Consumers in the United States will spend nearly $3.7 million on dishwashing detergents in 2018 to get their dishes clean. That's a lot of suds and a whopping statistic that begs the question: Do we really need dishwashing soap to get our dishes clean?
The short answer is: No, we can get along without it.
So what does it take to remove all the grease and food particles and kill the pathogens that are left behind on our dishes and cookware after a sumptuous meal?
Common sense tells us that water plays a major role in the process. Thermal sanitizing using hot water is an effective and time-tested method to remove debris and kill a broad range of dangerous bacteria. A lot of what we eat can simply be rinsed away with very hot water. Carbohydrates like sugars and starches are water-soluble, and all that's required to clean them off dishes is hot water. So if you only eat carbs and emulsified fats you can clean your dishes with hot water and a little elbow grease.
Animal fats and proteins, however, are not water-soluble and need an alkali to break them down. So, if you're out of dish soap and have a greasy pan to wash you'll need to make your own soap by adding an alkali like baking soda (yes, that stuff in the yellow box) or ashes from, say, your fireplace, wood-burning stove or outdoor fire pit to steaming hot water and scrub your pan clean. While the modern convenience of dishwashing detergent may win the age-old battle between oil and water for most of us most of the time, luckily if you're a hobo, a camper or a homesteader, potash and soda ash are readily available in the remains of your campfire. While wood ashes and an improvised grass or shrub scrubber may not win the good housekeeping seal of approval, they'll clean your pan and get it ready for rinsing and sanitizing in boiling water and, finally, air drying.
Keeping in mind that dishwashing soap as we know it has only been around since the middle of the 20th century, it's interesting to note that people throughout the ages used all sorts of ordinary things found in the natural world around them – sand, animal fats, ash, alkaline salts, cuttlefish bone, plants like horsetail, mare's tail and soapwort, hay mixed with ash, baking soda, maple sap debris known as sugar sand, along with that major component – hot or running water – to scour and clean their dishes.
So whether you find yourself down to the last drop at home, forgot to bring it along on your camping trip or just want to try an eco-friendly, off-the-grid alternative to performing the age-old chore of washing dishes, here's a quick old-school how-to for modern times:
Baking Soda and Vinegar
Don't let the dishes sit – clear and scrape them promptly after your meal. Be sure and sterilize anything that came into contact with raw meat in boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of baking soda to a gallon (3.785 liters) of very hot water. And in a separate container add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar to a gallon of very hot water. Wash dishes in baking soda water and rinse in the vinegar water. Rinse again in clear, running water and allow dishes to air dry.
You can also run your dishwasher without detergent using only the rinse cycle. Simply scrape and prerinse your dishes thoroughly by hand and load as usual. Add white vinegar to the detergent cup and a rinsing solution to the rinsing cup. The acid in the white vinegar will disinfect the dishes and the rinsing aid will keep them from spotting. Set your dishwasher on the rinse cycle and voila: clean, disinfected dishes – and you're conserving water too.
Remove stuck-on food and let dishes soak 10-20 minutes in hot water. Fill a gallon, or 3.785 liter, bucket with COOL water (hot water will inhibit bleach from sanitizing effectively) and add 1 tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach. Soak dishes for 1 minute per dish. Soak dishes that came into contact with raw meat longer. Rinse in clear water and let air dry.
Gather some wood ashes from your campfire (only the ashes, no sticks or other debris) and put them in a pot. In a separate pot boil some water. Meanwhile, if you also forgot to bring a dishrag or scrubby, scour your dishes with an abrasive like leaves, grass, a whorled branch or even sand. Slowly pour hot water over the ashes, just enough to make a paste and stir thoroughly.
The hot water dissolves the potassium salts from the ashes to create a heavy-duty alkali solution which reacts with the fatty acids in the grease on your cookware and dishes to make soap.
Using gloves or something makeshift to protect your skin from the harsh alkali water, smear the paste onto your dishes and rub the grime away. Rinse with hot water and let air dry. And remember that UV light from sunshine is also a good disinfectant, killing bacteria without the use of chemicals.
So, whether you’re feeling the pioneer spirit, summoning your inner chemist or you simply find yourself wide awake at midnight hankering to wash some dishes and there’s not a dollop of dish soap in the house – just remember that germs don't play – so isn’t it good to know that in a pinch there are old-school alternatives that will kill germs and make your kitchen wares sparkly clean?