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Are you wondering how to wash dishes without soap, specifically the dish soap we are so used to using? Dish soap is a fairly modern invention, and liquid dish soap is even more modern. Yet before they came along, dishes still needed to be washed. 

Before liquid dish soap became available, what did people use for hand washing dishes?

How did your great-grandmother  – you know, back in “the old days” – keep the family from getting sick from nasty bacteria on their dishes, since she didn’t have access to the chemical soaps and detergents that we do?


Really? SAND?

Okay, maybe sand, baking soda, and a lot of hot water. But still … want to know more?

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The nearest I can find for homemade dish soap recipes are diluted lye soap. Is that what people used? It seems reasonable, considering our love for sudsy, soapy water, although it would be rather harsh on the hands.

Yet in historical novels that I read, I find constant mention of sand.

No lye soap on the dishes? Turns out that washing up liquid wasn’t nearly as popular as natural cleaners, and for good reason.

In an old book from 1879 which details the beginnings of what would eventually become High School Home Economics, the washing of dishes is addressed.

I blinked when I came upon this:

We never use soap to clean any kind of cooking utensil.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? After all, we all use soap on our dishes these days – and sometimes very harsh soap.

The reason was this:

while soap is a very good thing to take away dirt from our hands and clothes, it is a very nasty thing to eat.

Well, I can’t argue with that! So what did the good housewife of 1879 use for washing dishes? Soda – known to us now as baking soda – and a bit of fine, clean sugar sand for scrubbing. As she goes on to point out, soda sucks up grease just as soap does, but it does us no harm to ingest a bit of soda – or sand, for that matter.

Sugar sand is very, very fine and clean sand. The closest that most of us can find will probably be either concrete sand or mason sand.

She does note that soda will remove gold leaf from dishes, so if your dishes contain gold, you’ll have to use a bit of soap.

What Can I Use to Wash Dishes If I Don’t Have Dish Soap?

Don’t use laundry soap or normal hand soap on your dishes.  Laundry detergent is for clothing, not dishes! If you ever run out of dish soap, you can take a leaf from Great-grandmother’s book and wash your dishes with very simple, basic items.

First, don’t let the dishes sit. That’s a modern bad habit – leaving unwashed dishes in the sink until they’re so disgusting they need strong soaps and detergents.

My grandmother would be pulling the plate away from a person if you set your fork down for a moment. You don’t need to do that, but certainly clear and scrape off dishes as soon as the meal is finished.

Do you remember your grandmother having rough, red hands? She could probably pluck a potato out of boiling water without hand protection, too, because she had been washing dishes like this for her entire life. Since you probably can’t, you should get yourself a pair of attractive dish gloves so that you can use scalding hot water without burning your hands.

Dishwashing gloves
Never, she says, wipe a plate with a dish towel. Let it air dry.

That won’t be a problem if you’re washing and rinsing them in scalding hot rinse water – they’ll be dry almost before you place them in the dish rack!

By the way, as an added note – if water is restricted and you’re serving sticky or messy foods, consider the ancient practice of trenchers, or bread “plates” under your food.

However, the bread used for this had to be quite hard and stale, and so is best given to feed the dogs after the meal.

Individual bread bowls are another option which can be eaten during the meal – the plates will still need to be washed, but they won’t be nearly as dirty.

Another option is the Middle Eastern practice of eating directly from a common pot. While not something that would make most North Americans comfortable, it did produce fewer dishes to clean.

Cleaning a wooden table or other unfinished wooden item

Sprinkle clean sugar sand on the table if you have it. A bit of coarse salt will do the same thing.

Dissolve a tablespoon of baking soda in a bowl of water. Dip your scrub brush into the water and then scrub the wooden item well. Rinse with plenty of cold water. At this point, the item will be clean enough to prepare food directly on it.

Baking soda works extremely well to clean dishes.

How to Wash Dishes Without Soap Step by Step

If you’ve been storing any dirty dishes in the sink, take them out. It’s not a good place to store them, anyway. Wipe the sink out well and rinse it with boiling water. You’re going to be washing dishes in it – it needs to be clean.

You need to have either two or three plastic wash basins or a double sink. Put on your washing gloves or you’ll burn your hands.

Sort dishes from clean to dirty – usually glasses, plates, bowls, pots. If you have a lot of cutlery, place them in a basin by themselves, sprinkle 1 tablespoon baking soda over them and cover with boiling water. Set them aside.

If you have pots and pans that might need scrubbing, add some baking soda and boiling water and set them aside to soak.

Put 1 tablespoon of baking soda in the first basin and pour boiling water over it.

Put 1 tablespoon of vinegar in the second basin and pour boiling water over it.

If you can not put your hands in this even with washing gloves, gradually add cold water until it is bearable – but remember that you want it extremely hot.

Add one dish at a time to the first basin and wash it well with a clean dishcloth.

Quickly immerse the dish in the rinse water and place in a wooden drying rack.

Someone else should remove each dish as it dries (and it will, quickly, because of the hot water). If you are doing the dishes alone, then take a break from washing when the drying rack is full. Put away the clean dishes and then resume washing.

If the water cools off or becomes full of grease or dirt, empty it and start again.

When finished, rinse off the cutlery. If you haven’t let them dry, they’ll be easy to wash.

Just Plain Living

Are you wondering how to wash dishes without soap, specifically the dish soap we are so used to using? Dish soap is a fairly modern invention, and liquid dish soap is even more modern. Yet before they came along, dishes still needed to be washed

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