Breaking Up With Dawn

Last updated on August 13, 2020.

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 use it not only to wash dishes, but I also use 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 this 2010 article in the Washington Post, Dawn is legitimately used by the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC). “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.” So in 1978, the IBRRC started a relationship with Procter and Gamble, the makers of Dawn. From the IBRRC’s blog: “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.”

Dawn’s advertisements all pull at our heartstrings. One moved me to tears, which I originally shared in this post. The URL for that specific video has changed frequently, so I decided to just let you search “dawn oil spill commercial” on youtube.com where you’ll find many of these commercials.

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

Procter & Gamble heavily markets this campaign now toward conscientious consumers. I’m not saying this is wrong as it’s always awesome to be part of the greater good! But it is good marketing and it’s the main reason I’ve used Dawn for so long.

But Dawn is supposedly 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 need testing. Meanwhile, rescuers and veterinarians are sticking with what works – because, in the end, they are trying to save the animals’ lives. It’s a very good segment, please check it out.

Yet others find the product to be hypocritical. “Because Dawn is a petroleum-based soap, critics are concerned that the bird rescue groups are fighting oil with oil,” according to the Washington Post article. Shea Gunther from mnn.com wrote his opinion: “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.” Well said, but I can understand the arguments from both sides. I support any effort that saves wildlife but I want to decrease the demand for petroleum!

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

What about animal testing?

I found an online post about Dawn from a site that questioned Procter & Gamble’s animal testing practices. The author wrote that Dawn’s commercials for saving wildlife were not footage of actual wildlife and that it was a “simulated demonstration.” I went back and watched the same commercial above. Sure enough, that caption with “no oil used,” does briefly appear. The author indicated that they verified this with the American Humane Association. “They intentionally covered at least three animals with tempera paint and corn syrup to simulate oil, just so they could wash them on camera.” Ugh, seriously?

That post concluded that the company does animal testing sometimes when required by law and should be boycotted. I happen to agree but conversely, the company has indicated that it is advocating for ending the legal requirement of testing on its website.  But if you’re animal rights person and want to be plastic free and toxic free, here’s a list of Procter & Gamble brands so you’ll know which ones to avoid.

rabbit, Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash
Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

What about the ingredients in Dawn?

I decided to check into the ingredients of Dawn through the Environmental Working Group, or EWG. Dawn Ultra Concentrated Dishwashing Liquid (Original), the very product I normally buy, received a D rating (on A-D and 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; respiratory effects; nervous system effects.”

Procter & Gamble claim to be using biodegradable surfactants in Dawn and claim to be trying to improve and reduce packaging. They have additional information posted about their sustainability efforts on their website.

Plastic-free dishwashing?

Dawn dish washing soap has been one of my hold-over’s from going plastic free that I haven’t been able to kick yet. Then this 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 – and I love that! 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.

I tried it anyway since I’d already purchased it. It cleans great and I like the smell! And it is not tested on animals; it comes in 100% recycled plastic; and 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 decided to check with an expert on being plastic-free, as well as an expert on zero waste. What would they do? Beth Terry from myplasticfreelife.com says on her blog that you can use bar soap, or even just baking soda! Bea Johnson from zerowastehome.com has a recipe for liquid soap used for both hand and dishwashing in her book. I learned about a company called Fillaree from Kathryn from goingzerowaste.com, which is a subscription plan for dish soap using your own container. Fillaree offers refills in their stores but also by mail! They also use environmentally and human safe ingredients. What a neat company!

I am going to try using bar soap and baking soda next! I’ll update this post once I’ve used all of the Seventh Generation dish soap and try this new alternative.

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 other ideas as well! 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 but we have been favoring good old-fashioned Castille bar soap.

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!