The Lowdown on Dishwasher Detergent Ingredients

Every variety of dishwasher detergent available - tablets, powder or gel - consists of a similar set of ingredients.

What's in your favorite dishwasher detergent?

Few things are more satisfying than the sight of sparkling glasses and gleaming chinaware in your dishwasher's open tray...especially when you recall that it was all accomplished without your having to lift a finger.

And while that trusty kitchen appliance does play a role in that mini-miracle, there's also another factor which makes all the difference between your dishes emerging pristine following each wash as opposed to spotted and covered with telltale flecks of last night's dinner: the detergent.

But how exactly do those tiny pouches and tablets tackle such a herculean task and emerge victorious at the end of it all? The key lies in their ingredients. Read on for a look at those all-essential building blocks that make up what is surely one of the most-loved household products on the globe.

What is dishwasher detergent made of?

Every variety of dishwasher detergent available—tablets, powder or gel— consists of a similar set of ingredients. Each of them has its very own role to play in making sure that the different kinds of tableware into which you load your dishwasher all emerge pretty much unscathed, unscratched, and ready to make your favorite dishes appear especially appetizing. Below we've listed what each one of them is and exactly what it does.

  1. Builders: The main role of this component is ensuring the water is suitable for the dishwasher detergent to work its magic. The main way it does this is by working a few special tricks of its own when it comes in contact with hard water. Hard water is water that typically contains high quantities of calcium and magnesium compounds (they’re also called salts). Builders are especially important since hard water can limit the effectiveness of the detergent and also cause the presence of telltale spots on your tableware. Up until quite recently, chemicals known as phosphates were mainly used as builders and performed marvelously in the role. However, they were considered responsible for encouraging the excessive growth of algae in bodies of water, so their use has since been discouraged. This necessitated the use of alternatives, including chemical products referred to as citrates and polycarbonates.
  2. Bleaching agents: These are chemicals in the detergent that react with each other during the process to create bleach instantly. Their presence ensures the elimination of troublesome stains such as coffee, for example. The bleach they provide also acts as a mild disinfectant. Examples of chemicals used for this purpose include substances such as sodium nonanoyloxybenzoylsulfate and sodium peroxycarbonate.
  3. Enzymes: These chemicals are responsible for ensuring that the starch and protein contained in the leftover food on your dishes break down as quickly as possible. Thanks to them, the entire dishwashing process proceeds as promptly and as thoroughly as possible. These enzymes belong to two categories: amylases, which take care of starch, and proteases, which are responsible for proteins (fun fact: similar enzymes actually exist in humans to enable us to digest our food properly).
  4. Alkalis: An alkali is a special substance considered to be a kind of salt. Chemicals in this category are responsible for ensuring that conditions are just right for the other ingredients in the dishwasher detergent to function effectively. And while enzymes are responsible for breaking down starch and proteins, alkalis get to handle fats in pretty much the same way. And that’s not all they’re responsible for, either: they also keep the dishwasher’s components in perfect condition by protecting them from corrosion.
  5. Surfactants: Leftover food on dishes consists of several substances that are not too fond of mixing with water, such as oils and fats. And that’s where surfactants come in. Their job consists of eliminating the chemical barriers between these food particles and water, ensuring they combine with each other so that your dishes stay clean. Most dishwasher manufacturers prefer a special category of these chemicals that ensures the detergent does not produce excessive amounts of foam when used.
  6. Additional ingredients: In addition to the chemical substances mentioned above, which play key roles in the dishwashing process, most detergents also contain fragrances to eliminate any lingering smells caused by the leftover food residue. Those which come in the form of tablets also require a special chemical to enable them to break down properly so that each of their ingredients can work effectively.

Amazing and indispensable

Wherever would we be without these amazing ingredients that enable us to eat our cake and have it too, on a nice clean plate? The answer to that is pretty clear: up to our elbows in soap suds at the sink—the last thing we want or need after enjoying a fun evening entertaining friends and family.

But thanks to the marvels of modern-day alchemy mentioned above, all we have to do is press that button to get that dishwasher detergent to spring into action and remain hard at work until it’s all over—and of course experience that undiminished sense of satisfaction at taking a peek at all those gleaming, spotless dishes.

References—Compound InterestAmerican Cleaning Institute, Finish, Cesio, Biolin Scientific