10 Things You Should Know Before Making Homemade Dishwasher Detergent

by Ivory Soap on 05/24/2012

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I have spent HOURS on  this database researching all of the possible chemical formulations of dishwasher detergent and it has completely CHANGED how I make homemade dishwasher detergent!

Cleaning Power

1. NO commercial dishwasher detergents contain BORAX.

Isn’t that nuts?  I was so surprised.  I studied the chemistry and  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a PROBLEM in the dishwasher, but I’m pretty sure it’s just not effective enough to justify the cost of including it commercially.  It’s much less effective than washing soda at water softening and raising the cleaning pH. This means it’s great for washing or boosting the cleaning on your fine china and your delicate laundry, but poo-poos for blasting the crap out of your daily dish grime.

Conclusion:  Borax is fine, but if you’re having trouble getting things CLEAN (which is not the same as deposits), replacing borax with washing soda will make it more powerful.  Don’t wash your fine china without it!

2.  NO commercial dishwasher detergents contain SALT.

It *is* a water softener, but it’s WAY weaker than washing soda.  And if you have lots of stainless steel, ingredients with chlorides are not recommended.

Conclusion:  If it works for you, great.  But if you’re having problems getting things CLEAN or getting spots on your stainless, ditch the salt and put in more washing soda.

3.  ONLY ONE contained any BAKING SODA

Baking soda is only half as strong as washing soda at softening water and doesn’t allow the cleaning pH to go nearly as high.   Like borax, it’s great for delicate stuff, poo-poos for daily dish grime.  And if you have a stronger product on hand, why dilute it with a weaker one?

Conclusion: Like salt, and borax, if you’re having trouble getting something clean, eliminate the baking soda and replace with washing soda.  Conversely, if you want to make your detergent more mild, toss in one of those.


Most commercial detergents at least 50% washing soda.  It’s twice as strong as baking soda or borax or salt.  Unless you’re washing something delicate, none of those three products add anything exciting enough to the equation to merit inclusion.  Washing soda is a super water softener and shoots the cleaning pH through the roof.

Conclusion:  Definitely a must-use.

5. SOME powdered commercial detergents use an oxygen bleach. 

Oxygen bleaches loose their poop after they sit for a while in water, so they come in powders.  But there’s no need to mix your own since they just break down into washing soda and peroxide.  If you have stained plastics, a slosh of hydrogen peroxide or a spoonful of Dollar Store oxygen cleaner will work just as well.  Borax has been touted as an oxygen bleach but it’s very weak, which is likely why it’s never found in dish detergent.

I only have the odd plastic piece that gets stained.  It’s easier and more cost effective to just deal with them individually with a bottle of peroxide than to fool with whole detergent formulations.

Conclusion:  If I have stained plastics, I’ll treat them individually with peroxide.  If you have lots of stained plastic and want it in your every day formula, the cheapest solution is to use the dollar store Oxiclean.

6. SOME commercial dishwasher detergents contain “SURFACTANTS”,

This could mean SOAP or synthetic NON-SOAP detergents.  Yes, both will foam in your dishwasher, but I think the key is type and amount.  I have done it with and without soap in the recipe.

Conclusion:  It’s up to you.  I like it in the mix.  Makes me feel good.

Now, Let’s Talk Sediment

7. Vinegar dissolves the salt deposits on your dishes. 

YAY!!!!  You can just put it in your rinse compartment, but I find that while it works fine on the glass, there’s still sediment on the outside of plastics.  The rinse compartment just doesn’t let enough out to get it off the plastic.  However, I have found that if you mist them with your spray bottle of vinegar, light sediment almost immediately disappears.

Conclusion:  Put it in the rinse compartment.  If there is light sediment when the washer is done, mist the dishes with a spray bottle of vinegar while they dry.  If there is heavy sediment, see the following options.

8.  FEW commercial detergents contain CITRIC ACID.

Citric acid helps take all those hardwater deposits and keeps them suspended in the wash water so they don’t settle on anything.  Citric acid is more often found in rinse aids and dishwasher cleaners.  If you are getting sediment on your plastics, this is where you can turn first.   It will work better in the rinse compartment than vinegar, but I have no idea how strong to mix it.

Conclusion:  Hurray!


As you add more acid to the mix, and decrease the possibility of deposits, you are neutralizing the washing soda.  This is why it’s more often seen in rinse aids, dishwasher cleaners, and other situations where washing soda is used.  To use it with washing soda, you have to overwhelm the citric acid with washing soda to make sure there’s enough left to do it’s high pH cleaning thing.   In the detergents I’ve seen, it’s at least 4 parts washing soda to 1 part citric acid.

Conclusion:  Use 1 cup of washing soda for each 1/4 cup citric acid.  If I still get sediment, I use more detergent, not raise the citric acid concentration in the detergent.

10. Almost all dish detergents contain SODIUM SILICATE

It’s almost 50% in some cases.  Many detergents are just 50/50 washing soda and sodium silicate.  Why?

  • It’s fantastic for rinsing away deposits
  • It doesn’t fight your washing soda like acid
  • It protects the metal in your washer from corrosion
  • It’s fairly hard to come by these days outside of commercial dish detergent.

This is what I believe is the main difference between commercial and homemade dishwasher detergents.  This is why some of us get sediments on the plastics, even if we use citric acid but get none with commercial detergents.  This is why manufacturers want us to use commercial detergent to protect our machine parts.  You *can* make it from potash and sand or silicon packing beads and sodium hydroxide, but it’s akin to trying to make your own lye from ashes.

Conclusion:  Bummer.

So, what to do?

  • I would say, first try a spoonful of plain old washing soda.  Maybe add a little soap, if you like.  This is 100% cleaning power, no sediment protection.
  • Use vinegar in the rinse compartment.
  • If you get sediment, see  if it’s a matter of a quick spritz with vinegar just after the dishes finish.
  • If not, start fooling around with citric acid in the detergent, maybe the rinse compartment too.

have to use citric acid in the detergent, vinegar in the rinse, AND spritz with vinegar at the end.  Here’s my recipe:

  • 1 cup washing soda
  • 1/4 cup citric acid (Lemi-Shine original)
  • optional 1/2 cup grated soap

Good luck!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen August 11, 2016 at 12:03 am

Dumb question, but hoping SOMEONE will PLEASE answer my question. (Please?)
So, to turn baking soda into washing soda, you bake it to death to basically dry out all the moisture. But then you add it back to water! How does it not turn back into baking soda? I ask, because if you can add washing soda to the dishwasher, why is this different from adding baking soda to the dishwasher?

Brenda August 12, 2016 at 9:22 pm

Great article. I will be trying this. What type of grated soap do you refer to in your recipe?

Aaron Cash September 20, 2016 at 1:15 am

Not a dumb question at all. When heat is applied to baking Soda it breaks down the bonds that hold the molecules together and it breaks into individual elemental material ‘salt’, carbon and water, and some of those elements break free (water vapor,etc.) then as the soda cools the molecules slow down and new bonds are created. However now the number of elements has changed, and that means it can’t go back to what it was they rearrange themselves into washing soda. They rearrange because the elements and their charges must balance think of it like a resource redistribution. Then you add it to water and Hhddigen and oxygen are reintroduced but the carbon is long gone and the two chemicals react releasing oxygen particles j to the air, because each reaction is the act of the elements redistributing themselves and shedding the excess elements.

Sri October 12, 2016 at 4:07 am

To answer Jen, Aaron is correct. When you bake Sodium BiCarbonate, the chemical loses water (as vapor) and Carbon (as released Carbon Dioxide gas) leaving behind just Sodium Carbonate (Na2CO3).
(2 NaHCO3 -> Na2CO3 + CO2^ + H20)
So yes, even if you add water to the carbonate, you cannot get back the bicarb.

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