Should You Use Dishwasher Detergent Substitutes?

Out of dish soap and considering dishwasher detergent substitutes? In this article, we’ll discuss the safety of dishwasher detergent substitutes, and the products you should definitely stay away from.

Plenty of websites promote homemade dishwasher detergent substitutes, but those come with untold risks. Using those substitutes could void the dishwasher’s warranty, damage internal parts, or cause leaks. In an emergency situation, you can still use the dishwasher without any detergent. Although less effective that way, running the longest cycle and choosing the highest water temperature will maximize the cleaning results in the absence of dishwasher detergent.

How Does Dishwasher Detergent Work?

Before diving deeper into the topic of substitutes, it’s crucial to understand how regular dishwasher detergent works. That way, you will understand why it’s essential to use the correct detergent and avoid using any substitutes.

dishwasher detergent substitutes

Dishwasher detergent comes in several forms, namely powder, liquid, and gel. In some cases, the detergent is pre-portioned into tabs so that users don’t have to measure the exact amount they use each time manually.

Related: Why Is Dishwasher’s Detergent Door Not Opening?

Regardless of the form you choose, dishwasher detergent has several unique qualities that make it practical and safe to use in dishwashers. Those qualities include:

  • No Suds: Dishwasher detergent does not produce suds when used in a dishwasher. Suds are soapy bubbles that come naturally as a byproduct of washing anything using soap or detergent. Suds can overwhelm a dishwasher and leak out onto the kitchen floor, causing a mess that will take hours to clean. 
  • Special Surfactants: The surfactants in dishwasher detergent are entirely safe for use inside the appliance. Surfactants are ingredients that alter the surface tension of the water and make it easier for stains and oils to separate from the item’s surface. 

When you consider the points mentioned above, it should be clear that dishwasher detergent is the only option designed to work safely inside a dishwasher.

Dishwasher Detergent Substitutes

With a quick Google search, you can find countless websites providing homemade recipes for dishwasher detergent substitutes. The most common substitutes include:

  • Borax
  • Baking Soda
  • Distilled White Vinegar
  • Washing Soda
  • Lemon Juice/Citrus Powder

At first, those substitutes might sound like a good idea, primarily if you’ve run out of dishwasher detergent and can’t get to the store to buy more.

Unfortunately, however, the people that promote these substitutes do not give you the complete picture of what might happen if you use them in your appliance.

So, here are a few risks that you face when using those or any other dishwasher detergent substitutes:

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The Risks of Using Dishwasher Detergent Substitutes

  • Warranty Issues: First and foremost, you are likely voiding your dishwasher warranty by using detergent substitutes. Dishwasher warranties are only valid if you use the machine as directed, including using only the correct detergent. So, if your dishwasher gets damaged from using substitutes, the seller or manufacturer may not help you at all. Instead, you will have to pay for the repairs or a replacement dishwasher yourself.
  • Internal Damage: Some detergent substitute recipes include ingredients that will damage your dishwasher’s parts. For example, some call for the use of acidic ingredients like vinegar. These ingredients are indeed effective at removing stains from dishes, but they can also damage the dishwasher’s rubber parts.
  • Suds and Flooding: As mentioned before, regular dishwasher detergent is designed not to foam up or produce suds because that can overwhelm the appliance and leak out through vents and other openings. Substitutes that include regular dish soap or even laundry detergent will cause this to happen if you use them in your dishwasher.
  • Health Risks: Another advantage of dishwasher detergent is that it’s food-safe, which means that you can use it on plates, baby bottles, and any other dishes without concern. Some popular detergent substitutes include ingredients like Borax, which is typically used to clean stains, mold, and mildew. However, Borax is a household cleaner that is NOT food safe and could lead to health problems if used to clean dishes.

Considering these risks, it becomes evident that waiting to get proper dishwasher detergent is worth it compared to using homemade substitutes.

Substitutes You Must only use rarely (and why)

In this section, we are going to explore common dishwasher detergent substitutes promoted online. First, we’ll look at what each item is, and then we will explain why it’s a bad idea to use it as a substitute.


Borax is a powdery white substance that is used as a typical household cleaner. It’s effective against mold and mildew and is very useful for removing stains. Borax can also be used to increase the cleaning power of laundry detergent.

Borax is frequently mentioned on many websites as a practical homemade dishwasher detergent substitute for all these reasons.

Why it’s bad:

Borax is a natural ingredient, but it still presents a low level of toxicity to the human body. Despite the toxicity being only at a low level, it would be wiser and safer to avoid any exposure to Borax on your dishes at all.


Vinegar is a common cooking ingredient that’s also useful for cleaning purposes. That’s thanks to vinegar being acidic. Any volume of vinegar will typically have 8% acetic acid inside of it, which makes it helpful in dissolving mineral deposits, grime, grease, and dirt from hard surfaces.

Why it’s bad:

Vinegar is very effective for cleaning dirt and oils off of dishes. Better yet, you know it’s certainly food safe since it’s used in cooking. 

The problem with vinegar is that it’s acidic, which can cause plenty of damage to your dishwasher’s parts, especially with repeated use.

Take the rubber seals and gaskets in your dishwasher as an example. They are designed to keep water inside the appliance at all times.

Those rubber parts will deteriorate quickly when exposed to vinegar, especially if it happens repeatedly. That will lead to leaks all over your kitchen floor, making the appliance unusable until those parts are replaced.

detergent Substitutes your Must Never use

Regular Dish Soap

Regular dish soap is excellent for washing dishes, hence the name. It’s specially formulated to cut through grease and remove stains, making your plates and drinking glasses spotless.

Best of all, you can rest assured that dish soap is entirely food safe and will not pose any health risks to your family.

Why it’s bad:

Understandably, regular dish washing soap seems like a common-sense substitute for dishwasher detergent. However, the reality is different because dish soap is not designed to be used inside an appliance like a dishwasher.

When loaded into a dishwasher, dish soap will end up producing excessive amounts of suds or foam. That foam will overflow and find its way through vents and any other opening, no matter how small. Eventually, it will leak out and flood your kitchen floor.

Related: 7 Reasons Why Dishwasher Door Is Leaking

Not only will cleaning up the floor take time, but cleaning the inside of the dishwasher to remove all that foam will also take a very long time.

Laundry Detergent

Laundry detergent is formulated to remove dirt and clean stains from clothes.

Why it’s bad:

With the word ‘detergent’ in the name, people make the mistake of assuming that laundry detergent is an acceptable substitute for dishwasher detergent. Again, that’s not the truth.

Firstly, laundry detergent is specially formulated to remove dirt, stains, oils, and other impurities from fabrics, not the dishes’ materials, like porcelain, glass, and food-grade plastic. 

On top of that, laundry detergents also contain perfumes and scents meant to make clothes smell fresh. Unfortunately, those chemicals will turn into harmful gasses when heated inside a dishwasher. 

Plus, the scents are very hard to clean from dishes and will require several washes before they are completely gone.

Related: Why Is Dishwasher’s Detergent Door Not Opening?

Can You Run A Dishwasher Without Soap or Detergent?

Yes, you can still run a dishwasher without any soap or detergent. So, if you ever find yourself in a situation without any proper dishwasher detergent, you’d be better off running it empty instead of using a harmful substitute.


The dishes will not be as clean as they would be with dishwasher detergent. That’s especially true if the dishes are covered with a lot of grease. However, they’ll be clean enough to use in a pinch until you can buy more detergent from the store.

When using a dishwasher without any soap or detergent, there are a few additional steps that you must take. They are:

  • Scrape off as much of the food items and bits from each dish.
  • Pre-rinse and soak those dishes as thoroughly as possible in the sink.
  • Select the most extended cycle option your dishwasher has, and choose the highest water temperature option available.
  • Let the dishwasher clean those dishes as best as it can.

Although the results won’t be perfect without dishwasher detergent, those dishes will still be safe to use until you can get more of the correct detergent. 

Best of all, you won’t have to deal with the risks and dangers that come from using unsafe dishwasher detergent substitutes.

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