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Toxic Chemicals in Dish Detergent graphicHave you ever wondered what is in your dish detergent? This hardworking kitchen companion helps with even the most desperate of cleaning needs. But what’s inside that bottle that helps lift that congealed mess right off the surface? At MADE SAFE, we think a lot about the ingredients in our products because we know that it matters.

What we wash our dishes with comes in contact with our food surfaces and our skin, and ends up going down the drain, entering our water supply. For this reason, we believe it’s important that the ingredients in dish soap are not only “tough on grease” and removing food residue, but as gentle as possible on the environment and our bodies.

Many conventional dish detergents contain harsh ingredients that are damaging to human and environmental health. Here are some of the top ingredients to avoid when shopping for dishwashing detergent.

Ingredients of Concern

Fragrance – Found in nearly all dishwashing detergents, the word “fragrance” itself is an umbrella term used on product labels that may contain anywhere from 1 to 1000 different ingredients! Many of these ingredients are outside the strict purpose of fragrance, though they can get lumped in, undisclosed. With dishwashing liquids, fragrance ingredients can be known allergens with some classified as “asthmagens” and others identified as toxic air pollutants like the chemical acetophenone. Other fragrance ingredients can be endocrine disrupting phthalates, toxic to human health. There can even be chemicals like styrene, pyridine and other carcinogenic substances. Because companies are not required to disclose fragrance components, it’s impossible to know what’s getting into your air or heading down the drain – unless a product has independent, third-party vetting.

Colorants – Because dish detergent isn’t naturally blue, green or yellow, colors are added for aesthetic effect. Some dyes are known to be carcinogenic; many do not biodegrade in the environment and some are even pesticides. One example of a non-biodegradable chemical is Brilliant Blue #9.

Contaminants – These are ingredients that are not intentionally added to a product, but can still be found in the finished product due to factors such as processing or sourcing. An example of a contaminant commonly found in detergents is 1,4-dioxane. Surfactants (a group of ingredients found in detergents to give them suds and cleaning power) and other ingredients can undergo a process called ethoxylation that can contaminate the final product with 1,4 dioxane in the process. 1,4-dioxane has been identified as a known carcinogen. Due to its presence via contamination, 1,4-dioxane isn’t listed on the label. This makes it difficult to avoid. A good way to steer clear of 1,4-dioxane is by reading labels for the chemicals that tend to be contaminated with it: As a general rule, that means avoiding polyethylene glycol compounds (listed as PEG followed by a number on labels), polysorbates, and ingredients that end in “-eth”.

Isothiazolinone Preservatives – Preservatives, as the name suggests, are used to “preserve” products for long periods of time, preventing the growth of microorganisms and resulting expiration dates. They can come in many forms, but a few examples are the isothiazolinone preservatives such as methylisothiazolinone and benzisothiazolinone, which can be skin sensitizers. The latter is restricted in Canada and both are quite toxic to aquatic life. Preservatives are designed to kill things, so it’s not surprising that many conventional preservatives have been linked to a range of toxicity issues. Preservation of products is important – especially when water is present in the formulation. However, overly harsh preservation to make something shelf-stable for years on end has a consequence we might want to reconsider.

Harsh Surfactants – Lathering agents are added to products to create foam and bubbles and to wash away dirt and oil. Consumers love the action of surfactants, but what you may not know is that many surfactants can be problematic for the environment – especially aquatic life. That’s why MADE SAFE zeroes in on biodegradability and toxicity to aquatic life when screening products containing surfactants. Common examples of problematic conventional surfactants include lauramine oxide which is believed to be harmful to aquatic life in both the short and long term, as well as sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate. These foaming ingredients have been found to cause contact irritation in users and are also harmful to aquatic life.

Tips for Choosing a Better Dish Detergent

Would you be willing to trade a little extra elbow grease for a product that does no harm? Here are our MADE SAFE tips for finding better products to meet your dishwashing needs.

  • Shop dishwashing products with the MADE SAFE seal to ensure the product has been fully vetted for substances known or suspected to cause human and ecosystem harm.
  • Do not use products containing synthetic colorants.
  • Avoid contaminants by steering clear of ethoxylated ingredients, which can often be identified by ingredients ending in “-eth”, polyethylene glycol compounds (listed as PEG followed by a number on labels), and polysorbates.
  •  Choose fragrance-free dish detergent options to avoid “fragrance.” Be aware that some “unscented” products may still contain fragrance ingredients that are used to mask scented ingredients in the final product, so “fragrance-free” is a better bet for avoiding these exposures.
  •  Surfactants are very helpful for removing dirt and stains. But make sure that you are avoiding harsh surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate.
  • Have a question about an ingredient? Look it up on our MADE SAFE Banned List to see if it’s allowed in MADE SAFE Certified products. The Banned List is not a comprehensive list of all substances prohibited from use in MADE SAFE Certified products.  It is just the starting point for Certification, meaning a product’s ingredient list must first clear this Banned List of substances before moving deeper into the Certification process.