Buying organic dishwasher soap can be tricky. The term organic normally refers to agricultural products. While many brands make use of plant-based surfactants, even the greenest dishwasher soaps usually contain natural mineral compounds not normally considered organic. Additionally, while organic food products have strict regulations by federal agencies, there is currently no universally recognized industry standard for environmentally sensitive cleaning products.
So what is a consumer to do? To be sure that you are using a product that fits in to your organic home, learn to scrutinize labels. Even better, you can make your own dishwasher soap and other cleaning products.
Reading Green Labels
In recent years, environmental sustainability has become not just a manufacturing principle, but also a marketing catchphrase. Claims of eco-friendly ingredients and recycled packaging line the shelves of every grocery aisle, often with little solid data to back up the claim. To assist consumers in making an informed choice, the Federal Trade Commission has established a series of guidelines governing the use of environmental marketing claims. A familiarity with these guidelines can help you make an informed choice when selecting organic dishwasher soap.
Along with generic environmental claims, many products carry third-party labels indicating environmental sustainability. These seals of approval offer varying levels of accuracy and reliability, but it can be hard to distinguish the fact from the fluff. Currently, the closest equivalent to the USDA Certified Organic Seal used for food products is the EPA's voluntary Design for the Environment program. Detergents carrying this logo have committed to consistently choosing the safest surfactants available for the formulation of their household cleaning products and have submitted their ingredient lists for EPA review.
Ingredients to Avoid
With or without a seal of approval, there are a number of consumer options for green dishwasher detergents. Many of these products offer plant-based surfactants to replace harmful chemical additives. Because of the wide variety of alternative formulations on the market, you might find it most helpful to know what to avoid rather than what to look for. Good, ecologically sensitive dishwasher soaps should not contain any of the following ingredients:
- Phosphates: These are mineral agents used to soften water and improve the action of detergents. Phosphates are also toxic to humans and responsible for algae blooms on water bodies. Many laundry soap manufacturers have eliminated phosphates from their ingredient lists, but this is only an emerging trend among dishwasher soap manufacturers.
- Chlorine: Chlorine bleaches may remove stains and disinfect dishes, but they can be toxic within the home as well as in the environment.
- Synthetic Dyes and Fragrances: Chemical colors and perfumes do nothing to improve the cleaning power of your detergent and may pose environmental or health hazards.
Buying Organic Dishwasher Soap
You might find you need to experiment with a few different brands before you find one that works with your water hardness and dishwasher model. Here are a few popular brands to get you started:
- Planet - Automatic Dishwasher Detergent
- Method Smarty Dish - Available in natural grapefruit scent or scent free formula
- Seventh Generation - Dishwasher Detergent - available as gel, powder, or single-use packs
- Wave - Automatic Dishwasher Gel
- Ecover - Available in liquid, powder, or tablets
- Shaklee - Dishwasher Concentrate
- Biokleen - Automatic Dish Powder or Gel
Make Your Own
If you prefer to skip the consumer confusion, you can easily make your own environmentally sensitive detergents. Most commercial products contain some combination of a cleaning agent and a water softener, together with other additives to get your dishes sparkling clean and smelling lovely. You can replicate this formula at home using ingredients found in any grocery store.
The simplest natural dishwasher soap recipe calls for equal parts of borax and baking soda. Mix the two, adding a few drops of citrus-based essential oil for fragrance.
Citric acid is the plant-based surfactant used in many commercial dishwasher soaps. You will be able to find this ingredient among canning supplies at the grocery store, at beer brewing suppliers, or in health food stores. The following recipe will closely mimic commercial preparations at a fraction of the cost:
- 1 cup Borax
- 1 cup washing soda or baking soda
- 1/4 cup citric acid
- 1/4 cup table salt
- 1/4 teaspoon essential oil of choice
To mix, shake the ingredients together in a sealed glass jar. Use one to two tablespoons per load, as necessary.
A word of caution: washing soda is highly alkaline, making it corrosive on your skin and harmful if ingested. If you use washing soda in your recipe, handle it with care and store it out of reach of children.
Whether you use a homemade or commercial formula, you will probably have to spend some time getting to know your dishwasher soap. The amount of baking soda needed may vary depending on your water hardness, as will the amount of detergent you use per load. Most preparations work best at higher temperature settings, and scraping your dishes before washing is more important than ever when you are using gentle cleaners. With time and patience, you will find an option that works for you, as well as for the planet.