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Many households use dishwasher rinse aids to help make their dishes sparklingly clean. However, many of them do not realize that for these rinse aids to be effective, they must remain on dishes, and they do NOT get completely rinsed off. In other words, your household may be consuming this cleaning product each time you eat. Keeping this in mind, are dishwasher rinse aids actually safe to use?

What are dishwasher rinse aids, and why do people use them?

Rinse aids are used in dishwashers to help remove food and film from dishes during the dishwasher’s final rinse cycle, and they increase the effectiveness of the dishwasher’s drying cycle so that dishes come out drier and with a reduced number of water spots(1). Many families use rinse aids in their homes so that they don’t have to spend as much time drying their dishes before they can put them away.

How do rinse aids work?

Rinse aids are placed inside the dishwasher’s “rinse aid” compartment, which is typically located next to the dishwasher’s detergent compartment. Once placed in the dishwasher, rinse aid is dormant until the dishwasher gets to the rinse cycle.

During the rinse cycle, the dishwasher will rinse detergent off of dishes with hot water and apply  rinse aid to them and throughout the inside of the dishwasher. This effectively coats both the dishes and the inside of the dishwasher in a water-repellent (surfactant) solution that also reduces the surface tension of the water. This rinse-aid solution allows the water to run more easily off of the dishes and evaporate faster during the drying cycle(2).

What are the different types of rinse aids?

There are two types of rinse aid available to consumers:

Rinse aid liquid — This is the most common type of rinse aid. It comes in liquid form and is added directly to the “rinse aid” compartment in the dishwasher. This type of rinse aid is most potent and yields the best results.

All-in-one tablets — These tablets or pods contain a combination of both detergent and rinse aid to help dishes come out cleaner. These pods are placed in the “detergent” compartment in dishwashers.

What ingredients are used in rinse aids, and are they safe to use?*

Detergent companies are very reluctant to publish their full list of ingredients for these products. However, many of the ingredients that have been disclosed can be toxic–especially to aquatic life and the environment–or cause adverse health effects for people who have prolonged exposure.

Below is a short list of some of the toxic ingredients that are found in rinse aids and a description of their effects:*(3)(4)

  • Zinc Chloride — a salt that can cause respiratory irritation, nausea, and pulmonary effects when inhaled (5)
  • Sodium cumenesulphonate — a salt that may cause eye and respiratory irritation (6)
  • Benzenesulfonic acid — an acid that can cause irritation in upper respiratory tract, eyes, and skin (7)
  • Isotridecyl Alcohol — a chemical that can cause skin and eye irritation and is toxic to aquatic life (8)
  • Tetrasodium EDTA — a common ingredient in cosmetics that has caused adverse reproductive and developmental effects in animals when it was orally ingested (9)
  • Sodium Hydroxide — a very corrosive salt that can cause severe burns and eye damage (10)
  • Sodium Silicate — a chemical that can cause skin irritation, severe eye damage, and if ingested, can cause vomiting and diarrhea (11)
  • Colorant & Artificial Fragrances — artificial fragrances and dyes are common causes of skin conditions and allergic reactions

Why avoiding rinse aids may be a better option for your health:

While rinse aids help save households a little time while doing dishes, the benefits of using them may not outweigh the costs. Although they have been generally declared as “safe to use”, ingesting these chemicals over a prolonged period of time may cause adverse health effects–especially for sensitive groups. In addition, many of the chemicals in rinse aids are toxic to aquatic life and bad for the environment (8). Once these chemicals are in the municipalities’ water, they can be very difficult to filter out, and they will probably end up in the environment at one point or another.

Ultimately, do you want your family to potentially ingest these toxic chemicals every time they eat? Probably not, so here’s a list of some alternatives to using toxic rinse aids.

Alternatives to using toxic rinse aids:

  1. Use soft water to wash your dishes. Hard water increases the prevalence of water spots because it has minerals in it that combine with fats, oils, and grease and adhere to dishes. Hard water can also cause mineral-based cloudiness and filming on dishes that remain even after dishes have fully dried. However, if softened water is used, it makes dishes cleaner by reducing the number of water spots on glasses and silverware because it doesn’t contain the same minerals that hard water does. Softened water is also easier for dishwashers to heat up during the drying cycle, which means that dishes will most likely be dry faster than they would be if hard water was used.
  2. Use a small amount of vinegar in your dishwasher to reduce water spots. Vinegar is an acid that does not reduce the surface tension of water, so it probably won’t help your dishes to dry more quickly. However, vinegar does help reduce the formation of water spots on your dishes. However, please review your dishwasher’s manufacturer instructions before using vinegar; each dishwasher may have different recommendations and tolerances for use of acids like vinegar.
  3. If you must use a rinse aid, find an eco-friendly version. Some companies have created rinse aids that more environmentally friendly. While use of these rinse aids still means potentially exposing your family to chemicals, at least these rinse aids won’t do as much damage to the environment and aquatic life.

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