Queen of clean, Marie Kwondo, once said; “From the moment you start tidying, you will be compelled to reset your life.” And we’re here to support you in eliminating the toxic parts of your cleaning routine!
We know – the word “toxic” gets thrown around a lot these days. Toxic waste, toxic culture, toxic mother-in-laws. (Hopefully, you have little to no experience with the latter!) If you’ve made the leap to start turning your consumables around and reading the labels, forgoing the plastic bag at check out, and going organic, you’ve also probably started to seek out more sustainable cleaning products.
The best place to start is with your most common cleaning tasks and their associated products. You can avoid the laundry for a few days, you can skip bathroom cleaning until the next guest comes to town, but dishwashing is a daily activity. Is your dish soap doing you dirty? And how do you pick a non-toxic dish soap brand?
A Short and Entertaining History of Dish Soap
So, how did we get into this (kitchen) mess? One where we need to clean off the toxic things we clean with?
Dishwashing is nothing new. Before there was a colorful cellulose sponge and your favorite podcast, there was a peasant trying to scrub off last night’s meal in a stream. The 16th-century Egyptians found volcanic ash very handy in cleaning the dishes, while the Romans stumbled upon animal fat or ‘sapo’ (the origin of the word soap) as the source of lye.
This was used in the 1800s when homemade lye soap was used on dish pans with hot water from the teakettle which was poured directly on the soap to make suds. The 1900s saw more natural ingredients doing the hard work at the sink basin: baking soda, alkaline salt, and olive oil (the origin of the brand Palmolive!).
During WWI, Germany, ever the innovator, saw an opportunity to replace the animal fats that were being used in cleaning products to make a synthetic ‘surfactant’ – a substance that could break down grease even more effectively.
This eventually snowballed into larger production that could not rely on their original natural ingredients, and more synthetic, concentrated, and, yes, toxic versions of dish soap became the norm on shelves.
Is Dish Soap Toxic? And If So, How Much?
Modern day dish soap has drifted away from its natural origins to contain chemical-laden agents, that when absorbed or ingested, are not great for human health and, when they are flushed down our sinks, have grave effects on the environment.
While dish soap is inherently not our biggest health or environmental risk, it is an everyday cleaning item whose concentrated use across households and globally can cumulatively impact you and the planet.
Dish Soap and Your Health
We all want our dishes to be squeaky clean, but at what cost to our health? Many consumers don’t realize the potential harm lurking in their dish soap bottles, from skin rashes to respiratory issues.
The harsh chemicals found in these soaps, such as phosphates, sulfates, and chlorine bleach, have been linked to various health concerns.
Dish Soap and the Environment
Every time we wash our dishes, we may not realize the impact that toxic dish soap can have on our environment. As we use these dish soaps, the chemicals present in them can pollute waterways and harm aquatic life. Some of these chemicals even make their way into our food system through the waterways.
Isn’t Someone Regulating Our Cleaning Products?
How is this possible? How can a product be toxic and still on our shelves? The truth is that neither the cleaning product or its ingredients need approval by Federal Drug Administration. (FDA). They are covered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), but only if they are a hazardous substance under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA).
That’s a lot of acronyms! And unfortunately, as of today, none of those oversight groups will take it off the shelf if it contains a cancer-causing ingredient (carcinogen) or one that is known to have detrimental effects until after enough harm has been done.
We’ll get to the groups and third party certifications that are doing the research for you so that you can make safer dish soap decisions at the checkout!
6 Toxic Ingredients Found In Conventional Dish Soaps
Knowledge is power. The majority of adopting a more sustainable lifestyle lies in the label. Becoming a proficient label reader will help you see through “greenwashing” from the big companies who know you want to buy better but aren’t really doing the work to make their product better.
As an ingredient sleuth, what are chemicals you should absolutely avoid? Here are the big ones. Why? They are known to cause respiratory, reproductive, and skin issues. Some of these chemical ingredients are also known as carcinogens and pollutants to our local waterways.
They may also hide in secondary names, but these are some of the most toxic ingredients you should avoid at all costs:
- Phosphates: Commonly utilized as a water-softening mineral, these substances pose risks to both humans and marine life if ingested.
- Triclosan: Dish soaps frequently contain a synthetic chemical with antibacterial, anti-fungal, and antiviral properties. Triclosan is a known hormone disruptor that can interfere with our body’s natural thyroid and endocrine systems.
- Sodium lauryl sulfate: This specific chemical gives your dish detergent its foamy texture and ability to remove grease effectively. When this chemical penetrates your skin, it can lead to skin rashes and allergic reactions.
- Formaldehyde: Although this chemical is classified as a carcinogen (it may be listed as methanol, methyl aldehyde, or methylene oxide on detergent labels), it is commonly added to dish soaps along with preservatives to gradually release and prevent bacterial contamination.
- Chlorine: Chlorine has been flagged in the EPA’s Community Right-To-Know list and the 1990 Clean Air Act as one to watch out for. It poses a significant threat to aquatic life and can be left in trace amounts on your dishes.
- DEA, MEA, TEA: DEA, MEA, and TEA are known hormone disruptors. If you’re regularly exposed to them, there’s a chance you might end up with 1,4-dioxane contamination, which can cause liver and kidney problems. Yikes!
What About “Non-Specific” Ingredients?
Non-specific ingredients like coloring, preservatives, and fragrances round up the sneaky components that can make your dish soap toxic. Fragrance mixtures alone can contain as many as 3,000 chemicals in their compounds.
Their remnants can get absorbed through your skin and adhere to plates, forks, cups, and other utensils, leading to secondary ingestion.
In our experience, skip them. The delightful floral smell isn’t worth your health or that of the environment. That doesn’t mean your dishwashing routine has to be completely devoid of scents!
Instead, we recommend opting for a dish detergent that derives its fragrance from natural essential oils or other plant-based ingredients.
What to Look For in a Dish Soap Instead
So now that you’ve written down that list of naughty ingredients and popped it in your wallet, what should you look for? Simply put: plants.
Botanical and mineral-based cleaning products take it back to the old days when dishwashing was a relatively safe activity! The good old days when flowers were used to naturally scent cleaning solutions and skin rashes from doing the dishes were not yet a thing!
Non toxic dish soaps from brands like Blueland and Rebel Green not only employ naturally derived ingredients like sodium bicarbonate, pine, and plant-based smell goods like lilac and frankincense, but they are also biodegradable formulas – which means the fish won’t have to deal with what does down the kitchen drain!
Many of these brands also go the extra mile using sustainable production processes, calculating their carbon footprints, and using upcycled or biodegradable packaging.
Dish Soap and Third Party Certifications
While many products make it onto the shelf with questionable ingredients, this is one hard and fast way to complete due diligence on your shopping cart items. Look for well regarded third party sustainability certifications. Each of these vets products in a variety of ways, from sourcing and environmental responsibility to ingredients and their end of life. Leaping Bunny also ensures that a product is vegan!
All of the below have lists of vetted products on their websites. Third party certifications to look for on the packaging or your eco-friendly brand’s website:
- Environmental Working Group Verified (EWG)
- EPA Safer Choice
- Leaping Bunny
- B Corp
- MADE Safe
- Cradle to Cradle
- Climate Neutral
And if you really want to know what you are cleaning with? Try a DIY natural dish soap recipe out at home! If the pioneers could do it, so can you!
Sink Solutions: Wash Up Like an Eco Warrior
Peter Miller, author of How to Wash Dishes, famously said, “Every time you wash dishes is an opportunity to practice mindfulness and to reduce waste.” He’s not wrong! Leave the toxic dish soaps on the shelf and make this daily cleaning chore more sustainable by choosing brands that are doing better for your health and the earth.