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Q: Why do we wash dishes with soap? ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: Why do we wash dishes with soap?
Category: Health
Asked by: jrw-ga
List Price: $30.00
Posted: 23 Aug 2003 21:24 PDT
Expires: 22 Sep 2003 21:24 PDT
Question ID: 248104
Why is it necessary to wash dishes with soap?  Isn't rinsing the food
off dirty dishes with just water enough? I have found tons of
information on the
correct way to wash dishes, but nothing that says why we wash them.  I
need some very good scientific answers to this question. Do germs or
bacteria grow on dishes that have been eaten on and only rinsed?? If
so, do these germs or bacteria cause sickness when we eat on the same
dishes again?? Maybe there are other reasons.  I need to know how NOT
washing dishes with soap can affect your health.  I would like a
pretty detailed answer, backed up by scientific facts, and yet simple
to understand. Thank you.
Subject: Re: Why do we wash dishes with soap?
Answered By: ephraim-ga on 24 Aug 2003 18:37 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars

Thank you for your question! The answer is a little more complicated
than you might imagine, and involves some basic chemistry. I'll do my
best to explain in plain English how cleaning agents like soap work,
while leaving you with pointers to the more detailed scientific

I'm going to start with some history and definitions. I'm going to
assume that you do not in fact use actual "soap" to clean your dishes,
but instead use a product called "detergent." The two products work in
similar ways, but soap is a natural product, while detergent is
synthetic. In addition, detergents work better in "hard" water (water
with lots of minerals) and don't leave a scum residue.

There's a fantastic website at [ ] put
together by The Soap and Detergent Association which summarizes the
main points that I'm going to make.

You can discover all you'd like to know about the history of soap and
detergent starting at [ ]
and continuing for 3 pages. Soap was a combination of vegetable or
animal fats and ash which contained alkali. According to page 2 of
cleaning101's history, "Soapmaking was an established craft in Europe
by the seventh century. Soapmaker guilds guarded their trade secrets
closely. Vegetable and animal oils were used with ashes of plants,
along with fragrance." Improvements to soapmaking were mainly due to
better processes for creating the alkali products (lye, for example)
which mixed with the fats to form soap. The actual chemistry of the
process didn't change much until 1916, "when the first synthetic
detergent was developed in Germany in response to a World War
I-related shortage of fats for making soap. Known today simply as
detergents, synthetic detergents are non-soap washing and cleaning
products that are "synthesized" or put together chemically from a
variety of raw materials. The discovery of detergents was also driven
by the need for a cleaning agent that, unlike soap, would not combine
with the mineral salts in water to form an insoluble substance known
as soap curd."

Cleaning101's products page at [ ] explains that " Hand
dishwashing detergents  remove food soils, hold soil in suspension and
provide long-lasting suds that indicate how much cleaning power is
left in the wash water."

So, how do soaps and detergents work? I'll start with [ ], which asks
"How Does Soap Clean?" This page gives a chemical explanation about
how soap works, and I'd recommend that you read it if you're
interested in the chemical composition and behavior of soap. If the
science of soap makes your eyes roll, then here's my layman's
summary/interpretation of this article:

If you've ever made salad dressing from scratch, you should know that
oil and water don't mix. Even if you shake the bottle with the salad
dressing for 10 minutes, the instant you stop shaking the mixture, it
will again separate into its oil and water components. You've probably
also noticed that some (though not all) dressings you can buy in the
supermarket don't seem to have this problem. The reason for this is
that the salad dressing manufacturer uses a product called an
"emulsifier" to allow oil and water to mix. According to the
article, soap is also an emulsifier.

Imagine that you have just had a delicious dinner of greasy fried
chicken. What happens when you try to wash your plates? From the salad
dressing example above, you should realize that rinsing your plates
with water probably won't be that effective. Just as the water and oil
of salad dressing resist each other, so will the chicken grease and
water. With enough strength, scrubbing, and tons of water, you might
eventually manage to loosen the chicken grease from the plate and make
it clean, but there's got to be a better way! The article
explains how soap works as an emulsifier, which makes it easier for
water to wash away the grease. "Soap is an excellent cleanser because
of its ability to act as an emulsifying agent. An emulsifier is
capable of dispersing one liquid into another immiscible liquid. This
means that while oil (which attracts dirt) doesn't naturally mix with
water, soap can suspend oil/dirt in such a way that it can be
removed." confirms that this is also true for detergent. I was unable
to access the original page for this, so I'm linking to Google's cache
instead at [
]. In response to a question about dish soap, the site responds: "The
molecules that make up detergent (or any soap for that matter) have a
"water-loving" end and an "oil-loving" end. In other words, the
opposite ends of these molecules are attracted to the kinds of
molecules that make up water on one end and the kinds of molecules
that make up oil, grease, or fat on the other. This is because water
molecules are polar (they have + and - poles). The oily, non-polar end
attaches to all the greasy fatty bits stuck on your dishes. Then the
water in the sink "grabs" the other, polar, end sticking out from all
the oil globs, and all the oil and fat comes right off your dishes,
into the water, and down the drain. The same thing happens with soap
in the shower, or when you shampoo your hair."

If you'd like to try some simple experiments and see for yourself how
soap reduces the surface tension of water (and thus makes it possible
for the water to mix better with grease so that it can clean), here
are two that will show you how soap reduces the surface tension of
water at [
]. One little note about the first experiment on this page: Your
results probably won't be as dramatic as described, but you should
still be able to see the change if you watch carefully. The water at
the top of the glass will change from a slight bubble shape to almost
flat with the edge of the glass and a few drops will dribble down the

You might be asking why it is so important for soap to allow water and
oil to mix. The answer is that dirt easily mixes with the oil, and
because the dirt/oil mix contains oil, it will also be resistant to
water if you try to clean it. In a discussion about how to remove
dirt, [ ] asks "But what if
the dirt particles have a slightly oily coating? They will stick to
your skin like wet mud. In addition, the dirt doesn't have to even
bring its own oily coating. Your skin many times has enough oil on it
to make dirt particles stick. But unlike the mud, this dirt is going
to stay stuck because oil doesn't evaporate and dry up as water does.
Nor will a spray of plain water dislodge it because it will simply
roll off the dirt as water rolls off the oil. Assuming that the force
of water isn't sufficient enough to dislodge the oil of course...The
answer is soap. But soap dosn't really disolve oil like solvents do.
It works by enticing the oil into the water so the oil and its dirt
can be flushed away. It also disturbs the surface tension of water. In
other words, it makes water lay flatter and not ball up like a rain
drop. This allows the water to get into micro crevices even better and
wash away the dirt."

I'm also going to point you at [ ], which is a 5th grade
classroom curriculum for teaching kids how to observe good hygiene.
While you might be asking how elementary school hygiene is relevant to
cleaning dishes, I believe that the following quote from this page
will begin to answer your question about the effect of soap on
bacteria and germs. "We also coach Sid through the steps of taking a
shower, including the importance of soap (it makes water wetter!) and
friction from a wash cloth. I remind them that standing under the
running water doesn't count, and explain how germs hang on to the oil
and dead skin cells for dear life." This is almost certainly
applicable to dishes as well, since most food products on a plate
contain oils that have been exposed to the germs from somebody's
mouth/body and in the air.

The short answer is that soap and detergent are not by themselves
intended to kill bacteria and germs. Their purpose is to make it
easier for the bacteria and germs to wash away. I would take an
educated guess that the pH value of the chemicals in dish detergent
might be enough to kill certain bacteria, but this is just a guess,
and it isn't something which you should rely upon. Also, note that
these days, many detergents are advertised as being "anti-bacterial"
and contain chemicals like Triclosan which are intended to kill
bacteria. I've read that these anti-bacterial agents are unecessary
and may actually be harmful. A (possibly biased) explanation about
anti-bacterial agents in detergents is available at [ ]:

"Q. Is this product antibacterial? Don’t I need an antibacterial
agent, such as Triclosan?
A.     No, this product is not antibacterial.  Dish Liquids that make
an antibacterial claim can only eliminate bacteria on your hands if
used at full strength.  They do not kill most bacteria when it is
diluted on your sponge or sink and will not kill the bacteria that may
be present on your dishes.  Hot water and gentle scrubbing of your
hands is generally sufficient to eliminate virtually all the bacteria
without an antibacterial agent Studies have shown that indiscriminate
use of antibacterial agents, and specifically Triclosan, can lead to
the creation of resistance stains of bacteria, “super bugs,” that
cannot be controlled easily with conventional antibacterial agents."

Again, this description may be slightly biased, since I think it's
intended to sell other products, but I have heard these claims before
from multiple media sources.

Some points made in that quote are definitely things you should keep
in mind. The sponge you use for cleaning may grow bacteria. Also, hot
water is a very important component of keeping your dishes sterile.
Hot water not only improves the ability of soap to work, but also will
kill bacteria. Thus, you should wash your dishes at the highest
temperature possible. There's one point not mentioned in the quote
which is also relevant to keeping your dishes bacteria-free. After
washing your dishes with hot water, allow them to air dry rather than
wiping dry with a cloth. There's a good chance that the cloth contains
bacteria and germs which will only re-contaminate the dishes!

I'm also going to give you a pointer to [
]. This is mainly relevant to people in the food services industry
using high-end commercial washing machines, but should give you some
idea about the dish hygiene standards which they must adhere to. Among
the claims in this essay:

* "In order to consistently reach the required heating level during
the sanitation process, operators are increasingly turning to
high-temperature warewashing equipment that heats the rinse water to
180F. At this temperature, cleaning and sterilizing are more complete
and final drying time is reduced...The higher temperature water offers
many advantages in addition to leaving dishes, glasses and utensils
sparkling clean and bacteria-free."

* "Even though a low-temp chemical machine will deliver dishes that
are free of bacteria, the dishes will still be wet when exiting the
machine. This is where caution needs to be exercised. Those once
bacteria-free plates could easily become contaminated again if they
are not allowed to dry properly before being stacked after washing."

Note that the "low-temp" washers he's referring to wash at
temperatures between 115 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. If washing by
hand, water above 115 F is difficult to bear for more than short
periods of time. Also, he makes a good point about wet dishes
attracting ambient bacteria more easily than dry dishes.

A US Department of Health and Human Services document at [ ] describes manual
hand-washing procedures that should be adhered to in order to assure
that dishes are clean and bacteria-free:

"Step 1:  Prescrape/presoak all utensils, pots and pans to remove
large food
Step 2:  Wash in hot water 43 C (110F) or hotter
containing a detergent until
              visibly clean.
Step 3:  Rinse in clean, hot water to remove the remaining soap and
Step 4:  Sanitize in water 24 C (75 F) to 38C
(100 F) for 7 seconds in a
             solution of 50 PPM of chlorine that has a pH of 8 or
Step 5:  Air dry all cleaned/sanitized items prior to storing them in
a clean
              protected area."

Now, I'll admit that I don't know that many people who sanitize their
dishes in chlorine after washing, but the document's other points are
very valid to people cleaning dishes at home.

Much of what I've said above is also stated very well by the
cleaning101 website at [ ].
This one isn't too hard to understand and I would highly recommend
that you browse it.

In conclusion, washing dishes with soap/detergent is just one step in
the process needed to ensure that dishes are clean and bacteria-free.
The purpose of soap and detergent is to "make water wetter" and allow
germ-containing grease to be easily removed from the dishes. Other
important steps in the process of having clean dishes are using hot
water, scrubbing hard, and allowing dishes to air-dry quickly.

I hope this has provided you with the information you require. Do not
hesitate to ask for clarification if needed.

Search Strategy:

I needed to perform quite a few Google searches to find the
information I've included above.

[ ://
Google Search: faq + "dish soap"

[ ://
Google Search: "how does soap work"

[ ://
Google Search: "how does dish soap work"

Google Search: "making water wetter"


Clarification of Answer by ephraim-ga on 24 Aug 2003 18:51 PDT
Part of the formatting of my answer above seems have been mucked up by
the posting software. In any case, the portion from the US Department
of Health and Human Services *should* have read:

Step 1:  Prescrape/presoak all utensils, pots and pans to remove
large food deposits. 

Step 2:  Wash in hot water 43 degrees C (110 degrees F) or hotter
containing a detergent until visibly clean.
Step 3:  Rinse in clean, hot water to remove the remaining soap and

Step 4:  Sanitize in water 24 degrees C (75 degrees F) to 38 degrees C
(100 degrees F) for 7 seconds in a solution of 50 PPM of chlorine that
has a pH of 8 or less.

Step 5:  Air dry all cleaned/sanitized items prior to storing them in
a clean protected area.


Request for Answer Clarification by jrw-ga on 25 Aug 2003 17:27 PDT
Thanks for the is very detailed, but really doesn't answer
the basic question. I am quoting you: "The short answer is that soap
and detergent are not by themselves intended to kill bacteria and
germs. Their purpose is to make it easier for the bacteria and germs
to wash away."
I want to know if we leave the bacteria and germs on the dishes will
we get sick, if so, with what disease, and how common is it to get
sick from eating off off un-washed dishes.  Maybe I didn't state the
question clearly enough.  Sorry for that.  I REALLY need clarification
on this point.
Thanks for all your efforts...Jane

Clarification of Answer by ephraim-ga on 26 Aug 2003 20:27 PDT
I'm going to start by addressing each of the subquestions in your
original question.

* "Why is it necessary to wash dishes with soap?"

My answer above deals directly with this point. Basically, soap "makes
water wetter" and makes it easier to remove grease and oil from the
dishes. If you still need clarification on this point, please do not
hesitate to ask for further clarification.

* "Isn't rinsing the food off dirty dishes with just water enough?"

Again, my answer above explains this clearly as "No." If you want me
to clarify this as well, I'd be happy to.

* "Do germs or bacteria grow on dishes that have been eaten on and
only rinsed??"

Yes they do, as I said above. Again, just ask if you need
clarification on this point.

* "If so, do these germs or bacteria cause sickness when we eat on the
same dishes again??...I need to know how NOT washing dishes with soap
can affect your health."

Reading over this question, I've realized that my original answer may
have been unclear in regards to this sub-question. Here, I'll try to
explain this part in more detail. Before doing so, however, I'd like
to remind you that Google Answers is a service which is intended to
provide you with general information. It is not a substitute for
medical advice from a trained medical professional. Also, I am not a
trained doctor. Therefore, I would *highly* advise you to consult with
a real medical professional if you need real medical advice about any
of these subjects.

Healthlink, at the Medical College of Wisconsin has a web page at [ ] entitled "How to
Stop Food-Borne Illness Before it Starts." It briefly describes
different illnesses that can result from contaminated food, and also
explains how cleanliness is vital to prevention of some of these

"Prime causes of food-borne illness include bacteria, parasites and
viruses such as E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Shigella, Giardia,
Cyclospora, Cryptosporidium and hepatitis A virus. These organisms can
be found in a wide range of foods and drinks, including meat, milk and
other dairy products, spices, chocolate, seafood and even water.


Bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes, Vibrio vulnificus, Vibrio
parahaemolyticus and Salmonella have been found in raw seafood; and
oysters, clams, mussels, scallops and cockles may be contaminated with
hepatitis A virus.


Cross-contamination can occur when cutting boards and kitchen tools
that have been used to prepare one contaminated food (such as raw
chicken) are not cleaned before being used for another food (such as
vegetables). Hot or cold foods left standing too long at room
temperature provide an ideal climate in which bacteria can grow. The
first rule of safe food preparation in the home is to keep everything


Always use clean utensils and wash them between cutting different


Machinery such as food processors, meat grinders and juicers should be
taken apart and cleaned as soon as possible after they are used."

The Federal Citizen Information Center has a page of similar
information at [
] and which says the following:

"The prime causes of food-borne illness include bacteria, parasites
and viruses such as: Escherichia coli O157:H7, Campylobacter jejuni,
Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Listeria monocytogenes, Clostridium
perfringens, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Vibrio vulnificus, Shigella,
Giardia lamblia, Cyclospora cayetanensis, Cryptosporidium parvum,
hepatitis A virus, and Norwalk and Norwalk-like virus.


Careless food handling sets the stage for the growth of
disease-causing "bugs." For example, hot or cold foods left standing
too long at room temperature provide an ideal climate for bacteria to
grow. Improper cooking also plays a role in food-borne illness.

Foods may be cross-contaminated when cutting boards and kitchen tools
that have been used to prepare a contaminated food, such as raw
chicken, are not cleaned before being used for another food such as

In both of the above examples, the lessons are clear. Improperly
cooked or prepared foods may harbor various diseases, parasites, and
bacteria. Other "germs" may grow on food which has sat at room
temperature for more than a limited amount of time. If the dishes are
not properly cleaned, then these "bugs" may stay on the dishes,
possibly contaminate nearby dishes and foods, and infect the next
person who uses them. To reiterate one of the statements above, "The
first rule of safe food preparation in the home is to keep everything

A student handout at [
] for a Food Safety and Protection course provides the following
estimate regarding how quickly bacteria can grow at room temperature:

"The following chart shows how rapidly bacteria can grow.  Bacteria
reproduce by a process called binary fission.  Bacteria reproduce at
different rates and vary in sizes. We start with one bacterium and in
15-20 minutes it divides in two. Bacteria do not start growing right
away, it takes several hours for them to totally adjust to the new

    START         1
    15 MINUTES    2
    30 MINUTES    4
    45 MINUTES    8
    1  HOUR       16
    2  HOURS      256
    3  HOURS      4096
    4  HOURS      65,536
    5  HOURS      1,048,576
    6  HOURS      16,777,216"

The same handout also provides the following information about various
health issues that may be caused by unsafe food:

"(1) Salmonella. Associated with poultry and poultry salads; meat and
meat products; shell eggs and egg products, such as custards and
sauces; sliced melons and raw sprouts. Does not form spores and is

 (2) Listeria. Associated with unpasteurized milk and cheese, ice
cream, and chilled ready-to-eat foods. Does not form spores and is

 (3) Campylobacter. Associated with unpasteurized milk and dairy
products, raw poultry, non-chlorinated and fecal contaminated water.
Does not form spores.


 1.  Staphylococcal.  Associated with reheated foods and other meats,
poultry, egg products, and other protein foods. The causative agent is
usually present in boils, infected cuts, other sores, and postnasal
drip or sprays expelled from coughing and sneezing. Does not form
spores and is facultative.

 2. Clostridium Perfringens. This is commonly known as the leftover
disease. Associated with cooked meats and meat products that have been
improperly cooled and reheated. It is a normal inhabitant of the
intestinal tract of man. It is spore forming and anaerobic.

 3. Botulism. Associated with foods that were under-processed or
temperature-abused in storage; canned low-acid foods (home canning);
untreated garlic and oil products. This disease has a 65% mortality
rate. Ingestion of the toxin in foods leads to nerve paralysis
manifested by symptoms of weakness, headache, dizziness, and loss of
voice, followed by death due to respiratory or cardiac paralysis. It
is spore forming and anaerobic.


 (1) Hepatitis A is a virus that can occur when raw or improperly
cooked seafood is eaten. Also spread from infected food handlers to
food. Contaminated shellfish are commonly implicated in Hepatitis
outbreaks. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, nausea, loss of
appetite, vomiting, abdominal pain, and jaundice after several days.

 (2) Norwalk Agent and Rotavirus are gastrointestinal infections that
occur from consuming contaminated water, shellfish, raw vegetables and
ready –to-eat foods, such as fresh fruits and salads. Rotavirus
is more common in children than adults. Symptoms of both viral
infections include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache, and
mild fever.


 1.  Trichinosis is a parasitic (roundworm) foodborne illness that
occurs from eating raw or under cooked pork or wild game animals.
Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, occasional
vomiting, fever, muscle soreness, extreme sweating, chills, and

 2. Anisakiasis is a parasitic (roundworm) foodborne illness that
occurs from eating raw, undercooked or improperly frozen seafood
(haddock, pacific salmon, flounder, sushi, and sashimi). Symptoms
include tingling or tickling sensation in throat, vomiting or coughing
up worms, and sever abdominal pain."

Finally, this page lists methods of prevention for many of the
problems described above:

"Organisms causing most disease transmitted through food come in from
people preparing and serving food, although some appear to be
perfectly healthy. They also come from the mouth, nose, or body wastes
of persons who are sick or are carriers of disease. Persons who cough
or sneeze on their hands, wipe their lips with their fingers, fail to
wash their hands after visiting the latrine or handling contaminated
utensils and linen, will have disease organisms on their hands. If
they handle food or clean utensils, these organisms will be passed on
to the food or utensils and then to the unfortunate customers.
Consistently practicing good personal hygiene can prevent this from


Practice of Personal Habits. The overall cleanliness and observation
of good personal hygiene by the food service employee includes not
only his/her personal cleanliness, but also the way he/she performs
routine duties. The following is a list of personal habits to avoid
with appropriate recommendations:

 (a) Sneezing or Coughing. Bacteria are present in the mucus or saliva
expelled from a person's mouth or nose when he/she sneezes or coughs.
These droplets may fall on or in the area of food. Therefore, good
sanitary manners require the use of a clean handkerchief. Hand washing
is also in order after coughing or sneezing.

 (b) Using Toilet Facilities. Do not forget to wash your hands after
using the toilet. Hands contaminated with human waste is a major cause
of foodborne illness."

Any of the above conditions could be present in food that remains on
dishes which have not been cleaned properly. As you should realize by
now, some of these conditions are caused by contaminated raw food,
some are caused by airborne bacteria which begin growing on food which
has come to room temperature, and others are spread by contact with
infected humans. All of these could remain on plates, dishes, and
cutlery which have not been properly cleaned, and therefore spread to
other people who attempt to eat from them. As you've seen above,
bacteria may grow at an exponential rate, so even a small amount could
cause illness. As stated in my original answer, using soap to clean
dishes is one important factor in ensuring that the dishes will become

Now that I've provided the additional information above, I'm going to
try to address your follow-up questions in the posted clarification

First, let me note that some of these questions appeared to go well
beyond the scope of the original question that you posted. Your
clarification stated that "Maybe I didn't state the question clearly
enough. Sorry for that." Since I don't count mind-reading among my
many skills, I was unable to read these additional questions into your
original question. Nevertheless, I did my best to provide suitable
answers to your follow-up questions in the additional details that I
provided above. Please keep in mind, however, that despite my best
efforts to answer these follow-up questions, some of them are by their
very nature impossible to answer conclusively, and I've detailed my
reasons for believing this below.

* "I want to know if we leave the bacteria and germs on the dishes
will we get sick?"

This question does not lend itself to a simple answer. This depends on
the amount of contamination on the dishes, the strength of the
individual's immune system, and many other factors. By failing to
clean dishes, you certainly create more potential for bacteria,
parasites, viruses, and other "bugs" to make contact with another
human being. Above, I have detailed many different types of "bugs" and
contamination that could exist on uncleaned dishes. There's no way to
absolutely determine if a given individual will get sick, but by
cleaning the dishes you most certainly reduce that potential.

* "if so, with what disease?"

Above, I have provided various lists of known food-borne illnesses,
along with descriptions of what types of foods they are most likely to
contaminate and conditions which encourage their existence on food.

* "how common is it to get sick from eating off off un-washed dishes."

This is also very difficult to answer conclusively. Let's say, for
example, that one day you wake up with mild diarrhea. Can you
conclusively prove that you became ill due to food poisoning from the
dirty dishes you ate on the night before? Perhaps your illness was
instead caused by a bad piece of fruit? Or by failing to wash your
hands after playing with a baby? You'll never know, and since most
people don't report mild cases of diarrhea to their doctors, it's
doubtful that real statistics exist about the commonality of diseases
spread specifically by unclean dishes.

Keep in mind that there very well may be statistics on severe food
poisoning. But, again, we can't be sure if this occurred due to
unclean dishes or other contaminated food. Unclean dishes are almost
certainly one factor in food-borne illness, but I believe it would be
difficult to separate this into a separate statistical category.

I hope this has provided the clarification you needed.

jrw-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $10.00
This is the greatest answer...everything I need to know....I will
definitely use Google again when I can't find the answer myself on the
internet.  The clarification answer was exceptional.  Thank you so

Subject: Re: Why do we wash dishes with soap?
From: ephraim-ga on 27 Aug 2003 11:01 PDT

Thanks for the tip! Your kindness is appreciated!


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