What Makes Dish Soap Such a Cleaning Workhorse?

It can tackle jobs well beyond the confines of your sink—here's why.

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If you're curious about how natural cleaning products work or why baking soda is such a powerful ingredient, you've come to the right place. We'll explain the science behind some of the most popular cleaning methods and tools, so you can you clean smarter—not harder. Follow along with Clean Science to see which technique we break down next.

Ever searched for DIY cleaning recipes online? If so, you have probably seen at least one or two solutions that call for a healthy dash of dish soap. As it turns out, there are a number of reasons why dish soap is used for everything from tackling post-meal clean up to getting grease stains out of clothing. What makes this simple cleaning solution is such a multifaceted workhorse? We spoke with Morgan Brashear, a Dawn Senior Scientist, to find out.

dish soap on counter
Jonathan Kitchen / getty images

General Jobs

Dish soaps like Dawn ($5.39, target.com) are used to clean everything from dishes to ducks (the brand is known for its use in helping wildlife impacted by oil spills) because of how tough it is on grease, notes Brashear. However, all of that strength is formulated with sensitivity in mind. The same ingredients that make it tough enough to scrub everything from car tires to hand tools are simultaneously mild enough to be safe to use on skin and most surfaces. "Surfactants are the real star ingredients because they encapsulate and lift away greasy messes," Brashear says. "Surfactants have a water-loving head and a water-hating tail, so the heads want to stay in water, while the tails want out as quickly as possible—inserting into and then lifting grease and oil."

All About Surfactants

Brashear notes that not all surfactants are created equal, which is why not all dish soap formulas (or regular cleaning solutions, for that matter) with surfactants make strong cleaning agents. "They all have different charges, tail lengths, and strengths and weaknesses," she says. "Some can be smaller and faster, while others might be stronger at removing grease, but are a bit bulkier." Different surfactants are used for various cleaning occasions and across a variety of cleaning products. Laundry detergents and household cleansers, for example, can also be formulated with surfactants.

Some Limitations

Although dish soap might seem like the perfect cleanser for all of your needs, Brashear says that you can't actually use it everywhere or on everything. While it's great as a laundry pre-treater (the ingredients that help cut grime on dishes also work to remove stains from clothing—especially greasy marks from food spills and other oils), it won't replace your laundry detergent. "Anything more than a teaspoon or so could cause excess suds in your washing machine, so it should not be used as a substitute," she says. You should also never use dish soap in your dishwasher, combined with bleach, or on certain surfaces like cast iron cookware.

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