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Are Certain Types of Dishwasher Detergents Unsafe?

Learn why your dishwasher detergent might be harmful to your health

Are Certain Types of Detergent Unsafe?

The counters are wiped clean, the pots are scrubbed, and the dirty dishes are stacked neatly in the dishwasher. We pour, squirt, or toss in a pod of detergent, close the door, hit the button, and walk away, thankful that the dishwasher is doing the dirty work for us behind closed doors. We rarely think about the ingredients in the detergents we use. But are all detergents the same? And more importantly, are they all safe for our dishes and for the environment? And what about for our health?

What you don’t know CAN hurt you

While we tend to think of it as merely soap, most mainstream brands of dishwasher detergent contain a complex mix of many chemical ingredients that we should familiarize ourselves with before making an informed choice. Too often we simply assume that anything made to CLEAN dishes, has to be clean and pure. In fact, there is a distinct difference between soap and detergent. Detergents were invented in 1916 as a synthetic alternative to soap during a shortage in World War I caused by the scarcity of fats used in soap production. Unlike soap, which is made with natural ingredients such as lye, fat and plant saponins, detergent is a synthetic chemical compound not found in nature.

What is hiding in the products intended to clean our dishes, and are any of them harmful or unsafe?

What’s inside our popular dishwasher detergents?

Chlorine bleach is still a key ingredient in most dishwasher detergents, and while the smell of bleach tends to be reassuring and familiar to us, and we associate it with cleanliness, there’s more that we should know. Chlorine bleach produces fumes, particularly during the drying cycle, which can be highly irritating to the lungs, and especially risky for those with asthma or respiratory illness.

Sulfuric acid is another popular ingredient in mainstream brands, and is also found in some natural dishwasher detergent brands. Sulfuric acid is a corrosive material and can cause burns as well as contribute to asthma if inhaled.Other important ingredients included in dishwasher detergent are alkaline salts and oxidizing agents intended to break down grease. These are corrosive and harmful if swallowed, inhaled or even touched. 

Enzymes are also included to break down food residue. These can be very harmful to eyes if splashed or accidentally rubbed into them.Perfumes are an ingredient found in nearly all forms of detergent. It’s intended to cover any chemical or food smells. Perfume agents can contain as many as 3000 separate ingredients, and yet are only listed in product labels as “fragrance.”

Dishwasher pods and children

A study by the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio in 2013-2014 found a 14 percent increase in toxic exposures from dish detergent pods to children during the years of the study. The pods pose a particular danger to young children due to both the highly concentrated nature of the chemical detergent and the colorful, candy-like appearance of the pods themselves.

Dishwasher detergent and environmental impact

Many of the chemicals in dishwasher detergents have a significant negative impact on the earth’s aquatic system. Chemicals such as phosphates have recently been banned in several states due to the algae blooms it causes in fresh water systems. This excessive bloom depletes available oxygen and causes a devastating decline in the ecosystem.

Surfactants are detergent agents intended to reduce the surface tension of oil and water. They help to remove dirt from dishes and then keep it from settling back on them during the wash cycle. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, surfactants are toxic to aquatic life, persist in the environment and eventually break down into additional toxic byproducts. Surfactants destroy the outer mucus coating of freshwater fish and disrupt the endocrine systems of both animals and humans, and reduce the breeding rates of surviving aquatic life.

Natural alternatives to conventional dishwasher detergent

Fortunately, due to increased awareness of the potential long-term negative effects of dishwasher and laundry detergents on both humans and the ecosystem, many companies are now offering chemical free “green” options. Also increasingly available online are natural homemade recipes for dishwasher “detergents” that aren’t truly detergents at all, but rather natural ingredients which pose no threat to humans or the environment. And while most of these options don’t yet exactly equal the sparkling, spot-free qualities of chemical detergents, improvements are quickly being made. Once made aware of the unsafe qualities of traditional detergents, it becomes a matter of personal priorities when making an informed choice on an option for your dishwasher.

  Resources— Livestrong.com, ABC News, Care2 Healthy Living, Clearandwell.com