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I’ll have the detergent. Hold the phosphates.

January 17, 2012


Have your parents ever told you: “They don’t make things like they used to?”  Well, sometimes it’s actually true.  Prior to July 1, 2010, most dishwashing detergents contained phosphates – some up to 8%.  After July 1, 2010, regulations in 16 states mandated that detergents contain not more than 0.5%.  The impact of this regulation was monumental as it effectively ended the use of phosphates in household detergents.  Rather than selling different products in different states, manufacturers elected to change the chemical makeup of all of their detergents.

What is a phosphate?  A phosphate is a form of phosphorus (P15 on the periodic table).  Phosphorus is essential for life.  It is most commonly found in plant fertilizers to promote root growth.  Prior to July 1, 2010, phosphorus (in the form of phosphates) was one of the main ingredients in both laundry and dish detergents because of its superior cleaning properties.  Phosphates are known as a “builder.”  Builders enhance a detergent’s cleaning efficiency.  Builders are good at removing dirt from clothes or dishes and minimizing or removing soap scum.  Phosphates are extremely helpful in areas with hard water because they prevent calcium and magnesium ions from interfering with the cleaning process.

Phosphates were banned because they destroy the health of our lakes and streams.  Although phosphorus contamination can be attributed to many things such as fertilizers, studies have shown that phosphorus contamination of water near urban areas is linked to city waste water.

High levels of phosphorus in our lakes and streams promote the growth of algae, sometimes at an extremely rapid rate.  This is called an algae bloom.  During an algae bloom, the water becomes green and cloudy. It can smell.  It becomes unsuitable for swimming or drinking.  Algae blooms also deplete water of oxygen making the water uninhabitable by other aquatic life.

What’s truly amazing about the removal of phosphates from dishwashing detergents is the aftermath.  I will never cease to be amazed at the lengths that people will go to sidestep environmental regulation.  In fact, right after the ban numerous news stories were written about people who smuggled detergents across state lines.

Apparently, it’s also common for people to add trisodium phosphate or TSP to phosphate-free detergent.  TSP is a chemical typically found in the paint aisle of the hardware store.  It is a mixture of soda ash and phosphoric acid and is toxic if swallowed.  The information that I’ve read indicates that it is caustic and may ruin newer dishwashers.  TSP is used to clean drains and remove old paint.  It is also often the active ingredient in toilet bowl cleaning tablets.  I don’t know about you, but TSP doesn’t sound like something I want to keep under my sink or put in my dishwasher.

So, do phosphate-free dishwashing detergents work that poorly?  I seriously doubt it.  But, if you are having problems, I would suggest adding a cup of vinegar in the wash cycle once the initial fill up begins.  You could also try using a rinse aid.  Or, simply resist the urge to pre-wash the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher since modern dishwashers need some soil to work correctly. Then again, maybe we should hand wash dishes like all of us did when we were growing up?   Detergents used for hand-washing dishes typically contain no phosphorus. Plus, some great conversations can occur by the sink.


3 Responses

  1. Angela says:

    I hadn’t heard about that. Thanks so much for the info!

  2. We actually still wash our dishes by hand because I don’t like the scum dishwashers leave on the dishes (probably from the phosphates).

  3. Julie Diegel says:

    From everything I have read, hand-washing uses a lot more water than a dishwasher does. In terms of dishwasher scum, if vinegar works to overcome the scum, let’s just make that part of our routine. On the other hand, maybe hand-washing uses more water because of the way we do it, rinsing each piece under running water. When I was young, before we had a dishwasher, we always filled one side of the sink with soapy water and one side with rinse water. My mom usually washed, one of us dipped the dishes in rinse water, and one of us dried with a dish towel.