The Best Way to Hand Wash Dishes

The right technique can use less energy and even get plates cleaner than a dishwasher

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washing dishes Jonathan Knowles

There was a mysterious box in the kitchen of my suburban Colorado childhood home. It was rumored to wash dishes, but I never witnessed it perform such a task. Grandma used it to store her handbags, along with her favorite Tupperware and her “secret” stash of cigarettes. Our Thai-American family, like many immigrant families from around the world, washed dishes by hand. No appliance was going to tempt us into doing otherwise.

Apparently, we were not alone. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that in 2015, nearly 70 percent of U.S. households had dishwashers but one out of five of those rarely if ever used them. I can’t speak for the millions of other Americans who turned their backs on their dishwashers, but my parents had their reasons for washing dishes by hand.

“The dishwasher uses too much hot water and energy and doesn’t get the dishes as clean as handwashing does,” my dad would explain whenever I implored him to use the machine. I wasn’t in a position to argue: As the recipient of an award from the local utility company for using the least energy in the community, my dad had green cred.

More on Cleaning

To be fair, the dishwashers of the 1980s used much more water and electricity than today’s energy-efficient models, which go through 4 to 6 gallons per cycle in our lab tests. (Pre-rinsing dishes before putting them into the dishwasher is unnecessary and uses a lot more water, so please don’t!) But even with today’s more efficient standards, it turns out my dad is still right.

A 2020 dishwashing study conducted by the University of Michigan found that the most energy-efficient way to wash dishes is the two-basin method, in which dishes are scrubbed in a basin of soapy water and then rinsed in a basin of clean water. (You don't need to have a two-basin sink to wash dishes this way, as we explain below.) The two-basin method also got dishes slightly cleaner than a machine. Using an Energy Star-certified dishwasher came in second in terms of energy efficiency and, notably, required less water than any other method. The study found that the worst way to wash dishes, at least in terms of the environment, is by hand with the faucet running. This common method can use up to three times as much water (about 22 gallons) and twice as much energy as the two-basin method.

The Two-Basin Dishwashing Method

Whether you’re a dishwasher nonconformist, don’t own one, or need to clean items that aren’t dishwasher safe, here is the ultimate, Asian-parent-approved, scientifically proven, best way to hand wash your dishes. Larry Ciufo, who’s in charge of dishwasher testing at CR but doesn’t own one himself, walks us through the steps.

Step 1: Scrape off any leftover food into the trash or into the garbage disposal.

Step 2: If you have a two-basin sink, fill one with hot water and a few squirts of dishwashing liquid (use the basin with the garbage disposal if you have one so it can grind up any food bits). Fill the other basin with clean, cool water. If you only have one basin, use a plastic tub or bucket as your second basin.

Step 3: Place dirty dishes in the hot water, let them soak if needed, then scrub them clean with a sponge. Do this in batches, starting with the least soiled items and working up to pots and pans. (For safety’s sake, never put sharp knives into the soapy water with the rest of your dishes.)

Step 4: Dip scrubbed items in the clean water to remove the suds. If the clean-water basin gets too sudsy, replace some of the water with more clean water from the faucet as needed.

Step 5: Place clean dishes in a drying rack (preferably one that drains), leaving enough space between them for air to circulate. You might want to towel off glassware and metal right away to avoid spotting or rusting.

Dishwashing Tools

Use a nonabrasive sponge for nonstick items and delicate dishes. A scouring pad will make short work of burnt and caked-on food. Brushes are handy for washing water bottles and getting straws sparkly clean. Gloves will protect your hands from dishwashing soap, which is designed to strip away oil and can dry your skin.

Other Best Practices

A wet sponge is a breeding ground for bacteria. To sanitize sponges, wring out excess water and nuke them in the microwave for 2 minutes (make sure they’re free of metal, which can spark). You should also replace them every two weeks.

Disinfect the sink once a week with a solution of one tablespoon of bleach to one gallon of water or an EPA Safer Choice disinfecting cleaner. You can toss any metal scrubbers or scouring pads into the bleach solution, too.

Energy-Efficient Dishwashers

You’ll find more than 130 dishwashers in our ratings, and while all of them earn an Excellent or a Very Good rating for energy efficiency, only a handful also ace our washing and drying tests. CR members with digital access can read on for ratings and reviews of three such dishwashers.

Headshot of Perry Santanachote, editor with the Home editorial team at Consumer Reports

Perry Santanachote

A multidimensional background in lifestyle journalism, recipe development, and anthropology impels me to bring a human element to the coverage of home kitchen appliances. When I'm not researching dishwashers and blenders or poring over market reports, I'm likely immersed in a juicy crossword puzzle or trying (and failing) to love exercise. Find me on Facebook