I posted a little while back about good ol washing soda as the prelude to my experiments with homemade dishwasher powder and what hopefully will become homemade laundry powder.
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time writing about something if I don’t know it on a fundamental level. I think there’s an unwritten law somewhere that a blogger needs to do enough homework on anything they write about to the point they can make your head spin. Hey, if you invite me over for Trivia Pursuit, and there’s a question about the chemical composition of a three-ingredient washing detergent, I’m going to own that. Like a female, Trivia Pursuit-playing MacGuyver.
But I digress. Let me put the recipe first, and then I’ll get talky about ratio, how, why, and troubleshooting:
Powdered Dishwasher Detergent & Scouring Powder
- 4 parts washing soda
- 1 part citric acid
- 1-2 parts very coarse salt (buy yourself a big box of the sharp-edged pickling stuff).
Yup, that’s it. No Borax, no baking soda, no Lemi-Shine, no essential oil. Save your money.
Food for thought: Why does dishwasher detergent have to have a pleasant odour anyway? When is the last time you heard anybody complaining about clean dishes stinking? If your dishwasher stinks, perfume’s not going to fix that! Anyway…
If you need help with the maths, it boils down to whatever quantity you make, pick something as your 1 part (we’ll say, a teaspoon), and then your recipe becomes 4 teaspoons washing soda, 1 tsp citric acid, and 1 – 2 cup of coarse salt.
Why do I suggest a teaspoon? This is our starting ratio. You are only going to be using about 1 teaspoon in your dishwasher (hard to believe, but less is more), and this will give you 6-7 loads of dishes to test this formula. There are factors involved unique to you that may cause you to want to retool it. Slightly. Read on.
I’ve used a lot of commercial dishwashing detergents, mostly because I can’t find one that I just flat-out like because it does the job, and does it well. I’ve tried powders, I’ve tried liquids, I’ve tried various brands and pods. The one that seems to work the best (or, rather, sucks the least) is the Cascade pods, which is a pretty good gold standard. Cascade is a well-known brand, and almost everyone uses the pods. But they also tend to run in the vicinity of about 20 cents a pod, give or take a few cents, depending on whether you have bought the biggest possible pack while it happens to be on sale (something I usually miss).
Cascade pods have a pretty good scouring action… I didn’t frequently have to prewash stuff, and usually what gets missed off pyrex or pots is a 2 second scrub with an S.O.S. pad. So for a lot of things, they’re pretty good. Myself, I got fed up with the pods for one very good reason: glassware. I was sick of crud getting deposited to dry on my glasses constantly. You may know what I’m talking about. You know, the brown crud that’s all the way down at the bottom.
For the last several months, this crud was actually a terrible problem. I actually have been adding a drop or two (literally, just a couple of drops) of Dawn to the pre-wash drawer, because it helped keep the crud from depositing itself on everything (except for the glasses). So to summarize dishwasher functionality – Cascade pods: bad for glasses, pretty good for encrusted dirty pans, no complaints about anything else*. (*if I used a drop of Dawn soap)
Enter homemade dishwashing detergent.
When you boil it down to the essentials, you have three necessary parts involved in getting a dish clean – oil breakdown, scouring, and rinsing. You also have factors to contend with in your water like minerals and metals that can interfere with the detergent.
I must have looked at a dozen different homemade detergent recipes before I set off to make one, and a lot of them had weird, questionable additives like Lemi-shine, Borax, and essential oil. But virtually all of the homemade detergents had three things in common: washing soda, salt, and citric acid. So I figured, why not take it to the basics. And so I made myself a detergent with just those three things.
What do the ingredients do?
Washing soda is and always will be an important part of detergents, commercial and homemade. It is an alkaline compound that acts as both a solvent and a binding agent on magnesium and calcium, minerals that can make your water hard and incidentally which makes detergents less effective, because the hard water minerals bind to the detergent.
Citric acid in its powdered form is a weak, organic acid that’s become hugely popular in all sorts of green cleaning and chelating agents. It’s great for blasting grease. It kills bacteria, mold and mildew. It also binds itself to metals and limescale, which makes it great for removing rust, blasting soap scum and hard water buildup. When dumped in water, it has a fizzy effervescence. True story, anahydrous (remember that $20 word?) citric acid is what gives alka-selzer its fizz.
So the salt? The salt is used as a scrubbing agent.
I’m explaining more than you probably want to know because understanding is key for retooling. Anyone can put up a recipe and say “This is the best detergent evar” and it could work, or you might think they’re smoking the wacky tobacky. I live in a city, I’ve got municipal water, and it’s remarkably soft water compared to a couple of townships over. My water is not your water, and it’s different from the other guy’s water too. Water is actually more key to the whole process than one would think.
I’ve been doing my dishes with homemade detergent exclusively since a day or so after I posted about washing soda. Oh, and using vinegar as the rinsing agent in the Jet-dry drawer. It’s taken me so long to post the recipe because I broke it, both trying to improve it and to see what it would happen when the formula changed funny enough, I ended up pretty much very close to where I started… just with (a wee bit) more salt- originally one part only.
How does it compare?
Bearing in mind that I’ve neither pre-washed or soaked anything…
I was actually surprised by the performance of the homemade detergent. It cut grease beautifully and rinsed well, without me having to add any liquid soap to my prewash cup. It’s pretty darn cool, actually.
Well, except for one thing. It’s fairly meh to abysmal at medium-to-tough scouring jobs.
It would be a lie to say Cascade always did a perfect job; there are some tasks that nothing short of a scouring pad will clean perfectly (like baked on grease). Cascade would perform better at scouring this, than the homemade detergent, but the end result would still be pretty similar.
The jobs that I find the homemade powder leave something to be desired? It has a problem with drilling through and removing melted cheese from pots (like if I’ve made macaroni and cheese) and thick, soft stuff, like bits of cake or bread stuck to the cooking pan.
Plenty of successes though… clean silverware, clean dishes, clean glassware.
Functional summary on Homemade detergent: great for glassware, kind of lousy for on encrusted pans and dishes, no complaints about anything else.
In short, I have to prewash the dirtiest things. That’s my bad tradeoff for using homemade. Oh, if only it were as simple as just how well things worked though, right? Just remember one thing…
What makes Cascade superior can come back to bite you.
I can attest to this one out of experience. With homemade detergent, you’re scrubbing with salt. Salt dissolves in water, eventually. The reason that Cascade scrubs better is that the materials that they’ve added to the detergent don’t dissolve as quickly as salt… or at all. On a long enough timeline, you will have to contend with a drainpipe clogged with the remains of the undissolved remains of the scouring agents. It hardens into a solid, chunky pumice type mixture. If you’re lucky, you can snake it out yourself. If you’re not, you’ll have a $300 plumber bill.
If questionable substances are also important to you, well then have a look at their ingredients list.
Food for thought if you’re weighing pros and cons.
How much does it cost in comparison?
20 cents a pod is a good middle estimate for the cost of the Cascade tablets. I’ve gotten it as low as 17.5 cents per pod (big thing at Costco, while on sale) and as expensive as 24 cents a pod (detergent dire straits at grocery store).
Costs involved in homemade can be a little bit more variable… I did not do it the cheapest way. But sometimes that’s a good thing, when you’re trying to factor average case scenarios, not the best ones.
- Washing soda can be bought in the Arm & Hammer box, made out of baking soda, or bulk purchased from Amazon/pool supply as a chemical called soda ash (usually the anahydrous version of washing soda, which is a bit more concentrated). You can get prices lower than a buck a pound if you buy it bulk (50 lbs), but then you have usage and storage to contend with.
- Citric acid can be bought in the canning aisle of the grocery store, natural food stores, at (some) bulk grocery stores, or off Amazon or other bulk beauty suppliers. The grocery store is the most expensive and flat-out worst option for cost (7.5 oz for $5-$10!).
- Salt… well. If you don’t have coarse salt already (I like to cook with it), you know you can pick up enough coarse salt anywhere to last you years for like five bucks.
The skeptic and scientist in me were in agreement, so I decided to make my own washing soda this turn about, even though it’s the middle of the road option for cost. Hey, I didn’t know what I was going to do with a 50 pound tub of soda ash and no pool if I hated homemade detergent. So I used a 500g box from Costco, and had to bake it. For citric acid, after a hunt through three stores, I ended up with little tubs from my local health food store that were 125g each (I should have bought it from Amazon). And the salt, well I had salt.
So for the grocery bill:
- Small baking soda box from Costco – ~$1.00 (Ended up with 1.4 cups of washing soda)
- 1 hour baking time in my oven – $0.17
- Citric acid $1.99 125g which netted me just over 1/2 cup
- Salt – $??? let’s guess 0.25 for 1/3 of a cup, which is what I used, just because I’m not going to guess how much.
My final formulation:
- 1 cup washing soda (inc. baking) – $0.84
- 1/4 cup citric acid -$1.00
- 1/3 cup salt -$0.25
Total: $2.09 for roughly 1.6 cups, or approximately 76 teaspoons = 76 loads, less than 0.03 cents per load. On average, I do at least one load of dishes every day in the dishwasher. So even at the middling road prices, I can make more detergent than I would use in a year for less than $10, saving me about $52. And maybe another plumber bill as well.
I’m sad about having to pre-wash, but I think I’ve been the lone holdout anyway… (must be the benefit of keeping a 20 year old dishwasher). Virtually everyone I know already has to pre-wash at least part of their load before using commercial detergent. And given that it worked well, except for scouring (I believe that double-edged sword of scouring power is sodium (di)silicate), I don’t really see the need for large numbers of antifoming agents, perfumes, and artificial colours.
Signs you need to adjust your formula
Problem: Haze, or haze and powdery talc feel on plastics (tupperware, etc)
Cause: Too much detergent and/or too high a ratio of citric acid in the mix
Solution: Decrease the amount of detergent used to wash dishes. Ironically, less is more effective! You should aim for 3/4 tsp – 1 tsp of powder for your dishes. You may have to increase salt or washing soda in small increments to reduce the citric acid ratio to an acceptable level if you still find that you’re getting residue at 3/4 tsp.
Problem: Small crystals/grit on surface of glasses and dishware.
Cause: Incompletely dissolved salt.
Solution: Decrease salt proportion in recipe.