Dishwasher Detergent Buying Guide
The Dish on Detergent

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 test we create for dishwasher detergents.

First there's the mixture of peanut butter, egg yolk, and other sticky foods that we smear on clear glass dishes. Pots get a coating of baked-on mac and cheese. It isn't pretty, but it is effective at figuring out which detergents are up to the challenge.

The market continues to move toward single-dose detergents, those familiar pods and pacs that you conveniently pop into the dishwasher without measuring. Most of our top-performing detergents now come in this formulation.

Another noteworthy development: some store brands now rival the name-brand competition. That's good news because 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 you use the detergents and your dishwasher properly.

Dishwasher Detergent Types

Dishwasher detergents come in several forms. Here's a look at each type. 

Single-dose units
Also known as pacs, packets, tabs, and tablets, these single-dose units deliver a conveniently pre-measured amount of detergent. This convenience is boosting sales, and Consumer Reports' latest tests of over 30 detergents found that the best performing single-dose units clean better than the best powders and gels. Price per load ranges from 10 to 41 cents among the products in our tests.

You have to measure out the proper amount for each load, of course, but the detergents we tested can get the job done, although they all have a hard time cleaning pots. Cost ranges from 10 to 30 cents a load. 

This is your least expensive option. The gels we tested cost just 5 to 11 cents a load. Only one gel we tested scores high enough to make Consumer Reports' recommended list, and the worst of all 30-plus detergents we tested is a gel.

How to Improve Dishwasher Performance

Any detergent cleans better if you scrape off food from dishes and pots before you load them in the dishwasher. There's no need to rinse. Here are some other strategies to get dishes clean.

Soil sensor. Most dishwashers sold in the past seven years or so that cost $500 or more have a sensor that checks how dirty the water is. The sensor determines the amount of water and time needed to get the dishes clean. When the sensor detects little or no food, the dishwasher gives the dishes a lighter wash, which can leave bits of food on dishes and glasses.

Loading tips. To boost your machine's cleaning, 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 together. Place items with baked-on food in the bottom rack, face down toward the sprays. 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.

Rinse aids. Regardless of which dishwasher detergent you use, if it doesn't contain a rinse aid, consider using one. Rinse aids prevent spotting and improve drying. That's because the rinse aid breaks the bond between the water molecules and dishes, causing water to form sheets and slide off.

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