Cleaning on the Cheap: Make Your Own Dishwasher Detergent

I’d been using those popular gel packs in my dishwasher, but I wasn’t thrilled with the results and at 30 cents a pack, it was time for a change. It turns out that making my own dishwashing detergent and other natural cleaners isn’t just easy and environmentally friendly, but my dishes are coming out cleaner at about a tenth of the cost of expensive commercial detergents. The primary ingredients in this recipe for homemade dishwasher detergent have been around for centuries and have been commercially available for household use since the 1800s. If the pioneers had dishwashers, this is pretty close to what they might have used, and I bet their stemware would have looked spectacular.

Borax (sodium borate decahydrate) was first discovered over 4,000 years ago. Typically found underground, it has been mined outside of Death Valley for commercial sale since the 1800s for use as a cleaner, fungicide and disinfectant. Used in hot water, borax cleans and bleaches through a chemical reaction in which water molecules are converted into hydrogen peroxide. Combined with washing soda (sodium carbonate), a naturally occurring alkaline valued for stain removal and as a hard water fighter, it is a natural cleaning powerhouse.

Kosher salt is added to the mix as an abrasive, and citric acid (found naturally in fruits like lemons and oranges) dissolves grease and cuts down on clouding. Until 2010, many commercial detergents used phosphates for this purpose, despite a negative impact on the environment. The practice was eventually banned by many states, although other synthetic chemicals are still routinely used.

We’re nearly there. As with commercial detergents, you may still find some spotting or clouding. Instead of using expensive finishing rinses, plain old white vinegar added to your finishing reservoir solves the problem and leaves glasses crystal clear. Using vinegar also helps keep your dishwasher clean and odor-free.

All of the ingredients for DIY detergent are inexpensive and can be found through local retailers or online. Your local homebrewing shop will stock citric acid, but unsweetened lemonade-flavored Kool-Aid may be substituted. If your local grocer doesn’t stock washing soda, make your own by spreading baking soda on a cookie sheet and baking in a 400 degree oven for about an hour, converting sodium bicarbonate into sodium carbonate. Science!

Natural Dishwasher Detergent Recipe

  • 1 cup borax

  • 1 cup washing soda

  • 1/2 cup kosher salt

  • 1/4 cup citric acid or unsweetened lemonade-flavored Kool-Aid

Place all ingredients in an airtight container and shake to combine. Use 1 heaping tablespoon per dishwasher load. Pour white vinegar into rinsing dispenser as a finishing agent (highly recommended).

If making your own household cleaners is your thing, try some of these recipes for DIY natural cleaners for every surface in your bathroom.

25 Responses

  1. katie says:

    You can also buy concentrated vinegar as "horticultural vinegar" – it's used as an herbicide against plants with waxy cuticle such as ivy.

  2. Goose says:

    What?

  3. paizleysun says:

    Citric acid dissolved in water makes a great final rinse and there is no vinegar smell. It works well on calcium deposits. Surig Essig-Essenz Concentrated Vinegar is 25% acid. This product is good if you want a more concentrated vinegar for cleaning. It is food grade but please don't use it at this strength on a salad! I find it in the European section of our local international market and it can also be ordered on line.

  4. Ila A says:

    Use 1 package of yeast (tablet) for septic tank; instead of name brand product.. Every month; put tablet into toilet bowl. The yeast eats the bacteria
    and save money from pumping septic so often.
    I found recipe several years ago in magazine for cleaning grease from sinks.
    One cup of bleach and 1/2 cup of dawn soap into kitchen sink; pour hot water
    down the sink (10-20 minutes.) I use 10 at most. Rinse the sink; I never had
    any more trouble of grease building up in pipes. We didn't have to clean
    septic tank on the two above recipes for long time.
    It helped me money and time for it.
    Sincerely
    Ila

  5. Vedrana says:

    Hi, I made this exact recipe and we LOVE the results. We are on well water and have a septic system. I keep the mix in a mason jar. Our home is bellow 30% humidity these days (winter in New England) and the mix is rock hard. I have to ice pick it to get it loose to put in a dishwasher. Any suggestions?

    • Jill says:

      Vedrana I had the same problem. I put silica packets in the jar with mine I use two or three and have never had a problem since. Those are the packets that come in tortilla packets or beef jerky, I always save them and they have many uses! Keeping my detergent from getting rock hard is one of them!

    • danielle says:

      Keep the citric acid separate from the rest of the mixture and it should be fine.

    • Guest says:

      I have heard to put rice in a sock and store it in the container

  6. Barbara says:

    I just bought some new stainless steel silverware and the cleaning instructions warn against citric and vinegar, so I don't think these components are a good idea to use in the dishwasher.

    • paizleysun says:

      I never have problems. I think they don't want a soup or something simmering away for hours

      • paizleysun says:

        Sorry, didn't get to finish. To finish the last sentence: with your flatware in it. To clarify, silverware or stainless? Canned tomatoes have citric acid.

  7. jackie says:

    Have you tried using Lemi Shine instead of the citrus ???

  8. guest says:

    sodium carbonate is readily available at pools stores as PH UP.

  9. Rob Smith says:

    Dissolved minerals may affect suitability of water for a range of industrial and domestic purposes. The most familiar of these is probably the presence of ions of calcium and magnesium which interfere with the cleaning action of soap, and can form hard sulfate and soft carbonate deposits in water heaters or boilers. Hard water may be softened to remove these ions. The softening process often substitutes sodium. Hard water may be preferable to soft water for human consumption, since health problems have been associated with excess sodium and with calcium and magnesium deficiencies. Softening decreases nutrition and this is why a lot of manufacturers can not use a sodium base for their dishwashing detergents due to cross contamination.
    However, I absolutely agree with adding a citric acid base to the rinse aid. Lemon juice is the best for Silver and Stainless Steel.

  10. Madlin Steinhauer says:

    I couldn't find the citric acid, so opted for the lemonade Kool-aid. It doesn't say whether to use 1 pkg or enough packages to make 1/4 cup?

  11. Seth says:

    Septic system friendly???

    • Mick Telkamp says:

      Hi, Seth – It is. Some have alleged Borax in very large doses (which this is not) can impact the bacteria in septic systems, but the manufacturer declares the product septic safe and our experience reflects this. We are on a septic system as well and have never had any issues. Regular septic maintenance using Rid-X or another treatment product (always a good idea) will further ensure a healthy septic system.

  12. Jack says:

    I think this was a great post. Thanks.

  13. This ate the inside finish off dishwasher. Oops voided the warranty too.

  14. John says:

    Try adding Tang as the citric acid component.

  15. Lindsey says:

    I've made this exact recipe & my dishes were very cloudy every time. Along with white vinegar in the dspenser. We switched back to store brand.

    • Mick Telkamp says:

      Hi Lindsey. These are typical components for DIY dishwasher detergent, but the ratios may vary. Our first efforts were also a bit cloudy, but after some experimentation,we found these ratios to be right on the money for us. Results may vary depending on your water (hard or soft). If clouding is an issue, you might try increasing the amount of citric acid used.

    • W. Lowe says:

      I agree with you. These homemade recipes are ok if you live in the city and have municiple water that is treated, but if you live on well water they don't do much. I've tried different recipes and tried mixing different ingredeints but it just doesn't work. Maybe for city dwellers and that's it.

    • Tom says:

      I found the same.

    • Danielle says:

      I experienced the same thing until it clicked that I needed hotter water to properly dissolve the detergent. Once I realized that, everything comes out clean!

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About Mick Telkamp 

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A former Midwesterner living in North Carolina, I write about my adventures in backyard chicken-keeping and suburban homesteading over at HGTVGardens, and my exploits in the culture of Southern cooking ...

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