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How To Wash Dishes By Hand

Joan Young By Joan Young on
Badge: Editor | Level: 34 | Other Home & Garden Expertise:
a drainer full of washed dishes

It’s official– I’m an old curmudgeon. After watching a number of different people wash dishes by hand, and being fairly appalled, I now realize that I can just be old and cranky and critical, or I can try to do something to change the world.

OK, one article will probably not change the world. But, clearly, people have not been, and are not being taught how to wash dishes by their parents. I blame the parents, only because that’s who taught me the basics of turning out clean, sanitary dishes before the age of the automatic home dishwasher.

I’ve watched people just swish the dishes under continually running tap water, cold to tepid. I’ve watched people wash dishes with no soap, in cold water. I’ve watched people wash dishes in any old order– pans, flatware, glasses, or mix-and-match.

There actually are some reasons for the methods used in dishwashing by the much-maligned housewives of the mid 20-th century. We can take a lesson. Here we go!


You are going to need the following:

1. Sink or dish pans: Start (and end) with a clean container to hold wash water. A dirty sink/ pan probably already has bacteria growing. Don’t compromise the whole project before you even start! If you are using pans, you may want one for rinsing as well as one for washing.

2. A cloth, sponge, or wand of some kind to make contact with lightly-soiled surfaces. I prefer a cloth– I’m happy with a square of an old towel, but my favorite is the Scotch-Brite Kitchen Cloth. Many people prefer a sponge. Advocates of cloth or sponge will explain why their choice is more sanitary than the other. The truth is that either one can harbor bacteria if it isn’t dried properly after use, but cloths are easily washed, even boiled. And some sponges can also be run through a washing machine. I’m not such a fan of wands, because I think you need to be able to feel the surface of the dish, but a wand will at least make contact.

3. Detergent. Soaps/detergents consist of a long-chain chemical that is hydrophillic and one end and hydrophobic on the other. All that means is that the “phyllic” end– the end that loves water– will allow the soap to disperse in the dishwater. The “phobic” end– the end that hates water– will attract grease and pull it off the dishes and out of the water. My hands-down favorite is Dawn. Even the environmentalists use it to degrease birds contaminated by oil spills.

4. A gentle scrubbing tool. My personal favorite is the Dobie Pad, but any nylon net or “tangled fiber” pad will do. This will provide enough abrasion to remove stubborn food particles, but (mostly) won’t scratch the dishes.

5. More abrasive pads, perhaps soap-infused steel wool. These are for the most difficult jobs, on metal pans that won’t be harmed by the steel wool. You can’t use these on coated surfaces, china, etc. But they do have their place for some serious cleaning jobs. Some are better than others.

6. Brushes of various kinds. Bottle brushes to clean inside bottles with narrow necks are handy. I like to also have an old toothbrush to scrub screw-on threads and other crevices.

7. Rubber gloves are optional. My hands will tolerate very hot water, and I’m not worried about a manicure. But for many people, rubber gloves are a good addition to the “tool kit.”

The Water

1. Use water as hot as you can stand. Hot water dissolves grease better, and will result in cleaner dishes. You can’t wash dishes by hand in water hot enough to sterilize, but cleaner dishes are more sanitary because there is no grease residue to form a film where bacteria can grow.

2. Add a good squirt of dish soap. I’m stingy, and I try to use as little as possible that will actually get the job done. However, you need to be able to see soapy water for the duration of the project. If the suds have all broken down the detergent is saturated– those hydrophobic ends have attracted all the grease they can hold– you need to get fresh water.

3. Sterilizing/ Disinfecting methods are covered separately.


1. Begin with glassware and mugs. These dishes come into direct contact with your mouth, and the glassware will show even a tiny film of grease, so move them through the dishwater first, while it is the most fresh.

2. Silverware. This also comes into direct contact with mouths.

3. Plates, bowls, etc.

4. Plastic containers, etc. One could make a case for doing these before the plates and bowls, since plastic seems to attract grease quite a bit, but it may also have more residue from food storage. My premise for doing them after the plates, etc, is that they will introduce more scraps of “garbage” into the water. You don’t want to increase the amount of stuff that might transfer to dishes which will go on the table.

5. Pots and pans. Do these last. Large, grungy items such as broiler pans may need to be washed separately with their own fresh water. Sometimes I’ll use the end of the dishwater from the general utensils to do a pre-wash on the really dirty stuff, and then finish them off with clean, hot water.


Don’t just slide dishes through the water. Run the cloth/sponge over the outside and inside surfaces, especially around the rim of glasses and mugs. Mucous from mouths and lips has likely adhered and trapped beverage oils there, as well. Look at each item to see that residue is removed.

Run your hand over each piece of silverware. You can often feel bits of food trapped between fork tines, or hidden in spoon hollows that you might not catch if you simply grab a pile of flatware and swish it around.

Don’t use an abrasive scrubber unless you have to. Dried foods can be loosened by a few minutes of soaking, but an abrasive scrubber of any kind is doing some small amount of surface damage. But scrub if needed, using whichever tool works best, instead of leaving bits of food adhered, where bacteria can grow.

Be sure to wash both sides of dishes. Things don’t get dirty just on the side where the food was served, especially if they were stacked after use. This seems obvious to me, but my observations cause me to state this plainly.


There are several schools of thought here. They all work, some better than others.

1. You can run hot water from the tap over the dishes as you wash each one. This is what I usually do when I’m working in my kitchen. I start with only a small amount of water in the sink, and rinse with hot as I go, into the same sink. This keeps the dishwater hot, and gradually fills the sink. Hot water moves any residual grease off the dishes. Letting the hot rinse water run down the drain in the second sink is an option, but seems wasteful to me.

2. You can fill a second container/sink with hot water and pass the washed dishes through it. I don’t like this as well, because the water quickly becomes cool, greasy, and contaminated with soap.

3. Sanitation method- see Sanitation


It’s actually more sanitary to let dishes air dry. If you rinsed in hot water, they will dry fairly quickly. Stack them with space for good air circulation between the individual items.

A dish towel, unless straight from the laundry, is likely to harbor bacteria. But sometimes it’s not practical, or there isn’t enough room to air dry dishes. Just use the cleanest towels you can. Linen towels have less lint than terrycloth ones.


Method 1. Add something to the washwater. For years I fed hordes of teenagers, most of them not mine. With so many people passing through, I always added about a tablespoon of chlorine bleach to each sink full of diswater. This does dry the hands (unless you use gloves), but it keeps the germs under control.

Personally, I think the bleach method is adequate, but if you have family members who are ill, you could wash non-porous dishes/ flatware in a solution of a product such as Lysolor Amway’s Pursue. Just be sure that you rinse really well, after using these products.

Method 2. Use boiling water to kill germs. This method requires you to boil water, and then pour it over the dishes after they have been washed and rinsed by regular means. Be sure the boiling water contacts all surfaces. A variation on this is the campers “dunk bag.” This is made from two loosely woven dishcloths sewn together with a drawstring top. After washing his/her own dishes the camper places them in the bag, and dunks the whole thing in a pot of boiling water for a few seconds. Then they are hung to air dry. This is impractical for home use, but you can see the point.

Don’t put dishes away wet. Moisture helps create a happy home for bacteria.

Final Steps

Finally, drain the water, and clean the sink after you are done. Bacteria need three things to grow: a suitable temperature, food, and moisture. A warm sink surface, small food particles, and water residue are nearly ideal. Bacteria can double in 20 minutes. Simple sanitation practices are an excellent deterrent, without buying expensive extra products that the big companies insist you need.

There, I feel better now. You can continue to wash your dishes any way you want, but don’t say I didn’t tell you how!

For seriously burned pans see:

How to Clean a Badly Burned Pan

How to Easily Clean Copper