How to Wash Dishes Without Chemical Dish Soap
Washing dishes without chemical dish soap is important for families that are concerned with the harmful effects of conventional dishwashing liquids. Non-toxic dish soaps are important as any residues left on our dishes can be ingested.
Read on to discover how dish soaps work, what common dish soap myth could be harming your health and how to find a natural dish soap that’s effective.
What makes a dish soap effective
If you try and wash a greasy plate with water, it will run straight off the surface. This is because oil and water do not mix. To lift the oil off you need something to attract and move the oil particles.
This is where soap comes in. Soap molecules are attracted to water on one end (hydrophilic) and repel water (hydrophobic) on the other fatty acid tail end.
When you put soap on a greasy plate, the water repellent ends of the soap molecules are attracted to the oil molecules. Then when you turn the tap on, the water-loving ends of the soap molecules bond with water molecules. On a molecular level, soap ‘sticks’ to both oil and water which makes dish soap effective at breaking oil into small droplets that can be lifted off our dishes and stay suspended water so that it can be washed away.
What you need to wash and clean dishes effectively
Soaps are a type of ‘surfactant’ which is a common term used to describe a ‘surface-active agent’. Surfactants help break the surface tension of water (water molecules are very attracted to each other) which makes it more available for mixing.
Surfactants are essential for dish soap or liquid detergent to be effective, however, many conventional dish soaps available to consumers contain synthetic chemical surfactants that pose potential health risks.
Two of the more commonly used synthetic surfactants are sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate (SLS) or sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES). These substances have been used as a substitute for natural soaps because they are effective and inexpensive. Studies show that SLS can cause skin, eye and respiratory irritation. In an effort to mitigate this, manufacturers added ethylene oxide to SLS to form SLES. SLES is also a cleaning ingredient of concern as it can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane (a possible carcinogen) during the manufacturing process.
The good news is that there are natural dish soaps that use non-toxic surfactants in their formulations. Soap isn’t a modern-era invention. Before synthetic chemicals, mixtures of animal and vegetable oils and alkaline salts were used as soaps.
These days, natural dish soap manufacturers providing alternatives for conventional dish soaps use ingredients such as lauryl glucoside and coco glucoside derived from natural sources such as coconut, palm oils and corn sugars. Just be sure to check that the palm oil is responsibly sourced from a supplier that meets sustainable standards such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Supply Chain Certification Standard.
Do cleaners need suds, foam or bubbles to work?
SLS and SLES also create lather and are used as foaming agents. Because SLS and SLES have been so widely used in cleaning products, many people associate bubbles, foam and lather with cleaning power. But this is a misconception that could be harming your health.
A bubble is simply a thin film of water trapped between two layers of soap molecules with an air pocket in the middle. Bubbles in water are a good indicator that soap is present in the water, but isn’t indicative of the effectiveness of the soap. Rather, bubbles are more indicative of the soap’s ability to attract water. For a soap to be an effective cleaner it should be good at attracting water and attracting oil, and this cannot be judged on how much soap foams.
Does dish soap need to disinfect?
It is probably a good idea to disinfect dishes if someone in your home has a particularly sensitive stomach or a compromised immune system. Otherwise, disinfecting dishes is not needed, especially because many disinfecting dish soaps are made with ingredients that are harmful to human health.
Triclosan is a common disinfectant used in antibacterial dish soaps and is linked to several health issues such as endocrine disruption and allergy development, particularly in children. It is also considered highly toxic to aquatic environments.
If dishes are washed correctly, dirt, grease and bacteria should be washed off the dish with soap and water or eliminated with a hot water bath. If disinfecting dishes is necessary, soak washed dishes in a bath of hot water at 170°F for at least 30 seconds.
Special precautions should be taken when washing utensils used to prepare problematic foods (such as raw chicken). In these cases, we would recommend washing and disinfecting with non-toxic disinfectants such as hydrogen peroxide and wiping surfaces with natural kitchen cleaners that contain ingredients with disinfecting properties.
How dish soap is affected by hard water
The ‘hardness’ of your water supply is also an important factor to consider when searching for an effective dish soap.
Hard water contains dissolved minerals such as calcium and magnesium that are accumulated as water moves through rocks and other substrates. Excess minerals in hard water can interfere with the effectiveness of household cleaning products, including dish soap. This is because minerals in hard water react with soap molecules to produce an insoluble solid (soap scum) before they react with water. The physical build-up of soap scum also adds to cleaning tasks.
This is why more soap is generally required to clean in hard water areas and less soap is needed in soft water areas.
The hardness of water is measured in milligrams per liter or grains per gallon but there are some things to look for if you are unsure. Hard water can result in mineral build up (called scale) around water fixtures, white spots on dishes and dry irritated hands and skin. You can also refer to municipal websites for information on the hardness of water in your area.
If you are in a hard water area it is also a good idea to look for a dish soap that contains glycerin, which helps keep hands moisturized.
Tips for hand washing dishes effectively
Effectively hand washing your dishes doesn’t only come down to the dish soap you use. There are things you can do in the process to help make sure each dish is properly cleaned.
Let things soak
Soaking charred or greasy pots and pans is common practice for good reason. Leaving dirty dishes to soak gives the soap more time to attach and lift mess. It’s a good idea to soak all the dishes to make hand washing easier and more effective.
If you can, fill your sink or a large container with hot soapy water and leave dishes to soak before you wash them.
Wash with hot water
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to hand-wash dishes with water hot enough for disinfecting, but you can leave dishes in a tub of hot water before and after washing to help with sanitation.
Hot water is also generally better for washing because surface tension decreases at higher water temperatures making surfactants and soaps more effective.
Gloves are a good idea for protecting your hands from drying out in the washing process and will also help you tolerate higher water temperatures for more efficient washing.
Wash clean to dirty
Washing cleaner items first helps to limit the spread of dirt and germs from very dirty dishes to relatively clean ones. It will also stop your sponge, dishcloth or scrubber from becoming coated in grease and dirt.
If you soak your dishes prior, washing dishes in this order also allows dirty items to soak in a cleaning solution for longer.
Use a scrubbing powder
For dishes that are soiled with baked-on mess or thick grease, use a scrubbing powder. A scrubbing powder not only adds extra soap, but physically scours away dirt with it’s granules as it lifts it.
To make sure your dishes are truly clean, listen for a squeak. Do this by listening for a squeak or feeling for resistance as you rub your finger on a cleaned dish. If your finger is sliding there is either still a layer of grease on the dish, or you haven’t rinsed the soap off completely. This is a particularly important step for dish soaps without foaming agents such as SLS or SLES as there won’t be as much lather to act as a visual cue.
Allowing your dishes to dry on a rack will save time and is more sanitary because you don’t run the risk of spreading germs with a dirty dish towel. If you must dry with a cloth, make sure it is a fresh one.
Ready to make the switch to a natural, non-toxic dish soap that works? Try AspenClean natural dish soaps. They are made without SLS, SLES, triclosan, synthetic chemicals and are lightly scented with pure organic essential oils.
AspenClean natural dish soaps and dishwasher pods are also available unscented with is a great option for people with allergies and sensitivities.