Sunday, October 4, 2009

Eco-friendly rinse aid: Does it work? Does it matter?

Hi there, Jenn fans...Melissa here for the first time in ages. I tried something new, and Jenn asked me to review it, so here it is, for your blog-reading pleasure. Thanks.

In my quest to find a greener automatic dishwasher detergent, I have run into one consistent pitfall: dishes that emerge spotty or, worse, scummy with film. Some detergents seem a little better than others, but in the end, I was spending a good amount of time re-rinsing or rubbing scuzz off my glasses and plastic. Yuck.

It dawned on me that the problem might be that I had stopped using a rinse aid. To be honest, I only stopped using Jet-Dry because of a vague sense that, if my old detergent was bad, my old rinse aid probably was, too. And I guess on some level, I was thinking rinse aid was like fabric softener: no big deal to go without. But unlike slightly staticky clothes, scummy dishes are tough to ignore, especially when your husband says, “Ewwwww!” every time he takes a glass from the dishwasher.

At some point, I tried using some of the old rinse agent with the new detergent and got shinier dishes. So, clearly “sheeting action” was what I needed (this is how companies describe what rinse agents do...technically, they decrease the surface tension of water so it rinses off your dishes more easily, along with all those fun mineral deposits).

Recently, after many fruitless searches for a Jet-Dry alternative, I found and tried Seventh Generation's offering, which is simply called “Rinse Aid” and described as “Free & Clear.” Did I see any improvement in my dishes? Yes. There's definitely less scum on the glasses and plastic containers than when I was using greener detergents alone. Is it as effective as Jet-Dry? Honestly, not quite – there is still a slight film at least sometimes. But I was feeling good about it, because the dishes were less icky, and after all, the product had to be less environmentally threatening, right?

Well, maybe. I have no real doubt that Seventh Generation is making a product that should have minimal impact on the water it's discharged into, but still have a few other questions. And does it follow that Jet-Dry necessarily a baddie, just because its maker isn't touting it as a “green” product?

My conclusion, after much poking around online, is that I can't draw a definite conclusion. An online glance at Reckitt & Benckiser's Jet-Dry material safety data sheet says its active ingredients are “nonionic surfactants.” According to one definition, examples include alcohol ethoxylates, nonylphenoxy polyethylenoxy alcohols, and ethylene oxide/propylene oxide block copolymers. Stop! Eyes...glazing...over! I have no idea whether these are good, bad or indifferent, but we shouldn't all have to be chemists to feel safe using cleaning products, right?

Since Seventh Generation prides itself on full disclosure of its ingredients, you might assume they'd be more forthcoming. Maybe, if you're satisfied with “plant-containing cleaning agents” and “cornstarch-derived water softener” as a full reveal, but to me, those terms aren't superprecise, either. What plants? How are they being raised and managed? And saying something is derived from a plant shouldn't be a free pass.

Further, the Seventh Generation label refers to “trace materials.” That gives me pause – anytime someone throws a catchall term into their ingredient list, it makes me go “hmmm.”

Another tidbit contributing to my mental muddle on this subject is the fact that Jet-Dry reportedly contains no phosphates (found this online; Jet-Dry doesn't boast this on its product). Again, I'm no chemist here, but it's quite possible that phosphates would simply not typically be an ingredient in rinse aids. I'm glad they're not in there, but not sure anyone gets any extra points for that.

And by the way, even the ever-vigilant Environmental Working Group and Treehugger make no mention on their sites about Jet-Dry, or rinse aids in general. That, of course, doesn't necessarily mean they're “green,” but it definitely makes me feel a little better.

On the subject of toxicity, Seventh Generation's label recommends keeping it away from children and, you know, not swallowing it, but the company maintains the rinse aid is “not poisonous” (though the label still suggests contacting a physician if swallowed). Jet-Dry's label warns that it may cause eye and skin irritation and recommends avoiding contact. It doesn't say what happens or what to do if someone swallows it. Most likely, a phone call to a doctor or poison control wouldn't go amiss.

One alternative, as no doubt many of you Jenn-philes have been screaming for the past several paragraphs, is white vinegar. And yes, I have tried it. I have to admit I wasn't scrutinizing the results at the time, but had the impression that it reduced the spots and scum by a lot but still didn't leave the dishes as dazzlingly shiny and clean to the touch as ye olde Jet-Dry. Nevertheless, I'm thinking I should revisit vinegar as a rinse aid and see what happens.

In the meantime,

to Seventh Generation for its continued efforts to make more environmentally friendly products available to those of us who've been clamoring for them.


Jenn said...

I bet even my landlord would allow white vinegar as a rinse aid! I wonder if a couple drops of lemon juice would help too? I know, I know...back to chemistry right? :-) I have a whole gallon of white vinegar with my faux stuff downstairs, its great with hot water for removing wallpaper paste too. A totally versatile product!

Melissa said...

No clue what is up with the off again, on again boldface. I thought I saw something when I was formatting it and then decided I was hallucinating. Guess not. Will see if I can fix it sometime, but it might not be tonight!