UPDATED: July 2016
As a family of four, we go through a lot of dish soap, and my kids love to “help” wash dishes.
As with many products, natural dish soaps often aren’t as effective as the ones that are a startling orange color and full of magical chemicals that makes your dishes sparkle. The trouble with being tough on grease is that this usually also means tough on the health of whoever uses the stuff–and on the aquatic life of the rivers and streams where it ends up.
As you will see below under “The Sneaky Stuff” tab, the vast majority of “natural” dish soaps contain a ton of chemicals, just like their conventional counterparts. And while you do wash most of the product off of your dishes, some residue probably remains. And if your kids are using the soap, you’ll want to make sure it’s truly nontoxic.
Common Dish Soap Ingredients
Surfactants. Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) are common foaming agents, usually derived from coconut. Both SLS and SLES produce lovely bubbles in your dish soap, and are found in lots of “natural” brands. SLS is okay in my opinion (although not ideal), but SLES is not. (Here is where I explain the differences between sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate.)
- Dyes. Food-grade coloring is implicated in behavioral issues in kids, so I’m okay with my dish soap being colorless.
- Fragrance. Anything scented probably contains hormone-disrupting phthalates, unless the manufacturers specify that they only use essential oils. Even phthalate-free synthetic fragrances usually are petroleum-derived and contain undisclosed chemicals.
- Antibacterial ingredients. You may see “triclosan” listed on the label, or it may just say “antibacterial agent” or something along those lines. This stuff is totally toxic (carcinogenic and hormone disrupting) and also contributes to the antibiotic-resistant “super bugs” that are becoming a real problem.
How to Make Dishwashing Liquid
As usual, my fabulous readers are often greener and cleaner than I am, and many of them use homemade dishwashing liquid. Here is one insanely easy homemade dish soap recipe that a one reader swears by: Combine 2 parts castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s is a good option) with 1 part warm water, plus a few drops of lemon oil. Shake before using.
Smearing Grease Around a Pan: Which Dish Soap I Use
When we first made the switch to natural dish soap, my husband complained that doing the dinner dishes just felt like “smearing grease around a pan.” (I went with Seventh Generation, before I knew it that I had to read labels of the natural stuff, too!). We still have a reserve of Sonnet (which is no longer sold in the United States), but we also use Better Life and Eco-Me dish soaps. While I love the idea of a plastic-container-free soaps, and the Tandi’s soap we sell in our store has some die-hard fans, the truth is I just really like liquid dish soap.
The good news is that even if you don’t want to make your own dish soap, and if you want something that really does work (almost) as well as Dawn, there are several great brands now available. So without further ado…
The Good Stuff
Sonnet Dish Washing Up Liquid This soap by the German company Sonett is my new favorite for hand dishwashing. It contains none of the usual toxic suspects found in conventional (and many natural) brands of dish soap, works well, and looks pretty on my sink. Done and done! You can buy a two-pack in our online store. UPDATE: Unfortunately, Sonett will no longer be importing their cleaning products into the United States.
Because this is a bar soap (no plastic!), I was reluctant to try it at first. But given the dearth of truly safe options, I eventually agreed to test it out, and I was pleasantly surprised when it worked as well as the other natural soaps. The trick is to rinse the sponge well and often and then reload with soap. The ingredients list is incredibly safe–it’s 100% natural with nothing questionable (see all ingredients here). A 3.5-ounce bar costs $6.
I love Eco-Me dish soap–it actually works, doesn’t contain scary ingredients (although it’s not 100% natural), and smells good. A 16-ounce bottle costs around eight bucks, and if your local grocery store doesn’t carry Eco-Me, you can get it on Amazon.
While some of the surfactants in this soap are somewhat unknown (there really are no safety studies on disodium coco-glucosede citrate, for instance), we do know that none of the ingredients have proven toxicity issues. You can buy Better Life in health food stores and on Amazon for around $9 for a 22-ounce bottle. This soap is most effective if you put a generous amount on the sponge.
The Best of the Worst
Because there are so few dish soaps that we can call confidently Good Stuff, here are three that are technically Sneaky Stuff but overall still safe-ish. If you can’t get any of the Good Stuff options, these are the best of the bad.
- Whole Foods dish soaps have some not totally great ingredients, like cocamidopropylamine oxide, coco-betaine (rated a C by EWG), and sodium lauryl sulfate. Still, on the whole (yay pun!), Whole Foods’ soaps are better than other options. Choose the unscented variety when possible.
- BabyGanics has ditched the SLES in their dish soap, which is great. They use alkyl polyglucoside (which scores only a B by EWG) and sodium lauroamphoacetate (which gets a 1 on Skin Deep) as surfactants. The water softener they use is sodium citrate (which is graded an A by EWG). All of this sounds awesome, but then they had to go and ruin it with tetrasodium iminodisuccinate (a C from EWG and a lack of safety data), and even worse, sodium hydroxylmethyl glycinate (which scores a D, with concerns about the presence of formaldehyde). Thankfully, these bad ingredients are in very low concentrations so overall BabyGanics is a decent dish soap option.
- Dapple dish soap also uses alkyl polyglucoside as a surfactant, and Dapple’s website assures us that it doesn’t contain SLES. When I called, a knowledgeable-sounding woman told me it also does not contain SLS and that they are updating their site to say as much. She also told me that what’s listed on the label as “essential oil dispersant” is polysorbate 20. I’m not thrilled about this (it gets a C on EWG), but as it’s the very last ingredient I can make my peace with it. More concerning is the tetrasodium iminodisuccinate (a C on EWG), and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate (a D), but these are also in tiny concentrations so in a pinch Dapple is okay. NOTE: Dapple sent me some free dish soap and other products to try.
The Bad Stuff
No big surprises here. Dawn sucks, and in particular their antibacterial formulas should be avoided since they contain endocrine-disrupting triclosan. Dawn doesn’t disclose all of their ingredients, but you can find their MSDS on the P&G website. Depending on which formula you pick, you’ll find fragrance (probably with phthalates), artificial colorings, carcinogenic phenoxyethanol, and/or neurotoxic methylisothiazolinone. EWG score: C-F, depending on formula.
Palmolive contains sodium laureth sulfate, although they don’t appear to use triclosan for their antibacterial soap (instead they use lactic acid). The Palmolive dish soap MSDS is available on the Colgate-Palmolive website. EWG score: D-F, depending on formula.
The Sneaky Stuff
Wow. When it comes to dish soaps, almost everything is Sneaky Stuff, even the stuff I used to think was Good Stuff. The 10 sneakiest dish soaps are as follows (in no particular order).
- Ecover is a big, fat fraud! No wonder their dish soap works better than all the other natural ones. Here is some of the gross stuff it contains: SLES, limonene, citral, and something called 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, which is an immunotoxin rated by 8-10 on Skin Deep. By the way, you won’t see these ingredients listed on the label. Ecover uses clever euphemisms for all of them; SLES hides in the “anionic and nonanionic surfactants,” for instance. What’s really upsetting is how many health blogs and websites recommend Ecover products. Tree Hugger, however, did call them out on the 1,4-dioxane in their dish soap, and if you’re interested in reading Ecover’s response, here you go. Oh, and you are correct if you recall my former endorsement of Ecover laundry detergent. I’ve since updated that section of this site, feeling foolish that I accepted their dodgy response about SLES: “Not at concentration levels in our products. SLS and SLES can cause skin irritation just as any other plant based surfactant; even soap can do that. All depends on the concentration of the solution, the synergy with other ingredients in the formula, the temperature of the solution and the exposure time, to name just the most important factors…There is no specific negative effect linked to the use of SLS and SLES, which are both based on coconut oil.” Note: Ecover sent me laundry detergent to review. EWG score: C.
- Earth Friendly Products used to list the ingredients in their Dishmate soap as just “water, salt, organic grapefruit oil, and 100% natural anionic coconut kernel oil-based surfactant.” They have recently started disclosing all of their ingredients, which include cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium coco-sulfate, cocamidopropylamine oxide, phenoxyethanol, and methylisothiazolinone. Super sneaky! EWG score: D.
- Mrs. Meyers Clean Day’s PR company sent me bottles of all of their dishwashing liquids, hoping to have it reviewed on this site. While I did in fact use all four of delicious-smelling and totally effective dish soaps, I won’t buy Mrs. Meyers. They are indeed scented with essential oils, as the label claims, but they also contain synthetic fragrances (although a Mrs. Meyers rep assured me they are free of phthalates). While Mrs. Meyers does not contain SLS or SLES, it does have cocamidopropyl betaine, methylisothiazolinone, and benzisothiazolinone. EWG Score: C to D, depending on scent.
- The Sierra Club endorses Clorox Green Works dish soap, but we can’t do the same, thanks to synthetic fragrance (I’ve been unable to get an answer on whether or not this means it has phthalates) and artificial color. Green Works uses lauramine-oxide as a surfactant, which is rated a C by EWG. There are also a lot of other undisclosed ingredients, and for this EWG grades them an F.
- Method dish soap uses synthetic fragrance and color (this one is free of phthalates), and also contains synthetic preservatives, SLS, and ethanol. Still, I admit to using some of Method’s other cleaning products—I love how their bathroom cleaner smells and can’t break the addiction. EWG score: D-F, depending on formula.
- Caldrea dish soaps contain methylisothiazolinone, benzisothiazolinone, sodium coco-sulfate, cocamidopropyl betaine, and undisclosed fragrance. EWG score: C-D, depending on formula.
- Trader Joe’s doesn’t disclose any specifics about their dish soap, but we know it has artificial colors. EWG score: F.
- When I wrote the first version of the dish soap safety review (back in 2009), Biokleen was tight-lipped about the specific ingredients they use (“Unfortunately, our surfactants are a proprietary blend and therefore we do not disclose that information to the public.”) Biokleen did assure me, however, that their detergent is free of both SLS and SLES and that they don’t use synthetic fragrances or dyes. They sent me their material safety data sheet (MSDS) and their surfactant blend is not considered hazardous or possibly carcinogenic. Given all of this information, I felt that Biokleen should be considered Good Stuff. Unfortunately, Biokleen recently changed their formula and, to their credit, chose to disclose all ingredients. These include cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium lauryl sulfate (I’m actually okay with this ingredient, but I know some of you may not be), lauramine oxide, and something called C10-16 alkyl glucoside, about which I can’t find any information. NOTE: Biokleen sent me some free dish soap to review.
- Honest Company’s Honest Dish Soap has changed their ingredients for the better since the original version of this guide. But it still contains sodium benzoate, cocomidopropylamine oxide, phenoxyethanol, sodium coco-sulfate, and cocamidopropyl betaine. EWG score: B, which makes no sense because EWG doesn’t include an ingredients list. Obviously this is an error (there are many on the site, unfortunately.)
- Seventh Generation is totally transparent about their ingredients, so they get points for that. Another plus is that they test the SLS in their dish soap to ensure that it does not contain detectable levels of 1,4-dioxane. Unfortunately, there dish soap also contains methylisothiazonlinone and d-limonene (which gets a D from EWG). EWG Score: C to D, depending on the formula.
What About Dishwasher Detergent?
We are working on a Safe Dishwasher Soap Guide, but for now, here’s what we’ve identified as the Good Stuff:
- Better Life Dishwasher Gel
- Eco-Me Fragrance Free Auto Dish Soap
- MamaSuds Auto Dishwashing Powder (Note: Because this is a soap rather than a detergent, it’s a great option for those struggling with eczema.)
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