What’s the least water-intensive way to hand-wash my dishes?

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By: peapod labsCC BY 2.0

Cortney needs to know:

I want to save water, of course.

I’m most interested in the eco-friendliest, most water conservation-minded way to wash dishes without a dishwasher?


Yoooooou are gonna have to hope the Homies come through for you on the first one. I do not ever ever ever do dishes by hand. That is how much I dislike it.

Comments on What’s the least water-intensive way to hand-wash my dishes?

  1. As far as showers go, I’m going to channel Jerry Seinfeld here–go WITH gravity when you’re washing. Start at the top and wash downward. The parts that need scrubbing–your face and feet for example, should be done out of the shower in the sink.

  2. I’d say the most effectve way would be to wet a soapy sponge and turn off the water. Do all your scrubbing with the water off, turning it on only to rinse. Whatever’s still grimy after a basic scrub and a quick rinse should be submerged in juuuust enough hot water to cover and soak for a few hours before repeating the process.

    • Ha! Thought you were talking about shower vs. bath, so I thought “Whoa! What parts of your body are you getting so grimy that you need to soak for several hours? And who has that much time for basic bathing?” Then I put together that it was about the dishes. Or at least I hope so… 🙂

        • from what i’ve seen/heard from other people, this is how people shower in germany (first rinse, turn off water, scrub with a soapy cloth, then final rinse). overall the shower’s only on for 2 minutes tops. i’ve been living here 3 years and i still can’t bring myself to do it :/

  3. I think the shower vs. bath question really depends on how full you like your tub and how quickly you shower. If you need water up to your chin, showers are probably more water-conscious.

    Or you could consult SCIENCE!!

    DO AN EXPERIMENT. Plug up the drain and take your shower. If you finish your shower before you would consider the tub “full”, you’re better off showering.

    • That’s the simplest thing I’ve never thought to do! I take short and quick showers (being an outdoorsy lady I’ve mastered the art of the quick bathe!), so I know they’re water savers… but my husband could stand to try this.

    • I started taking showers when I was young because I was told they were more water conscious. The truth is, for me, that they most definitely are not. Unless I’m in a rush, I shower until I’m out of hot water, which is more water than would go in a bath :-/ At least it used to be. The hot water heater in our house now sort of forces conservation.

    • I do this when I shower because it keeps my feet warm and helps me keep track of my water usage.

      Although I usually take baths because there’s either a toddler joining me or the toddler is asleep and I’m soaking and reading.

  4. I have heard that it is this: fill the sink part way with soapy water for soaking and using as your scrubbing water. Wash all of your dishes in this water, have a towel or something you can stack them on as you go. Empty the sink and rinse all the dishes. This way there is no excess running water between scrubbings. This was told to me by a dude I interviewed at our wastewater treatment plant, so I am hoping he knows what he is talking about 🙂

    • This is especially effective if you have a double basin sink and lots of dishes. We soak in one sink and rinse in another, dry as we go, and keep using the soaking water until it’s cold. If you rinse over the soaking water and let out a little of the cold water, you can keep it hot almost indefinitely too.

      • My ex boyfriend’s mom did something like this with her single-basin sink. She kept a plastic tub in there that was always filled with soapy water.

  5. I hate hate hate handwashing dishes, so back when I didn’t have a built-in dishwasher, I bought a countertop one (it was around $100, from Target I think) that attaches to the sink (or in my case, the laundry faucet).
    It didn’t seem to use a ton of water, and boy oh boy did it save me in terms of personal cleanliness.

    Re shower vs bath, the experiment idea is a great one! Since everyone’s habits are different, that’ll tell you your personal result. This site claims you can take one in less than a minute!

  6. We dont have a dishwasher and I have discovered a few different ways to save water.
    1. “sort” your dishes. Basically, you ruin a sink full of water if you wash the greasey pan first so wash it last.

    2. If you dont wash your dishes right away then make sure you get as much food off of them as possible (even a quick rinse is ok) because dried on food can take more scrubbing and muck up your dishwater faster.

    3. After washing, rinse all your dishes at once, I do this by putting still soapy dishes in my dish drainer (its small) and then picking up the whole thing and rinsing it off. It does fit in my sink and i do have a spray hose thing lol.

    • I always rinse my dishes right away, but the reason is because I HATE washing dishes so it makes the job easier. I never thought of it as conserving water, too!

    • Does everyone really rinse their dishes after washing them? I’ve never in my life done this and have never had soapy tasty dishes. Only exception is drinking glasses which I wash first as the sink is slowly filling and use the runnning tap to rinse. Everything else just goes in the drainer and is given a wipe-down. The biggest thing in our house is rinsing dishes right after using so we don’t waste heaps of hot water later trying to get off dried gunge before doing the dishes.

      • Yeah, I think it’s largely a cultural issue. I’ve seen people from other places and countries rinse their dishes, which was completely new to me. Over here, no one rinses their dishes after washing them. We just dry them immediately after washing (with a tea towel). The climate is too cold to let them dry on a rack (or it would take a very long time)
        If you do the dishes immediately after eating, you do not have to worry about bacteria etc (a minute ago, you were eating it!).

      • That confused me too! Why oh why do people rinse after?

        I wash glasses first, then dishes and cutlery, then pots and pans last. In my opinion it’s just logical and frankly if there’s a little oil left on my pan I don’t care! It’ll have oil of some kind in it next time I use it. Also, I agree a quick rinse after using dishes means less time and hot water to get off dried on food.

        Shower wins if you can keep it very short. If not, bath if you’re like me and are happy with a mini-bath (like seriously barely any water) that does your essentials :). It’s debatable if you’re like my partner and want your bath hot enough to cook a lobster in and deep-up to your armpits BUT take ages in the shower *sigh*. Think we should all do the plug-in shower test [Edited]

        • I know from experience that soap residue left on unrinsed dishes can be enough to cause serious stomach upsets. Maybe this depends on what type of soap is popularly used in different countries/regions?

          • It also depends on how you wash your dishes. My partner uses so much soap for a single dish that there is no way it wouldn’t taste like soap if you didn’t rinse it–things taste like soap when he DOES rinse!

            Restaurant procedure is to wash, rinse and sanitize–which is basically a second rinse, either in water hot enough, or with a chemical sanitizer. That is good for people with compromised immune systems (sick, pregnant, young and elderly), but acceptably overkill for most of the population. Therefore, if you have any of those people at home, following that procedure is probably best. Otherwise, I find compromising by rinsing to be enough. But skipping rinsing altogether? Absolutely not.

        • I am confused. Are you talking about a second rinse after the dishwasher does its job or rinsing soap off when handwashing? Do you just wipe them with a soapy sponge and then let them dry? Don’t you have to rinse off the soap? I am not trying to attack your way of doing this, I just have never heard of not rinsing after using soap, and I am curious about your methods.

  7. My mom is a bath taking, water conserving, rockstar of sorts… she hates showers and loves to soak before bed, but she scoops most of her water out of her tub with a pitcher and uses it to water her ever growing plant collection. She bathes nightly and waters nightly, the soap doesn’t hurt the plants and she would have to water them anyway… and yes, it takes at least a bathtub full of water to water all of her plants (she is a hardcore enthusiast) The same could be done with dish water I suppose… you could even throw a bit of green fertilizer in with the water if you’d like because the dish soap will help it stick to the plants more 🙂

  8. Using a washing-up bowl saves water, because you need less water to achieve the same depth.

    Organize what needs washing first, from least greasy to most – always start with glasses, then mugs, then crockey/cutlery, then cookware.

    Dish-rinsing is an American thing – an American friend once told me that when she moved to the UK, she was astounded by how much soap everyone left on their plates after washing. In my opinion, there’s no need to individually rinse each item after washing them; I just sploosh some clean water over the whole lot when I’ve finished washing up.

    • I have to say I thought my American friend was mental when she showed me how she washed up rinsing everything… then she told me all Americans do it!? 😛
      I just use a bowl of soapy water then let them drain till dry. No rinsing, no extra water. Not drying also means that the plates are air dried which I think is a bit cleaner than drying with a cloth and we use less drying up cloths so less water for washing them to.
      Washing everything in a sensible order also helps. I put cutlery in the bottom of the bowl and leave them to soak, then do glasses and cups then plates and bowls and finally the greasy stuff doing the cutlery somewhere in between.

    • Maybe I’m missing something here, but if you don’t rinse, how do you not end up with soapy-tasting glasses and stuff? And if you just keep dunking dishes into the sink, aren’t they picking up the grossness left from the other dishes? I know people are saying to start with the cleanest, but still…
      I should mention I never take baths because I find the idea of laying in my own dirt really repulsive, so maybe I’m just a clean freak 🙂

      • Well if you really think about how little soap it takes to get your dishes clean, the few bubbles left over don’t leave enough residue behind to really affect the taste. However, I’m a hardcore rinser because I want my dishes to look Cascade-commercial clean. We have hard water, so I’ll even rinse and wipe down my dishes out of the dishwater sometimes… But I do reuse the water in my garden, so guilt assuaged.

        To your other point, the reason you can keep using the same dishwater is because the surfactant in soap is built a little like a spermy shape. The tail end catches the grease and the big end helps it wash away with the water. If you start, not with the cleanest items, but the least greasy, the surfactant is still more than powerful enough to carry away the grease. That’s why your hands feel dry after using dish soap, because it also strips away all the natural oils on your hands.

        A good test for whether or not your soap is still working is to dry your hand completely and then dip a couple fingers back in the water, if your fingers come out greasy, all your dishes will, to. If not, they’ll be fine, because the surfactant/detergent is connecting them to the water…

        whooph, long reply

        • Cool, thanks for explaining the science! I still think I’ll try to conserve water in other ways. I already take insanely short showers and don’t leave the water running too long, so I don’t feel too guilty 🙂

    • Rinsing isn’t really an Australian thing either. I tend to rinse dishes before washing in order to get big bits of dirt and such off before putting them in the soapy water. I’m a bit of a stickler for pre-rinsing actually. It preserves the soapy water for longer.

  9. This is probably gonna gross some people out, but since I really realllllly love my dogs I let them lick stuff clean. As long as it is not something that will hurt them i put bowls, plates, pots and pans down and let them have their way with em! I hate scrubbing and they love eating. It is an ahhhhmazing partnership!

  10. Many ways of saving water and protecting the environment when doing the dishes by hand… don’t do them under running water, use the least “dangerous” dish soap, put your dishcloth in the laundry instead of throwing it away and buying new ones all the time, …

    And: Showers are better. It depends on how long you take for showering, but usually a bath needs about four times as much water (if I remember correctly, there’s all kinds of information on the internet). If you really want a bath, use the water afterwards to flush your toilet (use a bucket).

    But remember, if not enough water goes down the drain, there will be bacterial growth in the pipes. Germans are really good at saving water, and since the pipe system hasn’t been built for these small amounts of water, some cities are actually having problems with bacteria in their water.

    • “But remember, if not enough water goes down the drain, there will be bacterial growth in the pipes.”

      OMG! You just solved a long-standing mystery for me! I was in Bulgaria last year, and all the bathrooms there LOOK clean…but SMELL terrible. I could never figure out where the smell was coming from. I learned that only about 20% of the country has a sewage system, but this was in big cities that definitely weren’t on tanks or anything. I bet they turn their water flow down really low in a lot of places to save on the bill, so the smell is coming from the pipes!

      • Bathwater for the toilet: only if it’s not too bubbly, ie, not after a bubble bath!

        You can take the lid off your cistern and fill it with some water. Flush as normal. If you have a lot of bathwater and don’t mind leaving it there for a while, you can turn off the tap which feeds water to the cistern and just fill it up when it needs. My dad has been doing this for years, just keeps a large bucket next to the loo.

        • I’m still slightly confused… BUT I’m going to totally try this! I feel like a horrible person, my baby and I take a bath together every day. eeep!

      • with a bucket, of course 🙂
        you can use ut to fill up the tank in your toilet, but if the tank is difficult to access, just dump a bucket full of water down the toilet. That’s after all what happens when you flush.

        About toilets: I once heard someone say that he thought it was inexplicable that in a civilised country (like mine) we use drinking water to flush our toilets, when millions of people do not have access to clean water. That stuck with me ever since. I want a composting toilet when I have my own house, but for now there’s an easy tip to save water: place a large item (plastic/stone) in the water tank of your toilet (and so decrease the volume of the tank). Toilets usually use to much water to flush, you can use less and flush everything away.

  11. I don’t have a dishwasher so I do all my dishes by hand. I also have a very small water heater so conserving water is a must, eco-friendly or not. Here’s my system (it’s gonna sound like I’m slightly obsessive compulsive but it works for me).

    First I plug the drain, but don’t fill the sink. Then I put my soap on my sponge and work it into that instead of the water. I wash the glasses first, using their rinsewater to fill the sink. When I get through the glasses, I wash the flat stuff. When the sink is about to overflow, I pour some of the water into any pots or pans that need washing. I also put smaller items like silverware in said pots and pans. On a good night I can usually go through a dinner’s worth of dishes with only having to drain the water once. I hope I explained it alright, it’s kinda anal but it feels like it helps.

  12. We’re having a terrible drought here in Central Texas, so I hand wash the dishes and use a plastic dishpan to catch the water. I then use it to water our plants outside. A shallow dishpan isn’t the best thing to carry through the house without sloshing though, so I keep a big painter’s bucket in the kitchen and pour the water into that throughout the day. After dinner, I take it outside and use it in the garden.

    I also like the Navy showerheads (they use them on boats) – they are low flow, but really don’t feel like it, and have a little toggle switch to shut off the flow while you soap up. It’s warm enough here that I prefer this option to steaming up the house with the water on the whole time I’m bathing. I must save gallons this way!

    • I used to have one of those buttons on my old shower, because there was not a single place in the shower I could stand without being in the water. I couldn’t soap up everything and rinse off all at once like I was used to, I used more soap because my loofah was constantly getting rinsed out as I washed, and believe it or not I got overstimulated from the constant water! That little button was a great relief for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was being able to save water.

      Now my partner and I shower together (every time I shower, and about half of his). There are rare instances where one of us is not actively using the water, but it’s rare. And we still get out in under 10 minutes.

  13. Wow. I read the article and was left wondering how you could possibly get everything clean with less water, then discovered I was finding it hard to imagine because I use all these tips anyway. I never even thought of it as saving water, I just didn’t know another way to do dishes.

    Anyway, here’s a quick run-down of my system:
    1) When collecting dishes I scrape off as much food as I can.
    2) Fill the sink with hot water and just enough detergent to make bubbles.
    3) Wash everything in order from least to most dirty (usually glasses, mugs, anything ‘bits’ stick to like the sieve, anything else made of glass, cutlery, plates and bowls, chopping board, saucepans then the work/frying pan/oven trays).
    4) No rinsing. I just leave it all to air dry.

    I can usually do a day or two of dishes for two people, enough to fill the entire drying rack, with 1 sink of water. Very occasionally one item (usually the wok or the oven tray we cook bacon on) will need an extra scrub in clean water but that’s rare.

    Oh, also many things with food stuck to them don’t really need to soak seperately. I often put a problem plate or glass in the bottom when I start that ’round’ of items and by the time I’m done with the other plates or glasses it cleans easily and I’ve saved on extra water for soaking.

  14. I don’t think I saw this in any of the above responses, but here are some tips learned from some Mennonite friends:

    1) Use a rubber spatula to scrape the plates into the garbage or compost. (Actually, they are also really careful about only taking what they will eat, and totally cleaning the plate off.) This pretty much eliminates the need to rinse.

    2) Use two plastic dishpans. Fill one with hot soapy water, and one with plain water. You soak/scrub the dishes in the soapy one, then dip through the plain water to rinse. (Eventually, depending on how dirty the dishes were, you will have to change the soapy water to fresh, and at some point, the rinse water may become too soapy and and need to be refreshed.) It’s really, really nice if you have a double basin sink, but you don’t have to; you can put one dishpan on the counter.

    3) The glasses-silverware-plates-pots order of washing is pretty standard; it’s in old home ec textbooks (I know this because I love reading those).

    Otherwise — if you are concerned about throwing water outside, you can use biodegrable dish soap. We always threw ours over the hydrangea bush out back, and it actually changed the color of the flowers because of the basidity (?) (as opposed to the acidity of the soil) of the soapy water; it didn’t hurt the bush or the grass, though.

    And yes, obviously, washing up (or at least soaking) right away will save lots of water and scrubbing!

    • *alkalinity

      The two plastic dishpans thing is the best way I’ve found to do dishes, if you feel the need to rinse (I don’t, really, but my room mate has OCD soooo…rinsing).

      I use a dish soap mostly made out of coconut surfactants, and it’s marvelous.

  15. Was the counter dishwasher loud? I heard that they can be and I wouldn’t want to disturb my neighbors. I HATE washing dishes so this would be great to use, if possible.

  16. We also always use a dish pan when doing dishes. Or rather, I do, and I’m working on training the main dish-doer to do so to. This is usually the biggest dirty vessel. I fill up the dish pan and start cleaning, then fill it up again to let the next batch soak while I rinse round one.

    I also sort dishes. I have always liked to do glasses/cups, silverware, plates/bowls, then pots & pans, but never realized it was a prescribed order. Guess my mom was subtle in teaching us. I always just like the way it allows you to get the most out of the dish-drainer space.

  17. Shower military style (I have no idea if they do this in the military): get wet, turn the shower off, soap-up/scrub, turn the shower back on and rinse off. All done!

    • This is funny that you should call this “military style”. I was going to write a comment saying that I hadn’t actually read anything about what is considered the most basic tip when it comes to saving water in my country: turn the water off when you wash your body/hair! It can be hard in winter, but it definitely saves a lot of water as compared to a bath or a shower without turning the water off.

  18. If you want to conserve water for washing dishes – fill the sink just enough to soak/wash the dishes. Then you can rinse them quickly under cool water and set them up to air dry.
    As far as a shower/bath goes – I chose one or the other depending on how dirty I am! If I shower I really only wash what needs to be (i.e. Hair/face, hands, feet, and other crevices!). . . When I take a bath I don’t fill the tub with water, I put just what I think I might need and do it for relaxation.

  19. I spent some time in Nepal working at an orphanage where water was strictly rationed. To wash the dishes, first we’d scrape them really well into the garbage. Then we’d dampen the sponge and wipe the plates down, and rinse them quickly– just a little spurt of water onto each plate, which we’d wipe around so the whole surface got rinsed. Pots and things we scrubbed with just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Everything got clean. Also, I’ll put some water in a pan that needs to soak and wash other dishes in that while it soaks.

  20. 1. Get an organic soap (stuff with citrus works very well).
    2. Fill one sink halfway with warm water.
    3. Fill a shallow plastic tub with cold water.
    4. Scrape off any food you may have stuck on the plates (you don’t want icky stuff floating around in the water).
    5. Start with washing your glassware first. Rinse in cold water, set aside to dry (cold water makes glass go sparkly too).
    6. Wash your plates, then your cutlery and finally end wit the pots and pans.
    7. You can throw your cold water on your lawn, flower beds etc.

    If your dishes are really dirty soak for a while (even overnight).

  21. For washing dishes I have a big tub that is filled with soap/water and usually cold and I hate putting my hands in it but I do so anyhow. I change out the water once a week. I scrub stuff down and then use the hottest water I can get (which makes me hurry like all hell because it burns- I do this bare handed to make me hurry) and just quickly rinse everything Sometimes if the dishes weren’t that dirty or I need to change the tub water I will empty the tub and rinse OVER the tub so that the hot water can fill the tub and I save it.

    Using the hot water and soap kills the germs and it seems to be effective. This is just how I manage in my tiny kitchen with a sink that backs up with sewagey (ew ew ew ew.) sea water if I use too much.(Oh I just LOVE where I live.) I have the feeling it would be effective though for others.

    Though I Hate, Loath, Despise dishes- This makes it quick and over with.

  22. I keep a dishpan filled with soapy water in my sink. I put all the dishes I use in it throughout the day. Then when I do dishes I just grab a sponge and wash, empty the dish pan, fill it back up with clean water to rinse, and then reuse that water by adding soap in it.

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