Natural dish soaps generally aren’t as effective as the ones that are a startling orange color and full of 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.
Common dish soap ingredients include:
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.
Dyes. Food-grade coloring is implicated in behavioral issues in children.
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 may be causing the super bugs we are hearing about.
Surfactants. Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) are common foaming agents. 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 one insanely easy homemade dish soap recipe:
Combine 2 parts castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s is a good option) with 1 part warm water, plus (optional) a few drops of lemon oil. Shake before using.
Tandi’s Naturals Solid Dish Soap is a bar soap, and 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 often and then reload with soap. The ingredients list is incredibly safe–it’s 100% natural with nothing questionable. A 3.5-ounce bar costs $6.99.
Better Life Dish it Out Unscented Soap is one of very few dishwashing liquids that earns an A from Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) cleaning product guide. 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 $7 for a 22-ounce bottle.
The Best of the Worst
Because there are so few dish soaps that we can call Good Stuff, here are three that are technically Sneaky Stuff but overall still safe-ish. These are the best of the bad.
Whole Foods dish soaps have some not totally great ingredients, likecocamidopropylamine oxide, coco-betaine (rated a C by EWG), and sodium lauryl sulfate. Still, Whole Foods’ soaps are better than other options. Opt for 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 use alkyl polyglucoside as a surfactant, and their 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 it’s the very last ingredient. 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.
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.
I could go on, but you get the point: stay away from Ajax, Ivory, Joy, and probably anything else that leaves your glasses suspiciously sparkly.
The Sneaky Stuff
When it comes to dish soaps, almost everything is Sneaky Stuff. Let’s dig right in and look at the top 10 Sneaky dish soaps (in no particular order).
1. Ecover is a big, fat fraud! No wonder their dish soap works better than all the other natural ones. Here is some of what it contains: SLES, limonene, citral, and something called 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, which is an immunotoxin rated an 8-10 on Skin Deep. By the way, you won’t see these ingredients listed on the label. They use 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. “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.” EWG score: C.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Method dish soap also uses synthetic fragrance and color (this one is free of phthalates), and also contains synthetic preservatives, SLS, and ethanol. EWG score: D-F, depending on formula.
6. Caldrea dish soaps contain methylisothiazolinone, benzisothiazolinone, sodium coco-sulfate, cocamidopropyl betaine, and undisclosed fragrance. EWG score: C-D, depending on formula.
7. Trader Joe’s doesn’t disclose any specifics about their dish soap, but we know it has artificial colors. EWG score: F.
8. When I wrote the first version of the dish soap safety review (back in 2009), Biokleenwas 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.
9. Honest Company’s Honest Dish Soap contains methylisothiazolinone, cocomidopropylamine oxide, phenoxyethanol, sodium coco-sulfate, and cocamidopropyl betaine. EWG score: B, which makes no sense because they don’t include an ingredients list. Obviously this is an error (there are many on the site.)
10. 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, their dish soap also contains methylisothiazonlinone and d-limonene (which gets a D from EWG). EWG Score: C to D, depending on the formula.
For further information, see http://www.gimmethegoodstuff.org/dish-soap/