Dishsoap on the ropes

Clean for a day.

Ah, dish duty. Who hasn’t ignored it, dreaded it, rock-paper-scissored over it? But there comes a time in each eater’s life when dishes must be done. Happily, today’s generation of eco-detergents makes it a less-toxic task than in the past — though not completely pure.

When I set out to test six “eco” dish soaps, I had little idea of the sudsy morass I was about to wade into. For the most part, green-cleaning companies have worked hard to eliminate scary stuff, including phosphates and ammonia, from their detergents — and unlike mainstream companies, they’re happy to provide a full ingredient list. But after I plucked six brands from the shelves, I discovered that the study released this spring by the Organic Consumers Association had found detectable levels of 1,4-dioxane — a probable human carcinogen that’s a byproduct of the manufacturing process — in four of them: those made by Seventh Generation, Ecover, Method, and Earth Friendly Products. (The other two were not included in the test; I contacted Biokleen by phone and was told that they are running their own internal tests, and will issue a release should they find 1,4-dioxane in their products; Lotus Products, which owns LifeTree, did not return my call by press time.)*

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

So should you worry about minute amounts of 1,4-dioxane in your scrubby bubbles? Maybe, or maybe not. The federal government says “few studies are available that provide information about the effects of 1,4-dioxane in humans,” but adds that “exposure to very high levels of 1,4-dioxane can result in liver and kidney damage and death.” Companies like Seventh Generation and Ecover rushed to point out that the amount of 1,4-dioxane in their products is minuscule — and some are working to get rid of it entirely. Meanwhile, organics advocates express dismay that these products are advertised as “natural.”

Grist’s Pick

Ecover Dishwashing Liquid
$2.69, 16 fl. oz.

That background info either comforts you, or it doesn’t. If you want to try to stay the hell away from this toxic risk, you could pick up some Dr. Bronner’s castile soap (which had undetectable levels of 1,4-dioxane) and make your own dish potion. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to add mild dish soap worries to the long list of other things to freak out about in this modern world, read on.

As far as the actual product test, I subjected the soaps to a rigorous routine involving plates, bowls, flatware, and glassware. Each soap also had to tackle a “gross item” (e.g., a bowl caked in dried cereal or a pan used to cook meat) and an unusual implement (wooden spoon, rubber spatula, etc.). I evaluated not only this performance but also smell, feel, packaging, and the way my hands felt when the whole ordeal was over. Here’s what I found.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Biokleen Dishwash Liquid (concentrated)
$4.99, 32 fl. oz.
Claims: Natural, non-toxic, biodegradable
How much do you need for a sinkful of dishes: 1 capful
Surprise bonus!: “Makes a great bubble bath or pet shampoo”

This company’s products are often lauded by those with chemical sensitivities and allergies, and I can’t fault that. But I was a little disappointed with its dish soap; the suds didn’t last long, I had trouble getting caked-on cereal off, and it was just OK at combating grease. As a hand soap, it felt overly slick, and left my hands feeling oddly dry.

The six contenders.

Seventh Generation Natural Dish Liquid
$3.49, 25 fl. oz.
Claims: Non-toxic, biodegradable, hypo-allergenic; tough on grease, gentle on hands
How much do you need for a sinkful of dishes: Unspecified
Surprise bonus!: Kosher-certified

This brand has made impressive inroads onto mainstream store shelves (not to mention into mainstream movies), and for the most part earns its place. It handles grease well, and left the fewest spots on glassware of any dish soap I tried. Its herbal scents are fairly mild, and it offers a “free and clear” variety as well. I do find, however, that it takes a few squeezes to keep the suds coming.

Ecover Dishwashing Liquid
$2.69, 16 fl. oz.
Claims: Tough on grease, gentle on your hands, no chemical residues
How much do you need for a sinkful of dishes: “One squeeze”
Surprise bonus!: Safe for all river and marine life

Can’t complain about the performance of this soap: it battled caked-on milk and cereal well, and the first squeeze kept the sponge sudsy for almost as long as I needed it. It also left very few spots on my glassware. Though this one doesn’t tout itself as a hand wash, as some of the others do, I tested them all for that — and while I found that it left my hands feeling a little dry and squeaky initially, it caused no long-term drying.


Which Companies Come Clean?
There’s no law that requires companies to list all the ingredients in their cleaning products, says Consumer Reports’ — but some list them anyway. Find out which companies claim to tell all.

LifeTree Home Soap (super concentrated)
$7.49, 32 fl. oz.
Claims: Biodegradable, phosphate-free; no artificial colors and all natural fragrance
How much do you need for a sinkful of dishes: A few drops
Surprise bonus!: “Use on anything washable, it’s limited only by your imagination”

Pleasingly sudsy at the start, this soap handled dried-up cereal well and also more than capably tackled the scourge of my dishwashing life: orange juice remnants. But the suds, alas, didn’t last. As a hand soap, it felt light and ungreasy. I didn’t try it on my dog, car, grill, or fruits and vegetables, as the package encouraged me to do, but if it works well in all those realms, you surely get a lot of bang for your (admittedly big) bucks.

Earth Friendly Products Ultra Dishmate (very concentrated)
$3.79, 25 fl. oz.
Claims: Contains no phosphates, dyes, or perfumes
How much do you need for a sinkful of dishes: “A little goes a long way”
Surprise bonus!: “Can be used as a liquid hand soap and bath/shower soap”

As promised on the label, a little of this soap does go a long way. It ably handled a greasy barbecue spatula, quickly dispatching both burger grease and cheese. It initially seemed to make glassware and flatware shinier than the others, although the glassware dried with plenty of the dread spots. As a hand soap, it felt soft and moisturizing.

Method Dish (ultra concentrated)
$2.99, 25 fl. oz.
Claims: Non-toxic and biodegradable, phosphate free, naturally derived, no animal testing
How much do you need for a sinkful of dishes: Unspecified
Surprise bonus!: “This is the first dish soap to be recognized by the Design for the Environment program and is manufactured using renewable energy.”

This no-nonsense detergent fought grease (of both the taco and chicken variety) with aplomb, and was a sudsy delight on regular dishes as well. But its strong smell made it feel a bit more chemicalicious than the others, and its twist top drove me a leetle bit insane: Which way to twist? How far? Dish duty does not need added aggravation.

The bottom line: For the best combination of sudsy staying power, grease-fighting gusto, sparkly results, and gentleness on hands, my vote goes to Ecover.

*[UPDATE: LifeTree called a week after this story ran to say that there is no 1,4-dioxane in the Home Soap included in this column, and that the company is working to replace the ingredient that leads to the presence of dioxane in its other dish soap products.]