How Do You Hand Wash Dishes to Conserve Water and Dish Soap?

After writing these last three posts about eco-friendly dish soaps without coming to any great conclusions, I started examining my dishwashing method.  Whether you use an “eco-friendly” soap or some generic brand, the best thing for the environment is to use it sparingly and conserve as much water as possible.  So I started looking around for the most efficient method that claimed to leave dishes sparkling clean.

For years I’ve used the soapy sponge method.  I squirt some soap in the sponge and scrub each and every dish.  Then I rinse off the dishes under a stream of hot water.  I thought this method was pretty efficient, but I was potentially wasting water, depending on how long I left the faucet running.

Many people wash dishes using the camping technique.  This involves one bin filled with sudsy water and another bin of clear water for rinsing the suds off.  I have never had much success washing dishes this way.  After a while I feel like I’m dipping dishes in a vat full of dirty water and rinsing them in another vat of dirty water.

The no-rinse method.  A bit of Internet searching led me to a fascinating little discovery: Apparently, it’s common for people in England, Australia, and New Zealand to wash dishes in sudsy water and then not rinse them.  If you Google “British rinse dishes” you’ll find some interesting conversations in which half the people express shock and disgust over the method and the other half wonder how anyone could possibly waste so much water with unnecessary rinsing.  “If you need to rinse your dishes, you’re using too much fairy liquid!” was the resounding defense.

While the no-rinse method sounded even worse than the camping technique, I decided to give it a try.  From what I’d read, you avoid the “dirty vat of water” by doing a pre-rinse/scrub of the dirtier dishes.  I tried this and it used no soap and very little water.  Then I filled a tub with water and a ½ teaspoon of Planet.  (According to Planet’s website, if you use the soapy sponge method, you’re probably using too much dish soap.  They recommend just ½ teaspoon to start and say you can add more when the suds die down.)

I washed all these dishes with just a 1/2 teaspoon of Planet!

I was actually surprised at how sudsy the water got.  I washed glassware and cups first, shook the suds off, and placed them directly on the rack.  I proceeded to wash all the dishes pictured here in the same sink of water.  The water never got too dirty looking, thanks to the pre-rinse.

So did it work?  Well, sort of.  I was surprised to see that some of the dishes turned out crystal clear and clean.  I did have to wash five bowls over again, as they had a visible film on them.  I am still skeptical at the idea that rinsing is unnecessary.

The Works for Me method.  Based on my experience with all the methods above, I came up with a way that leaves the dishes clean and conserves dish soap.

  1. Pre-clean dishes using just a sponge/rag and a tiny amount of water.
  2. Scrub dishes in basin of hot water with ½ teaspoon dish soap.  If your water isn’t very hot, you’ll have fewer suds.  Start with the cleanest dishes first (glasses) and finish with pots and pans.  To avoid greasy dishes, make sure to add a little more soap once the suds seem deflated.
  3. Rinse.  I know this “wastes water,” but it does leave dishes cleaner.  I find I use less water by rinsing under a stream of water rather than waiting for the entire sink to fill.  Now that I use much less dish soap, I find I need less rinsing water.

I think that Planet is right: my soapy sponge method was wasting too much dishwashing liquid.  I figure that if I used just ½ teaspoon a day, it would take almost a year to use up a bottle of Planet!  Of course, I do a lot of cooking and we often eat all three meals at home, so I need to wash dishes at least twice a day.  So let’s say I’ll use a teaspoon a day.  A bottle of Planet would last me twenty-one weeks using this method.  It lasted just eleven weeks using the soapy sponge method.

Finally I found a dishwashing method that works for me!  For more Works for Me Wednesday tips, head on over to Rocks in My Dryer.  Also, let me know how you wash dishes and why!


  1. I don’t think I could not rinse my dishes. Even using non-toxic dish soap, I just couldn’t. 🙂 Interesting to see how other people do it, though.

    I like your method. My sister always pre-rinses, and I usually just throw everything in the dishwater. Maybe I need to change my ways.

  2. I always at least scrape before putting dishes in the dishwasher. Of course, I don’t have a dishwasher at the moment so it’s all by hand. This was an interesting post. A green cleaning guide book I have suggested a sink filled with water to rinse dishes was using less water than the stream method. I have been using the stream method myself recently and think it can be pretty water-efficient if a small stream is used and turned off between dishes.

    I have to use more Planet than that, though, because our water is half rock. (28.6 grains, to be exact, which is extraordinarily hard. That’s why the dishwasher is out of commission until the water softener is up and running again.)

  3. I always rinse my dishes completely..then dishwasher it goes! It is one appliance that MUST work for me!
    -sandy toes

  4. When I moved to The Netherlands I noticed that people didn’t rinse their dishes after washing them here either. I just -have- to rinse them. I don’t want to be eating soap residue, “natural” or not 😉

  5. I dishwasher is the one appliance I can’t live without. I had to blow up on me, and after a few days of hand washing dishes, I broke down and got a used dishwasher on Craigslist. Good for you for hand washing!

  6. Great post.
    Growing up in Australia and now livng in a a hot adriatic country, water conservation has always been a natural part of life. And living in the UK, I saw many people not rinse.
    Using a minimum of soap means you don’t need to honest. But I often use one small bowl of water to rinse everything. But don’t aim for perfect.

  7. rebecca, when oh when will you get your dishwasher???? soon, i hope.

    my friend in france never rinsed her dishes, and her daughters always had diarrhea. 🙁 I don’t think it’s a good policy.

  8. My MIL always does the no rinse method and, quite frankly, whatever you drink from her glasses always tastes soapy. Yuck! I guess if you don’t use over much soap it would be okay.
    Since we moved to South America I don’t have a dishwasher (or anywhere to put one) and the kitchen sinks are tiny. I found some basins that just fit in the sinks but are higher by about 3 inches. I use the camping method, but change both my wash and rinse water as needed.
    Having spent a year in Africa where one must use water very sparingly, I am careful about how much I use to wash dishes, shower, etc. And any waste water can be used to water plants or the lawn (i.e., the hubby has a long hose hooked up to the washing machine and each time I do a load, he moves the hose to a new spot in the yard).
    Conserving water is not rocket science, but you do have to be thoughtful about it. Same thing with how we use electricity or gas. It’s just that most Americans have typically never HAD to think about these things. We take a lot of things for granted…that water will come out of the faucets, that a flip of the switch will turn on a light, or turning a knob will cause the burner to heat up…
    I’m VERY thankful for the conveniences of modern life, but I’m also more aware of them now that I’ve done without.

  9. This is an interesting and great post. I appreciate all your research and “testing.” I feel the same way you do about washing in dirty water and then rinsing in dirty water, I just can’t do it. Thanks again for sharing what you’ve found works for you!

  10. Thanks for the replies, everyone! I was just thinking that I’ve lived in ten different apartments/houses since college, and NONE have had a dishwasher. I’ve gone my entire adult life without one, so I guess I’m getting used to it.

    For those of you who have a dishwasher, I read in Consumer Reports that you should not rinse the dishes first. (I know that with old dishwashers, you must, but supposedly with newer ones, you don’t.) If I ever do get a dishwasher, you can count on a whole series of posts about it!

    Cathy–I like the idea of getting a dishwasher from Craigslist. Then I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the production of a brand new appliance!

  11. At my house, all dishes are rinsed before putting into the sink. Depending on the amount I have to wash, I will either do them by hand or load the dishwasher (we often don’t have enough for a full load).

    I do the soapy sponge way – but will try the full sink way now. And I will rinse under a thin stream of water – I hate the full rinse sink – it ends up just getting soapy too.


  12. Before I start washing, I scrape off most of the big stuff. Then I run a little bit (couple of inches) of soapy water in the bottom of my sink. I dip in the rag and use it to scrub down the dishes. After I wash each dish, I turn on the faucet just long enough to rinse the soap off into my dishwater. So then I’m using my rinse-water to wash too. I don’t think that’s too unsanitary 😛 Very rarely do I run out of space in the sink, so I’m using less than a sink-ful of water to both wash and rinse my dishes.

    My question to people who re-use dishwater…does the soap hurt your plants at all? I’ve been leery of using it because I don’t want my plants to die.

  13. My great-grandparents, who had a well that ran dry every August, did it this way. Scrape everything with rubber scraper. Wash everything in hot soapy water starting with cleanest things first. What they did that was different was their dishpan had a deep rectangular rinse section about 5″wide x 12″ deep x 14″ across. That water was changed if it got dirty but it had to be less than one gallon of water. They filled it from a kettle so it was scalding.

  14. I DON’T rinse…
    I dind’t know it was this thing you had to do. I do it that way ‘cus thats the way my mother did it.
    my dishes never taste soapy, and i don’t get sick…but this has kinda made me think.
    Tho i might just stick with my no-rinse ways.

  15. Hmm for the dishes that don’t fit in the dishwasher – mainly big pots and corningware etc, I do the camping method mostly…dipping them in the second sink with water and then I let them drip dry on a microfiber tea towel. I notice you use planet dish soap. Have you tried any of the products from Norwex??

  16. I’m still enjoying reading these replies! Leah, perhaps you should stick to the no-rinse method if it works for you–it IS the greenest option, after all!

    Marlo, I haven’t tried Norwex products. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in stores. What do you know about them?

  17. I’m a soapy sponger too…but i only hand wash pots and pans, the rest go in the dishwasher. Which by the way is from the 1920’s and so un-effeicient. I will definitly try the soap in the water then scrubbing method though, i always felt like i was using to much of the stuff. But i have to say even if it means using more water, i’m an avid rinser, i just dump that water in a pitcher and use it to water the plants with.

  18. Bill Bennett says

    There is propaganda out there from appliance manufacturers that dishwashers use less water than washing by hand – 20 gallons! To get that number, they assume no one uses sink stoppers and does all dishes under a running tap. I guess some people might do that, however I’ve never seen that method.

    I have always used the two-sink method, and I start the washing while the first sink is filling. Once washed, they go in the second stopped sink. That then gets running water and I rinse while it is filling, starting with larger items. By the time it is 1/3 full, only small items are left. Then I leave that somewhat clean water in there and switch basins during the next wash up. Takes about 3 gallons per wash this way.

  19. How “sudsy” the water gets depends on how much foaming agent the soap manufacturer uses. It has nothing to do with how good the soap is…..natural or not. What is “natural” soap anyway?

  20. Jenny, that’s interesting. But if you are washing dishes in a sinkful of water, and the suds die down, it doesn’t seem like the dishes get clean any more. Also, if you are just using a soapy sponge, and the suds run out, don’t you then need more soap? I guess I am not sure how you’d know you still have soap left if not for the suds.

  21. I’m in the UK and don’t rinse – probably why I don’t begin to understand the “dishwasher more water-efficient than hand-washing” argument… It does mean you need to wash in a certain order (glassware, then cutlery, then crockery, then pots/pans/trays); or wash the glassware separately when the rest is done…

  22. Having been brought up (in the UK) to rinse dishes but suspecting that it’s fairly pointless and being bothered by the water usage I find the following goes some way towards helping: put the washing-up liquid into the sink/bowl and turn the hot tap on to give just a very small flow of water. By dipping a sponge into the soapy water you can start washing the least dirty things when there’s just a tiny bit of water in the bottom of the bowl and then rinse under the tap as the bowl’s filling. Working quickly, I find that I can get a day’s crockery/cutlery plus some cooking utensils (for two people) done before the bowl’s full. I then wash any pans etc. that need a longer scrubbing time in the bowl of hot water so that these are the only things that I really have to rinse with water that doesn’t end up in the bowl.

  23. We bought a dishwasher recently. It claims to use 8L in a wash (that is nowhere near 20 gallons, more like 2), of course, I have never detached the drain hose to measure what comes out. We don’t need to pre-rinse (just scrape off rice and mashed potatoes) and it holds way more dishes than I am capable of washing in 8L. Granted I have never tried the no-rinse method, just the camping method. When we first got the dishwasher it got crud out from between the tines of some very old forks that we had (I didn’t even realise it was crud, I just thought they were tarnished). That was a real shocker!

  24. I have to wonder if not rinsing meets sanitary standards. The job soap does is simply to help the germs slide off. If you don’t rinse, the soap hasn’t done it’s job. My grandmother, who was the queen of conservation used her double sink and had wash water on one side, rinse on the other. If you followed the correct order and scraped things first, neither side needed to be changed. She also didn’t use a drying rack – dried with a dishcloth straight from the rinse water. I could have it a little off, because I was a pretty little kid when I remember standing on a stool in her kitchen drying plates for her. I wonder if that is part of the practice in England more common than here. It seems like most people I know who hand wash use a drying rack.

  25. Honestly, I’d hand wash if I lived elsewhere, but in LA, with the perpetual water shortage we have, I use a high efficiency dishwasher. It used more energy than hand washing, but less water (2 gal for the short wash, which is almost always what I use), and here, its the water I value more.

  26. My method is the following using a bowl & 1/2 It can also be done with small basin in larger sink.
    Firstly try not to leave dishes so that the food hardens an sticks
    Scrub all dishes in slow running cold water , just enough to do the job
    Stack them to the side of the sink ready to wash.
    Now put small drop washin liquid on a small scrubbing sponge and turn on the hot tap slowly over the bowl and wet the sponge and clean the dishes initially over the half bowl to get rid of the food remains,when its clean then let the water go into the main bowl and wash & rinse the dish under the running tap to finish , … and repeat! so you end up with clean dishes and a relativley clean bowl of hot soapy water for any dishes needing to steep

  27. Incidentall i do the same as post #12 turning on and off the water accordingly!

    May your sponge always be soapy!

  28. I gave up rinsing to save time. I hate, hate, hate doing the dishes, but it will cost nearly $1000 to get a dishwasher (have to buy new because it’s an unusual size, need delivery, and definitely need someone to install so we don’t flood our apartment!). So we have decided to pass. I used to leave the water running but I’ve found I actually tolerate the dishes better if I fill up the sink because then I can listen (and hear) to music while I wash. I’m all about eliminating extra steps and our relatives in England are surviving just fine without rinsing so I figured we could, too. Our food tastes fine and we’re all extremely healthy so I’m going to keep doing it the easy way 🙂

  29. I’m wondering what you put in one of three tubs when washing dishes. I know there is the soapy tub, the plain water and then there’s a third tub with a solution to make sure the dishes are disinfected. Does anyone know?


  30. Arisana,
    In the third basin I like to use 1/4 cup of distilled vinegar added to hot water for the final rinse. You could also use a teaspoon of bleach like restaurants do, but I prefer the vinegar.

  31. When I do dishes, I use a few DROPS of soap in a larger bowl or pot that I’ll be washing that has the most stuck on stuff (think oatmeal) and rinse of crud from everything else as the water warms a little (I find I have a hard time getting any grease off of pots with anything less than lukewarm water). I do the glassware, cutlery, flatware, pots/pans ordering and usually the thin stream of water only when there is a batch to quickly rinse. When I’m with my boyfriend in Belgium, we just take the item and dry it immediately with a dish towel from the soap sink. But this only is possible in the team-wash situation. I will add a few more drops to the water and use the dish RAG to suds up the water again. Rags are totally better than sponges, in my opinion.

  32. Thanks for the post! Just returned from camping, and in search of a better way to do dishes. I got tired of crouching by the tap, and did not see anyone else doing this for as long as I was. I figured there must be a different method everyone else is using that I didn’t know about.

    I’ve done the soapy sponge method, and always thought 2 bins was just dirty water and soapy dirty water. I will try the modified camping method on my next trip. Thanks for all the tips!

  33. I was just washing dishes with a sponge while running the water ( I rarely use dishwasher) to conserve water. I thought to myself, it has got to be a more efficient way. I found this post.
    I am grateful to live in the US and am working on the things I take for granted. The ability to flip the faucet and have a stream of fresh water is a blessing. I realized that to acknowledge that blessing, even if is the ability to wash dishes in fresh water, is one that I can utilize and be mindful the greater purpose at this time in our lives…conserving the planet and its resources.
    All your suggestions are great! Thanks.

  34. Wow, I am so wasteful! I usually squirt the brush with soap, scrub all over, rinse, then repeat. I turn the water off in between dishes so it’s not running constantly, but still…wow!

  35. Love your site and all your tips.

  36. A cool blog post there mate . Thanks for it !

  37. Wow, reading how other people wash dishes is so weird, lol! The way my mom has always done it, and thus how I did it, was way different. We were always taught to eat all of our food, so there’s none left on the dishes to scrape off [i.e. waste]. A stopper was placed in one side of the double basin sink, the hot water tap turned on to fill it up, and a tiny bit of soap squirted into the running stream. The dirty dishes were stacked neatly in that basin, plates on the bottom in the corner [largest to smallest], bowls on top, silverware next to the plates, with cups on top of those [sideways] [if the bowls nestled too well, silverware was placed inside of them so the water would fill them]. When the basin was full the water was turned off, and was left to soak until the water cooled enough not to burn hands [usually 30-45 minutes]. The sponge was dipped into the water to get it wet, then squeezed to wring it out, then a drop of soap was placed in the centre and it was squeezed a few more times to distribute the soap throughout. Then the dishes were washed in order, cups, bowls, plates, silverware, and placed in the empty basin. They were then rinsed under a stream of very warm water and placed in a drain tray/rack to air dry. Then the next batch of dishes was placed in the same full basin of warm soapy water, with more hot water and/or another squirt of soap to refresh if needed. Those soaked while the others dried. The process was repeated until all of the dishes/pots/pans were clean. If a pot was especially dirty, sometimes the soapy water was replaced completely, but the majority of the dishes were soaked in the same sinkful.

    Now, I’m unable to do them myself, so my husband and mom [who lives with us] share the responsibilities. My husband will fill the sink with water the same way, but he doesn’t let them soak, and I’ve found that sometimes he doesn’t manage to get all of the stuck-on food off — that soaking time really helps loosen those bits and allow them to be wiped off with the sponge.

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