I Forgot To Put Soap In The Dishwasher – Will It Wash My Dishes?

You’re getting ready to press the start button on your dishwasher when you realize you forgot the detergent! It’s happened to everyone at one point or another. The important question is, what to do now?

Read on to find out the answer – plus what you can do if you don’t have detergent handy.

I Forgot To Put Soap in the Dishwasher – Will It Wash My Dishes?

The short answer is yes, but not as well.

What Happens if You Use a Dishwasher Without Detergent?

Dishwasher detergent actually does several helpful things. It breaks down food particles and prevents hard water from damaging your machine.

However, if you wash your dishes without it, that’s not the end of the world. Your dishes will come out clean, for the most part.

Just try not to make a habit of it. Yes, you will be able to wash your dishes. Even so, your dishwasher could suffer damage without the protection provided by detergent pods.

Lime from hard water can build up as limescale, clogging vital components. Your dishes could also suffer as certain food particles can’t be removed using water alone.

Is It Bad To Run a Dishwasher Empty?

Your dishwasher should be cleaned regularly to prevent the buildup of food particles and the clogging of filters. One method of cleaning your dishwasher is by running it without any dishes. 

There’s no harm in running your dishwasher empty and in fact, it can be a good idea to do so for cleaning or disinfecting it.

Pour a cup or so of white vinegar into the bottom of the washer, then run the empty dishwasher using the longest available cycle. The acid in the vinegar will clean out any food that might be threatening to clog up the dishwasher and remove any foul odors that might have begun to develop.

How Does Dishwasher Detergent Work?

What Is in Dishwasher Detergent?

Dishwasher detergent is a mixture of various substances and all of them have a job to perform.

  • Enzymes break down protein-based food particles.
  • Anti-corrosion agents help protect the dishwasher from becoming damaged.
  • Non-ionic surfactants break up oils and soften up hard water that might damage the dishes or the washer.Some detergents also contain phosphates to reduce limescale buildup. However, detergents like this are becoming more and more rare due to the damage they can cause to the environment.

What Does Dishwasher Detergent Do That’s Special?

Dishwasher cleaner provides your dishwasher with protection against corrosion and the buildup of harmful chemicals. It softens the water used during the wash cycle,keeping it from damaging your dishes or your dishwasher.

Dishwasher detergent also breaks down the more stubborn food particles which can’t be taken care of using water alone. In particular, it handles oil-based stains like grease which don’t mix easily with water.

What Can You Use if You Run Out of Dishwasher Detergent?

Don’t worry– if you’ve run out of detergent and can’t get to the store, there are steps you can take to still end up with clean dishes!

Steps To Get Clean Dishes Without Dish Detergent

Here’s what you need to do:

Rinse off Excess Food Before Loading

Without the protection of detergent, you should do your best to limit the number of food particles that could potentially get stuck in your dishwasher. Use hot water from your sink to rinse your dishes before putting them in the washer.

Avoid Washing Greasy or Oily Pots and Pans

Oil-based substances are famously difficult to mix with water. Without detergent, greasy dishes are unlikely to get cleaned completely, and could even damage your dishwasher.

Try hand washing these dishes instead.

Add Salt and a Rinse Aid

Salt can help soften up hard water, a task usually performed by your dishwashing detergent. A good rinse aid is also useful for removing stubborn stains and ensuring that your dishes are properly dried.

Select a Hotter or Stronger Wash Cycle

If you can, try to use hotter water over longer periods as you wash your dishes. If you have leftover food particles on your dishes, dangerous bacteria could start growing in your dishwasher.

If your water is hot enough it should manage to kill most of these organisms to keep you from getting sick.

Avoid Washing Dishes Consistently Without Detergent

Dishwasher detergent provides your dishwasher with several protections. When you wash dishes without detergent these protections are no longer present.

  • Hard water leaves behind lime deposits which can build up and clog up vital components of your machine.
  • Without the help of enzymes food particles might still be left in the dishwasher after rinsing which can attract bacteria. So, while you can wash your dishes without detergent you really shouldn’t do so very often.

Clean the Dishwasher Out

Cleaning your dishwasher is an important thing to do under any circumstances but it’s especially true when you’re not using dishwasher detergent. The best way to clean out your dishwasher is by running it empty after throwing in a cup of white vinegar.

The vinegar, combined with hot water, should help dissolve any lime or grease which has been building up inside your dishwasher.

Homemade Dishwasher Cleaner Recipe

If you want to save some money or you just forgot to buy dishwasher cleaner you can make homemade detergent using some common household ingredients. Combine the following items:

  • One tablespoon of Borax
  • One tablespoon of baking soda
  • Half a tablespoon of kosher salt

Voila! You’ve just made a batch of dishwasher detergent. The salt softens up hard water while the Borax and the baking soda work as abrasives and disinfectants.

If you don’t have any Borax you can swap it out for three tablespoons of washing soda and three tablespoons of citric acid. Alternatively, if you don’t want to use baking soda, a tablespoon of washing soda and half a tablespoon of citric acid should do the trick in its place.

As long as you preserve the ratios between ingredients you can scale up the recipe to make as much detergent as you want. It’s especially good for people who don’t have vinegar available for cleaning.

What Happens if I Use Dish Soap in the Dishwasher?

You may think dish soap and dish detergent are interchangeable but they actually aren’t the same thing and were created with different purposes in mind.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Dish Soap in the Dishwasher

Liquid dish soap isn’t meant to be used with dishwashers. Using dish soap instead of detergent can result in an explosion of soap suds overflowing your dishwasher.

It can be time-consuming to clean up such a soapy mess and the internal components of the dishwasher can easily become damaged from it.

Can You Use Laundry Detergent in the Dishwasher?

No, do not put laundry detergent in your dishwasher. While the chemical makeups of laundry and dishwasher detergent are similar they’re definitely not the same thing.

Laundry detergent contains several additives which can become toxic if you try to run them through a dishwasher. If you need an alternative use the DIY dishwasher cleaner above.

Why Are My Dishes Still Dirty After Using the Dishwasher?

There are many reasons why your dishes might not be getting clean:

  • If you’re not using dishwasher detergent limescale buildup can clog your dishwasher’s internal components like your drain or dispensers. You can solve this by using the white vinegar method explained earlier.
  • Dishwasher detergent also comes equipped with a rinse aid which helps remove stubborn stains from silverware and glass dishes. If you’re not using detergent you should consider adding rinse aid in its place.
  • Finally, oil-based food stains are difficult to remove using water alone and require special enzymes from dishwasher detergent to handle. You may need to try washing these dishes by hand.
  • Another reason why your dishes are still dirty is if you let food dry on them well before using running them through a dishwasher cycle. If food is allowed to dry and harden sometimes the bond to the dish surface is so strong the dishwasher can’t remove it. Better to clean dishes before that happens or at least soak them a while in water before washing if they have dried food stuck to them.

Can You Get Sick From Poorly Washed Dishes?

Any time you don’t thoroughly clean something that will come in contact with your mouth you risk becoming sick. Dishes are no exception to the rule – poorly washed dishes can make you sick.

How Long Does It Take for Bacteria To Grow On Dirty Dishes?

Bacteria are attracted to the food particles that might be leftover on dirty dishes. It will grow on this food quickly due to the humid environment of your dishwasher.

Within a few hours after improper washing your dirty dishes could become Petri dishes for salmonella, E-Coli, fungi, and more which are all organisms that can cause food poisining.

Should You Leave the Dishwasher Door Open To Dry?

Dishwashers are warm, humid spaces, perfect for bacteria to grow in. Once the rinse cycle has finished some people attempt to flash dry their dishes by opening the dishwasher’s door as soon as the drying cycle begins.

However, this only enables harmful organisms to enter your dishwasher, attracted to whatever food particles might not have been removed successfully.

A better practice is to leave the door closed while your dishes are drying to give them time to cool down. When your dishes are cool and dry they’ll be less likely to attract harmful bacteria and fungi which will reduce your likelihood of getting sick.

James Marshall
About the author

James is a business management professional and consultant with a former background in maintenance, repair, and hands-on projects. He enjoys DIY tasks and maintenance around the home as well as part-time writing. Read more »