dishes—which cuts down on how much you need to use and how often you have to replace the bottle. Dawn contains surfactants to help power through grease but uses only biodegradable surfactants that will break down before entering the environment in the groundwater stream.
The Dawn dish soap contains no phosphates—in fact, Dawn is so gentle that it is the cleaner of choice to bathe wildlife that has been coated in oil spills and hazmat situations. It’s strong enough to dissolve commercial oil but gentle enough to be safely used on birds. The manufacturer has donated more than 100,000 bottles to wildlife relief organizations. Note that Dawn does contain some fragrance and colorant. Overall, this dish soap is effective while being gentle and non-irritating. It’s available in a large 90-oz bottle that will last for months in your kitchen.
Puracy’s Dish Soap Natural Liquid Detergent is one of the closest to all-natural options you’ll find on the market: it’s free of sulfates, triclosan, parabens, petrochemicals, animal by-products, toxins, perfumes, and harsh ingredients that dry the skin. This formulation is hypoallergenic, vegan, gluten-free, biodegradable, and certified cruelty-free. So what is in Puracy? The company is happy to tell you: Coconut and coconut oil-based cleansers, plant-based skin softeners, plant-based cleansers and water softeners, a biodegradable preservative, and aloe vera, along with green tea, lime extract, and Himalayan pink sea salt for natural fragrance.
The natural elements in the Puracy soap work together to break up grease and food particles, while the plant-based skin and water softeners go to work on your water, making it easier to create suds and condition your hands. Lots of suds result in easy-rinsing, spot-free dishes. The Puracy soap is so concentrated that each 16-oz bottle can wash at least 150 sinks full of dishes. True to its commitment to the environment, refill pouches using less plastic are available once you’ve run through your first 3-pack of bottles.
Method is committed to producing cleaning products that are kind to the environment, including through packaging. One of their biggest triumphs is the refill pouch: nearly all of Method’s soaps and cleaners can be purchased in a bottle made from recycled materials or a large refill pouch that requires less plastic, less energy, and less water to produce than the bottles. In fact, you can purchase your own glass or recycled plastic bottle to re-use and fill with Method’s refill pouches.
The 36-oz Method Dish Soap Refill is lightly scented with delightful options including sea minerals, clementine, lime and sea salt, or lemon mint. It’s made with plant-based powergreen technology combined with a biodegradable ultra grease-fighting formula, that’s kind to your hands and the environment. Free of parabens and phthalates, and cruelty-free, the formula is highly concentrated, so only a few drops are needed to render a sinkful of dishes sparkling. The Method soap comes in a pack of 6, so it will last you a while.
Biokleen’s Natural Dish Soap is plant-based and free of phosphates, chlorine, ammonia, alcohol, artificial colors, and artificial fragrances. While it does contain some sulfates, they’re chosen carefully for effectiveness and selected specifically because they will not affect waterways, plants, or animals after being diluted. Citrus extracts and grapefruit seed oil help Biokleen cut through grease and tough baked-on food, while aloe and other vitamins gently condition your hands as you wash—there are no harsh chemicals here to damage your hands or your dishes.
The fresh natural citrus scent of the Biokleen dish soap is uplifting, and the formulation cleans well but is gentle enough for use as a hand soap, bubble bath, or pet shampoo as well as a dish soap. The Biokleen Natural Dish Soap comes in a well-sized 32-oz bottle.
Benefits of Washing Dishes by Hand
Washing dishes by hand using dish soap has a variety of benefits. First, your utility bills will be lower than using all but the most efficient dishwashing machine. Hand washing can be done in quick bursts when needed instead of a long, 2-hour cycle of constant spray for a half-filled dishwasher. In addition, more of the water you use goes directly to cleaning and less is wasted. The wastewater is also cleaner: dishwasher tablets and formulas include harsh, abrasive chemicals designed to scour the food off the dishes as they spray by, while dish soaps are far more gentle.
Washing by hand is kinder to your dishes and will significantly lengthen the life of stoneware, flatware, glassware, and cookware, especially fine nonstick finishes on pots and pans. You’ll be able to quality-check the wash job and keep scrubbing if necessary, rather than baking on leftover particles through a dry cycle. Lastly, hand-drying is gentler and more effective than a machine dry—and many people find the rhythm of hand washing and drying dishes to be a soothing after-meal ritual.
FAQs About Dish Soap
Q: How does dish soap work?
A: Dish soaps contain surfactants, which soften the shell of liquids or semi-liquids in which they are dissolved. The soap breaks up particles and makes them slippery and easier to remove. On tough grease, the soap actually breaks apart the oil at a molecular level: the soap molecule has a hydrophilic end and a hydrophobic end. Oil is attracted to the hydrophobic end and water to the hydrophilic end, splitting the moisture apart from the oil and making it easy to sweep and rinse away.
Some dish soaps also include antibacterial agents to kill any leftover bacteria and may include a rinse agent to prevent buildup on the dishes. All dish soaps are more effective when used with warm or hot water to help soften the debris to be removed.
Q: Are “green” dish detergents really better?
A: Eco-friendly cleaning products are absolutely better for the environment, but if they don’t work effectively, then you’re adding chemicals to the environment pointlessly. While it would be great to find a dish soap that is completely chemical-free, it’s important that the soaps have the power to really clean the dishes. Balancing that need against the desire for fewer chemicals can be tricky, but it can be done: the goal is to keep the chemicals that are necessary and eliminate those that are not.
The best way to do this is to turn the bottle over and read the ingredient list. Ideally, you’ll see notations that the ingredients used are naturally derived, biodegradable, and non-toxic, and that the packaging is made from recyclable and/or sustainable materials. Avoid chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate, chlorine, phosphates, and triclosan, which have been determined to be potentially harmful. Products labeled “fragrance-free” or that specify the fragrances added are more likely to be environmentally friendly, as a lot of chemicals can be hidden in the terms ‘fragrance’ and ‘colorant.’ The more natural the ingredients, the greener the product is. It’s impossible to choose a product without any chemicals and expect it to clean dishes well, so you’re looking for a balance between the necessary chemicals and skipping the rest—resulting in fast, effective dish soap that’s healthy for your family and the environment.
Q: Will 1,4-dioxane in dish detergent harm me?
A: There has recently been some controversy surrounding the safety of 1,4 dioxane and its inclusion in dish detergent products. The concern is the apparent link between the chemical and cancer, and many scientists have confirmed that 1,4 dioxane can be carcinogenic.
Scientists, however, have specified that in order to be carcinogenic, a person must be in close proximity to a concentrated form of the chemical and breathing it in for lengthy periods of time—such as working in a factory where it’s produced without wearing protective gear. In other words, the concentration of 1,4-dioxane in dish soap is far too low to be dangerous. The chemical is not dangerous to you at this level; however, some may choose to avoid products containing this chemical out of concern for those who are regularly exposed to it during production.