Emergency Dishwasher Detergent Alternatives

Shelf with dishes over sink

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It's the end of a long day and the dishwasher is finally loaded. You reach for the automatic dishwasher detergent and the container is empty. Now what?

Well, you could unload everything and wash it all by hand. Or, you could leave everything inside until you can get to the store, but you know you'll need some of the dishes for breakfast. Plus, everything is pretty smelly. Thankfully, there's an even better solution. There are a handful of common household products you most likely have on hand that can work as an emergency dishwasher detergent substitute.

For a bit of a background: Dishwashers clean much like a clothes washer and use three factors:

  • Thermal energy, which is the hot water
  • Mechanical energy, which is the force of the water spray
  • Chemical energy, which is the cleaning agent

Two of the energies will still be at full force, so even if the chemical energy is not as powerful as your regular detergent the dishes should still come clean. You may not be completely thrilled with the results, but you'll have some clean plates and bowls for the morning.


If the dishwasher is really packed, it's best to remove items that can easily be hand washed or items that really shouldn't be in the dishwasher in the first place. In doing so, the substitute detergent will much work better than if used in a crowded dishwasher.

Emergency Automatic Dishwasher Detergent Alternatives

These products will leave you with clean dishes when you're in a pinch! Do keep in mind though that these substitutes won't provide the level of clean you need each time you use the dishwasher.

  1. Baking Soda

    Known for its gentle abrasive qualities, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is a good cleaner and helps control odors. Fill the detergent cup with baking soda and run the cleaning cycle as usual.

  2. Distilled White Vinegar

    The acidic quality of distilled white vinegar will cut through any greasy residue on dishes. Fill a bowl with one-half cup of vinegar and place it on the top rack. The force of the water will distribute the vinegar during the wash cycle to the other dishes.

  3. Borax

    A natural mineral element, borax is an ingredient in many commercial dishwasher detergents. Simply fill the detergent cup with the borax powder.

  4. Washing Soda

    Washing soda (sodium carbonate) is an excellent cleaner and works well in hard water. Fill the detergent cup with the powder and use a regular wash cycle.

  5. Lemon Juice

    Just like vinegar, lemon juice contains a mild acid that will cut through the residue on dishes. Use one-half cup of the juice just as you would vinegar. Be sure to strain fresh or bottled lemon juice first to remove any pulp, otherwise you may find dried on pulp on your clean dishes.

  6. Citrus Drink Powder

Powdered lemonade mix can also be used. Fill the detergent cup with the powder and run a regular cycle.

Products to Never Use in an Automatic Dishwasher

Unless you want a flood of bubbles cascading over your kitchen floor, skip the following products.

  • Liquid dish soap
  • Liquid, powdered, or single dose laundry detergent
  • Body wash
  • Shampoo
  • Household all-purpose cleaners

Homemade Dishwasher Detergent Recipes

You can make your own dishwasher detergent to use for each cycle or to keep on hand for emergencies. It will have a bit more cleaning power than using just a single product.

Be sure to label the finished product and include instructions for use on the label. As with all cleaning products, keep them stored properly and out of reach of children, pets, and vulnerable adults.

DIY Powdered Dishwasher Detergent

What You'll Need

  • 1 cup borax
  • 1 cup washing soda
  • 1/2 cup powdered citric acid
  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • Plastic storage container

Combine all of the powdered components, mixing well. Store in an airtight plastic container. Use one tablespoon of the detergent per dishwasher load.

DIY Dishwasher Detergent Tablets

What You'll Need

  • 1 cup washing soda
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1 cup baking soda
  • 3/4 cup lemon juice
  • Silicone candy molds or Ice trays
  • Airtight plastic container

In a mixing bowl, combine the washing soda, kosher salt, baking soda, and mix well to distribute. Add the lemon juice and stir well to make sure that all of the ingredients are equally moist.

Add one tablespoon of the moist mixture to silicone candy molds (shape should fit in your dishwasher detergent cup) or ice cube trays. Allow the molded tablets to dry completely and harden.

Remove from the molds and store in an airtight container. Use one tablet per dishwasher load.


To boost the cleaning power of DIY dishwasher detergent and get better results, fill the rinse agent compartment with distilled white vinegar. This will help remove any residue that may cause spotting.