What to Do If You Run Out of Dishwasher Detergent

published Mar 26, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

When leaving your home isn’t an option (less the essentials), you’ll surely deplete your stash of household goods at a much faster rate. But what happens if you run out of something vital—like dishwasher detergent? Do you have to venture out… or are there worthy substitutes already in your home, so you can keep your social distancing at a maximum?

If your dishwasher is already full and you need a good substitute, stat, mix ½ cup of baking soda and ½ cup of borax in an airtight container. For each load of dishes, pour one to two tablespoons into your dishwasher’s soap container and run the cycle as normal, says Leanne Stapf, chief operating officer of The Cleaning Authority

Though it requires a few more steps, there is a gentler, but equally as effective option, says Marilee Nelson, co-founder of Branch Basics. Instead, you can add one to two tablespoons of baking soda or an oxygen boost product, up to one teaspoon of standard dish soap, plus a teaspoon of salt (if you have hard water) to your dishwasher’s soap container. To help cut grease, fill a cup with white vinegar and place it in the top rack of the machine as well.

These measures, combined with hot water—a solvent in itself—and the force of the water in the dishwasher will clean your dishes, says Nelson. Just note: “Your dishes may not have their usual sparkle, depending on how hard or soft your water is.”

Alternatively, handwashing dishes is always an easy option, says Nelson. Of course, you can wash each individual dish by hand with soap and a sponge. Dish soap is preferable, but experts say hand soap can work in a pinch—with some caution. Since many hand soaps include mild additives that aren’t food-safe, be diligent about rinsing to prevent buildup. In order to sanitize and kill any lingering germs when hand-washing, keep in mind that public health experts say dishes need contact with water that is 170 degrees F or hotter for at least 30 seconds. That’s hotter than your skin can handle, so you’ll need to heat water on the stove and measure the temperature with a meat thermometer. Alternatively, you can soak dishes in a mixture of one tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach and one gallon of cool water, for at least one minute.

If you have a big load of dishes ready to go, you might find it more efficient to wash multiple dishes at once. To do so, fill up a big bowl (or your sink) with warm soapy water using a small amount of dish soap, says Nelson. Scrape off any food left on pots, pans, and dishes, then place them in the water to soak. Rinse with hot water, then place in your dishwasher to let dry. To keep things as sanitary as possible, wash items that are the least dirty first. 

To lighten the load, plus promote family cooperation and fun, Nelson suggests assigning each member of the family a category—plates, bowls, cups, or utensils, for example. Then institute a rule: Each person is responsible to wash the items that fall under their category after each meal.