Anything that touches your food can get inside your body, right? That goes for dishes, glasses, and utensils, too.
Commercial dishwasher detergents are made with chemicals to not only clean but soften water, prevent spotting, and add fragrance. Water in the rinse cycle (which may contain added fluoride, another toxic chemical) will take off most of them but some will remain on—or even IN—the items you use for serving, storing, and feeding—especially plastics.
Dishwasher (and laundry) detergent pods are especially hazardous: children seem to like to chew on them. Thousands of children have required hospital attention due to accidental ingestion and poisoning. (1) Consumer Reports considers these too great a risk and no longer recommends their use—NONE of them. (2)
Here are some common ingredients you will probably find in your dishwasher detergent. You can decide for yourself if they sound appetizing.
Ammonia – there’s a reason a bottle of this stuff includes a skull and cross bones on its label: long-term exposure to this volatile, toxic corrosive chemical can cause respiratory and skin ailments.
“In the presence of moisture (such as high relative humidity) [or hot water in the dishwasher], the liquefied anhydrous ammonia gas forms vapors that are heavier than air…Exposure to high concentrations of ammonia in air causes immediate burning of the nose, throat and respiratory tract. This can cause bronchiolar and alveolar edema, and airway destruction resulting in respiratory distress or failure. Inhalation of lower concentrations can cause coughing, and nose and throat irritation…ammonia also causes olfactory fatigue or adaptation, reducing awareness of one’s prolonged exposure at low concentrations.
“Children…may be exposed to higher concentrations than adults in the same location because of their shorter height and the higher concentrations of ammonia vapor initially found near the ground.
“Exposure to low concentrations of ammonia in air or solution may produce rapid skin or eye irritation. Higher concentrations of ammonia may cause severe injury and burns. Contact with concentrated ammonia solutions such as industrial cleaners may cause corrosive injury including skin burns, permanent eye damage or blindness. The full extent of eye injury may not be apparent for up to a week after the exposure.
“Exposure to high concentrations of ammonia from swallowing…results in corrosive damage to the mouth, throat and stomach.” (3)
You know how during the drying cycle—even if you don’t use the heated dry option—steam vents out of your dishwasher? Mm hmm. You and your family are breathing in whatever comes out.
Coal Tar Dye – artificial colorant made either from petroleum or coal distillates.
“Coal tar is recognized as a human carcinogen and the main concern with individual coal tar colours (whether produced from coal tar or synthetically) is their potential to cause cancer. As well, these colours may be contaminated with low levels of heavy metals and some are combined with aluminum substrate. Aluminum compounds and many heavy metals are toxic to the brain.” (4)
Chlorine Bleach – you know it’s poison—there’s “yucky face” right on the label. It was used as the first chemical warfare agent in World War I. Like ammonia, chlorine bleach is chemically unstable and corrosive. Mixing it with other cleaners (remember being told never to mix ammonia and bleach?) increases its instability. This, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
“When chlorine gas comes into contact with moist tissues such as the eyes, throat, and lungs, an acid is produced that can damage these tissues. Long-term complications may occur after breathing in high concentrations of chlorine. Complications are more likely to be seen in people who develop severe health problems such as fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) following the initial exposure. No antidote exists for chlorine exposure. Treatment consists of removing the chlorine from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care such as inhaled breathing treatments for wheezing in a hospital setting.” (5)
Physical contact with liquid chlorine:
“If you think you may have been exposed, remove your clothing, rapidly wash your entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible.”
“Seek medical attention right away. Consider dialing 911 and explaining what has happened.”
MEA, DEA, and TEA – mono-, di-, and/or triethanolamine make the detergent lather. When mixed with other chemicals, they can become carcinogenic.
Formaldehyde – good for preserving dead frogs.
“Formaldehyde is classified as a human carcinogen. Short-term exposure to formaldehyde can be fatal. Long-term exposure to low levels of formaldehyde may cause respiratory difficulty, eczema, and sensitization.” (6)
SLS and SLES – sodium lauryl/laureth sulfates make the detergent foamy. These are readily absorbed through the skin and can cause irritation, rash, and allergic reactions. They are also toxic to aquatic life so they go on giving after the detergent drains down to the sewer and eventually into some larger body of water.
Fragrance – it can be virtually anything—there is little or no regulation around household products. Find a list of chemicals used for scenting Proctor & Gamble’s products (including Cascade dishwasher detergent) here. We dare you to pronounce any one of them on the first try. If you like a little fragrance in your dish detergent, can you pronounce “lavender”, “lemon”, or “orange” essential oil? We knew you could.
Glycol Ethers – these are the grease-cutters.
“Overexposure to glycol ethers can cause anemia (a shortage of red blood cells), intoxication similar to the effects of alcohol, and irritation of the eyes, nose, or skin. In laboratory animals, low-level exposure to certain glycol ethers can cause birth defects and can damage a male’s sperm and testicles. There is some evidence that workplace exposure can reduce human sperm counts. Based on the animal tests and on studies of workers, you should treat certain glycol ethers as hazards to your reproductive health.” (7)
Cuts grease and your quality of life, too.
Phosphates – many states have banned this substance from commercial products. It’s a radioactive rock that is toxic to marine animals. Humans, too:
“Recent studies have also shown that phosphate apparently damages blood vessels and induces aging processes. Free phosphate (the type found in food additives) is entirely resorbed in the gastrointestinal tract. Persons with renal disease have been found to have a markedly elevated serum phosphate concentration. Phosphate additives are present in many types of fast food, which are eaten mainly by persons of lower socioeconomic status. It seems likely that excessive phosphate consumption is linked to the increased prevalence of cardiovascular diseases in the general population.” (8)
If it’s on your fork, you’ll eat it without even knowing it.
Sodium Borate – more commonly known as borax, this is a natural mineral; however, it can be an irritant if inhaled or digested. It’s safe when used as a cleaner but may be questionable for washing your dishes, as ingestion can cause burning and gastrointestinal distress. Great for the laundry, though.
Here’s a recipe for dishwasher detergent that’s safe enough to eat (though we don’t really recommend that).
Borax-free Dishwasher Detergent
- 1 cup baking soda
- 1/4 cup citric acid
- 1/4 cup coarse salt
- 10-15 drops lemon essential oil
- Distilled white vinegar
- Thoroughly mix first 3 ingredients in an airtight container, preferably glass.
- Add essential oil and mix again.
- Use 1 teaspoon detergent for average loads or 1 tablespoon for extra greasy, dirty loads.
- Fill the rinse aid compartment of the dishwasher with undiluted white distilled vinegar—works better than the blue stuff and costs less, too.