Dishwasher detergents

Dishwasher detergent buying guide

Last updated: December 2014

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Getting started

Imagine your toughest pile of dishes--maybe a few hours after a big family meal, plates covered in sticky cranberry sauce, pots coated in grease and stuck-on mashed potatoes. That's nothing compared to the torture test we create for dishwasher detergents. First there's the gnarly mix of peanut butter, egg yolk, and other sticky foods that we smear on dishware. Pans get a coating of baked-on mac and cheese. It ain't pretty, but it is effective at figuring out which detergents are truly up to the challenge. And our latest tests had a few surprises.For starters, the market continues to move toward single-dose detergents, those familiar pods and pacs that you conveniently pop into the dishwasher detergent. Most of our top-performing detergents now comes in this formulation. Another new development: some store brands are starting to rival the name-brand competition. That's good news since store brands typically sell for much less, which means the cost of doing dishes could go way down­ without compromising on cleaning power--though only if use the detergents and your dishwasher properly.

Dishwashing dos and don'ts

Any detergent cleans better if you scrape off heavy soil from dishes and pots before you load them. But you'll save energy and water if you don't prerinse them.

Load large items along the sides and back so they don't block the water and detergent. Face the dirtier side of dishes toward the center of the machine, and don't let dishes or utensils nest. Place items with baked-on food in the bottom rack, face-down toward the sprayer. Rest glasses upside down on prongs so they don't fill with water. Use the top rack for plastic and delicate items that are dishwasher-safe.

Dishwasher detergents and the hot water found in a dishwasher can be rough on silver, fine glassware, brass, bronze, cast iron, disposable plastics, gold-colored flatware, gold-leaf china, hollow-handle knives, pewter, tin, anything made of wood or with a wood handle, and possibly other kitchen ware. Hand-wash items that have value to you.

Hard-water problems

Hard water hurts cleaning performance. If you're having problems getting your dishes clean, contact your water company to determine the hardness of your water. If you don't have municipal water, use a home test kit ($10 to $25 at home centers and hardware stores). Consider installing a water softener if your water has a total level of calcium, magnesium, and other minerals of 7 grams per gallon or 121 milligrams per liter.

To prevent spotting and to help dishes dry better, most dishwasher and detergent makers recommend adding a rinse aid. Refer to your owner's manual for details. Some detergent and dishwasher makers recommend adding more detergent. If your water is hard, look for the instructions on your dishwasher detergent package or in your dishwasher's manual.


Dishwasher detergents come in several forms, none of which showed a clear superiority in our performance tests. Although tablets and pacs tended to score high and gels low in our latest tests, it's too soon to say whether that trend will continue.


These deliver a conveniently premeasured amount of detergent in a solid cake.


These also deliver a conveniently premeasured amount of detergent, but in packets that dissolve in the water.


You have to measure out the proper amount for each load from a bottle.


Gel detergent is like liquid, but thicker.


It comes in a box. As with liquid and gel, you have to measure out the proper amount for each load.


The most convenient detergent we tested comes in a canister that works something like a revolver, automatically dispensing 12 doses from a cartridge. It performed well, but it's relatively expensive. And it takes up about as much space as a large-diameter glass in the dishwasher.


Besides ever-diminishing amounts of phosphates, dishwasher detergents may contain other additives, which may or may not be listed on the packaging.


Products containing bleach were not notably better at removing baked-on soils, although they may be more effective on tea or similar stains.


Enzymes help break up food for easier removal.

Rinse aids

These help prevent spotting, especially with hard water.

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