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Why Are There Still Phosphates in Conventional Dishwashing Detergents

  • As Phosphate Would Have It
    On phosphates in detergents
    By Umbra Fisk
    Grist Magazine, Sept 20, 2006
    Straight to the Source

Dear Umbra,

Why haven't phosphates been removed from dishwashing detergents like they have been from laundry detergents? I know they make your clothing look brighter, but what do they do for dishes?

Natalie Waddell-Rutter
North East, Pa.

Dearest Natalie,

Phosphates in dish detergent do a few nice things for dishwasher-washed dishes. Their biggest contribution is that they essentially soften the effects of "hard" water, combining with the minerals in it, mostly calcium and magnesium, thereby eliminating the spots and film on dishes that can form when the minerals and food bits combine during the wash. Phosphates also make the water's pH more alkaline, which can help in food-bit removal.

This is also basically what phosphates did for clothes in the clothes washer, essentially making the detergent more effective by getting the minerals out of the way. But that was back when laundry detergent companies in the U.S. still used phosphates. Now they don't.

Which brings us to your question.

Back in the 1970s, the U.S. government recognized the problem of phosphorus pollution -- it can cause massive algal blooms in waterways that screw with ecosystems by robbing the water and aquatic life of all-important oxygen -- and started trying to come up with alternatives. Meanwhile, states and localities became more and more aware of the undesirable effects of phosphorus and began acting on their own to limit or restrict its use in laundry detergents, the first places being five cities in Illinois in 1971. (Way to go, Illinoisans!) By the 1990s, enough states and localities had limited or restricted laundry-detergent phosphates that detergent companies saw the writing on the machine and decided to voluntarily phase them out in all domestic formulations, which was done by the mid-1990s.

The main reason dishwashing-detergent phosphates didn't get the same treatment was that the best alternatives, enzymes, were neither common nor cheap even as late as the early '90s. There was also the influence of heavy lobbying by detergent makers and phosphate cheerleaders to keep them in. And so phosphates remain in many detergents at varying levels, even though they don't need to be there.

There are plenty of eco-friendly, phosphate-free alternatives that wash dishes just as well or better than phosphate-laden ones. And you probably won't be surprised to learn that mainstream, big-name detergents have lots of other suspect ingredients that are derived from petroleum and aren't so environmentally benign, a main one being artificial fragrances. So it's best to use one of the eco-brands anyway, and any eco-brand worth its eco-label will be phosphate- and chlorine-free.

Some states and localities are starting to severely limit or ban phosphates in dishwasher detergent too. My spiffy home state of Washington signed new rules into law this year that will keep the phosphorus content in dishwashing detergent to 0.5 percent beginning in 2010. It's a significant cut, since detergents now contain up to 9 percent.

The soap we use to wash dishes by hand doesn't contain phosphates, but don't get any bright ideas about using it in your dishwasher. I did that once, and suds oozed out the sides and all over the kitchen floor.


Yours is to wonder why, hers is to answer (or try). Please send Umbra any nagging question pertaining to the environment -- but first check out her FAQs!

For more information on this topic or related issues you can search the thousands of archived articles on the OCA website using keywords:

Matt Johnson
post Feb 12 2008, 03:47 PM

Soap Nuts (Soapnuts) � The Environmental Detergent

Have you ever thought about all the chemicals that we pour down the drain daily? What impact do they have on our environment? What does this mean for our children�s future? How can we minimize the harmful chemicals we use & save the environment at the same time? Soap Nuts are the answer.

What are Soap Nuts?

Soap Nuts are not actually nuts at all, but berries (also known as soap berries) that grow on trees in India & Nepal. They contain high concentrations of saponin, which acts as a natural soap when it comes into contact with water.

What can I use Soap Nuts for?

The most common & easiest use of soap nuts is as a laundry detergent. Just place three or four half-shells of soap nuts in a muslin bag (provided with most soap nuts orders) and throw it in with your laundry instead of regular detergent and you are on your way to becoming environmentally friendly. When using soap nuts in your laundry, you do not even need a rinse cycle, thus preventing gallons of water from unnecessarily going down the drain. If you want to expand your soap nuts into a multi-purpose cleaner, simply boil 100 g of soap nuts in 12 cups (3L) of water for 30 minutes. Fish out the shells, throw them in your compost, & you are left with a highly concentrated, natural, liquid detergent. For more applications, visit

How does the use of Soap Nuts affect Grey Water?

Soap nuts are antimicrobial. After their detergent goes into the sewer system, it helps break down the grey water into a more usable form. The use of soap nuts actually benefit the environment, rather than hurting it as the harmful chemicals we use do. Because of their unique antimicrobial properties, soap nuts are also used in aid of soil restoration.

What harmful chemicals are found in my regular laundry detergent?

Regular laundry detergents may contain any or all of the following:
� Enzymes � Are a skin sensitizer, but may cause dermatitis and allergic reactions
� Sodium Hypochlorite � Causes lung irritations, bronchial or respiratory reactions, cardiovascular damage, as well as eye and skin damage.
� Nonylphenoxy Ethoxylates � Is an edocrine disruptor, and can cause an activation of cellular estrogen receptors (even at low levels) This is implicated in causes of a rise in breast and prostate cancer, infertility issues, a decline in amphibian populations and the reversal / feminization of birds, fish or reptiles.

Are Soap Nuts Gentle on my skin?

Yes. Soap nuts contain no chemicals, and are therefore non-allergenic. Many people (myself included) who suffered from eczema and other skin irritations have seen their problems diminish after switching to soap nuts as a laundry detergent.

How does my Purchase of Soap Nuts affect India & Nepal?

Your purchase of soap nuts is beneficial to both the economy & environment of India & Nepal. In these two countries, there are many poor people. Because soap nuts are plentiful, they become non-saleable locally. Therefore, soap nut trees become more valuable & marketable as firewood than for the environmentally friendly soap nuts that they grow. When soap nuts are marketed overseas, it employs local residents to harvest them, which in turn, stimulates the economy. At the same time, it makes the trees more valuable living than dead. This helps save our tropical forests.

Soap Nuts are the Environmental Detergent.

The use of soap nuts reduces the use of harmful chemicals, helps in restoring our polluted earth, and saves our tropical forests. Isn�t it time you did your part in painting a greener future for our children?

For more information on soap nuts & pricing visit

post Feb 12 2008, 09:42 PM

Yes, soap nuts, because I often wash my dishes in my washing machine!

Now, oh my, whatever shall I use to do the laundry in the diswasher??? ohmy.gif

Matt Johnson
post Feb 19 2008, 05:51 PM

If you boil soap nuts down, they make a great dishwashing detergent.

post Feb 20 2008, 12:51 AM

OK, that's a little better. Boiling down still takes a lot of energy, but I can't say it's not worth it. smile.gif --d