What's really in dishwasher detergent?
Quite a few ingredients are crammed into the tablets, gels and powders we buy to clean our dishes, and some of these can make them dangerous if they're swallowed, or if your dishes aren't thoroughly rinsed before use.
We look into the most common ingredients, letting you know the truth about what's making your glassware sparkle and your dishes shine.
Dishwasher detergent: the main ingredient
Your typical dishwasher detergent will have alkaline salts as its main ingredient. They:
- have a corrosive reaction with fats on dishes which is what makes it so dangerous if swallowed. A similar corrosive reaction occurs in our mouth and throat.
- have a high pH which helps to dissolve dirt, but over time strips away glazes on crockery and wears away glassware, making it look cloudy and scratched.
Different detergent ingredients for different dishwashing tasks
Here's a breakdown of the actions the different ingredients perform:
What keeps the dirt off?
This ingredient is called a surfactant. It makes up only a small amount (2%) of the detergent but it has an important role nonetheless. It wets the dishes to loosen dirt and keep the dirt in the water instead of splashing back onto your cutlery and dishes.
What removes the stains?
Chlorine and oxygen bleaches break down proteins and help to remove tea and coffee stains. Chlorine can also shorten the life of your plastic kitchenware, so it's something to keep in mind if you like to put your plastics in the dishwasher.
What about rust?
Corrosion inhibitors lessen the chances of our metal crockery and the dishwasher becoming rusty. They're usually listed as aluminium salts.
What about stains from egg, pasta and cereal?
Enzymes remove these sorts of protein and starch stains, you might find them listed as amylase or protease. They also give good cleaning results at lower temperatures (ideally around 40°C – 55°C) and are ideal for cutlery.
Helps to give your dishes a good rinse and get rid of any dirt that's left. It should be the last part of the detergent to dissolve so that it becomes effective during the rinsing phase of the cleaning cycle.
These can be:
- colorants and fragrances that improve the look and smell
- thickening agents that stop liquid detergents from seeping through the dispenser
- fillers that help the smooth flow of powder detergents.
Detergent safety – particularly for children
There's lots of dishwasher detergent gels and tablets we buy that tend to look and smell a lot like lollies, and lollies aren't that bad for you – right? Well, there aren't many lollies on the market that, when put in your mouth accidentally, have the effects of:
- red lips
- possible breathlessness
- swelling inside the mouth
- severe pain.
If a little member of your household manages to be confused and swallows some, or the detergent isn't rinsed from the cups and plates thoroughly and any of these symptoms occur, it's important to seek urgent medical help. The best thing you can do, though, is play it safe and keep household chemical products well away from those little wandering eyes and hands and ensure your dishwasher rinse cycle is always working well.
Did you know?
In a 12 month period in Australia, 2072 children were admitted to hospital due to poisoning. Most of these cases involved medicines, but household chemicals are still a big part of the problem and they normally occur because:
Child-resistant closures are the caps on detergents and other household chemical products that are supposed to make it hard for kids to access. But if they're too tricky for us adults to reseal, it's likely sometimes we'll get a bit lazy and leave them unsealed.
When you open products with these caps you have to squeeze and turn the cap, but did you know that to reseal you need to turn the cap till it's clicked in place twice? Yup!
These closures are pretty effective, but we here at CHOICE find it a real shame you can still buy dishwasher detergents and other household chemical products that come in simple cardboard boxes that aren't child-resistant at all. For shame – you know who you are!
Dishwasher detergent: our safety tips
- Don't rely on 'child-resistant' caps or packaging.
- Always close the container and check that it's locked properly.
- Put detergent in the dishwasher just before you're about to turn it on, and if there's any residue left afterwards, clean it out.
- Check for warning statements – products with a high pH must carry the warning burns skin and throat. Less alkaline detergents are labelled irritant.