Breaking Up With Dawn

Last updated on November 28, 2021.

Dawn soap
Dawn dishwashing liquid soap

I’ve used Dawn dishwashing detergent my entire adult life. It seemed to work better than every other brand I  tried. The concentrated version seemed to go a lot further than other brands, therefore giving me my money’s worth. Even after I started reducing the number of products in plastic packaging that I buy, I kept buying Dawn. I used it not only to wash dishes but also used it in my Easy DIY all-purpose cleaner.

And, I was supporting clean-up efforts and saving wildlife after oil spills, right?

I believed that Dawn products were helping clean and save wildlife after oil spills. And I think they do in some cases, as well as raise money to donate toward rescue efforts. According to a 2010 article in the Washington Post after the major BP Deepwater Horizon spill, Dawn is legitimately used by the International Bird Rescue. “After a 1971 oil spill, the California-based nonprofit group began experimenting with products including paint thinner and nail polish remover to find the least traumatizing method for cleaning oiled animals.”1 So in 1978, the International Bird Rescue started a relationship with Procter and Gamble, the makers of Dawn. “Through trial, error, and our tenacity to find a solution, we discovered that Procter and Gamble’s Dawn dish soap, was the golden ticket! It was inexpensive, effective, readily available, and Procter and Gamble was excited to learn about this somewhat unusual use of their product.”2

Procter & Gamble heavily markets Dawn’s Saving Wildlife campaign toward conscientious consumers. Their advertisements pull at our heartstrings. One moved me to tears, which I originally shared in this post. The URL for that specific video changes frequently, so I decided to just let you search “dawn oil spill commercial” on YouTube where you’ll find many of these commercials. But the footage was not of wildlife actually affected by an oil spill. The commercials are a “simulated demonstration” and some have a caption indicating “no oil used.” I’ve read they coat the animals with a mixture of tempera paint and corn syrup so they can simulate cleaning the animals on camera. I find this to be a questionable practice.

Oil covered bird. Photo by Mike Shooter on Shutterstock.
Oil-covered bird. Photo by Mike Shooter on Shutterstock.

But Dawn is petroleum-based – so does that mean they’re part of the problem? 

NPR did a segment on this very issue after the BP oil spill disaster in 2010, looking at the story in detail and interviewing people from both sides. The overall conclusion was that yes, Dawn does help remove crude oil from the animals. But this is because the grease-cutting part of the solution is made from petroleum, according to Procter & Gamble, who was interviewed for the segment. There are alternatives to using petroleum products but that needs testing. Meanwhile, rescuers and veterinarians are sticking with what works, because, in the end, they are trying to save the animals’ lives.3

Yet others find the product to be hypocritical because Dawn is a petroleum-based soap.4 A writer for Treehugger.com wrote:

“The sad irony of the whole thing is that Dawn is petroleum-based. Every bottle of Dawn used to clean a bird actually adds to our nation’s demand for oil. Not only are we using an oil-based product to clean oiled birds, but we’re increasing the incentives for companies to drill for more oil, making it more likely that there will be another spill. Which, incidentally, will be great for Dawn’s marketing. It’s one big beautifully incestuous circle.”5

oil rig, Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash
Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

What about animal testing?

Procter & Gamble, owner of the Dawn brand, does do animal testing. They have committed to the #BeCrueltyFree Campaign in recent years but have not yet achieved that status. If you want non-animal-tested and cruelty-free products, avoid Procter & Gamble brands and products.

An oiled gannet getting cleaned at a rehabiliation center after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
An oiled gannet getting cleaned after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, June 17, 2010. Image by Deepwater Horizon Response on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

What about the ingredients in Dawn?

I decided to check into the ingredients of Dawn through the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Dawn Ultra Concentrated Dishwashing Liquid (Original), the very product I used to regularly buy, received a D rating (on A-D, F grading scale). One of the main concerns was the lack of ingredient disclosure. There are not many laws in the United States regarding chemicals in household ingredients and products. Procter & Gamble is not required to tell us what is exactly in their product. Many companies like to keep their ingredients and formula a secret, to prevent others from copying. EWG’s Top Scoring Factors for this Dawn product were “Poor disclosure; May contain ingredients with potential for acute aquatic toxicity; general systemic/organ effects; bioaccumulation.”6

Procter & Gamble claims to be using biodegradable surfactants in Dawn and claims to be trying to improve and reduce packaging. But this giant corporation has made only a few changes over the last decade – it’s too little, too slow.

Before (left) and After (right) oiled Brown Pelican washed at the Fort Jackson, LA Oiled Wildlife Center.
Before and After oiled Brown Pelican washed at the Fort Jackson, LA Oiled Wildlife Center, May 14, 2010. Photo courtesy of the International Bird Rescue Research Center on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Plastic-free dishwashing?

Dawn dishwashing soap has been one of my hold-overs from going plastic-free that I haven’t been able to kick yet. Then one weekend, I ran out. I used to buy the economy-size bottles, tricking myself into believing that buying a larger plastic bottle was better than lots of little bottles. But I was unable to find that size again at my regular grocery store. And short of running around to Target or Walmart or searching online, I decided maybe this was a good opportunity to try something different. Here were my options:

Seventh Generation dish soap. Photo by me.
Seventh Generation dish soap. Photo by me.

Ugh! My only choices were plastic, plastic, and more plastic. However, this store also carries Seventh Generation brand dish soap. If you’re not familiar with this brand, they use ingredients they believe to be safe and healthy as well as using post-consumer recycled packaging. This bottle that I purchased is a plastic bottle marked “100% recycled plastic.” They also list all of their ingredients on the back of the package. Last, Seventh Generation does not test on animals.

Unfortunately, before using this product at home, I checked the EWG’s site to see if they’d tested it. Sadly, it only received a C rating, meaning “some potential for hazards to health or the environment. At least some ingredient disclosure.” While they found their ingredient disclosure good, they found that this dish soap has ingredients that have some concerns, mostly aquatic toxicity, respiratory effects, and skin irritations. Seventh Generation does follow the regulations for the EPA Safer Choice certification, but EWG still found concerns. But it has much safer ingredients than most of the brands on the shelves of most stores.

washing a fork, Photo by Catt Liu on Unsplash
Photo by Catt Liu on Unsplash

What am I going to do next?

Dawn and most other major brands of dishwashing soap are going to have the same issues with plastic packaging, animal testing, and unsafe ingredients. With all of those things combined, I am going to try going plastic-free on dish soap after I use this bottle of Seventh Generation. Because even that 100% recycled bottle has an afterlife. And there is no guarantee that that plastic bottle won’t end up floating in the ocean someday.

I am experimenting with using bar dish soap and baking soda. I’ll update this post once I’ve experimented and have some good results to share. What about you? Can you try a new solution for washing dishes plastic-free, toxic-free, and animal-friendly? Join me in the adventure and be the change. Please share and subscribe, and thanks for reading!

Update, March 15, 2019: We have been using plastic-free bar soap for a couple of months now to wash dishes. And it’s working good! We just rub the scrub brush and Skoy cloth against the soap and then wash our dishes and pots. I’ve been trying different brands.

I’m also now using baking soda for cleaning pots, especially those that have stains or black areas. I learned this advice from Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com, and it does work – look how clean I got this pot!

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