Photo via Flickr: IBRRC

Photo via Flickr: IBRRC

Note: I touch on this briefly in my column for HuffPost about the BP oil disaster, but I wanted to highlight it again here, just in case you skip over this amazing tidbit of brazen irony.

You may have heard about how Proctor & Gamble is graciously donating thousands of bottles of Dawn dishwashing liquid to aid in the cleanup efforts for wildlife affected by the BP oil disaster. The company even touts its own generosity — which includes an additional $1 donation to wildlife rescue efforts per bottle sold — on the Dawn website:

For over 30 years, Dawn has been doing its part to help save wildlife. From donating funds to important conservation projects to giving Dawn dishwashing liquid to clean wildlife affected by oil spills, Dawn knows there are lots of ways to get involved with the cause.

So nice, right? Well, here’s the rub: Dawn dish soap — the very stuff used to “gently” remove oil from the feathers and fur of toxic sludge–coated creatures — is, itself, made from oil.

Dawn, like most conventional dishwashing liquids, contains petro (read: oil) chemical-based detergents, emollients, and fragrance. The website, not surprisingly, doesn’t specifically reveal which ones, but it does provide a link to a wholly generic list of ingredients commonly used in hand dishwashing products.

Since the most this list offers up is terms like “surfactants” and “mildness additives,” I can only be left to assume that the soap could contain toxic petroleum byproducts like alkylbenzene sulfonates and 1,4-dioxane. Of course, these are only educated guesses; there are thousands of industrial chemicals floating around out there, but who knows which ones: Federal law does not require companies to list them on their products, nor conduct any sort of tests to determine if they’re safe.

Want to really help save wildlife from oil spills? Ditch the Dawn for a plant-based dish soap like Seventh Generation. If every household in the US replaced just one bottle, it would save 81,000 barrels of oil a year.

–Jennifer Grayson

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42 Responses to “Oh, the irony: Dawn saves wildlife with oil-based dish soap”

  1. Andrea D Says:

    Thanks for this information. I currently use the blue Dawn dish soap. Next time I will buy a plant based product. Although, I’ve tried Seventh Generation automatic dishwasher detergent and it doesn’t get my dishes as clean.

  2. Jennifer Says:

    I read that article about Dawn and wondered how ‘gentle’ and ‘effective’ it really was if it contained petrochemicals and artificial fragrance. Granted, it’s probably better than straight petroleum, but…

    I’ve tried castille soaps and a few different plant based washing up liquids, and Seventh Generation is still my favorite. Wish I could get around the plastic bottles it comes in, though.

  3. Lisa Jeffries Says:

    I can appreciate Dawn’s efforts (if they’re going to exist, might as well spread a little good while they can), but thank you for recommending a better alternative!

  4. Jennifer Says:

    I just found an article suggesting that common household products form cancer-causing nitrosamines when mixed with disinfectants in drinking water. Two of the products studied were Suave shampoo and Dawn dish washing liquid. The Dawn created 26 more times than the Suave.

    I feel even worse about the marine victims of the oil spill now.

    Here’s the full article on National Geographic:

  5. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    Thanks for the link, Jennifer. I had heard about that before. Chloramines are pretty nasty chemicals on their own, even before they mix with cleaning products to form nitrosamines:

  6. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    The best plant-based dishwashing liquid I’ve found is Planet, which I can actually buy at my local Ralph’s grocery store:

    It doesn’t have a scent, though (which I actually like), so I add a few drops of essential oil — usually lavender — to the bottle.

  7. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    Yeah, eco-friendly automatic dishwashing detergent usually sucks, unfortunately. We haven’t had a dishwasher for three years now, though, so I don’t know if there are any better options out there. I’ve heard good things about Biokleen. Has anyone tried it?

  8. Loretta Parks Says:

    Is Seventh Generation offering to donate their product to the cleanup of these animals and birds?

  9. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    Great question, Loretta! Let me contact Seventh Generation, and I’ll get back to you…

  10. D. Kuri Says:

    Check out which director of Proctor and Gambel, which makes Dawn, is an executive director of BP! (hint: Ferris) Educate yourselves and pass it on…

  11. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    Wow, but not surprising. Thanks for the heads-up.

  12. Nancy B. Says:

    The problem is that animals need to be cleaned up NOW, or many will die.

    Alternative detergents would be great if an effort (and cooperation from the producers of the soaps) could be initiated for future disasters. However, animals need to be cleaned up now. So for me, although I try hard to be earth/ecology friendly, cleaning the animals up with Dawn in the here-and-now is “the lesser of two evils.”

  13. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    I agree 100 percent Nancy, and I definitely wasn’t saying that we should stop cleaning up the animals affected by the BP oil spill — Dawn is, for sure, a highly effective grease cutter. Just wanted to point out how ironic the whole thing is…

  14. Kat Wiranowski Says:

    It’s a shame that most people don’t realize that commercial detergents (dish, laundry, etc.) are made with petrochemicals. Not having a dishwasher myself, I have tried most plant based dish detergents and prefer one called Planet. Seventh Generation and Bio Kleen is not bad either.

  15. Chelsea Says:

    AS a former avian rehabber, I can attest to how well Dawn works to get oil out. In Michigan, we used it to get the tar off of feathers when homeowners use tar as a way of pigeon deterrence. But usually, it was hawks, owls, and other raptors that we cleaned because they would swoop down to get the pigeons and rodents that were stuck in the tar. We tried lots of brands and Dawn worked the best. It’s interesting to read that other rehabbers found the same results.

  16. Loan Flannigan Says:

    I’m just sick to my stomach by this huge mess. Where can I find an probable assessment of the real size of the oil released? The information are all over the place. Thanks for your informative post.

  17. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    There’s no question that Dawn and other petrochemical-based cleaning products cut through the grease better than plant-based formulas — if it was a question of effectiveness, I’d take a bottle of Palmolive over Planet dish soap any day. But for washing dishes at home, a plant-based cleaner is perfectly adequate. Washing off oil-soaked wildlife is a different story…

  18. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    Hi, Loan. Unfortunately, there is not one definitive assessment — the estimates for the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf are all over the place. We do know, however, that the spill has now surpassed the Exxon Valdez as the worst in US history. NOAA will have a new estimate in about two weeks:

  19. Rachel Says:

    Just wanted to clarify Richard Ferris is no longer associated with BP and P&G.

  20. ann Says:

    Not only is Dawn the most effective wildlife cleaner the ATF uses Dawn for decontamination of toxic substances. I will use plant based when possible but I will also always have blue Dawn on hand.

  21. Plastic And Oil… And My Take On Dawn Dish Soap — Says:

    […] Oh, the irony: Dawn saves wildlife with oil-based dish soap […]

  22. Marti Wolfe (Wildlife Toxicologist) Says:

    Please be aware that Dawn dish DETERGENT – it is not soap – was selected for cleaning oiled birds on the basis of rigorous scientific criteria having nothing to do with Proctor and Gamble PR. It has been the approved protocol since the Exxon Valdez spill. Dr. Jan White, Chief Avian Veterinarian at the Exxon Valdez spill and her assistants chose Dawn detergent not only for its superior ability to emulsify the oil on the birds’ feathers, but ALSO for its virtual non-toxicity, and its lack of damage to the uropygial gland, which produces the oil birds deposit onto ther feathers while preening. Remember, anything that gets on their feathers in a frantic attempt to preen the foreign substance off. The goal in cleaning oiled birds is the HEALTH OF THE BIRD, not to give the humans the appearance of being “greener” by adhering to some arbitrary standards of “naturalness”.

  23. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Marti. I’m not doubting the science behind Dawn dish detergent, and am in no way suggesting that more natural, but perhaps less effective, detergents should be used in their stead; Dawn is incredibly effective at cleaning oil off of wildlife, to be sure. Just pointing out the irony of the whole situation. If we weren’t reliant on fossil fuels for our energy, there would be no oil spill — nor would there be a need for petrochemical-based detergents to clean it all up.

  24. Jim Says:

    I think what Marti is trying to say is that Dawn is less damaging to the birds, and their vital systems designed to help them survive, than “natural” or “organic” cleaners. I see the irony Jennifer, but nothing else does what Dawn does for wildlife, Petro based cleaners or “natural/Organic” based cleaners included. Sometimes natural/plant based cleaners are too harsh for certain surfaces, in the home and outside. A birds internal glands seem like one of those surfaces. If a bird cant produce oil to protect its feathers, might as well leave the oil on them and let them be, same outcome in the end.

  25. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Jim. Dawn and other petrochemical-based cleaners are no doubt more effective than gentler, plant-based ones at removing the oil, but I think even Marti would agree that natural cleaners are certainly not MORE toxic to the birds. Natural cleaners are made from incredibly benign substances, and I can’t think of a single case where they would be considered harsh for any surface.

  26. Kathy Says:

    My daughter plans to do some experiments with Dawn and 7th generation to try to determine the pros and cons of each on wildlife for her science project. Any resources that could be provided would help. We will tell you the result.

  27. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    That’s great, Kathy! What kind of resources are you looking for?

  28. jessica Says:

    I was wondering if the gain dish detergent and the sun are safe they say the don’t have any phosfates in them but I’m not. Sure if they are plant based or animal and is ivory safe also bar and detergent I’m new to all the eco friendly products and I am trying my best to stick to them but I’m trying to find ones that are inexspensive and I agree its ironic but the do need to be cleaned up now.

  29. ginamero Says:

    You people are asinine. Every plastic thing in your house, like your keyboard, trash can, phone case, and tv case use petroleum products. What a loser article…and 7th generation just doesn’t get my dishes as clean and good old hard core chemicals….eat that. I almost want to quit recycling. I have to pay to do so in my neighborhood and yet when I’m at work in the ER or ICU all I do is toss glove after glove after petroleum based glove in the trash, along with all the needs, blood, plastic IV bags…me using Dawn is not going to stop the Earth from circling the Sun.

  30. ginamero Says:

    Ya know, one more thing….that 7th Generation you are pushing so hard…comes in a plastic bottle made from PETROLEUM PRODUCTS!

  31. Meghan W Says:

    Hi everyone i have just recently started researching whats in not only my house cleaning products but also our hand soap, shampoo, laundry soap and even my childrens toothpaste and was blown away by all of the harmful ingredients they list under names you wouldnt even think. I have just taken the first step to a positive environment inside our home as well as out by switching to mealeuca which has amazing all natural alternatives to regular harmful grocery store brands. I just thought you should know that there is a company out there that cares as much as we do so check it out and feel free to message me back if you need any info ill gladly help.

  32. Spring Cleaning « Holy Shilajit Says:

    […]… […]

  33. Dan Says:

    Lol@this article. Seriously, articles like this are worse pollution than the oil spill. Thanks for the corporate terrorism you’re committing with this propaganda; nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with the tires on your car, or the nylon in your toothbrush either.
    But really, don’t tell others to look down on a benevolent company just so they’ll look up to you. People are dumb and will actually believe this kind of crap. Do you really want your kids believing everything they read on the Internet? Me neither. Get informed people, and not by people with limited perspectives and anger-fueled agendas.

  34. annie Says:

    thanks for all the new information and all but dawn is still taking part in the oil spill and they have for every oil spill occured. its helping the animals and if it wasnt they wouldnt use it. and plus buying dawn actully cleans your dishes, xo why not donate to the cause when it actully works?

  35. Ray Says:

    I have read all of these posts. For new arrivals, I suggest starting with Marti’s post (July 11, 2010). All posts from there on, except Dan’s, convey reasonable, relevant, and informative perspectives. The gist of it seems to be that Dawn (or something like it) is nearly ideal for cleaning oil-soaked birds; Dawn is also probably superior for cutting heavy grease on dishes; there may be other dishwashing tasks that could be done well enough by a non-petrochemical dishwashing liquid; and the impact on the local environment is probably less when people use non-petro dishwashing liquids.

  36. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    Well said, Ray! The point of the post was just to point out a simple irony: That a petroleum-based product was being used to clean up a petroleum spill. Just a little food for thought.

  37. Gene Says:

    Being a saponifer (a person who makes soap) I know that you can not make real soap without oil. However, the oil (which by the way is and acid – all oils are acidic) is neutralized in the process.

  38. gene herr Says:

    With all due respect, if all you were doing was pointing out a “simple irony”, you would not have also gone on to speculate, or as you say “assume”, that Dawn contains toxic petroleum byproducts, comment on the requirements of federal law, recommend boycotting the product and finally suggesting an alternative trade name product. There was definitely an agenda. Which is fine since it is on an environmental website, but at least be honest.

  39. concernd consumr Says:

    hav used soaps with coconut derived surfactants, cant recall name? 7th gen doesn’t really cut it. we were told that sodium laurel sulfate (sp?), sls, can contribute 2 such things as leaky gut, by increasing intestinal permeability via some mechanism once ingestd…which we can easily do by way of residues left on dishware, post cleaning. So rinsing well is crucial no matter whats used. Having gluten intolerance, we do not in our household need 2 cre8 more digestiv issu…not sure if plant based surfactants r any good 4 us either, but told less of health risk. Eithr way, rinse..

  40. Tim Says:

    I must say I stand in the middle. I have been looking for an environmentally conscious way of doing my dishes. I looked at all the “green” alternatives. It all boils down to oil. We live in an oil based economy, even plant based products use oil in its production (the fertilizers, oil used in its transport). The actual cost due to ineffiencies of planting plants then turning them to oil may be even worse than just using a petroleum based product, imagine the forests that were destroyed to plant those plants. People like the idea of green products but in reality there is none.

    I come to the conclusion, use whatever but use less of it.

  41. Jennifer Grayson Says:

    The concern is not just the petrochemicals on the production end of the cycle; it’s also what happens to these petroleum-based surfactants when they go down the drain and enter the ecosystem, polluting the water and harming aquatic organisms. And some eco-friendly dish soaps don’t use petroleum in their production at all, like Ecover:

  42. Noni says Says:

    Four generations of my family have used dawn to wash dogs, to water plants, to wash dishes, and to remove oil based stains such as cooking grease or lipstick. I am no scientist but, the only results we’ve had are healthy animals, clean clothes, and the largest cabbage plants I’ ve ever seen.

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