Sunday, January 02, 2011

Consumer Anarchy: Dishwasher Soap Edition

I have been drawn to a lot of minimalist blogs lately, not due to the minimalist aesthetic per se (my own decorating strategy leans more towards the Howard Finster school of thought), but because of the anti-consumerist tendencies that define the movement.  Goals like the 100-Thing Challenge may go beyond the scope of what I'm aiming for with our little family, but the concept, along with that of Project 333 (which I am participating in), are fairly life-affirming in their affront to consumerism, especially in this recent season of general societal over-consumption.

For us, this has been the Year of the Dwindling Shopping List.  Late last spring, the kids and I stopped using commercial shampoo and conditioner with rather lovely results, and that has provided much of the impetus for searching out other homemade alternatives to common products.  Homemade deodorant was a dismal failure (painful rashes are deal-breakers), so it hasn't all been successes and fragrant roses around these parts, but we were easily able to replace toilet bowl cleaner, scouring powder, and glass cleaner with various solutions of vinegar and baking soda.

Long live vinegar and baking soda.  By themselves, those two inexpensive, simple and safe items (which were already on our shopping list for food purposes) have eliminated five other products with complex lists of ingredients.

The items that cause me the most grief are the ones that are never questioned in their necessity.  As with shampoo, there are countless other products that we all add to our shopping list without stopping to wonder whether or not there are alternatives.  The latest item on the shopping list chopping block: dishwasher soap.

This one has long plagued me.  I was thirty before I got my first (and thus far, only) dishwasher and there has been a learning curve.  I realize most people have the ability to properly comprehend a dishwasher and it's accompanying decisions, but I've been a bit slow on the uptick.  To wit, during The Great Drought a few years back, I was sure the dishwasher was using too much water and so I resorted to hand-washing dishes for a few days before someone set me straight and I subsequently did the research to find out that, in fact, the dishwasher is far more water-efficient than any hand-washing techniques will ever be.

I followed that particular conundrum with questions over which soap would be the safest for our septic field.  See, out here in rural-ville, anything that goes down our drain ends up in the ground not far from our house.  One must take a little ownership of one's own actions when one's own waste ends up in one's own yard, yes?

I tried a leading, high-cost, environmentally-named, low-impact dishwasher soap, but alas, found that I had spent a pretty penny on a product that did not actually get my dishes clean.  'Twas an expensive and grump-inducing lesson.  Finally, I settled on a mass-market dishwasher soap that had a conscience-soothing greenwashing environmental word in it's name, and while it was affordable and phosphate-free and actually got the dishes clean, it still had a distinct, bleach-like odor, and I found that disconcerting at best.

Enter Crunchy Betty, a blog I stumbled upon while searching for bath product recipes.  And took a gander at her free online recipe cards for everything from facial scrubs to - wait for it - homemade dishwasher detergent.

I heard angels singing.  It hadn't even occurred to me that I could make my own dishwasher soap.  And did you know you can do it with only three ingredients?  One of which I keep on hand anyway (the castile soap, for bathing purposes) and the other two of which I had planned to buy for making my own laundry detergent (in another 10 years or so, when I somehow finish this 900-gallon sized laundry detergent that was gifted upon us a few millennia ago).

After a little more internet searching, I ran across a few fairly similar permutations of Crunchy Betty's recipe, and then, of course, I did a little experimenting on my own to see if I could simplify the recipe.  I did simplify it, of course, by eliminating the fourth ingredient in her recipe (the essential oil), but found that the recipe does not work if the castile soap is skipped (as was done in many of the other recipes I ran across).

So the recipe ends up being a simple mixture of borax and washing soda, both easily found at any grocery store,  and the castile soap that can be found at health food stores, most supermarkets, and very inexpensively at Trader Joe's.  We have been washing our dishes with this concoction for about a month now, and I love it.  Love/adore/covet it.  The ingredients are safe for my yard, the only smell is the peppermint from the pure castile soap, the expense is virtually negligible in comparison to commercial dishwasher soap, and the dishes are clean.  Super clean.

I have also learned a few useful tips in regards to the previously-flummoxing dishwasher machine.  First, according to an appliance repair guy who blew my mind with this little tidbit, you need to make sure the water in the dishwasher is hot.  Since dishwashers are so water-efficient, the water does not have time to heat up once the machine has been started, and so you often end up washing the dishes in barely warm water.  To fix this, simply run the hot water tap in the kitchen sink until the water is hot, then turn off the tap and start the machine.

Also, the automatic heat-drying cycle on the machine is an energy-waster.  Did you know you can turn off the heat-drying with the simple push of a button?  Until I read the manual, um, seven years after I began using the machine, I had no idea.  Now I turn off the heat drying and just leave the door open for a while after the machine is done and let the dishes air-dry.

Last, if your glasses tend to come out a bit cloudy (and if that actually bothers you), a bit of distilled white vinegar added to the rinse aid well (where it is dispensed slowly and is used for countless loads before being fully depleted), should solve this problem completely, without imparting any sort of vinegar smell.

I made a new batch of this soap today, and will be filing this recipe under Random Acts of Consumer Anarchy.


HOMEMADE PEPPERMINT DISHWASHER DETERGENT (adapted from Crunchy Betty, makes enough for about 40 loads)

Note: borax is a naturally occurring mineral, and is non-toxic when used in recommended amounts, but it is officially classified as a poison and is also used as a "safe" pesticide, and thus should be kept out of reach of children.  Washing soda is also naturally occurring and is non-toxic.

  1. Mix ingredients in a heavy storage container with a tight-fitting lid.
  2. Use scant 1/8-cup per load.


Zoƫ said...

I like this recipe. I gave up the dishwasher, too, though not because I thought it was less water efficient. I want my kids to learn how to wash dishes by hand. It's a wink and a nod to simpler times, when we didn't rely on machines to do everything for us. I'm sure I'll get back into using the dishwasher eventually and when my current box of soap runs out, I will for sure be mixing up a jar of this stuff. Thanks!

The Hubbards said...

LOVE this. Going to try it for sure. I've been waiting on you to post about the deodorant. I was wondering. For Christmas I made many of my friends homemade bath salts that totally rock, the best sugar scrub I have EVER used, and winter butter cream. I will never go back to store bought items for taking care of my skin. I'll share my recipes with you somewhere along the way! Stay true, Sarah, keep on inspiring us to keep pushing ourselves. Feel free to share some of these blogs you are reading. I could use more more more ideas for things I can do easily at home and searching the internet is not a quality I'm all that apt to have.

Lee said...

OK now this looks fascinating. I hate how crazy expensive and awful for the environment dishwasher soap is. I am definately going to try this. (I don't know if ours has the bleachy smell you mention though as I have no sense of smell!) LOL

Anonymous said...

I'm worried about the peppermint part. dishwasher detergent is massively corrosive, and I assume that is due to the borax in it. Children have had their esophogus' completely destroyed after eating it. You don't want it to smell like something you'd like to eat.

Sarah Beam said...


This does not smell good enough to eat, and if you've ever smelled Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap, you are probably already familiar with not wanting to eat it.

Also, borax is a semi-alkaline and actually protects against corrosion, rather than being corrosive itself, and is not even in most commercial dishwasher detergents. So it is a different ingredient (like, say, the chlorine bleach or the phosphates) in commercial dishwasher detergents that makes them corrosive.

As with all cleaning products though, none of them should be kept within reach of small children, so the usual common sense tactics would apply here, just to be on the safe side.

Chris Anderson said...

Sarah, I just wanted to take a minute to let you know how much I enjoy your writing. You are, in my humble view, a very gifted writer. I find that I take pleasure in your text even when you are discussing something as mundane and dull as soap. In fact, my only disenchantment is that you don’t write, publicly at least, often enough.

Sarah Beam said...

Aw shucks, Chris. Thank you. Very, very much.

SmallWorld at Home said...

Fantastic! I am just about out of our regular dishwasher detergent and will be trying this!

Gina said...

I have been making my own laundry detergent for a while and have been slowly switching over to other home made cleaners as well but I have not seen a recipe for this. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

You are back! (OK, actually you were back with the previous delectable post...). I am happy! you are definitely my favorite foodish blogger :)

Tib the Un-anonymous

Sarah Beam said...

I am thrilled hear that some of you will be trying this recipe. I'm telling you, it is kind of exciting to be in charge of your shopping list.

And Tib the Un-anonymous, thank you for your kind words. And I love the term "foodish blogger." Nice one.

Renee @ FIMBY said...

That's cool that this worked for you. I tried a mix like this for months and it didn't. So I said "forget the dishwasher, let's wash by hand", which we did for almost one year. And now we're using the dishwasher again with seventh gen (not so great I know) because we are in a real crunch period of life with regards to time getting ready for a big move. But maybe I'll have to try this again, just to see...

Love the consumer anarchy by the way but find it funny (ironic) that you have random completed unrelated google ads on your blog (wink).

Sarah Beam said...

Renee, the irony isn't lost on me, and I've been waffling on what to do with those Google ads (I think I especially like that they generate ads for Cascade in a post about homemade detergent).

I think the success of the detergent depends a lot on how hard or soft your water is. We have well water, and I found that the correct amount of Castile soap was absolutely necessary for us, as was the vinegar rinse.

Hope it works for you.

Lisa said...

Hey Sarah,
I've been trying to read up on dishwasher detergent and came across a post on DIY that said if you add citric acid (also known as lemon salt) that it will keep dishes from being cloudy. Just thought I'd throw that in incase you had that problem. It appears that is the least expensive but you may have it locally. Our small town is without. Of course today it was also out of coconut oil. Yikes!

Sarah Beam said...

Lisa, good advice there. I'm going to order some right away. My dishes are occasionally cloudy, and for the most part, I don't care, but it would be nice if guests didn't look suspiciously at the drinking glasses.

monkeyDluffy said...

I have very very hard water we cant use powdered dishwasher soap, only liquid – so to make sure it rinses my dishes I always run my dishes through a second rinse cycle cause they never get rinsed completely the first time I suggest this because not even a water softener helps much.

18 Inch Dishwasher

sandhiya said...

What an exciting experience!/Hilarious! Delightful! True!/wonderful stuff! thank you!

Commercial Dishwasher

Shari said...

I'm guessing by the sea of soapsuds that I found in my kitchen last night at midnight, that you were serious when you said the castille soap was essential. Not a complete loss however, will make this batch into laundry soap and today I will find castille soap! And I promise in the future to follow your recipes faithfully and to not make silly substitutions!

Sarah Beam said...

Oh, dear, Shari. I don't know anything about the sea of soapsuds, but it is possible that was from substituting a commercial, more sudsy soap. If I were you, though, I would not use it for laundry detergent, because you'll probably have the same problem. I use castile soap in my laundry detergent, as well.

Holly said...

hey sarah! hope you're doing well. just found this entry and was wondering how much of one bar of soap = one cup. 1/3? 1/2? just trying to get an idea in my head of how much each 40-load batch costs.

btw, this is seriously awesome.

Sarah Beam said...

Holly, I generally get about one and a quarter cups from each bar, maybe a little more. Also, Dr. Bronners bars are significantly less expensive at Trader Joes than at Earth Fare or Kroger.

I also use Dr Bronners in my laundry detergent recipe. Have I posted that one? Who's in charge of thus blog anyway? Why so dormant?

Herryponting said...
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