DIY vs BUY Dishwashing Detergent

We were unloading the dishwasher yesterday and Homebrew Husband pulled a sparkling wine glass out of the top rack. Forgive me that ad-copy imagery, it irritates me even to write it, but there it is: the night before we had enjoyed wine with friends, and my man willingly unloads the dishwasher.

The new look of better

Nick held the glass up to the light, looked for a moment, and said “The professionals just do a better job with this one.”

Several months ago, we’d made our own dishwashing detergent. It was a combination of baking soda, borax and oxygen cleaner. It worked…sort of. Things got cleanish but a film formed on everything. Once clear glassware was turning grey. Plates had a sort of mottled, streaked look. Our flatware was starting to look like something recovered from a sunken ship.

After a few months (we tried, we really did) we gave up and went back to Cascade. The results were, I’m not kidding, transformative. Before two loads had been run, the glasses were clear, the plates uniformly colored, the knives and forks shiny.

Generally speaking our D-I-Y efforts beat out the B-U-Y equivalent. Our homemade meals and convenience and snack foods are tastier and fresher and healthier. Nick’s beer has basically ruined me to commercial beer (even good craft microbrews) forever. From almond oil moisturizer and vinegar hair rinse to all-purpose surface cleaner and beeswax leather polish, our other homemade cleansers and personal care concoctions have all served us well.

It is certainly cheaper to go homemade, and I’m sure there are a plethora of environmental advantages too, but until we find a better formula, our dishwashing detergent will remain a B-U-Y item.

But our experiment wasn’t a total failure. When DIYing it, we developed a storage system that resulted in much less waste than our old “dump some out” method of filling up the dishwasher’s soap cup. We mixed and stored our DIY dishwashing detergent in a tall plastic tub, and allocated the 1/8th cup measure from our measuring cup set (no one really uses the 1/8th cup anyway) as our detergent scoop.

Even though we are back to the commercial detergent, we kept the plastic tub and measuring cup system, and as a consequence use far less dishwashing detergent than we did before out DIY attempt. We fill the measuring cup a bit shy of full, so we’re using probably 1.5 tablespoons of detergent per load. Our dishwasher’s soap cup holds 1/4 cup, or 4 tablespoons, so this is a substantial savings over the “fill ‘er up and slosh a bit over the sides too” method we had previously employed.

If there is a lesson here, it is to never make perfect the enemy of better. Perfect would be an environmentally neutral homemade detergent. Better is using 60% less of the commercial detergent than we previously did.

There is always something more virtuous, more eco-chic or more happy-hippy to strive towards. Sometimes you aren’t going to hit the bullseye, but just nudging a little closer – by buying less often, or wasting a bit less, or being more thoughtful in your consumption – is a step in the right direction.


  1. Dreaming of Jeanie says

    It's so funny you mention this, because one of the first things I went DIY with was dishwashing detergent…and the results were just as horrific! We kept trying to ignore the film until we noticed that it was seeping off the dishes and into our soups and casseroles. Borax stew anyone? Ewwwwwwwwwwww. Your idea to use a lot less is genius. We have always just filled the huge container without thinking about it. DOH! Thanks for the tip.

  2. says

    We had a very similar experience. After the DIY fiasco on this one, we tried a bunch of "natural" brands. We have super hard water and our glasses just were HORRIBLE! It got to the point where we couldn't get the film off with Cascade or even hand washing (and scrubbing!). I was seriously looking at a new dishwasher (and dishes), but someone told me to try Lemi Shine. I did… it worked! Hallelujah! And it recommended using the tablet kind of detergent. And hooray, that is phosphate free. Everything is back on track and sparkling again. Yes the professionals really do know how to get the dishes cleaner on this one.
    We DIY for lots of other cleaners, but I learned to leave well enough alone when it comes to the dishwasher. ;)

  3. says

    Yep, been there, done that. And the same milky, non-shiny results. Do you have a blog on your homemade vinegar hair rinse, almond oil moisturizer and the all purpose cleaners you use? I would be interested in knowing what you have made and what works and what doesn't. Again, thanks for all the wonderful ideas and thoughtful discussions you bring up to make us all contemplate the different choices we can make.

  4. krystallevine says

    I totally agree! We are hooked on the the TJ'S brand of detergent (I'm sure its just as bad as other commercial stuff.) But I've tried the DIY and all the eco brands and they suck! The next best thing is hand washing *sigh* but if you're cooking more then one meal a day it's too much! The dishwasher and paper towels are two my modern connivence vices.

  5. says

    I used the eco version until I had to go on bed rest and then switched back to Cascade because I needed a tablet I could drop into the washer from the standing position (I was allowed a few minutes to get up a few times a day for food and restroom so I tried to get dishes done during that time). Anyway, my glasses have yet to recover from the eco soap… still have a lovely film them :( Glad yours have recovered.

    I too would love to see your recipes for DIY products. I used to make all of my facial products. One day I will get back to it!

  6. says

    I thought I was the only one to fail in this department! But I didn't give up soon enough and ruined not only my glasses but also my dishwasher. We go through glasses like paper cups (children + tile floor) so they have since been replaced. But we have been handwashing our dishes since and saving for a new dishwasher. I will try the Lemi-Shine tho, before I spend $400. Anyone have a recipe that works?

  7. says

    We tried the homemade dish detergent too, with unsatisfactory results. Finally, I stumbled upon a setting that seemed to work pretty well – dishwasher on "normal" (we previously used the "eco" setting every time), 1 tablespoon (no more, no less) of dishwashing powder, vinegar in the dishwasher's "dish rinse aid" container, and a glug of vinegar into the dishwasher before running. It worked pretty well when I ran the load Exactly Right, but if anyone else ran the dishes, it was back to square one. I admitted defeat and went back to store-bought, but I also kept the "1 tablespoon" rule & the vinegar rinse aid. I still think it could work with a slightly better recipe, I just don't know if I am willing to experiment enough to find it.

  8. says

    Yep, been there too. Like Jess s we still use vinegar for the rinse aid, but store bought tablets. But the real reason I'm commenting is because of your last para: "There is always something more virtuous, more eco-chic or more happy-hippy to strive towards. Sometimes you aren't going to hit the bullseye, but just nudging a little closer Рby buying less often, or wasting a bit less, or being more thoughtful in your consumption Рis a step in the right direction."
    Priceless wisdom.

  9. says

    I've heard really good things about Biokleen. It's eco + powdered (which means you can dole it out in small doses). I haven't used it yet though, because I need to order it online. In the meantime, I've been using Method tablets, which work great (even though we have really hard water). But it's in tablets, which means I can't control the amount.

  10. says

    Love this discussion. Especially Kirsten's observation ending in "priceless wisdom". Indeed! While I never tried the DIY diswasher detergent, we have been using made-at-home laundry detergent for 6 months, and I must say it's been a MAJOR hit in our home. However, we just purchased a new washer that requires the H.E. detergent, and alas, I may have to give up my homemade brand…(sigh)

  11. Erin says

    I have been using Seventh Generation powder dishwasher soap. I find it is almost as good as cascade. It won't get out really bad coffee stains, but the dishes are really clean.

  12. says

    Agree, the homemade recipe doesn’t work for me. After studying the ingredients, I’ve found that the “enzymes” that are in boxed cleaners are necessary. If we could only figure out where to get those in bulk, i could come up with a recipe that works no problem.

    I like the “adavance” brand, which is cheapest at bi-mart. I put me DW detergent in a decorative pitcher and use a large spoon. I’ve recently been experimenting by mixing the detergent half and half with sodium carbonate (washing soda) that I found at the feed store. Large 50# bags are the fruga way to go.

  13. Kari Harold says

    I make my own dish soap too and I don’t have any issues. We use washing soda (not baking soda), borax, sea or kosher salt, and lemishine. The only problem we have is that the lemishine hardens the mixture. So now I mix it all up and put it into lined mini muffin tins to make my own tabs. If you are willing to try again use this:

    2 cup Washing Soda
    2 cup Borax
    2 cup Lemishine
    1 cup sea or kosher salt.
    Its 1 tbsp per load. I think I made around 75 tabs with that mix.

  14. Trina says

    Homemade dishwasher soap tends to be hit or miss depending on your water. 1 part borax, 1 part washing soda, 1/2 part citric acid, and a squirt of dish soap works pretty well for us, but sometimes we get weird powder, especially if I try to per measure a bunch to make it easier to get others in the household to use it.

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