First published May 2012
Machines that do dishes ...
Ethical Consumer takes a closer look at dishwasher detergents to see how they scrub up under inspection.
Although still seen by some as a luxury product, dishwashers are becoming increasingly common in UK households, helping to solve the age old argument of who does the dishes … and replacing it with the equally vexing problem of who stacks the dishwasher.
The continuing major environmental concern about dishwasher detergents is the use of phosphates; during the washing process their presence helps to dissolve calcium and magnesium ions, countering the effects of ‘hard water’ and aiding the cleaning process.(6)
Unfortunately they remain relatively unaffected by chemical treatment in the sewer system, resulting in an accumulation in rivers and other waterways. The impacts of phosphates are discussed further in the Laundry Detergents buyers' guide.
Responding to these concerns, many of the major manufacturers have made efforts to reduce their phosphate content in recent years; however brands such as Fairy Platinum still contain around 30% phosphates.
The European Parliament’s Environment Committee wanted to ban all but trace amounts of phosphates in household dishwasher detergents sold within the EU beginning in 2015, much to the chagrin of phosphate producers and dishwasher detergent producers. All but trace amounts of phosphates in laundry detergent are to be banned by 2013.(16)
Phosphate manufacturers say that there is not an obvious replacement for phosphates in dishwashers – zeolites, used in laundry products, are too abrasive they say.(16)
Their lobbying against the proposal was effective. The date for the ban was put back two years to 2017. And the ban only applies to household dishwasher detergent, not industrial and institutional detergents.
The following eco brands do not contain phosphates: Attitude, Bio-D, Ecover, Ecozone, Faith in Nature, Simply, Sodasan, Wave.
In terms of pollution in the home, the chemicals present in dishwasher detergents can enter the body via two primary routes; inhalation of the steam released when a dishwasher is opened after a cycle, or residue left on the ostensibly clean dishes following washing.
Some automatic dishwashing detergents contain dry chlorine that is activated when mixed with the water in the dishwasher. This means that when you open the dishwasher, chlorine fumes are released in the steam that leaks out. These can cause eye irritation and difficulty breathing, especially for those with respiratory problems.20
The thin coating left on kitchenware and cutlery can be absorbed by food and build up slowly within the body via a process known as bioaccumulation.38 The long term effects of such a process are still unknown.
Most automatic dishwashing detergents are either irritants or corrosives. They are made with strong petroleum-based detergents and a strong alkali. Skin irritation or burns may occur following exposure to dissolved detergents.20
Aside from changes designed to improve their effectiveness at washing, dishwasher detergents have also become increasingly fragranced in recent years – a trend reflected throughout the household cleaning industry. Generally manufacturers aim for fresh, invigorating smells. Ironically the chemicals used to create these intensely natural and supposedly clean scents tend to have been derived from somewhat less appetizing petrochemicals.(36)
Manufacturers aren’t legally obliged to specify which of these compounds are actually in their products, with issues of fragrance being protected under trade secrecy statutes. What is known is that many of the chemicals used in this process are part of the phthalates group. The limited research that has taken place into their toxicity has found evidence linking them to cancers and foetal health issues including interference with enzymes vital in the development of male foetuses.(37)
For laundry and dishwasher detergents, the Ecolabel criteria requires no phosphates. It does not, however, promote renewable raw materials which is why Ecover have not applied for the label: “The criteria for the Ecolabel, although strict, do not go far enough. For example, sourcing of raw materials isn’t taken into consideration. We believe that this is an essential consideration in developing an ecological product.”(25)
There are two dishwasher detergent brands, Simply and Ecozone, that have applied for and been awarded the EU Ecolabel.
Fairy is owned by Procter and Gamble. It is also a member of several lobby groups including the International Chamber of Commerce. It is know to be operating in five tax havens (Guatemala, Ireland, Luxembourg, Panama and Singapore) and 13 oppressive regimes including Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Quick ethical profile for Procter & Gamble (free to view by all).
A study by Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) found that several popular cleaning products contained hidden toxic chemicals that were not disclosed on the packaging. They were found to contain chemical allergens, that were potentially dangerous to humans causing hormone disruption.(11) The company has also been found to use the antimicrobial Triclosan and nanotechnology.
It is under a boycott call from Uncaged and PETA over its animal testing policy and receives Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for it. Over the years it has scored constantly badly on this and for its supply chain management.
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6 What’s in this stuff? Pat Thomas, 2006
16 Chemistry World, 24 June 2011, Royal Society of Chemistry
20 Behind the label: Fairy Liquid, The Ecologist, 5th February 2009
36 http://www.naturalnews.com/001061.html 37 http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/newscience/oncompounds/phthalates/phthalates.htm
This product guide is part of a Special Report on Cleaning Products. See what's in the rest of the report.