Is Eco-friendly Dish Soap Really Better for the Environment?

For almost a year now, I’ve been personally testing eco-friendly dish soaps in search of one that is just as concentrated as conventional brands.  Then a conversation in the comments section of Eileen’s Eco-Pet Peeves post made me wonder if eco-friendly soap was any better than conventional soap.  Was my whole mission in vain?

During this conversation, Gina made the intriguing point that all dish soaps are bad for the environment, whether they’re advertised as “eco-friendly” or not.  Soap biodegrades in rivers and streams, algae feasts on it, and algae bloom results.  This lowers the oxygen levels in the water, which is detrimental to fish and wildlife.  Gina concludes, “The only way that soap can be slightly less bad for the environment is to come in more recyclable packaging and to be more highly concentrated so the bottles are smaller.”

Gina linked to this article, which claims that there’s no environmental advantage to either plant-based or petroleum-based soaps.  The article is written by the Soap and Detergent Association, “Home of the U.S. Cleaning Product and Oleochemical IndustriesSM.”  As oleochemicals are derived from biological oils or fats (as opposed to petrochemicals, derived from petroleum), this appears to be a reputable source.

So what, exactly, is so “eco-friendly” about eco-friendly dish soap?  They usually advertise that they are plant-based rather than petroleum based, and they also claim to be phosphate free.  In addition, eco-friendly soaps contain natural fragrances.  Here are the issues we need to look at when seeking out soap:

Phosphates.  Here’s an article talking about the “phosphate problem.”  Phosphates are mainly to blame for the algae bloom mentioned above.  The article also contains a handy chart for figuring out which dish soap ingredients are desirable and undesirable.  I noticed that most brands of dish soap on store shelves advertised that they used no phosphates.

Plant-based vs. petroleum-based soaps.  I thought plant-based soaps must be better for the environment than oil-based ones–and I figured they’d be safer on aquatic life once they went down the drain.  However, my sister pointed out that coconut-based soaps come from . . . well, coconuts.  They do not grow those locally in Portland, Oregon, so where are they coming from?  Who knows how many coconuts have to be harvested and if they’re harvested in a sustainable manner.  Then they have to travel thousands of miles to be turned into soap.  Is this really eco-friendlier than using oil?

Biodegradability. Here’s another article that made me question the eco-friendliness of “biodegradable” soap: Even Biodegradable Soap Can Pollute Water Sources.

Plastic Bottles! The one thing that’s indisputably greener about conventional dish soap is the packaging.  If I used the generic $1.50 bottle of dish soap from Safeway, I’d go through just 2.7 bottles of the stuff in a year.  Plus, they often make refill bottles of the cheap conventional soap, so even fewer plastic bottles would head off to the recycling bin.  Compare that to eco-friendly soaps.  The most concentrated one I found did not last nearly as long as the conventional kind–so I’d go through at least five bottles of “eco-friendly” soap a year.

On Tuesday evening, I will finally post my much-awaited review of the eco-friendly soaps I tried.  I figured out how long they last, how much they cost, and how many plastic bottles they’d waste.  I’ll also reveal my solutions to the dish soap dilemma, so stay tuned!  In the meantime, please add to our conversation about soap and the environment by posting a comment.

Comments

  1. I’m looking forward to seeing your review. There’s also the issue of “safety” when it comes to liquid dish detergent. I did a post a couple of months ago on Dioxan levels in different “natural” liquid dish detergents. It was an eye-opener.

    http://tryingtobegreener.wordpress.com/2008/07/10/toxins-in-my-dish-detergent/

  2. Thanks for that link, Kirstin. Do regular dish soaps contain dioxan, too? I noticed that some of the soaps you mentioned contain dioxan, but I know it’s not listed on their ingredients list–so how does it get in there? Do traces occur in other ingredients? Also, at such low levels (some of the soaps you mentioned contained about one part per million), is it still a health concern?

    p.s. Also, was your post about detergents or dishwashing liquid? I know they contain different ingredients, and detergent for dish washers is usually worse for the environment than dishwashing liquid used for hand washing.

  3. Rebecca,
    Thanks so much for coming to my site! I’m a big fan of yours! According to the World Heath Organization, Dioxane is possible carcinogenic for humans because it is a known carcinogen in animals. It is thought to cause damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys. Since it’s used as a foaming agent (an accidental byproduct of the ethoxylation process), you can often find it in many personal care products such as soaps, shampoos, deodorant and toothpastes.

    I did quite a few posts on “How safe is your ________” with many products you can find easily in your local drug stores using The Environmental Working Group’s web site “Skin Deep” (www.cosmeticsdatabase.com) for the safety of ingredients scale. I did this for toothpaste, deodorant, mascara, baby shampoo/soap, and shampoo and conditioner. Here is a link for the deodorant:

    http://tryingtobegreener.wordpress.com/2008/08/19/how-safe-is-your-deodorant/

    I haven’t looked into if Dioxane is in dishwashing detergent. I’m really not sure of this but it’s a good question. This should be my next project. Perhaps for sure in the liquid ones (some come that way, right?). I don’t know if the powder ones would also. I’ll look into it and let you know what I come up with.

    Hope this helps and again, thanks for stopping by!

    Kirstin

  4. Thanks for the information. You definitely raised a lot of good points. I look foward to your reviews!

  5. This is so useful! One thing I do consider when I buy cleaning products and feel able to spend a little more is the company that manufactures them. For example, does this company test on animals? Just something people may want to consider. Maybe it’s not “eco” but to some it may be important.

  6. That is a good point, fsk. I try to think of it that way as well. I feel like the extra money I may spend is going to support a company that cares rather than a huge industry that doesn’t. It’s also a reason to buy a product from a committed eco-friendly company rather than the “eco” line in a mainstream one. (Clorox Greenworks, for example!)

  7. I am a big fan of natural handmade soaps and keep trying them. They convert my bathing to real pleasure session. I would particularly mention this Soap called Moksha. Sold by Lass Cosmetics, this natural handmade soap contains Lavender& Ylang ylang. Moksha is a treat for the muscles & the senses.

  8. I use the dishwashing liquid for my dishes, but sometimes I ask myself if just using the hot water would do the same job.
    Hot water dissolves the fats, kills some bacteria. OK, you can wipe some stubborn bacteria off with your hand, if you do not mind burning water 😉
    The tea stains would probably make me to abandon this idea eventually.
    So I am curious if anybody compared the efficiency of soaps against hot water for the dishwashing (I would not try this with the dirty clothing).

  9. Lucy, I think if you washed dishes in a dishwasher without soap, it might work. The water gets hot enough to dissolve fat, kill germs, etc., as you said. Maybe you could accomplish the same thing with hand washing if you used boiling water. ?

  10. Thank you so much for this informative and well written article. I’ve been poking around trying to figure out why some soaps are advertised as eco friendly and have been disappointed with the ill-examined responses to this question. Thanks so much for all the useful links you’ve included.

  11. I just wanted to respond to what your sister said about the coconut oil based soaps: It’s true that all of the shipping uses energy resources and packaging, but the oil-based soaps will probably be using oils that also do a lot of traveling and processing, so then we must ask which is safer, and I think we could all agree that coconut oil is. Not to mention, a lot of this article is focusing on environmental safety and although I’m concerned about the algae overgrowth as much as every other eco-conscious mom, of equal concern is the impact petroleum based products could have on my and my family’s health. Oh, I know it’s just dishwashing soap and I don’t think dishwashing soap is what will do you in, but it’s one more drop in the bucket. And one last thought: I think that purchasing products that tout their “green” qualities helps to make a statement to manufacturers, and if we don’t buy these products, they will go away. Let’s not make the mistake of picking anything up off the shelf as long as it claims to be environmentally friendly, but we [eco activists] do need to be out there. It’s 2009 and we’re finally getting our own language: Green, eco-friendly, organic, etc. And why are those words out there? Because they sell, but they also inadvertently advertise for our cause, so we want them out there, and if they aren’t being as conservative toward the environment as we’d like, then we need to turn up the heat.

  12. The problem I find with concentrated dish soaps is it takes so much water to completely wash them off. If I don’t rinse till all the bubbles are gone then I have bubbles in my cups when I use go to them and the produce I wash with it will taste of soap. This happens when I use Palmolive (this one’s the worse, requires sooo much water), Dawn, and even the one I’m using currently, the green one by Kirkland. Sure, it supposedly is better for the environment, but it requires SO much water to completely rinse away.

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