Home & Garden Home Is Your Dish Soap Toxic? Here’s How to Know By Melissa Breyer Editorial Director Hunter College F.I.T., State University of New York Cornell University Melissa Breyer is Treehugger’s editorial director. She is a sustainability expert and author whose work has been published by the New York Times and National Geographic, among others. our editorial process Melissa Breyer Updated October 11, 2018 Laterjay / Pixabay Share Twitter Pinterest Email Home Natural Cleaning Pest Control DIY Family Green Living Thrift & Minimalism Sustainable Eating For the sake of your health and that of the aquatic environment, get to know what’s in your dishwashing liquid. It may seem innocuous enough; a little squirt of soap, a few wafts of “orchard burst” or “honeysuckle rain,” some bubbles to clean the plates and then it’s all gone, down the drain, all that remains are the squeaky clean dishes. Except that’s not exactly the case. Unfortunately, something as innocent seeming as dish soap has a dark side: potentially significant hazards to human health and the planet. Of the 232 “hand washing detergents” listed on Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Healthy Cleaning Database, 58 scored an F. I went through those products with an eye toward earmarking the most worrisome ingredients and found the following ingredients, all of which scored an F, which designates the "highest concern" – as in, potentially significant hazards to health or the environment. And keep in mind, these are just the Fs, which excludes some of the ingredients that already have a bad reputation like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, which gets a C, or the mystery grab bag known as the catchall “fragrance” which gets a D. (How do you capture the smell of an orchard burst, anyway?) Here's what I found. Specific ingredients of highest concern: Cocamide DEA: Concerns include cancer, chronic aquatic toxicity, acute aquatic toxicity. DMDM Hydantoin: Concerns include chemical release (formaldehyde in this case), and irritation of the skin, eyes, or lungs. Ethanolamine: Concerns include respiratory effects, general systemic/organ effects, chronic aquatic toxicity, nervous system effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage. Formaldehyde: Concerns include cancer, general systemic/organ effects, respiratory effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, acute aquatic toxicity. Sodium Borate: Concerns include developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, respiratory effects. Sulfuric Acid: Concerns include cancer, respiratory effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage. Triclosan: Concerns include chronic aquatic toxicity, acute aquatic toxicity, general ecotoxicity, developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, cancer, immune system effects, circulatory system effects, general systemic/organ effects, nervous system effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, digestive system effects, damage to vision. Good times! The problem of non-specific ingredients In addition to the motley crew above, there’s a slew of vaguely described ingredients that leave the consumer completely in the dark. And since there is no requirement for companies to list the ingredients in household cleaning products, companies can choose to use these catchall terms for highly toxic chemicals. If a product lists one of these generic terms, EWG automatically gives it the worst score that a chemical in that category could have. They explain: The use of vague ingredient descriptions like "surfactant," "cleaning agent," or "preservative" on cleaning products does not provide adequate hazard data for consumers on what chemicals they are putting in their homes. These terms could encompass a wide variety of actual ingredients, ranging from low hazard to highly toxic. We designed a scoring system that does not assume that poorly described ingredients are low hazard. Therefore a vague label term like "cleaning agent" will be given the worst score for an individual chemical in that category. As manufacturers begin to disclose their complete ingredient lists to the public we will update our product information to reflect the more specific ingredient names. Non-specific ingredients of (potentially) highest concern: Buffer/buffering agent: Concerns include developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, respiratory effects. Colors: Concern for government enforceable restrictions. Foam booster/foaming agents: Concerns include cancer, chronic toxicity to aquatic life. PH Adjuster: Concerns include developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, irritation/allergies/damage, respiratory effects. Preservatives: Concerns include cancer, general systemic/organ effects, acute aquatic toxicity, respiratory effects, chronic aquatic toxicity, skin irritation/allergies/damage. Surfactants: Concerns include aquatic toxicity, respiratory effects, general systemic/organ effects. Water softener/water-softening agent: Concerns include developmental/endocrine/reproductive effects, skin irritation/allergies/damage, respiratory effects. Products scoring a lowest concern: Following are the 23 products that of this writing, show a score of A, defined as lowest concern: "Few/no known or suspected hazards to health or the environment. Good ingredient disclosure." Again, given that non-specific ingredients automatically get an F, it's possible that there are healthy products with a low score – for using a generic term like "color" – that would not be on this list. AspenClean Dish SoapAttitude Dishwashing Liquid, Pink GrapefruitAttitude Little Ones Baby Bottle & Dishwashing Liquid, Fragrance FreeAttitude Little Ones Baby Bottle & Dishwashing Liquid, Pear NectarAttitude Little Ones Baby Bottle & Dishwashing Liquid, Sweet LullabyBetter Life DISH IT OUT Natural Dish Liquid, Clary Sage & CitrusBetter Life DISH IT OUT Natural Dish Liquid, Unscentedbiokleen Natural Dish Liquid, Citrus EssenceDr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Soap, Baby UnscentedDr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Soap, EucalyptusDr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Soap, LavenderDr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Soap, PeppermintDr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Soap, Tea TreeDr. Bronner's Sal Suds Liquid CleanerEco Olea Dish Liquid, Lemon GrassEco-Me Dish Soap, SuzyEcover Zero Dish Soap, Fragrance FreeFit Organic Dish Liquid, Free and ClearPuracy Natural Dish Soap, Green Tea & LimeSun & Earth Liquid Dishwashing, Fresh LavenderSun & Earth Liquid Dishwashing, UnscentedThe Honest Co. Honest Dish Soap, Lemon VerbenaThe Honest Co. Honest Dish Soap, White Grapefruit If you don't see your dish soap here, you can check the database to see how your products score. And if it ranks poorly only because it lists a non-specific ingredient like "preservatives" or "surfactants," it's not necessarily a dealbreaker. Look on the company's website for more detailed information or call customer service and do some sleuthing. See EWG's scores for all hand dishwashing products at the Guide to Healthy Cleaning.