The Best Phosphate Free Dishwasher Detergent: 4 Options

By Marilee Nelson |

The Best Phosphate Free Dishwasher Detergent: 4 Options

Are you looking for the best phosphate-free and human-safe dishwasher detergent?

With growing awareness about phosphates' human and environmental harms, including restrictions or bans in some states and countries, you’d think this would be easy.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers of dishwasher detergents in the United States still rely on phosphates as surfactants

Plus, just because a dishwashing detergent is phosphate-free or low-phosphate doesn’t mean it’s human- or environmentally safe.

Here’s the good news: with just a little knowledge and know-how, you can easily avoid harmful dish detergents and still have squeaky-clean dishes.

This article shows you how.

Why Are Phosphates Toxic?  

Phosphates are a group of chemical compounds containing phosphorus, a naturally occurring mineral found in the earth.

However, although they come from phosphorus, they are not exactly natural.

Phosphate is not problematic for humans, wildlife, and the environment unless it’s used to create synthetic phosphate-based chemicals. 

This is why many countries and states have strict regulations or bans on phosphate use in general or in dish detergents specifically.

So, why are phosphates toxic? Here’s a list of their documented negative impacts on humans, wildlife, and the environment.

Let’s break this down by category.

The Human Health Impacts Of Phosphates

Synthetic phosphate chemicals can negatively impact several aspects of human health, especially from regular or intense exposure.

People are exposed to phosphates more often than most realize due to their use in household products, pharmaceuticals, water treatment, and even foods and beverages.

Some examples include harmful effects on: [Sources 1, 2, 3, 4]

  • Kidney function
  • Bone function
  • Cardiovascular function
  • Cell function
  • Endocrine function
  • Thyroid function
  • Skin irritation
  • Respiratory irritation
  • Asthma
  • Phosphate toxicity has also been associated with premature aging

The Wildlife And Environmental Impacts Of Phosphates

Phosphate-based chemicals are a hazard to the environment, especially aquatic life, because they starve aquatic environments of oxygen, creating algal blooms that kill and/or sicken fish, shellfish, and all aquatic life.

These algal blooms, which create toxins, have consequences for humans and non-aquatic life and bring economic hardships for coastal or other lake/riverside communities (and wildlife) that rely on clean water to live and work.

How To Spot Phosphates On Labels

The easiest way to spot phosphates on dish detergent labels is by looking for ingredients that end with “phosphate.”

For example, sodium tripolyphosphate, or STPP, is the most commonly used phosphate chemical in cleaning, dishwashing, and laundry products. Tetrasodium phosphate is also used in dishwashing products.

Unfortunately, companies sometimes use acronyms or may not disclose all ingredients. 

This is why we recommend using consumer advocacy tools like the Environmental Working Group’s app to scan the detergent or look it up by name. From there, it will give you a toxicity rating (A-F) you can trust.

Here’s a direct link to their dishwasher detergent rankings page.

Related read: Why Human-Safe Dishwashing Is So Important

4 Natural, Phosphate-Free Dishwasher Detergents 

Thanks to the growing awareness about the harms of phosphates, there are many phosphate-free dishwasher detergents to choose from.

Here are four favorites with DIY options.

1. Branch Basics Dishwasher Tablets

Dishwasher tablets are typically wrapped in a type of plastic called PVA. 

Although advocates claim it is an environmentally safe and biodegradable plastic, a growing body of research suggests otherwise.

Instead, try a plastic/PVA-free dishwasher tablet like Branch Basics Dishwasher Tablets

These phosphate-free tablets are completely free of plastic and PVA and contain hard-working enzymes and plant- and mineral-based cleaners, stain removers, and water softeners rated 1-2 on EWG Skin Deep. 

To use, just pop one in your dish detergent cup.

For a breakdown of all the ingredients, see: Our New & Improved Dishwasher Tablets.

2. Lemon Juice

We love how the natural citric acid in lemon juice acts as a degreaser, bleach alternative, and all-purpose cleaner. 

It can also be used instead of dish detergent in a pinch or to complement/boost your favorite phosphate-free brand.

To use:

  • Pre-wash your dishes using plain water and a scrub brush. If you’re not using additional detergent, this step is essential.
  • 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 the dishes are done!

3. Distilled White Vinegar 

Distilled white vinegar can do quadruple duty as a dish detergent alternative, dish detergent booster, rinse aid, and dishwasher cleaner.  

Its natural acetic acid kills germs, degreases, and breaks up food particles without leaving any harmful residue.

To use distilled white vinegar in your dishwasher: 

  • Pre-rinse/scrub your dishes. If you’re not using additional detergent, this step is essential.
  • Add a coffee cup full of vinegar to the top rack of your dishwasher.
  • Run a normal cycle.
  • Empty, and you’re done.

    Learn how to use Branch Basics + vinegar to deep clean and detoxify your dishwasher here.

    4: Make Your Own Phosphate-Free Dishwasher Detergent

    Making dishwasher tablets or liquid detergent is typically too challenging for DIYers. 

    However, many people enjoy making their own, phosphate-free dishwashing powder with just a few simple ingredients like:

    • Baking soda 
    • Washing soda 
    • Citric Acid
    • Salt

    Our friend Katie Wells at Wellnessmama has a simple DIY Dishwasher Detergent recipe you can try out here.

    Note: Due to concerns about Borax we typically recommend sodium sesquicarbonate, a Borax substitute, for DIY cleaning and laundry products.

    For a Borax-free version, see these recipes from Green Child Magazine.

    How to Make Your Phosphate-Free Detergents More Effective 

    One of the reasons companies are hesitant to remove phosphates is because they are highly effective cleaning, degreasing, foaming, wetting, emulsifying, shining, and water-softening agents.

    Therefore, some phosphate-free dishwasher detergents are less effective than their phosphate-based cousins.

    The good news is that excellent and highly effective phosphate-free detergent options are available, like those discussed in this article and other healthy brands.

    Here are some other ways to ensure your phosphate-free detergent works to its full potential.

    Keep Your Dishwasher Clean 

    Whether you use phosphate-free detergent or not, a dirty dishwasher will hinder cleaning.

    Things like clogged spouts, dirty filters, and food in the bottom of the dishwasher all negatively affect your dishwasher and detergent’s performance.

    See: How To Deep Clean Your Dishwasher for tips and a video tutorial.

    Avoid Using Plastic Pods 

    PVA-based plastic pods are not only questionable for the environment, but their unpredictable biodegradability can hinder dishwashing detergents from being released at the right time.

    Instead, opt for plastic-free dishwasher tablets or use a powder or gel.

    Pre-Rinse Dishes

    Many dishwasher detergent ads claim that no pre-rinsing is necessary if you use their product (which is typically full of harmful ingredients, including phosphates).

    However, pre-rinsing your dishes saves you time in the long run as food particles build up and clog up your dishwasher’s parts, requiring more deep cleaning.

    Instead, take a moment to scrape and/or rinse dishes before loading them up. They don’t need to be perfectly clean. Just be sure you remove the larger particles so they don’t clog up the drain.

    Use A Rinse Aid

    As mentioned previously, distilled white vinegar and lemon juice are excellent and affordable rinse aids and detergent boosters.

    5 Tips For Choosing An Effective and Phosphate-Free Dishwasher Detergent

    If having a low-tox healthy home is your goal, you’ll want to pay attention to other ingredients, including phosphates, in your dish detergent.  

    A phosphate-free detergent should also contain no harmful substances that could leave residue on your dishes and harm you or your family if mishandled or ingested. It should also be truly biodegradable.

    Here are five tips to help you choose a phosphate-free, biodegradable, and human-safe dishwashing detergent:

    • Look for products with natural enzymes. Safe enzyme-based dish detergents typically perform better than other non-phosphate varieties, anyway. 

    • Use consumer advocacy apps, like EWG’s Skin Deep, to vet products for toxicity. 

    • Always choose fragrance-free, even for “green” cleaning products. Fragrance chemicals used in household cleaners, like dish detergents, can contain dozens to hundreds of undisclosed chemicals, many of which are harmful or hazardous, such as phthalates which are class of chemicals that are endocrine disruptors, asthmagens, carcinogens, neurotoxins, obesogens, and allergensKnow what other ingredients to watch out for beyond phosphates. These ingredients are detailed in: Why Human-Safe Dishwashing Is So Important.

    • Read reviews: Not all healthy phosphate-free dishwasher detergents are created equal in terms of effectiveness. Reviews can help you discern what customers like or dislike about the product and why.

    Go Phosphate Free With Branch Basics

    Finding phosphate-free dish detergents, laundry detergents, and cleaning products used to be difficult, if not impossible.

    Thankfully, times have changed, and the new and educated consumer now has various alternatives.

    If you’re interested in going phosphate-free, check out Branch Basics full line of cleaning and dishwashing products.

    Our flagship product, Branch Basics Concentrate, is an all-natural, Made Safe certified, all-in-one cleaner designed to replace every toxic cleaning and laundry product in your home.

    Just add the designated amount of Concentrate to the refillable All-Purpose, Bathroom, Streak-Free, Foaming Wash, or Laundry bottles, add water, shake, and you’re ready to clean.

    For dishwashers, Branch Basics Dishwashing Tablets are a phosphate-free life-saver.

    Our Made Safe Dishwasher Tablets borrow hardworking ingredients from The Concentrate and Oxygen Boost (a phosphate-free laundry booster, soaking aid, and bleach alternative) to provide a powerful clean without any harmful chemicals.

    Branch Basics Dishwasher Tablets are free from phosphates and other toxic ingredients, including:

    • Plastic Film
    • Fragrance
    • Essential oils
    • Sulfates
    • Chlorine
    • Phthalates
    • Synthetic preservatives

    They’re also affordable at just $0.33 (with subscription)-$0.37 (without subscription) per load.

    To learn more, check out our Starter Kits and Dishwasher Tablets.

    To learn more about phosphates in cleaning products and detergents, see: Why Phosphate-Free Cleaning, Dishwashing, and Laundry Products Mattrs.

    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.