The Clean Dishes Challenge: Battle of the Dishwasher Detergents
Is your dishwasher not getting your dishes as clean as it used to? If it isn't, you might be surprised to learn that your dishwasher may be fine -- the actual problem could be with your detergent. Back in 2010, many states enacted a ban on phosphates in detergent, both laundry and dishwasher, under the guise that the new formulations were better for the environment (more on that at the end.) But, as phosphate-free formulas began to hit the shelves in 2011, many consumers were less than thrilled with the results:
As a couponer who stockpiles a good quantity of dishwasher detergent at any given time, our household wasn't hit with the phosphate-free formulations until recently, when my last box of phosphate-based Finish detergent ran out. (Actually, I should back up a little -- we didn't realize we had used the last box until running a few loads with the "new stuff.") All of a sudden, our dishes simply were not getting clean. We have a very nice Bosch FD8104 stainless steel tub dishwasher that runs four or five times a week, and it's always performed well. But when we started pulling out dishes that seemed just as dirty as the way they were when they went in...
... well, we figured out pretty quickly that there was a problem. I compared the new box of Finish to the old one that was still under the sink and immediately realized what the problem was. (The old box is on the left, and the new, phosphate-free box is on the right.)
What to do? As some of my blog readers mused over the past month about this new problem we were experiencing (apparently our stockpiles all ran out of the "good stuff" around the same time!) I started looking for answers. I had a few packages of phosphate-free Cascade and Cascade Complete geltabs that I'd picked up with coupons last year too, so I retired the underperforming Finish and gave both kinds of new Cascades a try. With both, I had disappointing results. Glasses were still cloudy, and dishes still had food stuck to them after the wash cycle.
Next, I wanted to rule out the slim possibility that something was wrong with my good friend, Bosch. I needed some phosphate-based dishwasher detergent to run a few loads with and compare the results. And I did have a couple of loads' worth of the "good stuff" left. We had vacationed in Disney the previous year, and if you ever stay in one of the Disney villas that has a kitchen, you'll find that it's stocked with this:
Institutional Finish dishwasher detergent. When we checked out, there were a couple of packets left in our room, and I had brought them home along with the cute Mickey Mouse soaps that the kids like. This Finish contains 7.1% Sodium TriPolyPhosphate. I ran two loads using one packet for each load. And, when each load finished, I opened the dishwasher and was rewarded with a bleachy-clean scent and delightfully sparkling dishes.
It was safe to say that the detergent was a problem, and that Bosch just needed better detergent to do his job again. It's worth noting that commercial-grade dish detergents (laundry too) are still allowed to contain phosphates, because it's important for restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and other commercial usages to get their dishes and laundry as clean as possible.
As I knew the Institutional Finish worked well, I started looking online for sources to purchase it from. One hotel-supplies website carries it, but it's a whopping $102.99 for 200 loads, or about .50 per load. The couponer in me shuddered!
I knew from reading other articles online that some people were having luck with adding TSP (TriSodium Phosphate) to regular dishwasher detergent to get things cleaner. I bought some TSP and experimented with adding anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon to the dishwasher, along with phosphate-free Finish.(If you try this too, make sure you're getting real TSP -- there are actually phosphate free versions of TSP now too!)
I supplemented with TSP for about a week. While my dishes seemed cleaner, they were also covered with white powdery spots:
One of my readers suggested using STPP (Sodium TriPolyPhosphate) instead of TSP to get rid of these powdery spots, but I kind of felt like I was done playing chemist at this point. I just wanted something that worked consistently. There had to be a better solution, and I started looking for less-expensive commercial-grade dishwasher detergents to try.
In January, I received a flyer in the Valpak for Bubble Bandit, a new phosphate-based commercial-grade-for-home-use dishwasher detergent. The Bubble Bandit flyer stated the obvious: "$5 says it's not your dishwasher. Take a look at your detergent. Your phosphate-free dishwasher detergent doesn't work!" It boasted an 8.7% phosphate content, the same as what my Finish Gelpacs used to contain. I ordered some to try.
Another reader suggested Professional Line Cascade, which is a foodservice-grade version of Cascade that contains those all-important phosphates. Yet another suggested Finish Glass Magic, which is a phosphate additive that you can supplement your phosphate-free Finish dishwasher detergent with. I placed an order for Professional Line Cascade. Surprisingly, Finish Glass Magic is available at some supermarkets. At my reader's suggestion, I made a rare trip to Woodman's to pick it up.
And for one month, I rotated these three products, tried them all out, and took notes on what I liked, didn't like, and would ultimately continue using. At the beginning of this process, I had actually amassed quite a large pile of "didn't get clean the first time" dishes to try these detergents out with, but as the month went on, I was using them for my regular dishwasher loads too. Here are the results of my semi-scientific Clean Dishes Challenge:
Finish Glass Magic
Product type: powder
Phosphate concentration: 21%
Active ingredient: Sodium TriPolyPhosphate (STPP)
Contains: 16 ounces
Number of loads in package: 10
Price per load: .54
Purchased at: Woodman's
With a whopping 21% phosphate, I expected good things from Finish Glass Magic. But, it's also the only product in the challenge that requires you to use it with dishwasher detergent too! It's not detergent, just a detergent additive.
Does it work? For the most part, yes. The dishes were definitely coming out cleaner, though in comparison to the other two products tested, I actually was disappointed in some of the loads I ran. Plastics were definitely much cleaner than before, as was the silverware. But some of my glassware was still cloudy when it came out -- surprising for a product called Glass Magic, especially considering the high phosphate count. It's got a very strong bleach scent too, if you're sensitive to that sort of thing. (I didn't mind the scent at all.)
Conclusion: At over .50 per load, I think this is just too expensive for daily use. (If I wanted to spend that, I'd simply get the Institutional Finish, which worked much better than the combination of Finish Glass Magic and non-phosphate Finish did.) I also think the other detergents I tried performed better than this. And I think it's a little ridiculous that Finish can "ban" phosphates from their regular detergent, but still sell you a box full of them to supplement their phosphate-free detergent with.
Phosphate concentration: 8.7%
Product type: powder
Active ingredient: Sodium TriPolyPhosphate (STPP)
Contains: 60 ounces
Number of loads in package: 37.5
Price per load: .26
Purchased at: BubbleBandit.com
I was looking forward to trying the Bubble Bandit, simply because I liked their advertisement and that it is a new product. The bag notes that Bubble Bandit is a commercial-grade dishwasher detergent for home use. And, the first load I ran with it made me sigh with happiness when I opened my dishwasher up:
Oh, to have all of my loads of dishes look like this!
I was curious to see how some of the things that didn't get clean with phosphate-free Finish fared under a phosphate-based detergent, like this pizza cutter:
Ridiculously, I felt like a kid at Christmastime when I opened my dishwasher and saw everything that was previously dirty was now clean. (Isn't that what a dishwasher is supposed to do though?!)
The scent of Bubble Bandit is hard to describe - it has a clean kind of smell, but it's not evocative of any specific aroma. The detergent itself is also a very fine powder in comparison to the other two.
The only negative thing I can say about this product is that it didn't seem to work well with my Bosch's detergent dispenser at all. The Bosch has a sliding detergent door that locks over the detergent cup, then gradually opens during the wash. After the first load, I opened the dishwasher, looked at the dispenser, and saw this:
Most of the detergent was still stuck in the dispenser - a white, sticky glop. I used a knife to pry it out:
I don't know if it's because the detergent is such a fine powder that it's sticking together when the water is sprayed into the dispenser before it releases the detergent, or what. But the strange thing is that even though more than half the detergent was still stuck in the dispenser each time a load ended, the entire load of dishes was clean and sparkling. (It made me think that I might be able to use a lot less detergent and still get the dishes clean.) After three loads, the detergent was still sticking in the cup after every load (I was cleaning the stuck detergent out completely between each load.) After that, I opted not to use the detergent dispenser at all for subsequent loads. The product came with a scoop to measure with, and I simply scooped out the right amount and dumped it into the bottom of the washer before closing the door. I also played with reducing the detergent by about half the volume of the cup, and my dishes still came very clean. So, a bag of this may go further than the measuring-cup would lead you to believe.
Conclusion: Aside from the issue with the detergent dispenser, I was happy with the cleaning results of Bubble Bandit. There were times I opened the dishwasher to add something once it began running, and even if the dishwasher had been running for less than ten minutes, almost everything appeared to be clean already. What's not to like about that? Unlike the others, it does not have a strong bleach scent. If you're sensitive to smells, this would be the best phosphate-based choice.
Professional Line Cascade
Phosphate concentration: 7%
Product type: powder
Active ingredient: Tripolypentasodium Phosphate
Contains: 85 ounces
Number of loads in package: 53
Price per load: .17
Purchased at: ReStockIt Office Supply (You must buy a case of 6 boxes)
(Note: If you're local to Illinois, Schweppe restaurant supply in Lombard also sells single boxes for $10.79. Other readers have written to say that GFS stores also carry this Cascade for around $7!)
I was very happy with the performance of the Professional Line Cascade. Despite having the lowest phosphate concentration of the detergents tested, this Cascade got everything clean that I threw at it, including Corning Ware. If you cook with Corning Ware, as I do, you may know that while its thermal properties are second to none, a lot of foods stick to it. This is what some of my Corning Ware dishes looked like after washing them with the phosphate-free Finish:
They were sort of clean. But I was still hand-washing them afterward to get rid of food residue. And, worse -- the back sides of the dishes weren't getting clean at all. In some cases, they were coming out even dirtier:
Now, as the top dish had cooked over on the stove, I might have had to scrub that one anyway... but the bottom dish had nothing on the bottom of it when it went into the dishwasher. It was dirtier when it came out, after being washed by the non-phosphate detergent! Yuck. But here's how they looked with the professional version of Cascade:
Beautiful! (I laughed after I took the bottom photo. Look closely at the pan on the lower left. The kitchen light is giving off a heart-shaped reflection in the glass, as if to say "Don't you love your clean Corning Ware?" Yes, I do!)
I had very consistent results with the Professional Cascade. It worked fine in the detergent dispenser of my Bosch, though again, if you're a smells person, it's got a strong bleach smell when you open the dishwasher. (Again, I don't mind and actually like it... to me, that smell means "CLEAN!") I honestly couldn't come up with anything negative to say about this. It cleans like it's supposed to. 'Nuff said!
Conclusion: Of the three, this is the best value of the bunch. It's only slightly more expensive than the Bubble Bandit, but it has an extra 25 ounces of detergent in the box. And it reminds me of the Cascade I used to buy. (Well... it pretty much IS the Cascade I used to buy.)
Other things you should know:
All photos are unretouched and unenhanced. If you wish to zoom in and inspect my dirty dishes, or admire my clean ones, you can. The number of loads of detergent in each package was calculated by pouring each package out and measuring the specified load size with the appropriately-sized measuring cup. (Then, I poured it all back in with a funnel!) No rinse agents were used with any of these detergents, though I was previously alternating usage of Jet Dry and Safeway's house brand Bright Green citric acid dishwasher rinse (similar to Lemi-Shine) with my nonperforming phosphate detergents. Now I haven't needed rinse agents at all.
What about the environment?
If you've followed this issue at all, you may know that phosphates were removed from detergents due to the perceived threat of algae bloom in fresh water when grey water containing detergent runoff emptied into lakes and ponds. While algae bloom is a problem for fresh water, the usual culprit is runoff from commercial fertilizers, which contain high amounts of the kinds of phosphates that can cause algae bloom.
A Minnesota study determined that the amount of phosphates generated from home use that were actually reaching bodies of fresh water was about 1.9%. And, in 2011, the University of Washington released a study that determined that phosphorous runoff from detergents, even when discharged directly into the Spokane River, never worked as an algae fertilizer: "Effluents making their way into the river contained phosphorus in complex molecular forms which are not bioavailable. Algae lack the enzymes necessary to break down this phosphorus, meaning it is essentially harmless."
So, even in a situation where phosphorous-based detergent runoff is emptying directly into fresh water, the phosphorous doesn't cause algae bloom. But now that science has proven otherwise, will the ban be lifted? Not likely. "Detergent phosphates are bad for the environment" has become a common belief among environmentalists and many consumers alike... even without any factual evidence. On the contrary, studies exist showing that this kind of phosphorus is not an issue.
Phosphates in and of themselves aren't "harmful" at all either. They exist naturally in the environment, and if you've eaten a box of Cheerios lately, you've been eating them too (check out the ingredients in the photo at the right.) As one of my readers wrote here on the blog, "If TSP is so harmful to the environment, why is the government allowing our families to consume it when they allow General Mills to add it to their cereals? ... Yeah, its dangerous to be in the water, but its okay if we consume it... Talk about mixed signals!"
Reader Frank Schroeder wrote to the New York Times, "What evidence supports the notion that 'phosphate-free' detergents are better for the environment, better for the people using them? As a chemist, I can hardly think of a replacement that is less innocuous (and less of a concern for human health) than phosphate." Indeed.
With the removal of phosphates from detergents, the cleaning power of phosphates has to be replaced with something. Typically, petroleum-based additives are used in conjunction with enzymes. In Europe, The Centre Europeen d’Etudes sur les Polyphosphates and the European Chemical Industry Council has studied this, raising an interesting issue -- the phosphate replacements may be more harmful to the environment. These organizations state, "Most such chemicals have poor environmental biodegradability and can significantly increase the organic compounds in the sewage. The additional chemicals also pose a toxic risk to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems" (link) Food for thought.
Situations in which dishes must be absolutely clean and sanitary demand detergents that work. It's the reason the professional grade detergents used by hotels, restaurants, and hospitals still contain phosphates.
The Weekly Standard article, "Another Triumph For The Greens," has a great deal of additional information about this topic if you're interested in learning more.
Cleaner for the environment, not for the dishes - The New York Times
Bubble Bandits Defy Dishwashing Soap Ban - NPR.com
Your Dishes Are Dirty Because Of The Greens - Red State
How Phosphates Help Detergents Wash - The Centre Europeen d’Etudes sur les Polyphosphates
Consumer Reports reviews phosphate-free dishwasher detergents - ConsumerReports.com
Cascade.com on phosphate-free formulations- Cascade.com
Non-phosphate product reviews on Cascade - Cascade.com
Disclaimer: I have not been compensated for this post, nor have any of the companies involved provided products for the purposes of review or inclusion in this article. I purchased all three products tested for the purpose of sharing my results with my readers... as well as finding a good dishwasher detergent that I can rely on.