What Exactly Is in Dishwasher Detergent?

Have you ever wondered how the chemicals in your dishwasher detergent can scrape off the nastiest grime without any scrubbing? Most detergents have special ingredients to work their magic, but many of these ingredients can be harmful to humans and aquatic life. Heres a closer look at what youre putting in your dishwasher.

How Dishwasher Detergent Works

A detergent has certain requirements to work properly in automatic dishwashers. One key factor is that it must not produce any foam or suds. These can inhibit the washing action. The detergent must also do the following:

Reduce the surface tension of water.
Tie up minerals in the water.
Emulsify grease and oil.
Allow water to sheet off surfaces to minimize water spots.
Protect metals from the corrosive effects of heat and water.

Typically, detergents use a mixture of synthetic chemicals and additives to accomplish all these functions.

Detergent Ingredients

The chemicals and additives used in most commercial dishwasher detergents typically fall into the following categories.

Alkaline builders. Soften hard water by combining with minerals, mostly calcium and magnesium. When minerals are kept in solution, they will not leave spots or film on the dishes. Builders are typically 90-95 percent of the volume of a dishwasher detergent.

Phosphates are a commonly used builder. They are known to pollute lakes and rivers, creating algae blooms that starve fish of oxygen. For this reason, the use of phosphates in dishwasher detergent has been banned in some U.S. states.

Surfactants. Lower the surface tension of water. This allows water to evenly spread over surfaces and seep into food residue more effectively in order to break it up.

Surfactants only make up 1-5 percent of a detergent. The types used in dishwasher detergent are considered fairly non-toxic, although some surfactants are associated with skin irritation and possible respiratory symptoms.

Corrosion inhibitors. Prevent rust and protect machine parts, metal utensils and other metal ware.

Many of these inhibitors are actually corrosive themselves. For instance, inhaling sodium silicate, a common inhibitor, can lead to severe irritation of the upper respiratory tract. It can also burn parts of the digestive system if swallowed, or burn skin on contact.

Chlorine compounds and bleaching agents. Sanitize dishes and break down proteins like eggs or milk. Also remove stains and reduce spotting of glassware.

These agents are often very poisonous. Due to the high concentration of chlorine in detergents, it has become the number one cause of household poisoning. Chlorine and bleaching agents are often what you smell when the dishwasher is working, and the fumes alone can cause respiratory problems.

Perfumes. Cover the chemical smell of the other ingredients and any stinky food residue on the dishes.

Over 3,000 chemicals are used to make perfume and fragrance mixtures. Some of these chemicals have been linked to dermatitis, allergies and respiratory issues.

Alkaline salts and oxidizing agents. Break down acids, grease and oil.

Many of these agents can be very corrosive if inhaled, touched or ingested.

Enzymes. Break down starches and proteins in food residue.

Enzyme preparations can be strong eye irritants, so its important to make sure you never splash or get any dishwasher detergent in your eyes.

Safer Options

Most of the chemical ingredients in dishwasher detergent will leave small amounts of residue on your dishes. This means youre eating tiny amounts with every meal.

Thankfully, healthier options for dishwasher detergent are available. In their Guide to Healthy Cleaning, the Environmental Working Group evaluates many commercial cleaning products available today.

They recently evaluated 105 dishwasher detergents. Out of these, a mere 12 received an A rating, which means they are considered relatively safe for human and environmental health. The top 12 are listed on their website.

Many recipes are also available for home-made dishwasher detergent. The effectiveness of these can vary depending on the type of water in your home and your individual dishwasher. If youre going to try a new recipe for detergent, its best to experiment with a small batch at first to see how it works.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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What Exactly Is in Dishwasher Detergent?

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