8 Natural Alternatives to Dish Soap & Dishwasher Detergent

By Marilee Nelson |

8 Natural Alternatives to Dish Soap & Dishwasher Detergent

It’s happened to us all at some point. It’s the end of a long day, and the kids are already bathed and in their pajamas. When you suddenly realize…you’re out of dish soap and detergent!

Since the bedtime routine has started, going to the store isn’t an option. You’re left with two choices. Leave the dishes for the next day or try and do something with what you have at home…but what? 

Fortunately, most people have everything they need to make DIY, human-safe dish soap and dishwasher detergent in no time flat.

The best part? Dish soap alternatives don't just come in handy in cleaning emergencies. They can also help save you money, reduce chemical exposure, and save time too.

Today we’ll share eight effective natural alternatives to dish soap and dishwasher detergents, so you’ll never be caught with a sink full of dirty dishes again.

Toxic Chemicals Found in Dish Soap & Detergents

When creating a healthier home, it’s easy to overlook the kitchen sink. 

Dish soaps and dish detergents are products we use everyday! And while dish soaps may contain toxic fragrance, petroleum based colorants, ethoxylated ingredients (which contain harmful by-products like 1,4-Dioxane), toxic preservatives, and more, automatic dishwasher detergents are responsible for the most poisonings from household cleaning products according to the U.S. Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Yet, despite how toxic conventional dish detergent may be, most of us leave it within easy reach of children and pets. So, why is dish detergent so harmful?

We cover this in-depth in Why Natural Dish Washing Is So Important. But in a nutshell, dish detergents may contain highly alkaline chemicals that are incredibly caustic. Meaning they can burn and dissolve external and internal tissues. That is why it is so important to keep them away from toddlers and children.

Other potentially harmful toxins in the average conventional dish soap/dish detergent include:

  • Fragrance chemicals, which contain phthalates and emit toxic VOCs. These chemicals are designed to cling to surfaces and may leave residues.
  • Phthalates are endocrine-disruptors linked to hormone-driven cancers and can cause DNA damage and lower IQ.
  • Preservatives such as DMDM hydantoin, etc., emit carcinogenic formaldehyde. 2
  • Surfactants like Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) are highly toxic to aquatic life and linked to disrupted physical function and fetal development. 
  • PEGs/polysorbates are ethoxylated ingredients that can contain carcinogenic chemical byproducts like 1,4-Dioxane.
    • Ethoxylated ingredients may contain toxic byproducts which are linked to developmental issues, cancers, and are environmental toxins.
  • Antimicrobial agents such as methylisothiazolinone and benzisothiazolinone, which are neurotoxic and linked to lung, skin, and eye irritation. 6
  • Dyes that are often not listed on labels and may make a detergent more appealing to a child, increasing the risk of poisoning.

This is not a complete list of all the chemicals in dish soap and detergents, but it clearly shows how unsafe these products can be.

We share this information to emphasize how critical it is that we do not default to using chemical-based dish soaps and detergents in our homes (or at least not allow them within reach of little ones).

Natural Alternatives to Dish Soap 

In this section, we’ll share five dish soap alternatives you can make using items most people keep in their cupboards. 

Reminder: when cleaning without dish soap (unless you’re using Branch Basics) we recommend first disinfecting your sink.

Use  boiling water, spray 3% hydrogen peroxide on the sink, let sit for 10 minutes and wipe or use a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar (used separately and stored in separate bottles!) to clean your sink.

1. White Vinegar, 2 Ways

White vinegar can be a very useful assistant when in a pinch.

Vinegar is a versatile DIY all-natural cleaner because it has so many uses, including dishwashing.

Method #1: Direct-spray

    1. Mix 3-4 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar with 1 cup of water in a spray bottle. 
    2. Spray directly onto dishes, let dwell 5-10 minutes, and scrub off any food or stains. 
    3. Follow with a 10-minute soak in boiling hot water to kill any remaining germs.

    NOTE: Always remember that the acetic acid in vinegar can be a lung irritant when used as a spray. Care must be taken to avoid inhaling aerosolized vinegar. Opening windows, using fans, and/or good ventilation should be employed until all smell of vinegar is cleared. Avoid using vinegar as a spray in the presence of someone with asthma or chronic illness.

    Method #2: Sanitizing Soak

    1. Scrub off as much food from your dishes as you can using hot water and a dishwashing brush, sponge, etc.
    2. Rinse your dishes.
    3. Next, fill your sink or wash basin with equal parts distilled white vinegar and hot  water. Submerge dishes and let sit for 30 minutes. This gives the hot water and vinegar enough time to kill off harmful bacteria or microbes.
    4. After 30 minutes, rinse with hot water, and dry. Presto!

    2. Branch Basics Dish Soap

    Did you know Branch Basics can be used as dish soap that removes germs? And it works really well too.

    For lightly soiled dishes, All Purpose does the trick. Just spray it on, scrub, and rinse. This works great as a natural dish soap!

    For bigger jobs, Foaming Wash or Bathroom dilution work best. You can either squirt it into your sink with hot water, submerge dishes, and wash. Or spray directly onto dishes, scrub, and rinse with hot water.

    You can even use 1 teaspoon of Concentrate in the sink for excellent results, and Oxygen Boost works great for scouring.

    Since Branch Basics contains a plant-based, ultra-gentle, non-GMO, non-irritating glucoside surfactant (Decyl Glucoside) that removes germs, no sanitizing soak is needed. Just wash, rinse with hot water, and dry.

    3. Baking Soda + Hot Water

    Common dish soaps contain surfactants that are designed to remove dirt and germs. Boiling water provides this same sanitizing effect when washing dishes, making it a great substitute for regular soap.

    Combining your boiling water with baking soda is one of the easiest substitutes for dish soap at home.

    Baking soda is the product of a thousand uses and works well on dishes in a pinch.

      To use:

      • Make a thick scouring powder by adding a bit of water to about half a cup of baking soda.
      • Then, use that mixture on a sponge or dish washing brush to scrub off dishes. 

      Since baking soda doesn’t kill bacteria, we recommend following this up with the vinegar and hot water soaking method listed above.

      Or you can soak your dishes in boiling water for about 10 minutes to kill any unwanted germs from raw meats, cheeses, etc.

      You can also use baking soda with Branch Basics or another natural dish soap to boost scouring power. Just sprinkle some baking soda directly onto your dishes, spray on Branch Basics, scrub, and rinse.

      We also love baking soda to remove burnt-on food from pots and pans. 

      • To use, sprinkle enough baking soda to cover the bottom of your burnt pan. 
      • Add some water and bring to a boil.
      • Simmer for 5-10 minutes (don’t let the water evaporate) and wipe clean. It works like a charm, even on enameled cast iron.

      Related read: Cleaning With Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate): 12 Surprising Uses.

      4. Liquid Castile Soap + Water

      Most health- and toxin-conscious DIYers keep liquid castile soap around (Dr. Bronner’s is the most famous). In this case, it makes a super quick DIY dish soap.

      • To use, mix 1 part castile soap with 4 parts water in a jar or dish soap bottle. 
      • Shake and use like regular dish soap for hand washing dishes.

      5. Salt + Boiling Water To Clean Burnt On Messes

      Earlier, we shared how to use baking soda and boiling water to remove burnt-on messes on pots and pans. 

      No baking soda or dish soap? No problem, you can use salt.

      • To use, add 1-2 tablespoons of plain salt to the burnt pot or pan. Pour in some water. Bring to a boil and simmer the mixture for 5-10 minutes.
      • Drain and gently nudge away the burnt bits using a wooden spoon or spatula. 
      • Rinse, and you’re done.

      NOTE: Always check with the manufacturer to verify that this would not damage the surface of your cookware. 

      Natural Alternatives to Dishwasher Detergent

      Dishwashers are a must-have in most households. So, unexpectedly running out of detergent (especially if you don’t notice until the dishwasher is loaded) can be a major time waster.

      Plus, no one wants to risk wrecking their dishwasher by using the wrong type of DIY alternative (and dishwashers can be finicky when it comes to detergents).

      Fortunately, there are a few dishwasher-safe and effective natural alternatives to dish detergent. Here are our top 3 that can help.

      6. Lemon Juice

      Lemon juice is a powerful all-purpose DIY cleaner with natural enzymes and citric acid. You can also use it in place of dish detergent in a pinch.

      To use:

      • Pre-wash your dishes using plain water and a scrub brush. Obviously this is not the time to leave food residues on your dishes.
      • Next, fill a coffee cup about half full with lemon juice. 
      • Run a heavy cycle (the hot water will kill the germs while the lemon juice helps dissolve grease, food, etc.), and you’ll have sparkling clean dishes.

      7. Biodegradable, Plastic-Free, Plant, Mineral, and Enzyme-Based Dishwasher Tabs

      Have you tried Branch Basics Dishwasher Tabs? These concentrated detergent tablets are PVA free and ingredients are rated 1-2 on EWG Skin Deep. 

      To use, just pop one in your dish detergent cup and run the cycle.

      No plastic, no synthetic chemicals, no fragrance, no more mess.

      8. Distilled White Vinegar (yes, again!)

      Is there anything this acid substance can’t do?

      To use distilled white vinegar in your dishwasher: 

      • First, pre-rinse/scrub your dishes. Since you’re not using a detergent, this step is important. Again, this is not the time to leave food residues on your dishes
      • Next, add a coffee cup full of vinegar to the top rack of your dishwasher.
      • Run a normal cycle, the vinegar will act as a rinse aid and help to clean the dishes Empty, and you’re done.

      Bonus Tip: You can also use Branch Basics + vinegar to deep clean and detoxify your dishwasher.

      Create a Safer and Healthier Home With Branch Basics

      There you have it! 8 ways to clean your dishes without dish soap, detergent, or by resorting to synthetic chemicals.

      The big takeaways:

      • Always have distilled white vinegar handy.
      • Branch Basics All Purpose, Foaming Wash, Bathroom, and Concentrate can all be used for hand-washing dishes.
      • Liquid castile soap is for more than just showers, handwashing, and DIY cleaners.
      • Baking soda and salt work miracles on burnt-on food.
      • Never underestimate the power of lemon juice.

      To learn more about Branch Basics for your dishes, bathroom, laundry room, and more, check out our Starter Kits.

      To learn more about creating a human-safe home in the kitchen, check out:

      Marilee Nelson

      Marilee Nelson

      Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.