Whole Home Detox: The Best Eco-Friendly Dish Soaps

This whole dish soap adventure started a few months ago when I discovered an amazing miracle cleaner made of vinegar, water, and a few drops of dish soap.  It turns out dish soap is one of the basic ingredient for all of my new homemade cleaning products. It is just so simple. It makes sense that the same stuff that makes my dishes clean and shiny would do the same for the rest of my home!

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However, it made me wonder if the dish soap I was using was really a safe, non-toxic substance.  This launched a big dish soap research project.  I spent many hours figuring out what dish soap is and what makes it safe or harmful.  Here is what I learned:

{NOTE:  Since there are so many of you finding this article via Google, I want to clarify that the information below is soley based on my own Internet research.  I had to weed through a number of scientific articles to compile the information below.  Chemistry is not my strong suit! I wrote this post because I was struggling to find a straight answer for myself.  Therefore, you may find errors.  I am not a chemist, just a housewife looking to better understand the products I use every day.  If you find an error, I welcome and appreciate all feedback, even dissenting opinions in the comment section below.  Thank you for being a part of the community. }

What is Dish Soap?

There is a difference between plan old regular soap (like Dr. Bronner’s) and dish soap.  Dish soap is considered a “surfactant.”  Surfactants are the basis of all commercial dish soaps from Dawn to Honest Company.  What differentiates a surfactant from plain soap is that it’s molecules have been altered.  A surfactant’s molecule has been modified to contain a hydrophobic (water-hating) head and a hydrophilic (water-loving) tail.  This is what gives dish soap it’s pretty suds and grease-cutting abilities.

{NOTE: There is actually an error in my explanation of soap chemistry, as pointed out by one of my readers.  From what I understand, the molecules of soap and detergents are actually the same.  The difference is that detergents are created synthetically in a lab, while soap is created naturally.}

Surfactants are made out of fat molecules like those of coconuts or petroleum.  Therefore, surfactants can originate from natural ingredients, but are not naturally occurring.  They can be harmful or safe, depending on what they are made of and how they are made.

1,4 Dioxane:

This is the most serious problem with most dish soaps.  It is a by-product of a petrochemical called “ethylene oxide” which is given off during the conversion of the molecules.  Ethylene oxide is the chemical used to turn fat molecules into a surfactant.  The toxic chemical 1,4 Dioxane is often left behind during processing.  Unfortunately, it is a carcinogenic.  It is commonly known to contaminate SLS and SLES. (Keep an eye out for the terms “SLS” and “SLES.”  These are harmful, chemical foaming agents often derived from petroleum and processed with 1,4 dioxane left behind.  Many “green” companies like Tom’s of Maine and Seventh Generation use SLS, claiming that it is safe.  I could not find enough information on their version of SLS, so I steer clear.)

The bad news:  every dish soap must undergo this synthetic process in order to give you dish soap. Therefore, the chances are very high that 1,4 dioxane was left behind in your soap.

The good news:  there are a handful of companies that are testing their surfactants to guarantee that no 1,4 Dioxane has been left behind.  I have listed those companies at the bottom of this post.  Unless a company discloses that their dish soap is 1,4 Dioxane free, do not buy it.  This narrows your buying options considerably, but it is worth it.


All dish soaps on the market, including the eco-friendly ones contain preservatives.  In fact, if “water” is listed as the first ingredient, your can be sure your dish soap contains a preservative of some kind.  However, eco-friendly dish soaps will contain less toxic preservatives (the only toxicity concern being skin irritation).  Parabens are the worst; stay far away from those!  They are known to be disruptive to the reproductive system.  You will find parabens in the more mainstream commercial dish soaps.

Here are the safer, paraben-free preservatives being used by eco-friendly companies:

  • Methylisothiazolinone
  • Benzilisothiazolinone
  • Phenoxyethanol

These scored C’s and D’s in the EWG database.  However, while they’re obviously synthetic, there are no red flags for cancer or developmental/reproductive toxicity.  The low scores came from concerns about possible skin irritation and the environment.

Petroleum vs Plant-derived

Make sure the surfactants in your product are plant-derived.  You can do this by finding out the actual chemical names of the surfactants in your dish soap,  like “Cocamidopropyl Betaine.” If you don’t see specific compounds listed on the label of your dish soap, check the company’s website.  Most transparent eco-companies will have the actual ingredients listed there.  You may also look them up in EWG’s cleaning guide to find out the toxicity levels.  There should be no red flags reproductive/endocrine disorders or cancer.

What You Should Look For

To sum up this crazy science lesson, here is what you should look for in shopping for dish soap:

  • Plant-based surfactants (or just plain soap, like Dr. Bronner’s)
  • 1,4 Dioxane-free
  • Phlathate (synthetic fragrance)-free
  • Dye-free
  • Petrochemical-free
  • Glycol-free
  • Phosphate-free
  • Caustic-free

Dish Soap Options

I was really surprised to learn that out of all the dish soaps on the market (yes, even the “eco-friendly” ones), there were only a few that met the above criteria.  A lot of “green” brands had to be thrown out for containing bad preservatives, SLS and “fragrances.”  Here are the safest options for dish soap:

Best eco friendly dish soaps

Dr. Bronner’s/DIY: The only real, 100% pure alternative to commercial dish soap is castile soap.  That is because it is a plain soap, and not a surfactant (synthetically altered to be able to cut grease).   I experimented with Dr. Bronner’s and did not like it for dishes at all.  It left behind a greasy residue and water spots.   I also could not remove the sticky oil build-up on my glass bread pan even after multiple scrubs and rinses.  I think I was very depressed for like a day!  I  can give up suds, but not my shiny clean dishes!  The killer: unless you water it down and mix with vinegar, it is also the most expensive option for dish soap at about $.50 per oz.

Better Life Dish It Out: I seriously considered switching to Better Life Dish it Out, but the price at $.31 per oz is double what I’m paying for my current dish soap.  It’s one of the only dish soaps that scores an “A” in the EWG database!  It contains only plant-based surfactants and is 1,4 dioxane free.  The biggest advantage to switching to Better Life is the extremely low ratio of preservative it contains. (I also love their branding. Cute bottle.)

Honest Company: This scores a “B” in the EWG database.  (It is obviously a mistake because there are no ingredients listed in the database at all.)  I looked up the each ingredient on the website.  The real score should be a “C.”  Another very good option; however, it comes in at a pricey $.37/oz!

The Winner Earth Friendly Products Dishmate:

This is, in my opinion, the best eco-friendly dish soap out there!  It is almost an identical dish soap to Honest Company, but more reasonably priced.  Earth Friendly products is by far the best value at $16./oz.

I looked up the score in the EWG database and it scored badly because there was not enough ingredient information in the database (that happens).   Looking up the each ingredient separately was the solution.  I found the ingredients disclosed on the Ecos website.  The element that lowered the score was a concern about skin irritation.  I have not noticed any skin irritation while using Dishmate.  There were no concerns about carcinogenic compounds, endocrine disrupters, or reproductive disorders, which is what matters most to me!

Though it’s no “A+,” I had enough information about the ingredients conclude that I feel very good about it.  I also love the way it cleans my dishes.  A few drops in some vinegar and water also makes an amazing, eco-friendly all-purpose and glass cleaner.  Not to mention, it comes in lovely scents like Pear and Almond.  Between the safety and the price, it remains my top pick for dish soaps.

I first purchased Earth Friendly Dishmate at a local health food/grocery store in town called Nugget Market, but my favorite place to get dish soap is from Vitacost.com!  You can save up to 50%!  I buy all of our toiletries and supplements there.

DSC 0432 DSC 0431 I’d Like to Know More About

Trader Joe’sCostco: I know a lot of my friends shop at Trader Joe’s and Costco.  Like me, you probably picked up their dish soap when you saw they were plant-based and biodegradable.  I did a search for the ingredient lists and could not find them anywhere!  Both scored an “F” in the EWG database because of this.  If anyone can find an ingredient list for Trader Joe’s Cleanliness dish soap or Kirkland Signature Eco-Friendly, let me know!  I’d like to find out if any of these meet my dish soap criteria.

Biokleen: I had high hopes for this brand, but the specs were all over the place. First, it scored an “F” in the EWG database.  Second, I couldn’t find any specific ingredient information on the website.

Additional Resources/References on SLS and Dish Soap: Gimme The Good Stuff Mercola.com Swift Crafty Monkey WNC Green Blog Collective Bright Hub Organic Consumers

Although my dish soap project was a total chemistry headache, it was worth it.  Not only did I learn a ton about dish soap, but I got my shiny dishes, which feels great!