How to Hand-Wash Dishes the Right Way

These are the tools and techniques you need to get your most delicate items crystal clean.

Your dishwasher is designed to take on the dirtiest part of your end-of-the-day kitchen cleaning routine, but not every item is meant to stand up to a machine clean. For these pieces, which might range from delicate china to wood-handled spatulas, you'll have to take the old-fashioned route and hand-wash them.

"The force and heat of the water—and even the detergent—can damage fragile pieces," says Jessica Ek, senior director of digital communications at the American Cleaning Institute. "Aluminum utensils, cast iron, china, crystal, cutlery, decorated glassware, hollow-handled knives, milk glass, pewter, plastics, silver, and wooden items should be washed by hand."

woman hand-washing a mug in sink

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Hand-washing glasses, utensils, plates, and cutting boards can also be as good for your mind as it is for your kitchenware: A small study from Florida State University recognized that "mindful dishwashers—those who focused on the smell of the soap, the warmth of the water, the feel of the dishes—reported a decrease in nervousness by 27 percent and an increase in mental inspiration by 25 percent." 

So whether you're looking for a gentler clean or a few minutes of meditation, Ek recommends the following steps to turn a sink full of dirty dishes into a stack of sparkling kitchenware. 

1. Scrape (Gently)

As you clear the table, scrape any leftover food into the trash can or garbage disposal using a rubber spatula or a paper towel, says Ek. Rinse the dishes as you place them into the sink. One important reminder: "Never pour grease down the drain," says Ek. "It can cause a clog."

2. Soak

Tackling food residue immediately makes washing easier, and can help prevent stains. "For stuck-on foods, soak dishes and cookware before washing," says Ek. "Add detergent or baking soda to the sink or dishpan—or [into the] soiled pot—and fill with hot water; soak for 15 to 30 minutes, then drain."

Start the soaking time as you're clearing the dinner dishes, and your pieces will be ready to wash by the time you've finished your after-dinner cappuccino. For stains on bone china, the Wedgwood company recommends soaking in vinegar for three minutes to remove hard water spots before rinsing, and vanishing coffee stains and fork marks with a paste of baking soda and water.

3. Use the Double-Basin Method

The most energy-efficient hand-washing method, according to a study from the University of Michigan, is the two-basin method: One sink filled with hot water for washing, and a second with cool water for rinsing. (If you don't have double sinks, use a tub or basin for hot water and the remaining sink area for ready-to-be-rinsed items.) 

4. Get the Water Hot

While the FDA sets temperature regulations for dishwashing water in restaurants, the temperature of the water you use at home isn't critical to sanitizing your dishware. "Clean, hot water and dish soap will clean dishes appropriately," says Ek. In one study from Ohio State University, water as cool as 75.2 degrees removed bacteria from dishes; water at or around that temperature will loosen food and dissolve grease without burning or drying out your hands.

Add a dish soap of your choice: Look for a mild detergent for washing delicate items, like china and crystal, and always check the suggested amount, since more concentrated products will require you to use less. "Any type of sponge or scrubber will work," says Ek. "Just make sure you leave them out to air dry or clean them in the washing machine after using. Replace sponges and rags frequently."

5. Wash From Least to Most Soiled

Ek recommends washing your items from least to most soiled, which keeps the water cleaner for longer. Typically, this means starting with glasses, cups, and flatware, followed by plates and bowls, and then serving dishes and pots and pans. "Stack a few dishes in the sink at a time—this allows a few minutes of soaking time while you work on washing," she says. (The exception is sharp knives: Wash and rinse these individually—don't let them get lost under the suds—and place them in the drying rack immediately.)

"In general, dishes wash easily if you keep them under the water while scrubbing them; as you work, pull each dish out of the water to check for missed spots," says Ek. "Throughout the process, drain the water and start over if it becomes greasy, too cool, or if suds disappear."

6. Rinse

You can rinse all your dishes at once or rinse as you go—whichever method makes the most sense in your space. "Rinse by dipping in a rinsing sink or pan, passing under a stream or spray of hot water, or by placing them in a drying rack and pouring or spraying water over them," recommends Ek. "If you have a double sink, use the second sink to rinse off washed dishes. Be sure to rinse inside cups, bowls, and glassware."

woman dryer silverware with towel

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7. Dry

Both towel and air drying will keep your dishes equally clean, although a towel is less likely to leave your glassware or flatware spotted. If you opt to towel dry, use a clean cloth and replace it as it becomes damp, recommends Ek. "Paper towels work well for drying pots and pans, especially if they contain traces of grease," she says.

8. Clean Up

Secure your dishwashing area before closing your kitchen for the evening. "Rinse and wipe down the sink, dish drainer, and dishpan," says Ek. "Rags, dish cloths, and sponges should be left out to air dry, or laundered in the washing machine. It'll make tomorrow's task easier!"

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