Tuesday, June 26, 2012


How (Not) to Make Natural Dish Detergent

When I moved into my current apartment, I was told it had a dishwasher. Actually what it has is a machine that uses water and a tremendous amount of noise to take bits of food from one dish, swirl them all around, and stick them onto other dishes. This may have to do with detergent companies removing phosphates from their formulas; I’ve tried several different brands, and none seems to work. A maintenance guy even once told me the problem was that, paradoxically, I was using too much soap, which may have been clogging the pipes.

So when a friend linked me to a recipe for homemade dish detergent, I was psyched. Here, at last, was the solution to my problems — and it was cheap and environmentally friendly! Here is that recipe:

- 1 cup Borax
- 1 cup washing soda
- 1/2 cup citric acid
- 1/2 cup kosher salt

Mix it all together, and put one tablespoon in your detergent compartment as you would any other detergent. Use white vinegar instead of Jet-Dry in the rinse-agent compartment. (The washing soda you can probably find at your local supermarket, but save yourself the trip to various health and restaurant supply stores and just order the citric acid online. It’s cheap.)

And here is how that recipe worked out for me. 

Attempt 1: I didn’t want to make a full batch to start with, so I scaled the recipe down to one tablespoon’s worth: 1 teaspoon Borax, 1 teaspoon washing soda, 1/2 teaspoon citric acid, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. I poured that tablespoon in the detergent compartment and white vinegar in the rinse-agent compartment.

The result: My food-bit-transference machine had transferred even more bits of food than usual! What a hard worker! My dishes were unusably dirty.

Attempt 2: Hypothesizing that my dishwasher might require more detergent than average, I used a double dose: 2 teaspoons Borax, 2 teaspoons washing soda, 1 teaspoon citric acid, and 1 teaspoon salt. I put one tablespoon in the detergent compartment and one in that little uncovered depression thing next to it. And, of course, I added white vinegar to the rinse-agent compartment.

The result: The dishes were cleaner than they were after the first attempt, but still dirtier than with regular detergent. On top of that, the whole kitchen smelled like white vinegar.

Now, when people on the Internet find out that I wash my hair with baking soda and vinegar, they immediately suspect that I smell like vinegar but simply don’t notice because I’m used to it by now. Well, let me tell you a fun thing, which is that you don’t get used to the smell of vinegar very easily. I know because, for weeks now, my kitchen has been filled with its scent, like a balloon at the foulest birthday party of the most disgusting child.

Attempt 3: I was about to abandon the experiment when I realized that the recipe called for kosher salt, and I had been using regular old iodized table salt. Kosher salt is coarser than table salt and uses yellow prussiate of soda as an anticaking agent instead of calcium silicate. It seemed like those two factors might be the key to finally transferring my food bits down the drain. So I used one tablespoon’s worth of the detergent, this time with the correct salt, and the requisite white vinegar as rinse agent because I apparently lack the capacity to learn from past events.

The result: Not only were the dishes still dirty, but the bottom of the dishwasher was covered in what appeared to be coffee grounds. I assume they must have gotten there from the garbage disposal, but their presence raises a number of questions, such as:

- How?

- Why?

- Did someone seriously design the pipes in this kitchen so that literal garbage could be used to wash my dishes?

- Did the kosher salt exert some sort of summoning power on the coffee grounds?

- Is this like a witchcraft thing/Am I a witch/Am I finally going to get my Hogwarts letter?

In conclusion, my dishes are filthy, and my kitchen smells rank. This homemade dish detergent could not have failed more spectacularly. But I know some of y’all are incorrigible dirty hippies and are going to try this anyway, so I will just say that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on it, and if you have a dishwasher instead of a food-bit-whirler, it might actually work out.

Previously: A Guide to Natural Sleep Aids.

Lauren O'Neal is about to move from Austin to San Francisco. Her new apartment will have no dishwasher, but it may still smell like vinegar. You can follow her on Twitter @LaurenEONeal.

102 Comments / Post A Comment


okay, this is all skin-crawly yuck, but that "balloon at the foulest birthday party of the most disgusting child?"

Reginal T. Squirge

They ALL float down here.

miss buenos aires

@okaycrochet I don't even know what it means, but it makes me laugh every time I read it.


@Regina T. Squire And, when you're down here with me, you'll float too!


Are... balloons gross-smelling? Is that a commonly held belief? I had no idea!


@Emby I don't know why but I assumed the gross kid had peed/puked into his (it's going to be a he, right?) balloon before blowing it up? Now I think maybe I was incorrect and is that even possible and ew.

maybe partying will help


I can kinda envision (ensmellen?) that sour rubbery balloon smell?


@Emby The gross child's gross breath is in the gross child's balloon.


@Emby @Decca @maybe partying will help @itmakesmewonder I would like to applaud all of these theoretical options. I am thoroughly grossed out and laughing.


@Emby I thought she meant those home-made vinegar filled water balloon stink bombs, since she was talking about vinegar. I used to ride a bus to school with kids who thought it was HILARIOUS to burst those. It was not hilarious, it was disgusting. Although perhaps this is specific to my childhood?


@Emby I just imagined a balloon filled with vinegar.


@Emby HLOL (Holy LOL)

Pop Pop

You must be a witch to transfigure salt into coffee grounds. When you get your letter from Hogwarts can you please inquire as to the whereabouts of mine? It's possible the recent moving and travel got the owl confused.


@Pop Pop Throw her in water and see if she floats! Then wash her with homemade dish soap!

fondue with cheddar

I recently purchased a (used) dishwasher, and I thought the problems I was having were because I don't really know how to use it. Perhaps I was wrong.

The food isn't scattering, fortunately, but they're not getting clean unless they're well-rinsed to begin with, and the detergent isn't rinsing off completely. But I'm so tired of handwashing dishes (which I have been doing for almost my entire life).

Jen Alien-Spouse@twitter


The worst of it with ours are glasses that have had fruit juice in them - They will look clean, until I'm half-way through drinking water out of them and then I'll notice a definite ring around the top. The only way to get rid of that ring that I've found is scouring it with baking soda and lemon juice.

We can't bring ourselves to stop using our current dishwasher though, I think because sometimes things do get clean, so it's like a game of crockery-related russian roulette we find ourselves compelled to play every evening.

We're actually about to move to an appartment that has no dishwasher and we are so fed up with the one we have now that we are quite looking forward to it.

fondue with cheddar

@jen325 Crockery-related russian roulette...yeah, that's exactly it! And fruit juice glasses are the worst. I'm always reminding my boyfriend to rinse them out right away (also coffee cups because the smell grosses me out).

I will never be happy moving to a place that doesn't have one, though. I've been without a dishwasher 13 years of my adult life. That's a LOT of hand-washing. I hate it and I'm totally sick of it.

quamquam vivit

@fondue with cheddar I had that same problem in my last place... I found that putting juice glasses on the bottom rack helped prevent it. Also, use a tooth pick to scrape out bits from the little holes in the spray arm every once in a while.

quamquam vivit

@fondue with cheddar OMG, just realized how old this post was! Hahaha sorry.

fondue with cheddar

@quamquam vivit Haha, no worries! I'll try that. :)





@melis Marty is Martin Scorsese, right?


@melis This is now Jezebel.


@Slutface "That's not funny."


@melis I vote we use the 50 Shades thread to talk about Once Burned. Also: when they make the movie, it'll star Kristin Stewart, right?


@Ophelia OH MY GOD I didn't even get to talk about it when I saw Snow White and the Huntsman!!!


@melis I'll even admit, despite our differences of opinion on Ms. Stewart, I REALLY want to see that movie.


@Ophelia I'm on board.

Cat Jail

@melis Hairpin Book Club?


@melis i tried to read that first chapter.

Got as far as 'black swarth' and said NOPE.

Heat Signature

I think it might just be that your dishwasher sucks, because I use a Borax/washing soda (1 cup of each) mixture in mine and it works like a muthafuckin' charm. I also use a mixture of Borax/washing soda/Fels Naptha soap for my laundering needs, and it is amazing. I save so much money on that crap! It's great.


@Heat Signature oh Fels Naptha. My grandmother used to threaten us with washing our mouths out with it. Now that's hardcore.


@charlesbois My grandma did too! Sometimes it was Ivory....not sure which was worse. My family still swears by Fels Naptha for drying up a poison ivy rash.


@Heat Signature My experiment with the dishwashing detergent mixture didn't work out so well either, but it still wasn't as bad as what is described, so yeah, it's partially that the dishwasher sucks. I use regular dishwasher soap, but still use white vinegar as the rinse agent and the kitchen never smells like vinegar when I use the dishwasher.

And yes, fels naptha (or castille soap) + borax + washing soda = great laundry detergent! And I use vinegar in the rinse cycle as fabric softener.

Lexie Townsend@facebook

I throw half a cup of distilled white vinegar in to the dishwasher when washing my dishes. I'm very upset about them removing the phosphates.


@Lexie Townsend@facebook They had a good reason for removing the phosphates (fewer phosphates end up in waterways, leading to fewer algae blooms and subsequent aquatic life die-off), but I, too, have a lot of angst over dishes that don't always get quite clean. White vinegar is a must-have item in my kitchen.


@Eve@twitter I wonder if there's a way for them to add dehydrated vinegar to dish soap, so it just reactivates in the water?


@Lexie Townsend@facebook When/where is the vinegar supposed to go in? with the soap? in the rinse cycle container where you'd put stuff like Jet-dry?


@dale This question is relevant to my interests/dish cleaning/Clean Person-sponsored new obsession with vinegar everywhere.


@dale i just pour the vinegar in so it pools in the bottom of the dishwasher.


@Lexie Townsend@facebook I found a tip somewhere in the internet that suggests putting a tea cup or a small bowl rightside up in the top center of the rack and pouring in about a quarter cup of vinegar. That's how I do it, and it works great.


@Lexie Townsend@facebook @Dale - I keep a spray bottle filled with vinegar and spray the sides of the dishwasher down. You can also just throw half a cup into the bottom of the dishwasher.

And @Eve - I understand why the did what they did. It just took me forever to figure out why my dishes weren't clean and it was driving me crazy!


it sounds like your dishwasher has a mechanical problem--if it's not rinsing dirt AWAY, OUT of there, then the type of detergent probably isn't going to make a difference? my family had a dishwasher like that once and had to get someone to disassemble it way down into its guts to get it working properly again.


@plonk I agree -- I think the drain is probably clogged.


@LauraRebecca yup. this may be said elsewhere but you have to get down in there, unscrew stuff and take gross other stuff out. it still might not work that well (based on my experience).


@plonk : Yup!


You can still get detergent with phosphates in Idaho! I know this because every time I visit a friend in Idaho my mom asks me to bring back a box of detergent.


You know, I would have just started washing my dishes by hand somewhere between attempts 1 and 2. So much less stressful!

lavender gooms

This sounds like a job for Mike Holmes... and Martin the trusty plumber!


I would give almost anything for a dishwasher. Even a crappy one.


@Ophelia Sigh. Me tooooo. I considered asking my mom for one of those mini countertop dishwashers for Christmas last year, but then I realized those are probably as much of a nuisance as hand washing because you have to configure it every time you use it.


@olivebee Yeah, and I have pretty much no counter space, so I'd have to put it in the bathtub or something?


@Ophelia Same here, except the truly crappy ones make more work than they eliminate. The dishwasher in my last apartment, I swear, cemented on whatever crustiness was already on the dishes so that they would never, ever be clean again. I am so, so sick of handwashing (and of being like, "oh, do I really want to bake cookies if it means I have to do a thousand dishes afterwards?"), but I would not go back to that horrible monster. The only obvious option is to move.


@Ophelia I'm looking for one small enough to fit in my tiny kitchen closet, but if I go to the trouble now, chances are my next apartment will have one built in. But to have to go another year doing dishes by hand...and arguing with my spouse about it? NO thanks.

sudden but inevitable betrayal

@Ophelia Check Craigslist, if you're open to one of those wheely deals that you hook up to your faucet when you need it. I got one for FREE a few months back from someone who has redoing her kitchen and it is amazing. Butcher block top and everything! Had a bit of a smell at first, but one cycle with vinegar cleared that right up. Changed my life!!


@sudden but inevitable betrayal I would love one, but my tiny galley kitchen is so tiny that unless I install one under the counter, there's nowhere to physically put it (except the bathroom...which I am considering).


@frigwiggin I don't mind handwashing so much as I mind handwashing my roommate's dishes that have been sitting all week without even being rinsed out. If a dishwasher would encourage her to do her dishes, then I would be longing for one.


Scrapeable food chunklets should not be going into the dishwasher.


@Exene Yeah, you have to rinse your dishes off or soak them in the sink for a bit before you put them in the dishwasher. This is not like full blown hand washing or anything but you have to get rid of the big junk.

There should be a "Kitchen Cleanliness Month" with Ask a Clean Person.


@Mandalas I want this to happen so bad. I am always in shock when I meet people who don't rinse food chunks off dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. It's not magic!


@Mandalas That was true of our old one, but the new one we got is brilliant, and it specifically says in the manual not to rinse the dishes. We just scrape large chunks of food (crusts, etc.) into the compost and dump the dishes in. I am totally in love with it.


@TheCheesemanCometh I had one of those in the last house I rented. It was SO the nicest dishwasher ever! And quiet! Still, I rinsed anyway. Old habits die hard.


@Mandalas Oh yeah, it was probably about four or five months before we stopped obsessively rinsing everything (our old one was such crap at the end.) And, yes, so very quiet! It sounds like a gentle rain shower at its loudest. The one downside is that it's a bit smaller inside somehow? So we do more loads than we used to, but it's also way more efficient.


@Mandalas I both soak and rinse them, I swear! It doesn't matter! Nothing matters!


@Lauren_O'Neal Then handwashing it is? Yay! You now have more cabinet space!


@Lauren_O'Neal Scraped, soaked and rinsed dishes are somehow still going into the dishwasher full of food? I don't buy it man!

Tangent: my German friend came to visit me in the states and claimed to be horrified at the very concept of a dishwasher. "A machine full of dirty dishes just sitting there? Ugh!" I also thought it was adorable that he asked me about the "soft pieces of paper" that were coming out with the laundry I was doing: dryer sheets!


Sounds like the problem is your dishwasher, or possibly your plumbing. Have you tried running it empty, with just plain water to see if things like coffee grinds magically appear?


Isn't Borax the stuff that eats through roach exoskeleton?? I know it's supposed to be non-toxic for people...but it eats through roach exoskeleton.


@TheJacqueline It's gonna be OK. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borax#Toxicity


@phantroll@twitter Ahh it has so many uses!

Clean out a skull before mounting!
Turn a fire green!
Key ingredient in Slime!



@TheJacqueline Actually, after linking that, the one thing that does give me pause about borax is a documented effect on fertility in animals. But that's with extremely high doses.

But so what's a good alternative that's earth-friendly and actually cleans dishes? And that I can preferably make at home and know what's in it? Because I want that thing.


@TheJacqueline It's ok - Borax and boric acid are two different things! Boric acid is the insect-killer.


Also, can I add that there's this weird transition period when you start cleaning with vinegar? At first it's like, "Weird, everything smells like vinegar." But then eventually you start associating vinegar with "clean" in the same way you used to associate all those chemical-y smells with "clean."


Clean people - should I ever clean my dishwasher? Is this a thing? Sometimes there are gross bits in the bottom?


@acefreakly there are products like dishwasher magic that you run on an empty dishwasher that will get all the hardwater buildup and any soap deposits and odors out. you can find it at hardware stores, kmart, etc.


@acefreakly I don't think cleaning the dishwasher will help with the "gross bits" if they are chunky, you just gotta (use a gloved hand and)pull those out. Your dishwasher should have a food trap/screen, which may be hidden. Mine is accessed by unscrewing a plastic screw in the spin-y arm at the bottom of the washer, and sliding the arm off. Anyway, that can get food built up sometimes, and I soaked the whole cover in bleachie, cause it had... debris... on it. ANYWAY. So there are some things you can do, if the state of your dishwasher is troubling. Also, the grocery store/target should sell commercial dishwasher cleaner that you run in an empty dishwasher. Some people also used powdered tang or lemonade? I'm not so sure about them. I would only use those if your dishwasher has visible scum in it, or smells bad. Basically, unless there is a symptom that something's not quite right.
Can you tell I had a really fun weekend, with my DISGUSTING dishwasher? I learned many new things. And yeah, my dishwasher STANK, when it was totally empty, for no obvious reason. So I scrubbed out the trap, ran the cleaning bottle through, and ran it on heavy scrub with sanitizing setting (twice!). No more smell so far.


In Canada I've seen citric acid at The Bulk Barn, so maybe other such bulk foods/ingredients stores with candy and baking supplies also carry it.


Does anyone know what wreck that photo is from?
(I'm sorry I'm just a nerd about human-caused disasters and the things they leave behind)


@bocadelperro I'm the wreck. I haven't done dishes in MONTHS.


@bocadelperro Just a guess, but I think it might be from The Titanic? Like from one of those video missions they did in the '90s when everyone got all obsessed with it again.


@LilyMarlene I thought it looked like the Andrea Doria (aka the everest of the deep), too, but then I thought that that was waay to bright for the inside of that wreck, so maybe the empress of ireland? I dunno, though. I just think it's a pretty shot, and I'd like to see more photos like it.

Derbel McDillet

Nobody wants to know this (really, look away now), but once, for about two months, my husband and I rented a house where the toilet would regularly back up into the bathtub. The worst part? The landlord had painted the tub/surround brown. Terrible, terrible. So even after bleaching the bejesus out of the tub after every occurrence, I still couldn't visibly tell if it was clean. Calls to the landlord to fix it resulted in a port-a-potty being deposited in the yard. God, I wish I were making this up.
Backed up plumbing is the worst.


@AconyBelle D: That is terrible. That even beats my friend who found slugs and mushrooms under the rim of her sink.


Once (well, three times, but all in the same apartment) my entire apartment building's sewage backed up into my basement. There were solids in there. Poo, tampons, eek! Knee-deep.
BUT I still think it's worse to have it in your tub. You put your body in there!


if you have food from the disposal getting into the dishwasher, your dishwasher lacks a backflow valve, or it is broken. the DW should drain OUT to the sink/disposal, and this valve is supposed to prevent anything from the sink/disposal from going INTO the DW, but yours must be missing or broken.


You guys know so much about dishwashers! I wish I had written this when I wasn't about to move out of this apartment with its godforsaken food-bit-whirler!


@Lauren_O'Neal I know, right? The DishwasherRepairLadiesPin.com, apparently!


Speaking of smelling like vinegar, a friend of mine once tried to bring back a jug of red wine vinegar when she moved from Texas to Louisiana and accidentally left it in the car overnight. It exploded from the heat and her car smelled like vinegar forever afterward.


If you don't mind dealing with dangerous chemicals, you can make your own phosphate-based soap. You need liquid lye (potassium hydroxide) - there are lots of sites with recipes. Also, citric acid is vitamin C so you can buy a bottle of tablets at the pharmacy and crush them up.


@raelite I think vitamin C is actually ascorbic acid. You can buy citric acid pretty easily online though.


@darklingplain You are right - they are similar but I like citric acid because it cleans my pots and pans so nicely :)

Claire Henry@facebook

guys, just use these: http://amzn.com/B001PRPZHU

they work like magic AND are cheap. (Finish Powerball Tablets)


YES. Not only does this not work, it etched all my dishes. I have heard amazing things about homemade laundry soap, however, and that's next on my list.


Man, I would just get them to replace it or not use the damn thing.


These, yall:

Cascade action packs. Yeah, I thought the whole "pack" thing was just a stupid expensive gimmick, but they are totally worth it. Every dish was coming out of the dishwasher all scummy, with a visible film left on everything, until I got these. More expensive, but they actually clean the dishes.


Are you sure the actual dishwasher is functioning properly?

I was housesitting once and the dishwasher was horrific. Food bits, taking forever to drain, awful stench, etc. I cleaned out all the food traps, scrubbed away the soap scum (blergh) and used the powerball dishwasher cleaner on a hot cycle. Minimal difference. The owner thanked me as it worked better than ever! (Who puts up with it NOT working and doesn't try something?! Anything?! Gross.)

Turns out the heating element was busted! When the owner got that fixed, it worked like a charm. No food bits, shorter cycles, shiny clean, fresh scent.


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