Is your dish soap toxic? Here’s how to know

Is your dish soap toxic? Here’s how to know

Everett Collection

For the sake of your health and that of the aquatic environment, get to know what’s in your dishwashing liquid.

It may seem innocuous enough; a little squirt of soap, a few wafts of “orchard burst” or “honeysuckle rain,” some bubbles to clean the plates and then it’s all gone, down the drain, all that remains are the squeaky clean dishes. Except that’s not exactly the case. Unfortunately, something as innocent seeming as dish soap has a dark side: potentially significant hazards to human health and the planet.

Of the 232 “hand washing detergents” listed on Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Healthy Cleaning Database, 58 scored an F. I went through those products with an eye toward earmarking the most worrisome ingredients and found the following ingredients, all of which scored an F, which designates the "highest concern" – as in, potentially significant hazards to health or the environment.

And keep in mind, these are just the Fs, which excludes some of the ingredients that already have a bad reputation like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, which gets a C, or the mystery grab bag known as the catchall “fragrance” which gets a D. (How do you capture the smell of an orchard burst, anyway?) Here’s what I found.

Specific ingredients of highest concern:

Cocamide DEA: Concerns include cancer, chronic aquatic toxicity, acute aquatic toxicity.

DMDM Hydantoin: Concerns include chemical release (formaldehyde in this case), and irritation of the skin, eyes, or lungs.

Ethanolamine: Concerns include respiratory effects, general systemic/organ effects, chronic aquatic toxicity, nervous system effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage.

Formaldehyde: Concerns include cancer, general systemic/organ effects, respiratory effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, acute aquatic toxicity.

Sodium Borate: Concerns include developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, respiratory effects.

Sulfuric Acid: Concerns include cancer, respiratory effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage.

Triclosan: Concerns include chronic aquatic toxicity, acute aquatic toxicity, general ecotoxicity, developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, cancer, immune system effects, circulatory system effects, general systemic/organ effects, nervous system effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, digestive system effects, damage to vision. Good times!

The problem of non-specific ingredients

In addition to the motley crew above, there’s a slew of vaguely described ingredients that leave the consumer completely in the dark. And since there is no requirement for companies to list the ingredients in household cleaning products, companies can choose to use these catchall terms for highly toxic chemicals. If a product lists one of these generic terms, EWG automatically gives it the worst score that a chemical in that category could have. They explain:

The use of vague ingredient descriptions like "surfactant," "cleaning agent," or "preservative" on cleaning products does not provide adequate hazard data for consumers on what chemicals they are putting in their homes. These terms could encompass a wide variety of actual ingredients, ranging from low hazard to highly toxic. We designed a scoring system that does not assume that poorly described ingredients are low hazard. Therefore a vague label term like "cleaning agent" will be given the worst score for an individual chemical in that category. As manufacturers begin to disclose their complete ingredient lists to the public we will update our product information to reflect the more specific ingredient names.

Non-specific ingredients of (potentially) highest concern:

Buffer/buffering agent: Concerns include developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, respiratory effects.

Colors: Concern for government enforceable restrictions.

Foam booster/foaming agents: Concerns include cancer, chronic toxicity to aquatic life.

PH Adjuster: Concerns include developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, irritation/allergies/damage, respiratory effects.

Preservatives: Concerns include cancer, general systemic/organ effects, acute aquatic toxicity, respiratory effects, chronic aquatic toxicity, skin irritation/allergies/damage.

Surfactants: Concerns include aquatic toxicity, respiratory effects, general systemic/organ effects.

Water softener/water-softening agent: Concerns include developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, respiratory effects.

Products scoring a lowest concern:

Following are the 23 products that of this writing, show a score of A, defined as lowest concern: "Few/no known or suspected hazards to health or the environment. Good ingredient disclosure." Again, given that non-specific ingredients automatically get an F, it’s possible that there are healthy products with a low score – for using a generic term like "color" – that would not be on this list.

AspenClean Dish Soap
Attitude Dishwashing Liquid, Pink Grapefruit
Attitude Little Ones Baby Bottle & Dishwashing Liquid, Fragrance Free
Attitude Little Ones Baby Bottle & Dishwashing Liquid, Pear Nectar
Attitude Little Ones Baby Bottle & Dishwashing Liquid, Sweet Lullaby
Better Life DISH IT OUT Natural Dish Liquid, Clary Sage & Citrus
Better Life DISH IT OUT Natural Dish Liquid, Unscented
biokleen Natural Dish Liquid, Citrus Essence
Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap, Baby Unscented
Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap, Eucalyptus
Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap, Lavender
Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap, Peppermint
Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soap, Tea Tree
Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds Liquid Cleaner
Eco Olea Dish Liquid, Lemon Grass
Eco-Me Dish Soap, Suzy
Ecover Zero Dish Soap, Fragrance Free
Fit Organic Dish Liquid, Free and Clear
Puracy Natural Dish Soap, Green Tea & Lime
Sun & Earth Liquid Dishwashing, Fresh Lavender
Sun & Earth Liquid Dishwashing, Unscented
The Honest Co. Honest Dish Soap, Lemon Verbena
The Honest Co. Honest Dish Soap, White Grapefruit

If you don’t see your dish soap here, you can check the database to see how your products score. And if it ranks poorly only because it lists a non-specific ingredient like "preservatives" or "surfactants," it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. Look on the company’s website for more detailed information or call customer service and do some sleuthing.

See EWG’s scores for all hand dishwashing products at the Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

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