Although it has been proven scientifically that dishwashers use much less water than washing dishes by hand, not everyone has access to a dishwasher. This leaves a lot of us hand-washing our dishes on the daily and in need of a good bottle of dish soap. Even if you have a dishwasher, a big roasting pan with baked on food and grime probably won’t fit in the rack, and it isn’t going to wash itself.
Whether you hand-wash dishes every day or just use it on the big stuff to cut through grease, your hand-washed dishes, silverware, and glasses should come out of the sink spotless. That’s why we tested 13 different dish soaps to see which are worth buying. In our testing, we found that even sub-par soaps can get dishes clean with some extra scrubbing, but the best dish soaps will save you time standing at the sink, elbow-deep in suds.
To help you find the best dish detergent, I washed over 125 dinner plates, bowls, glasses, and spoons. Some of them were lightly soiled, some had challenging stains, and some of them were downright greasy. The most effective products could handle every food stain.
In the end, Dawn Ultra(available at Amazon) came out as the top hand-washing dish soap. In testing, its cleaning power effectively removed every food stain and was able to remove bacon grease better than any of its competitors.
These are the best dish soaps we tested, ranked in order:
Palmolive Ultra Strength
Seventh Generation Dish Liquid Free & Clear
Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day
Ecos Dishmate Hypoallergenic
Up & Up
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
You might think of Dawn as the dish detergent used to clean up wildlife after oil spills—some bottles of Dawn Ultra actually sport pictures of baby ducks as a reminder. We can’t assess how well it works on oily wildlife, but we can tell you that throughout our tests Dawn Ultra really excelled at cleaning dishes. It came out at the top of the list because it made quick work of basic meat, spinach, oatmeal, milk, and egg stains; scoffed at the challenge of removing burnt sugar, burnt cheese, and lasagna from our test dishes; and dissolved bacon grease better than any other detergent we tested, leaving only the slightest haze at the end.
Dawn Ultra is pleasant to use with a mild, fruity fragrance, a thicker texture, and a distinctive blue color. In the tests, this product was able to get through a dishpan full of grimy dishes without too much effort. If you want an effective dish detergent that can get your hand-washed dishes very clean, Dawn Ultra is the one for you.
Palmolive was a surprise contender, a dark horse among dishwashing liquids. In our first round of tests, just soaking in a dishpan of Palmolive suds lifted almost every stain off our dishes, even without scrubbing. Palmolive didn’t do as well against burnt sugar stains, and the bacon grease we tested left the dishes with a small amount of haze. Still, I'm convinced that Palmolive can clean your dishes to a high standard. The caveat: This dish detergent’s startling green color and intensely sweet fragrance might not please all users.
Our best-testing eco-friendly brand, Seventh Generation is effective on most food stains. What kept it out of the top spot is that it couldn’t quite compete with Dawn on removing bacon grease from our test dishes, instead leaving a greasy feel to the dishes. But if you don’t eat greasy foods regularly, it may not be a problem. This brand did a fine job cleaning the basic and tougher stains.
Seventh Generation Dish Liquid Free & Clear is plant-based, undyed, unscented, and the bottle is made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. If you prefer to wash dishes with an environmentally friendly brand, Seventh Generation Free & Clear could be your go-to.
Hi, I’m Cindy Bailen, the major appliances and home design editor at Reviewed. I have many years of experience reviewing refrigerators, washers, dryers, the occasional oven range, and numerous dishwashers.
In recent months, I've spent many hours testing hand dishwashing detergents. You could say I’ve become obsessed with them: They have so much of an impact on our lives. We all eat; hence, we all do dishes. A long night of ineffective scrubbing doesn’t make anybody happy. But if the dish soap we use does the job well, we get to go on with the rest of our evening. That’s enough reason to use one of the top products on our list.
I had help creating this dish soap roundup. Reviewed’s senior lab technician Jonathan Chan and product test technician Kyle Hamilton applied and baked the stains onto the dishes. Senior staff writer Mark Brezinski washed some dishes in the first round. And senior scientist Julia MacDougall worked out the testing methodology.
Washing dishes can be a dirty job. Each day, I suited up in an apron and equipped myself with rubber gloves, plastic dishpans, our favorite kitchen sponges, and several dish racks.
During the first round of testing, I went through the process 13 times, once for every bottle of dish soap. During the second and third rounds, the top five finalists from the first round were put through another series of tests.
To test each individual detergent in the first round, we baked a meat analog, spinach, and oatmeal onto the same white Corelle dinner plates and bowls we use to test dishwashers. We also included a drinking glass stained with dried milk and a spoon was dipped in beaten egg. I filled each dishpan about three-quarters full of the hottest possible water from our sink, added a tablespoon of detergent, and swished gently to work up some suds.
After soaking the dishes for 20 minutes, I scrubbed 10 circular strokes with the sponge on each meat, spinach, and oatmeal dish, then rinsed each one quickly. For the milk glass, I made eight up-and-down strokes and two circular strokes across the bottom and rinsed it out. Egg spoons received two circular strokes on the inside and two on the outside, and a rinse followed.
After washing, I left the dishes to drip-dry on a dish rack. After two hours of drying, I assessed their cleanliness.
The winners of the first round advanced. The stain challenges in Round Two were lasagna, burnt sugar, and burnt cheese. Just as in the first round, I filled a dishpan about three-quarters full of the hottest possible water from our sink, added a tablespoon of detergent, and swished gently to work up some suds.
After soaking the dishes for 20 minutes, I made 10 circular strokes around each lasagna dish and two up-and-down strokes on the inner edge, followed by a quick rinse. For the burned sugar, I made 10 circular strokes throughout the surface, then rinsed quickly. For the burned cheese dishes, I made 10 strokes around the entire surface, then gave it a quick rinse.
Once they were washed, I left the dishes to drip-dry on a dish rack. After two hours of drying, I assessed their cleanliness.
All the detergents from Round Two advanced to Round Three: bacon grease. I filled a dishpan about three-quarters full of the hottest possible water from our sink, added a teaspoon of detergent, and swirled it around to work up some suds.
I left the dishes to soak for five minutes, giving the soapy water a gentle stir every minute. Then, I rinsed them. I left the dishes to dry overnight and assessed grease removal.
After we ran all of the tests, we ran the numbers to determine which detergent was most effective against food stains. Clear winners emerged: Dawn Ultra on the conventional side and Seventh Generation Free & Clear on the eco-friendly side.
Do You Need an Eco-Friendly Dish Soap?
To find the best hand dishwashing liquids, we tested popular conventional brands and brands that purport to be more eco-friendly. Of course, it’s hard to define what “eco-friendly” means. If you’re committed to using a hand-washing detergent that you think is easier on the environment, read the label carefully.
Scary-sounding ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate (a surfactant, detergent, and sudsing agent) and methylisothiazolinone (a preservative) can be found in some “greener” brands. The main difference between conventional and eco-friendly brands: The eco-friendly brands contain more plant-derived ingredients.
Many of the products we tested were scented. Fragrances can be found in both types of dish soaps and can cause allergic reactions. If you have trouble with them, choose a fragrance-free brand. Fragrance-free products do not contain ingredients that impart a smell. Unscented products are not the same as fragrance-free—they can contain chemicals to mask a smell.
Ultimately, the type of dishwashing liquid you use is up to you. In the tests, we found very effective detergents of both types, so you can make an informed choice.
Other Detergents We Tested
Joy Ultra Dish Soap
Joy detergent has a bright lemony scent that permeated the room when I washed dishes with it, causing a colleague to remark that it smelled like his grandmother’s kitchen. Joy isn’t easy to find on supermarket shelves these days, but as a heritage brand, it still has a following. We found it to be effective on many stains, though it left some dried milk behind on our glassware after the scrub. A light haze of bacon grease remained on the test dishes after soaking in a solution of Joy.
An environmentally friendly brand, Puracy uses plant-based ingredients derived from coconut oil to clean dishes. It also contains natural ingredients that make it gentle—Himalayan pink sea salt and aloe vera. The company claims that the salt restores balance and purity to your skin, and the aloe vera makes Puracy gentle on skin.
This product is more watery than most other dishwashing liquids but is still able to clean dishes. In our tests, it was the second-best eco-friendly brand. It left a little bit of dried milk and burnt sugar behind, and couldn’t make much headway dissolving bacon grease.
One of the most pleasant to use in our tests, Method comes in an attractive recycled plastic pump bottle that looks good on the side of the sink. It is also extremely convenient to use: A couple of pumps dispense enough for a sinkful of dirty dishes. Its fresh citrus fragrance is delightful and it comes in other scents if you don’t like clementine. Method aced all the sensory criteria, but it had trouble removing milk stains from glasses, so it didn’t make it to the finals.
Available in many supermarkets and a top-seller on Amazon}, Mrs. Meyer’s is one of the most popular environmentally friendly brands of dish soap. The company comes out with new scents every season, so if you’re not crazy about one scent, you can try another. I tested the lemon verbena because it is available throughout the year and found that its floral citrus smell is not too aggressive or overpowering. That said, the detergent’s performance was not effective against dried milk stains.
Ivory dish detergent is a heritage brand. In testing, it cleaned adequately and the hinged top made it easy to squeeze out some of this viscous heavily-scented product. Even with a hard scrub, though, some dried milk remained on the test glass.
A clear, hypoallergenic liquid, Ecos Dishmate is undyed and perfume-free. It is easy to dispense through its hinged lid, though once in the dishwater, it doesn’t produce a ton of suds. Plentiful suds do not make dish soap clean better, but they might make it marginally more enjoyable to wash the dishes. Still, I didn’t fault Ecos for its lack of fluffy suds, only for its lack of performance removing dried milk.
Dish soap doesn’t have to smell good to work well, but fragrance-free Ecover Zero has a sour smell that made it unpleasant to use. Fragrance-free products can be a boon to those who are sensitive to artificial scents, but there are fragrance-free products that don’t have an odor like this. Ecover’s issue was that it couldn’t remove dried milk from our test glasses.
It was important to us to include a store brand dishwashing liquid in the tests. The label on the Target dish soap bottle says “Compare to Dawn Ultra,” and while the blue liquids may look similar, they are not comparable in any other way. The Target brand was not as effective at stain removal as Dawn or most of the other dish soaps, leaving behind some meat, spinach, oatmeal, and milk.
Another gentle, plant-based, eco-friendly brand, Honest dish soap was a pleasure to use and its beachy fragrance is created with essential oils, not chemicals. Unfortunately, the experience of using this product beat its ability to remove dried milk.
Struggles with tough stains
Ajax Dish Soap
The lemon scent coming from the Ajax bottle could clear your sinuses, but that didn’t prove to be Ajax’s biggest shortcoming. The thin yellow liquid couldn’t compete against other dish detergents in stain removal, leaving spinach, oatmeal, and milk stains behind after washing. This product’s low price may tempt you to buy it, but it will take you more scrubbing to get the dishes clean if you do.
Cindy Bailen loves writing about major appliances and home design and has spent over 15 years immersed in that. In her spare time, Cindy hosts pledge programs for WGBH-TV in Boston and other public television stations.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.