Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” dish soap, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
In 2019, the global dishwashing soap market was valued at about $18 billion. That means that every year, hundreds of millions of gallons of dish soap are being poured down drains all over the world. Ok yes, it also probably cleans dishes along the way. With the value of the market expected to rise to $22.4 billion by 2025, it seems like we may want to think about how much soap we’re sudsing in the sink in the coming years. What impact does all of that dish soap have on us, our waterways, and aquatic life?
WHAT TO BE WISE ON:
Whether you find clean-up time to be therapeutic or a hassle, washing dishes is something we all have to do (especially if we don’t rely on single-use cutlery). Next time you reach for the soap, you might want to be sure that the stuff you scrub your dishes with isn’t making a mess of the environment. The problem is that there’s no national requirement for companies to list the ingredients in household cleaning products, so how are we supposed to know what’s going down the drain? In this Wise Guide, we’ll give you the 411 on the catchall terms that make it onto those dish soap labels.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER:
“Surfactant” is one of those words that actually masks a slew of harmful chemicals. All surfactants are chemicals that reduce the surface tension of oil and water, thereby helping dirt drop off and stay off of dishes while they’re being washed. Surfactants make soap lather and, while they aren’t toxic to humans (unless they get in your eyes or mouth in large quantities), they accumulate in our waterways and are harmful to aquatic life. Surfactants can make fish more vulnerable to pesticides and other pollutants in the water, and they can decrease breeding rates by impacting their endocrine systems.
“Preservatives” can disguise chemicals like methylisothiazolinone, which can irritate the skin, cause allergic reactions, and is potentially toxic to aquatic life, or DMDM Hydantoin, which is a known immune toxicant and possible carcinogen.
“Fragrances” are considered trade secrets, which means that companies are never obligated to disclose what chemicals they might contain. We do know that this term commonly hides phthalates and synthetic musks, which are known to disrupt hormones and can lead to developmental and fertility problems.
Watch out for any “cleaning agents” in your dish soap. According to the Environmental Working Group, this term can mask chemicals that are very toxic to aquatic life.
At this point in time, it’s pretty hard to find dish soaps containing phosphates since they were banned in many states about ten years ago. However, if you do happen to come across any dish soaps with phosphates, make sure to avoid them. When leaked into waterways, they create algal blooms in freshwater, which causes eutrophication, aka the release of excess nutrients into bodies of water. Excess nutrients may sound like a good thing, but eutrophication has a sinister impact — it depletes the water of oxygen and slowly kills the aquatic ecosystem.
Believe it or not, many dish soaps contain ingredients derived from crude oil. To avoid these ingredients, be on the lookout for mineral oils and any chemical that contains the word “paraffin” or “petrolatum”.
USDA BioPreferred dish soaps are made mostly out of materials found in nature (ok, maybe not your backyard), and provide an alternative to petroleum-based products.
Every ingredient in dish soaps with the EPA Safer Choice emblem has been verified by the Environmental Protection Agency to meet strict safety criteria for both human and environmental health, so they're safer for you, your family, your pets, workers’ health, fish, and the environment.
Unfortunately, tons of household cleaning products are tested on animals before they make their way to store shelves. To ensure you’re not supporting brands that test on animals, look for the Leaping Bunny or PETA certified cruelty free certifications.
Dish soaps come in plastic bottles that are usually non-reusable and non-recyclable due to the soapy residue that we all know is next to impossible to fully wash out. The volume of dish soap packaging heading to landfills annually (considering the $18 billion global market) is significant, and ultimately leads to microplastic pollution. To avoid contributing to this plastic waste, consider buying an alternative, like a refillable one from Blueland or Clean Cult. Another way to cut dish soap waste is to buy it in solid form. Dish soap bars may be a bit harder to come by at your local grocery store, but they’re easy to find online and serve the same function as that bottled stuff you’ve been using forever. Check out mamaforest, No Tox Life, and TOBE.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS:
When it comes to dish soaps, it’s important to look at the ingredients and remember that catchall terms are red flags. If you can, cut down on packaging waste by buying a refillable dish soap or better yet, dish soap bars.