The natural dishwasher detergent saga is as old as Kitchen Stewardship itself.
First, I tried a number of homemade dishwasher detergents back in 2009. It certainly wasn’t an exhaustive list, but I went through a number of the “easy” recipes on the web that mostly didn’t entail sourcing and buying any new-to-me ingredients.
They were a disaster.
Piles of rejected dishes, sometimes nearly the entire load, and multitudes of plastic lids covered in white film just about sent my husband to the looney bin.
No more homemade dishwasher detergent experiments for us!
UPDATE: I did list out all the myriad of homemade dishwasher detergent recipes readers have shared with me over the years, in case folks are still willing to try.
Our dishwasher at the time was rather new, by the way, and typically did an admirable job with even the dirtiest dishes (we don’t pre-rinse if we can help it).
I set out to find a “natural” brand that worked and went through a couple before finding one that worked but was expensive. Then I was actually foolish enough to try a slight change on one of the homemade detergents, again. Another blogger had said it worked great for her, but it was another story of disaster at our house, hand-washing a load of dishes, and snake eyes from the husband.
Finally, I got a chance to try another brand that was more frugal, and it had me singing alleluias all day long. Biokleen was my baby for about 18 months…and then it suddenly stopped working.
Our dishes all had white film on them again, our glassware never looked clean, and I started to question whether Biokleen had changed their formula. The company assured me that they hadn’t, and I heard from readers on both sides: some claimed it still worked great for them and told me to work on reducing “buildup” in my dishwasher, and others agreed that Biokleen had (new) not-cleaning-the-dishes issues.
I was bamboozled. I tried tackling buildup with some of the ideas in comments at this post, but nothing helped. Right around that time, we sold our house, so I was excited to get to start over with a new dishwasher.
Guess what? Biokleen still didn’t work satisfactorily. It was as much of a disaster in the new house as the old. Time to strike out anew! Update (3/2014): My mother also had splendid luck with Biokleen’s powder. She has softened well water and I’ve had fairly hard city water in both houses; she pre-rinses thoroughly and I refuse to. But I thought I should be fair to Biokleen and let you know that maybe it will work with some water! Although she did tell me that when people started having trouble (me) she still had an old one and switched to Ecover powder with great success rather than risk the new one, even though the company says they didn’t reformulate. I would love to hear YOUR experiences in the comments!
Through two dishwashers already in this house, here’s the scoop on the other five “natural” dishwasher detergents we’ve tried, as well as the (surprising) results of EWG’s new household cleaners ratings list (ranked A through E, like grades in school).
I list the ingredients, too, which sound a lot less “natural” than many other things I read, but many of them are explained at EWG or here. I’m not sure if these detergents are really, truly natural and non-toxic, but I am certain they’re loads better than the conventional dishwasher detergent, which can be some of the most caustic cleaning agents you have and most harmful to the environment, too.
I did find that “short wash” wasn’t cutting it with the new dishwasher and the natural detergents. Sad to see that energy-saver as a thing of the past, but the “sensor” cycle is supposed to only run as much as it absolutely needs to, so I’m at least pleased with that. Funny note: when we were shopping dishwashers, there was a Bosch company rep at the little store in our town. He gave his detergent recommendation, and when I asked about natural brands, he put on a permasmile, raised his eyebrows, and basically declined to comment – but his skeptic’s grin said it all. “No promises,” he said.
Seventh Generation Tablets
This was the first we tried because it was available and on sale at our local Meijer. It couldn’t get spoons with fermented cod liver oil on them clean worth a darn, and even after we had our dishwasher professionally cleaned, all the bowls in the bottom rack were nasty, we had streaky glasses and very dirty spoons, especially anything with grease on it.
After getting a new dishwasher, we tried Seventh Generation again. It was passable, but it still had more rejected dishes than any of the others and is more expensive because of the tabs.
I actually called the company and told them I wasn’t happy, and they happily sent me a refund. Darn good customer service, I like that.
I’ve also tried the dishwasher gel as a sample, and I was unimpressed. Eh.
My rating: Don’t Bother
EWG rating: A, only for the “free and clear” unscented version
Ingredients: Citric acid, sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and sodium citrate (water softeners), sodium silicate (protection agent and alkalinity builder), polyaspartic acid (anti-filming agent), sodiumsilicate and ppg-10-laureth-7 (anti-spotting agents), sodium percarbonate (stain remover and water softener), sodium sulfate and sodium aluminosilicate (processing & flow aids), protease and amylase (enzyme soil removers). Trace materials are commonly present in cleaning product ingredients. The material that holds our powder formula is polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), a biodegradable polymer. No phosphates.
Tropical Traditions Dishwasher Detergent
I tried this one out because it was on sale or I got free shipping (or both) and it seemed like a good deal in bulk.
Performance-wise, it’s doing okay. It’s better than 7th Generation for sure, but I feel like we get more silverware rejects with TT than with some others. Perhaps I’m just undershooting on the amounts.
I’ve read that the worst wear and tear on a dishwasher is using too much detergent, so it’s actually a good idea to keep track of how much it needs. Mark on your scoop what you try, and work it down until the dishes start to be unacceptably dirty, then mark that spot with a permanent marker. (I just haven’t quite taken the time and attention to do that officially.)
UPDATE 3/2014: I was shocked to re-read this review and see that I had rated TT”s detergent so neutrally. As I worked through the 5-pound tub, which seemed to take forever (I’m estimating about 150 loads with the quarter or third scoop that I use, about 0.55 ounces), it became one of my favorites to be sure. There will always be rejected utensils with tricky food substances on them, but overall Tropical Traditions powdered dish detergent works great, and even though it’s not rated at EWG, I trust that it’s natural quality for a few reasons: (1) the ingredients are pretty simple and (2) the company is known for having impeccably high standards. This is a great product – watch for free shipping (happens about once a month) or the 50% off sale on the tub (happens only 1-2 times a year).
My rating: Tied for first place
Not rated at EWG.
Ingredients: Sodium citrate, sodium carbonate, sodium percarbonate, surfactants, rinse agents, silicate.
Ecover: Powdered Detergent
For budget reasons, I tend to prefer a powder over a tab. It’s not as easy, that’s for sure, but I like being able to use less and stretch the box.
Ecover has proven itself to be a good brand for both tablets (see below) and powder. The powder pours directly out of the box, no scoop, so there’s a lot of discrepancy on how much we use, especially with two adults running the dishwasher.
More often than not, we’re pleased with the results. There are a few rejects here and there, but nothing that makes us want to throw the box out the window…
Update 3/2014: I mentioned that my mom was also using Ecover regularly (in her 30-year-old dishwasher that she’s nursing along because she doesn’t want to deal with the eccentricities of new machines). 😉 She shared this with me: “[When I ran out of Ecover recently] I had to resort to Cascade. It etched a couple of glasses [which had been washed in the same way countless times with Ecover] and then the spotting was awful. Any rinse aid was long gone before using the Cascade. I have put white vinegar into my rinse dispenser to help with the spotting…which it has. No more etching of glasses with Ecover.” Interesting! Anyone out there have etching problems with conventional detergents? Are they too harsh?
My rating: Tied for first place
EWG rating: B for both scented and unscented
Ingredients: Sodium Bicarbonate (Baking Soda), Sodium Disilicate, Sodium Carbonate, Sodium Sulfate, Sodium Citrate, Polypeptides, Enzymes (non-genetically engineered), Sugar Surfactant, Sugar Based Bleach Activator, Sugar Cane (Saccharum Officinarum) Derivates, Fragrance
When I purchased mine to try, it wasn’t available at Amazon, but now it is, and you should also price check with Vitacost HERE. If it’s your first order with Vitacost, start with THIS LINK and you’ll get $10 off your first order. (If you see good deals on these products anywhere else on the web, let me know as I’d love to link to them too!)
Ecover’s tablets were a product sample directly from the company, and I’ve been extremely happy with them. They have probably about a 98% clean rate, which is pretty awesome considering the knockout Tetris games I play fitting as many dirty dishes in that thing as possible.
Tabs are kind of nice because they are premeasured – super quick, no guesswork, no training the husband on how to use them.
The convenience does come with a price, so you have to decide where your priorities lie.
My rating: Second place because of cost only
EWG rating: B (used to be a C; updated 3/2014)
Ingredients: Sodium Citrate, Sodium Carbonate Peroxide, Sodium Carbonate, Disodium Disilicate, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Poly Asparaginate, Tetra Acetyl Ethylene Diamine (TAED), D-glucitol, Sorbitan Sesquioctanoate, Capryl Glucoside, Protease, Amylase, Glycerin, Fragrance, Limonene, Sodium Gluconate
Grab Green Tablets
The tabs work slightly differently than Ecover’s, which you have to unwrap. These guys go directly into the soap dispenser, plastic and all, so technically, it’s a wee bit easier.
As far as where the plastic goes…that’s a mystery I don’t want to know.
I found GrabGreen to be a great brand and get the job done. I’d put these tabs and Ecover’s on the same level, at the top of my “most effective” list, but not so frugal.
My rating: Tied for second place
EWG rating: B, only for unscented or red pear with magnolia; other two scents were a C
Soda Ash (Natural mineral water softener)
Sodium Metasilicate (Natural mineral aids cleaning)
Non-ionic Ethoxylate (Biodegradable cleaner + degreaser blend)
Sodium Sulfate (Mineral cleaning agent)
Sodium Citrate(Mineral derived from citrus used to aid cleaning)
Sodium Percarbonate (Made from natural soda ash, it uses oxygen to remove stains + adds alkalinity to assist cleaning)
Silica (Mineral based anti-caking agent)
Sodium Iminodisuccinate (Biodegradable water softener)
Sodium Polyaspartate (Biodegradable mineral rinse aid)
Organic enzyme blend (Breaks down protein + starch based stains)
**Fragrance contains essentials oils: thyme + violet leaf + sage
BUY on Amazon (I didn’t see this one at Vitacost – anywhere else you know of? Happy to add resources if you leave a note in the comments.)
Up & Up: Something New to Try?
I was very surprised to see Target’s brand “Up & Up” dish packs listed as one of the few receiving a “B” rating at EWG; the “A” list is even smaller and the C-E are in the triple digits each just for dishwasher detergents.
If you’ve got a local Target, it might be worth a try as I’m guessing it will be less expensive than some of those listed here.
Natural Rinse Aid
I use straight white vinegar in the “Jet Dry” compartment as the rinse aid. Whole New Mom posted recently that the vinegar may ruin the rubber parts, so I need to perhaps see what will happen if I don’t use it at all.
I’m not using Jet Dry – a chemical that’s supposed to stay on the things my family puts in their mouth? No, thank you, no research needed on that one. Not touching it.
What About Biokleen?
Those astute readers among you may have noticed my old friend Biokleen still showing up in the top photo.
I’d been afraid to even try it again in our new dishwasher for the last four months. For you, dear readers, *heaves deep sigh* I will try it again.
The dishwasher, full to the brim of nastiness, is running now. I’ll let you know how it goes…
…and maybe someday I’ll get up the nerve to try homemade dishwasher detergent again (or I’ll just post all the options I’ve collected in a 4-page document for you).
Update, later that evening: Biokleen is still getting me in trouble with my husband. He was going to unload the dishwasher until he learned what I’d done. “Why did you try that one again? I think if you’re going to experiment, you should unload the dishwasher.”
It’s only fair.
I unloaded to find less than acceptable utensils, shadows of ranch dressing dollops on glass plates, and, you know it, white film on all the plastic lids, of which there must have been at least 57. The glass drinking glasses had issues that gave us both shudders of deja vu.
“Remember, that’s how all our glasses used to look all the time. I hope this didn’t permanently affect our dishwasher!” poor hubby cried. I told him I’d test out a special new “clean your dishwasher technique” I picked up from an appliance repairman. What the poor guy has to put up with around here!
Bottom line: Biokleen is still the worst natural detergent I’ve tried. Now what do I do with the rest of the tub?
What do you use in your dishwasher?
Disclosure: I am an Amazon affiliate. See my full disclosure statement here.