8 Mistakes You're Making Every Time You Wash The Dishes

From spreading germs to damaging your favorite pan, here’s what you're getting wrong.

September 5, 2017
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No matter how clean you are, your kitchen is likely dirtier than your bathroom, according to the National Science Foundation. Gross! Your potentially germ-laden sponge is just one part of the problem. Here are eight of the most common dishwashing mistakes, which can spread germs, damage dishes, and create a whole lot of waste.

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1. Over-Soaping

If your sink looks like a luxurious bubble bath when you’re doing the dishes, you're almost certainly using too much soap. It just doesn’t take many suds to get your dishes clean, especially in the dishwasher. Start with the least amount of detergent recommended by the dishwasher manufacturer and slowly add more until dishes reliably come out clean. Too much detergent can leave a residue behind, which makes your dishes look cloudy and also ends up in your mouth—yuck!

What’s in your soap matters, too. Avoid soaps or detergents with bleach, triclosan, or other harsh antiseptics because they help create drug-resistant superbugs. Simple soap and hot water is enough to sanitize your dishes, especially in the dishwasher. Make sure to avoid borax, which can disrupt hormones, and 1,4-dioxane, which is a suspected carcinogen according to the Environmental Working Group.

A natural, biodegradable brand we love: Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Dish Soap ($11; amazon.com)

water in a sink
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2. Wasting Water

When it comes to saving water, there's just no competition between hand washing and a dishwasher. An Energy Star dishwasher uses as little as three gallons of water, while hand washing can use up to 27 gallons of water per load.

If you're filling up your dishwasher and running a load, skip the pre-rinse and just scrape food off your plates. However, if you're slowly filling the dishwasher over a couple of days, it’s best to pre-rinse your dishes. Reuse leftover pasta water, water from hand washing dishes, or the water you save while waiting for your shower to heat up to rinse without adding to water usage. (Here's the simplest way to check if your local tap water is safe to drink.)

But not everything can go in the dishwasher and not everyone has one. To cut water usage when hand-washing dishes, install a low-flow faucet or an aerator. Turn off the faucet off while you're washing, and fill a small bowl or basin to wash with instead of rinsing each item individually.

Related: Top 10 Ways To Save Water In Your Garden

dish sponge
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3. Cleaning With A Sponge

Chances are you have a germ bomb sitting right next to your sink. Sponges can contain thousands of bacteria like E. coli and salmonella per inch—those crevices that work so well for removing stuck food also make sponges a lovely home for germs.

Ditch your brightly hued plastic sponge and opt for a dishrag made of natural fibers instead. Dishrags can harbor just as much bacteria as a sponge, but with proper care and cleaning they're a much cleaner alternative. Hang the rag up away from the sink to dry it out completely between uses, and swap it out for a clean one daily. Wash dishcloths with your laundry and toss them in the dryer or hang them in the sun to dry and remove bacteria. (Check out these 7 laundry room secrets to save you time and money.)

dirty looking sink
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4. Washing Dishes In A Dirty Sink Or Dishwasher

Would you wash your dishes in your toilet? If you're not cleaning your sink, you might actually be doing worse than that. The kitchen sink usually contains 100,000 times the germs as the bathroom or toilet according to the National Health Service. Sanitize your sink or dish tub daily with vinegar and baking soda or vinegar and salt (try these 9 simple DIY green cleaning recipes).

Your dishwasher might not be a whole lot cleaner. The heat and moisture create a perfect environment for mold and bacteria to grow. If your dishwasher has a smell, it’s past needing to be cleaned. Occasionally run your dishwasher empty with a cup of vinegar and a cup of baking soda, and don’t forget to clean out the trap regularly. (And while you're at it, take a look at these 7 other cleaning mistakes you've been making your whole life.)

Related: The Only 10 Things You Need To Make Your Own Natural Cleaning Products

potato peelings in a sink
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5. Using The Garbage Disposal

Sure, it’s easy to dump dinner scraps and cooking bits into the garbage disposal, but disposals use about 9 gallons of water a day. And removing scraps at the wastewater treatment plant is also energy intensive. A better choice? Compost your food scraps instead (here's how to compost indoors). If you don’t have compost, research has shown that sending food scraps to the landfill is still a better option than the garbage disposal.  

Related: 7 Things You Need To Know To Finally Start Composting

cast iron skillet
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6. Improper Washing

From putting the wrong things in the dishwasher to using harsh cleansers on pots and pans, what you’re washing matters.

Avoid soap on your cast iron pan and instead use a stiff scrub brush (like this cute Kitchen Dish Brush with Bamboo Handle from Full Circle Be Good) with plain water. Don’t forget to completely dry your cast iron pan on the stove and season it with a high-heat oil while it’s hot.

(Here's how to make sure your cast iron pan lasts forever, plus a quick video on the right ways to wash them.)

Never, ever put wooden items in the dishwasher. Whether it’s spoons, cutting boards, or handles, the extreme moisture and heat in the dishwasher can cause the wood to swell and crack. Hand wash them instead and avoid soaking them.

Aside from butter knives and other dull knives with a solid handles, keep knives out of the dishwasher. Hand washing them keeps them sharp and avoids damaging their handles and seams.

While it's tempting to throw messy pots and pans in the dishwasher, hand washing is a better option since detergents can remove finishes and the jostling can cause scratches or nicks. Non-stick and copper pans should especially be kept out of the dishwasher.

Related: 12 Things You Can Clean With A Lemon

overloading dishwasher
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7. Poorly Loading The Dishwasher

If you've ever had an argument about how to load the dishwasher, you know it can be a contentious issue. There really is a right—and wrong—way to do it. An over-stuffed dishwasher leads to dirty dishes and soap residue. Items need space for the water to move through freely.

Place bowls on the top rack of the dishwasher and face them toward the water sprayer—that means the bowls in the back should face out, and the ones in the front face in. If you can’t see the inside of a bowl or plate from below, there isn’t enough room for them to be properly cleaned.

Your dishwasher manual provides diagrams for the most efficient ways to load your washer. Trust the manual! The manufacturers have tested it out and specifically designed the dishwasher to perform best when loaded according to their instructions.

Related: What's The Best Way To Wash Dirty Dishes: Sink Or Dishwasher?

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8. Not Sanitizing Properly

Proper kitchen cleanliness and dish sanitation is important to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria. Use hot water—hot enough to need gloves—to wash your dishes. Run the tap before turning on the dishwasher or filling the sink to get the hottest water. (You can use the running water to pre-rinse for the dishwasher or to water plants). Wash anything that touched raw meat last to prevent cross contamination.

Related: How To Restore An Old Wooden Cutting Board

Ditch the dirty towels. If it has dried your hands or the counter, it shouldn’t go on the dishes. Grab a new towel, or better yet, use a drying rack that lifts the dishes off the counter and allows for proper airflow. Be careful of dish mats—they can trap heat and moisture inside of dishes and encourage bacteria and mold growth.

Don’t just wipe cutting boards or knives. The average cutting board can have 200 percent more fecal bacteria on it than a toilet seat according to the National Health Service. The CDC recommends cleaning your boards and knives with hot, soapy water after each use. You can also use lemon and salt to deeply clean your wood cutting boards. When done cleaning, allow them to air dry and be careful not to let them sit in any puddles.

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