Let’s Talk About the Voluntary Phosphorus Ban in Household Detergent

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Heather says:

Some of you may have noticed that there has been a change in the formula of your Automatic Dishwashing Detergent, others may have just picked up a new box as usual, without paying much attention. Sixteen states including: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, have instituted strict restrictions on the amount of phosphorus that automatic dishwashing detergents can contain. After July 1, 2010 stores in these states were no longer allowed to stock the old formulas and had sixty days to liquidate the old style.

The goal of the restriction is reduce the amount of phosphorus entering the water supply. Phosphorus isn’t a dangerous chemical, but it can significantly contribute to the growth of algae, acting as a fertilizer. The over-growth of algae, or an algae bloom as it is called, can reduce the oxygen content of water, impacting other aquatic life. (Before you ask, yes there are bans coming for phosphorus in fertilizer, too).

Rather than create two product lines most, if not all, manufacturers are voluntarily complying with the new guidelines in all states and Canada which also instituted the change.

With the sixty days over and consumers restocking their home supplies some people are just now noticing the change, especially in areas with hard water. If you’ve noticed a difference in your dishwasher’s performance, it may be the new formula. Phosphorus helped keep minerals suspended in the water, allowing the detergent to work more efficiently on food particles. If you’ve noticed a decline in your dishwasher’s performance reread the label’s guidelines rather than running on auto-pilot as most of us are prone to do.

In most cases it’s simply time to do a better job scraping plates, even soaking in some cases. If you’ve never needed rinse-aid in the past, you may now. You can check the ingredient list of your rinse-aid, but citric acid is usually one of the main ingredients. You can also further ensure you’re still being environmentally friendly by buying a brand that is also phosphate free (I’m unsure if the voluntary ban includes rinse-aids.

Also consider that if you were running on auto-pilot, your dishwasher may have mineral build-up in the spray arm which also reduces its cleaning effectiveness. You can remove this by running an empty load with either two cups of vinegar in the wash tub or a packet of lemon Kool-Aid. They do sell packets of citric acid, but Lemon Kool-Aid is quite inexpensive and easy to find. The acidity of the vinegar or lemon drink mix can help dissolve the mineral build-up. If the build-up is extensive, you may need to use a baby’s bottle brush (the tiny one), a brass instrument mouthpiece cleaner from your band geek days, or a pipe cleaner -check an actual tobacco store. (Chenille stem is the new PC term for the crafter’s version, not what I mean here) to clear any blockages. In most cases you can remove the spray arm to clean it, rather than crawling into the dishwasher.

Naturally I suggest you check your manual to avoid breaking anything.

In an amazing series of coincidences, we replaced our dishwasher -the tub had cracked and was leaking into the sub-flooring, good times- and detergent at the same time. I had been blaming the new dishwasher for the gritty feel on our glassware. Once I added a rinse-aid the problem resolved itself.

Have you noticed a change in your dishwasher’s performance?

Don’t forget, you can send your household questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

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13 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About the Voluntary Phosphorus Ban in Household Detergent”

  1. Ah. So that's the problem.

    Last week, I gave my son a lesson in dishwasher maintenance because it just wasn't getting anything clean. We took out the stuff inside (stuff is Latin for "items for which you don't know the name") and gave it all a good cleaning, then ran it thru a cycle using 1/2 cup of citric acid before putting the "stuff" back together. Works great now. I'm not a stickler for brands in most cases, but I've recently decided to stick with Cascade from now on, rather than buying whatever's cheap, because it works consistently, which saves me time in re-washing

  2. I've been hating my dishwasher recently… and it is only four months old! I was religious about the rinse aid (because without it the dishes weren't clean), but after I ran out of the free detergent that came with the dishwasher, I went back to the cheap, generic detergent I used at the old house. And disaster struck. Nothing was getting clean! So, yesterday I went and bought the brand detergent that came with the dishwasher, did one load and suddenly things are clean again. Lesson learned.

  3. I've been reading many comments on other sites about this. People seem divided about the new detergent. Those with softer water have zero problems with low-phosphorus detergent and many (like me) have been using low-phosphorus brands for a while. Those with hard water think the new product stinks. If you have hard water, definitely try a citric acid rinse-aid or a quarter cup of vinegar in the rinse cycle. Other solutions people have had success with are to use less detergent but hotter water, switch to a powdered detergent to get cleaner dishes, or try another brand like seventh generation that's been doing low-phosphorus for a long time. Don't blame the "horrid new product laws", just adapt, and eventually dishwasher technology will catch up to the phosphorus ban. People in europe have had no phosphorus dish detergent for years, they have water softeners built into their dishwashers to combat the hard water.

    • I don't mean this in a snarky way, I'm just clarifying my reason for posting the article. I'm not blaming the law, just helping consumers sort out what the issue may be and find possible, environmentally responsible solutions.
      I haven't been paying much attention to the news lately and it just clicked last night thanks to a question from the ever awesome Mighty Mur. I figured if I had missed it and I actually (usually) care about these things, that there are probably plenty of others out there, too.
      It's going to take a while for companies to catch up. Consumer Reports has a good, free resource: http://www.greenerchoices.org/ratings.cfm?product

  4. Good info… only I would like to point out that there is a difference between a crafters soft chenille stem and the utilitarian pipe cleaners that you purchase from a tobacco supply. Actual pipe cleaners are plain and sturdy with a stiff bristle and are great to have on hand for cleaning odd crevices and faucet parts that a soft but pretty chenille stem could never take care of effectively.

  5. Have you seen the Dish Squeegee? It was invented by a company that only sells products that save energy and water. You use it to clear off dirty dishes instead of running water and it works great! It works so much better than scraping with your fork b/c it's flexible and I hate those germy sponges! It's silicone so I just run it through the dishwasher occasionally to clean it after multiple uses. Love this new gadget!!! It's not being sold in many stores yet (brand new) but you can buy it straight from the company. Hope this helps.

  6. wow – yes I have noticed more particles sticking inside of our glasses & coffee mugs. These go into the dishwasher pretty clean (ie no food particles stuck on)… guess this means it's time to try a rinse aid. That's something I've never used nor never even given a second thought. Thanks for the post!

  7. so the solution to fixing the environment…make people spend more money on stuff they shouldn't have to? gee…i wonder why everyone is in such debt. the government sticking it to the common man (and woman) once again.

  8. My frustrated uncle has formulated a commercial dishwasher detergent with 8.7% phosphate that works wonders in residential under-counter machines. His extended family has been “forced” to use it for months now and all of us are blown away by how clean and shiny the dishes have become. It will be available online the end of October 2011 at http://www.bubblebandit.com and Amazon.com. His opinion is that the government should take care of our real pressing problems and leave our dishes alone.

  9. I put the phosphate back in by adding a small amount of trisodium phosphate to every load (a teaspoon or less). Now my dishes are clean again. You can buy it at hardware stores, but get real TSP not the substitute that doesn’t contain trisodium phosphate. I’m all for the environment, but not to the point of eating from dirty dishes.


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