In recent years, dishwasher detergents have undergone a major makeover. In 2010, 17 states banned phosphates (which help detergent work in hard water but have a negative impact on the environment) in dishwasher detergent, which was one of the last cleaning products still relying on them. In response, manufacturers reformulated their detergents, and many old favorites suddenly performed poorly, especially in hard water.
Another advent is the rapid growth in popularity of detergent gel packs and tabs, which eliminate the need to measure detergent -- one tab, one load. Gel packs are typically wrapped in a water-soluble packet (and thus should not be handled with wet hands); powdered tabs may be packed in a plastic wrapper that needs to be removed prior to use.
According to the latest product tests and reviews, Finish Quantum dishwashing tablets (*Est. 23 cents per load) is the best dishwasher detergent you can buy. But competition is fierce. Experts say Finish Quantum can handle even the most stubborn soils. Worth noting, Good Housekeeping editors say Finish Quantum is "the only detergent tested that zapped hamburger grease from our frying pan, dissolved cooked-on oatmeal, and muscled out our mac 'n' cheese." Editors at Real Simple also recommend Finish Quantum, saying it got dishes "shockingly clean," and these tabs don't have the "fussy" packaging of many other tablets.
Consumers also give their highest marks to Finish Quantum. At Amazon.com about 100 people give this detergent an average score of 4.7 out of 5, making it the top-rated dishwasher detergent sold on this site. It is relatively well received at Viewpoints.com, too, earning 84 out of 100 points. One negative Amazon.com review does note these tabs have a very strong (potentially unpleasant) scent. In older reviews, several reviewers say Finish is pricier than other tabs, though in our research we found that Cascade Complete Pacs (*Est. 23 cents per load) and Finish Quantum cost about the same per load.
Cascade Complete Pacs, formerly known as Cascade Complete All-in-1 ActionPacs, receive nearly as many positive reviews. It's named the second-best detergent by ConsumerReports.org in a May 2012 test of 20 detergents. Editors say it works well on cooked-on messes and prevents filming and discoloration on glassware.
Reviewers at Good Housekeeping also single out Cascade Complete Pacs with praise, naming it the best value in detergent packs, saying they worked on both normal and heavy-duty loads. At Amazon.com Cascade has been reviewed by more people than Finish (about 125), but it earns a lower overall score of 4.5 out of 5. It earns a handful of negative scores, but in general consumers say Casdade -- like its closest competitor -- does a good job of cleaning dirty dishes.
Cascade Complete Pacs does enjoy one clear advantage over Finish Quantum -- cleaning power in hard water. When ConsumerReports.org factored in performance in hard water, Finish Quantum moved from first place to third, behind Cascade Complete Pacs. However, some Amazon.com users say Finish Quantum works better than other detergents in their hard water, while Cascade Complete Pacs leave a film. In this instance, it may come down to experimenting with both detergents to see which works best in your dishwasher.
Several factors distinguish eco-friendly dishwasher detergents from conventional ones. These detergents eschew use of chlorine bleach, which can be an irritant to individuals with chemical sensitivities and pollute groundwater. Some green detergents also exclude dyes or perfumes. These products tend to be made from plant-based materials and are not tested on animals.
To be truly green, however, these detergents need to clean effectively, because pre-rinsing and re-washing dishes wastes water -- and tests by sources such as ConsumerReports.org indicate that many eco-friendly dishwasher detergents miss the mark.
One brand stands out among eco-friendly detergents: Method Smarty Dish Dishwasher Tabs (*Est. 30 cents per load). Sarah Aguirre, About.com's guide to housekeeping, names it one of the two best green detergents; Seventh Generation Free & Clear Automatic Dishwasher Pacs (*Est. 21 cents per load) is the other. She praises Method for its efficient use of packaging and likes the fact that these dishwasher tabs are free of chlorine bleach. Method Smarty Dish is highly reviewed by consumers at Drugstore.com, where it gets a rare perfect average score from more than two dozen reviewers. It also fares well at Viewpoints.com and receives close to 4.5 stars at Soap.com.
One notable drawback, however, is that Method Smarty Dish does not work well in hard water. ConsumerReports.org noted that when it factored in hard water performance, Method moved from fourth to tenth place, and it performed worst in hard water of all the detergents tested. The negative consumer reviews that Method receives typically describe filmy deposits, so it's likely these reviewers have hard water.
For those with hard water, Biokleen Automatic Dishwasher Powder (*Est. 16 cents per load ) seems to be the best bet. It doesn't receive as many recommendations or reviews, but Drugstore.com reviews are very positive. It's also the least expensive green dishwasher detergent we found, though some say it doesn't work as well for pots and pans or tougher dirt.
Biokleen is also recommended by Bestcovery.com, where it finishes second only to Electrasol Dishwasher Detergent with Powerball Tabs, which has since been rebranded as Finish All in One Powerball Tabs (*Est. 20 cents per load). In a brief summary, Bestcovery's reviewer praises Biokleen for its concentrated, chlorine-free formula that's free of dyes and harsh chemicals. The review doesn't speak to the detergent's effectiveness, though.
In our research, we relied heavily on professional comparative reviews, which we found at ConsumerReports.org, Good Housekeeping and Real Simple. These testers use a variety of methods -- from washing dirty dishes to running aluminum sheets through the wash cycle 20 times to simulate wear and tear. Other sources of ranked reviews include About.com, Bestcovery.com and Buzzle.com. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.) We also consulted consumers' opinions at Amazon.com, Viewpoints.com, Drugstore.com and Soap.com. We paid special attention to the most recent reviews, as many manufacturers reformulated products in 2010 to eliminate phosphates.