When I was growing up, we used lye soap for washing the dishes. Although it was of an unpleasant brown color and did not smell good, the lye soap did a good job on the dishes and was safe. But then, “fancy” bottles with dishwashing liquid filled the market and the lye soap became unpopular. If only we had stopped to think what we were allowing into our kitchens, discharging into our waterways, and allowing back into our kitchens through our water taps! It is time we said “no” to toxic dish soap and started using non-toxic dish soap instead. Keep reading this non-toxic dishwashing soap guide to discover the best options for you and the environment.
The worst dishwashing soap
To make it easier, I classified dishwashing products into four categories – worst, bad, better, and best.
To identify the worst kind, look for the following ingredients on the product label:
- Ethoxylated ingredients
- Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
Let us discuss them briefly.
Fragrance in dishwashing liquids
If you have read my other posts, you may already know that “fragrance” is not just one ingredient. Rather, it is a blend of multiple ingredients that manufacturers may choose not to disclose because US law does not require they do so.
However, the International Fragrance Association published a list of 3,999 ingredients used to create fragrances (source). Among those ingredients, there are chemicals associated not only with allergic reactions but also with endocrine disruption and even cancer.
Thus, the European Union Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety states that fragrance mixes may cause allergic contact dermatitis, irritant contact dermatitis, and airborne contact dermatitis. In addition, they may cause photosensitivity, immediate contact reactions (contact urticaria), and pigmented contact dermatitis.
The reason there are so many ingredients in fragrances is that besides the scent-releasing chemicals, there are also supporting ingredients. Thus, they include antioxidants, preservatives, diluents, solvents, fixatives, and colors (source and source).
In fact, the EWG Skin Deep database rates fragrance at 8 out of 10 (with 10 as most toxic) and expresses a concern about its immunotoxicity.
Hence, in my opinion, non-toxic dishwashing soap must not have fragrance on its list of ingredients.
Another ingredient that should not be present among the non-toxic dish soap ingredients is colorants.
Colorants in dish soap
What is wrong with colorants?
First, they may contain residues of heavy metals. To clarify, color additives are derived from petroleum or minerals, both of which come from the Earth’s crust (source). Because of industrial pollution, heavy metals are in water, soil, and air, and thus are a natural part of the Earth’s crust (source). As a result, there may be trace amounts of heavy metals in colorants used in dish soap.
Second, they may contain residues of petroleum-based carcinogenic contaminants. These include PAHs and benzo[a]pyrene rated by the Skin Deep database at 6-9 and 9 respectively. According to the European Chemicals Agency, benzo[a]pyrene may cause genetic defects and cancer, and may damage fertility and the unborn child. Moreover, it is very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects and may cause an allergic skin reaction.
To learn more about the colorant concerns, especially in cosmetic products, please read my post Heavy Metals in Makeup.
So, let me ask you a question: how vital is color for dishwashing soap? Well, I do not think it is necessary at all. That is why you will not find dish soap with colorants among non-toxic dishwashing soap options.
Additionally, I believe non-toxic dish soap should not contain ethoxylated ingredients.
Ethoxylated ingredients in dishwashing liquids
To begin with, you can spot ethoxylated ingredients if you see the following in the names of ingredients:
- PEG (e.g. PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil)
- Polysorbate (e.g. Polysorbate-80)
- Something followed by “eth” (e.g. Laureth-7)
In short, these ingredients are created by ethoxylation which involves the reaction of carcinogenic ethylene oxide with other ingredients to make them less harsh on the skin. A by-product of this reaction is carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane. If not properly removed, it can stay in the end product as a contaminant, even if it is not listed as an “ingredient.”
Additionally, United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) studies show that 1,4-dioxane can penetrate human skin. Even though it is possible to reduce or even remove it from a product through the vacuum-stripping process, we cannot know for sure if it has been done correctly. We could, of course, test each batch, but I do not think it is something feasible for us as consumers to do. Consequently, if we use dishwashing soap with ethoxylated ingredients, they may have residues of this contaminant.
Of course, that does not mean that you will get cancer from using dishwashing liquids with ethoxylated ingredients. However, I refuse to buy products with them because I do not believe carcinogenic substances should be produced in the first place.
Therefore, non-toxic dishwashing soap must not contain ethoxylated ingredients. Lastly, to meet my standards, a non-toxic dish soap must have no harsh preservatives.
Harsh preservatives in dishwashing liquid
Along with benzisothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinone, and methylchloroisothiazolinone, harsh preservatives include formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.
According to the European Chemicals Agency database (ECHA), benzisothiazolinone causes serious eye damage and skin irritation, may cause an allergic skin reaction, and is very toxic to aquatic life.
In addition, the Skin Deep database used to rate it 6-7, but now it rates it 3-6 (that is why I prefer to use ECHA as my primary source, which, by the way, Skin Deep uses as a source, too).
Methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone
The following facts tell us that these preservatives are not for non-toxic dishwashing soap. Indeed, non-toxic dish soap should not raise so many concerns.
First, per the European Chemicals Agency database, methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) is fatal if swallowed, inhaled, or if it comes in contact with the skin. Besides, it may cause an allergic skin reaction and respiratory irritation. Additionally, it causes severe skin burns and eye damage and is very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.
Second, the ECHA states that methylisothiazolinone (MI) is fatal if inhaled, and is toxic if swallowed or if it comes in contact with the skin. Also, it causes severe skin burns and eye damage, may cause an allergic skin reaction, and is very toxic to aquatic life.
Further, both MCI and MI have been associated with contact allergy. Thus, MI was named by the American Contact Dermatitis Society the Contact Allergen of the Year for 2013. Also, lab studies on the brain cells of mammals suggest that MI may be neurotoxic. For instance, the Skin Deep database used to rate MCI 7 out of 10, and now it rates it 2-5 depending on usage. As for MI, the Skin Deep database rates it at 4-7 out of 10.
These substances cannot be among the ingredients of non-toxic dishwashing soap because they release small amounts of formaldehyde into a product over time. In other words, the hazards caused by formaldehyde go against the very purpose of non-toxic dish soap.
To clarify, the ECHA describes formaldehyde as toxic if swallowed, inhaled, or if it comes in contact with the skin. Moreover, it causes severe skin burns and eye damage and may cause an allergic skin reaction. Above all, it may cause cancer and is suspected of causing genetic defects. Additionally, the Environmental Working Group has given it the highest (i.e. worst) score for its negative health impact.
Both formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are associated with widespread allergic contact dermatitis. Therefore, the American Society of Contact Dermatitis lists formaldehyde as one of the core allergens, even in concentrations as low as 1%. In fact, an allergic reaction can happen to formaldehyde or to the preservative itself. For example, the following substances may be formaldehyde-releasing preservatives:
- Diazolidinyl Urea
- DMDM Hydantoin
- Imidazolidinyl Urea
- Sodium Hydroxylmethylglycinate
To sum up, fragrance, colorants, ethoxylated ingredients, benzisothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinone, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are characteristics of the worst dishwashing liquid.
What are the worst dishwashing liquids?
In your search for non-toxic dishwashing soap, eliminate the following:
- Dawn Ultra – Original Scent
- Palmolive Ultra – Coconut Water and Jasmine
- Ajax Ultra Triple Action Orange Liquid Dish Soap
- Meyer’s Clean Day Liquid Dish Soap
So, why are these products unworthy of consideration for non-toxic dish soap list in my opinion? Well, let us look at the table.
Dawn Ultra – Original Scent
– Ethoxylated ingredients (Sodium Laureth Sulfate, PEI-14 PEG-24/PPG-16 Copolymer)
Palmolive Ultra – Coconut Water and Jasmine
|– Benzisothiazolinone |
– Ethoxylated ingredients (Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, Isodeceth-6)
Ajax Ultra Triple Action Orange Liquid Dish Soap
|– Fragrance |
– Ethoxylated ingredient (Ammonium C12-15 Pareth Sulfate)
Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Liquid Dish Soap
|– Fragrance |
– Ethoxylated ingredient (Polysorbate 20)
In case you would like to know more about Mrs. Meyer’s, head over to my post about Mrs. Meyer’s cleaning products.
The bad dishwashing soaps
This group of liquid dishwashing soaps includes products that are slightly better than those in the worst category. Specifically, there are no colorants, fragrance, ethoxylated ingredients, or formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.
The following are the characteristics of the “bad” category:
- No preservatives
What does it mean when a product has no preservatives?
To begin, it is not a good sign if a dish soap contains water but has no preservatives. It may seem like the absence of preservatives makes this product a non-toxic dishwashing soap, but I do not believe it does. Indeed, without preservatives, there is a risk of bacterial contamination, which is a pretty serious matter. Even though they are invisible, bacteria can do harm to people with weak or developing immune systems. (Please, read my overview of scientific studies on bacteria in the WaterWipes Baby Wipes post.) Therefore, non-toxic dish soap must have some kind of a preservation system.
Then, if there are no preservatives listed among the ingredients of a product containing water, it is a good idea to call the manufacturer and ask how they prevent bacteria and mold growth in their products. The answer to this question will determine which category the product belongs to.
What are the bad dishwashing liquids?
The following products belong in this category:
- Eco-Me Dish Soap
- Ecover Zero Dish Soap
- Method Free+Clear Dish Soap
- Seventh Generation Natural Dish Liquid
- Attitude Baby Bottle & Dishwashing Liquid
Eco-Me Dish Soap
Potassium Sorbate preservative is effective for mold but not so much for various bacteria
Better Life Dish Soap
Ecover Zero Dish Soap
Method Free+Clear Dish Soap
Seventh Generation Natural Dish Liquid
Attitude Baby Bottle & Dishwashing Liquid
To clarify, I have contacted the Eco-Me, Better Life, and Attitude companies with the question about preservatives in their products. However, I have not received any convincing answers regarding a preservation system in their dishwashing liquids. I am a safe product formulation consultant, so I rely on my professional expertise to evaluate their answers. Therefore, until I get their feedback, I cannot put these products in the non-toxic dishwashing soap category.
As for Ecover Zero Dish Soap, the label on the bottle does not have a full list of ingredients, but the website does. And this is how I know that they use methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone for preservation.
Last, if you would like to know more about Method, please read my review of Method cleaning products.
The better options of non-toxic dishwashing soap
The options of non-toxic dish soap in this category have NO:
- Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
BUT they have phenoxyethanol.
So, on the one hand, all the harsh chemicals are out. But on the other hand, there is phenoxyethanol that prevents these products from being the best dishwashing soap options.
Phenoxyethanol in non-toxic dish soap
Generally, phenoxyethanol as a preservative is common for skin care products, mascaras, foundations shampoos, and liquid washes. Thus, in my opinion, it is a “middle of the road” preservative, which means it is not the worst one.
However, because nowadays there are many products with more natural preservatives, I try to avoid it. Though it is definitely a safer option compared to the chemicals we talked about above, there are some factors that keep me from calling it completely safe. You can read more about it in my post about the use of phenoxyethanol in skin care.
What is a better option of non-toxic dishwashing soap?
The dishwashing soap that belongs in this category is ECOS Dishmate Dish Liquid – Free & Clear.
As a matter of fact, ECOS used to have methylisothiazolinone and phenoxyethanol preservatives. But after the reformulation, methylisothiazolinone was gone, and phenoxyethanol remained. You can read more about ECOS dishwashing liquid in my review post about it.
I recommend the unscented version because the scented ones have “natural fragrance” as an ingredient. In fact, the word “natural” has no legal definition in the US. In other words, what you may think of as “natural,” might not mean the same thing for a manufacturer. (For example, crude oil is “natural,” too.)
Basically, we do not know for sure what those “natural” ingredients in the fragrance are. And it gets more complicated when the company won’t disclose these ingredients, referring to them as a “proprietary mixture.” Please, check out my post about natural fragrance to learn more.
The best non-toxic dish soap
From my point of view, the best dishwashing soap has the following features:
- Soap-based or made with the safest surfactants/detergents
- Food-grade preservatives or plant-based preservatives
When your dishwashing product is “soap-based,” it means it is not detergent-based. That is to say, soap is a result of a one-step process – the reaction between an alkali and a plant oil. Therefore, the soap-based dish washes are safe and normally do not need preservatives. But it should be noted that they might not work well with hard water.
What are the best options of non-toxic dishwashing soap?
So, the non-toxic dish soap options in the “best” category are as follows:
- Branch Basics Concentrate
- Fit Organic Dish & Hand Soap
- Meliora Dishwashing Soap Bar
- Honest Dish Soap – Free & Clear
- MADE OF Organic Foaming Dish Soap
- Bronner’s Castile Liquid Soap – Unscented
|Branch Basics Concentrate Glucoside surfactants, please read about them in my Are Glucosides Safe? post.||Water, Coco Glucoside, Organic Chamomilla Recutita (Chamomile) Flower Extract, Decyl Glucoside, Sodium Citrate, Lauryl Glucoside, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Phytate.|
Denatured Alcohol*, Berry Saponins*, Sunflower Oil*, Glycerin*, Potassium Hydroxide. *Organic
|Vegetable Soap [Sodium Cocoate, Sodium Sunflowerate, Glycerin, Water, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil*, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil*]. *Organic|
Honest Dish Soap – Free & ClearPlease read about its surfactant in my Is Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine Safe? post.
|Water, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Sodium Chloride, Lauryl Glucoside, Glycerin, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Sodium Benzoate, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Laurate, Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate, Citric Acid.|
|MADE OF Organic Foaming Dish Soap |
Soap-based. The scented versions are scented with organic essential oils.
|Water, Glycerin*, Tocopherol, Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera)*, Cocos Nucifera Oil (Coconut)*, Helianthus Annuus Oil (Sunflower)*, Ricinus Communis Oil (Castor)*, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Extract, Potassium Hydroxide. *Organic|
|Water, Coconut Oil*, Potassium Hydroxide**, Palm Kernel Oil*, Olive Oil*, Hemp Oil*, Jojoba Oil*, Citric Acid, Tocopherol. *Organic **None remains after saponifying oils into soap & glycerin.|
Conclusion about non-toxic dish soap
To sum up, in my opinion, the best non-toxic dishwashing soap is the kind that has no harsh chemicals and is safe for you and the planet. Furthermore, it would be great if the liquid container were made of glass rather than plastic. When I think about plastic polluting our planet, I look for ways to avoid it. Thus, we have been using this bar soap for washing hands and our bodies for many years now because it is totally plastic-free. Even when plastic is recycled, the factories pollute the air and water with waste and fumes.
Please, check out my shop for non-toxic options for household, skincare, babywear and other items. Additionally, consider booking a personal consultation with me if you need help with purchasing products. Finally, join the community of like-minded people in the Savvy Consumer Circle to go deeper with non-toxic living.
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