Don’t panic: Here’s what you can use instead of dishwasher detergent

No need to run to the grocery store

A graphic of a dishwasher with a colorful background
(Image credit: Future)

You've loaded your dishwasher up and are about to click start when... oh no. Your little bag of dishwasher tablets is completely empty. Yikes.

But those dirty dishes need cleaning, like, now. You don't have time to dash and get some dishwasher detergent. And you've just cleaned your dishwasher so it really is ready to go. So what do you do? Well, you can scroll through this article and find some sparkling solutions that will get the job done.

I’ve rounded up a range of different ideas, which you’re pretty much guaranteed to have all the ingredients for in your apartment cleaning cabinet. They’re also renter-friendly, so you won’t be at risk of damaging your dishwasher by using these. Trust me, I know how important it is to keep that security deposit in check.

Whether you’re all out of detergent or just feel like trying something new, these dishwasher detergent alternatives will make your dishes dazzle.

What you can use instead of dishwasher detergent 

While these may not be as good as using actually dishwasher detergent, these will still clean your dishes just fine if you’re in a bind…

1. Baking soda alone

Oh baking soda, let me count the number of uses for you. It’s just incredible for cleaning appliances, furniture items, and even laundry. But RN, I’m focusing on how you can use it to clean your dishes. Fill the whole dishwasher tab slot with baking soda (around a tablespoon), and then put it on a standard cycle. For household use, we recommend Arm & Hammer’s  baking soda, which you can find on Amazon.

2. Borax, washing soda, and lemon juice

Borax is a fab household cleaner (the 20 Mule one which you can get from Amazon is a good pick), and when it's mixed together with a couple of ingredients, it can be a seriously handy emergency dishwasher detergent. Combine with half a tablespoon of washing soda, which is different from baking soda (but Arm & Hammer is here to save the day with its own washing soda, also from Amazon), and a couple of drops of lemon juice. A few sprinkles of salt will also boost this mixture’s cleaning power. Once you’ve mixed everything, pop the solution in the dishwasher detergent slot, and you're back in business.

3. Vinegar in a bowl

Vinegar is a fab natural cleaner and can be used for both handwashing plates and even inside the dishwasher. Our fave is Heinz’s vinegar, which you can grab on Amazon. Fill a medium-sized bowl with half a cup of white vinegar, then place on the top shelf of your dishwasher. The dishwasher process will get it around the whole machine and on your plates. Its acidity will wash all the grime off, so you don’t have to waste your time scrubbing. 

4. Liquid dish soap and baking soda

You just can’t beat ol’ reliable dish soap, and matched with baking soda you’ll have extra clean dishes. Squeeze three drops of soap into the detergent slot, then fill up the rest of the way with baking soda. If you’re looking for an eco-friendly dish soap option, Seventh Generation's dish soap is a delish lemongrass and clementine scent, and is Amazon’s Choice, too. Don’t use dishwashing soap alone though, as you could end up with serious bubble trouble.

5. Washing soda alone

If you don’t have borax or lemons handy, but you do have washing soda, you can just use this alone. Same as with baking soda, simply fill up the detergent compartment with washing soda (yes, Arm & Hammer’s washing soda again), close, and turn on your machine. This can be really strong by itself, so be sure to not inhale it too much, and use rubber gloves while handling. 

6. Lemon juice in a bowl

This trick works similarly to putting vinegar in a bowl to clean your dishes. Pour half a cup of lemon juice into a medium-sized bowl, and then place onto the top shelf of your dishwasher. If you’re using fresh lemon juice instead of bottled, make sure to strain it through a sieve so you don’t get sticky fruit on your dishes. Then, turn on the machine as normal. Not only will the citric acid clean your dishes, but you’ll also be left with a lovely zesty scent. Mmm, so satisfying.

What not to use as dishwasher detergent alternatives

Not only will these do a bad job of cleaning, but they could also damage your dishwasher.

  • Dish soap by itself
  • Liquid laundry detergent
  • Laundry pod
  • Fabric softener
  • All-purpose cleaning spray
  • Room spray
  • Shampoo
  • Bar soap
Eve Smallman
Content Editor

Hi there! I’m a content editor at Real Homes. I've been a lifestyle journalist for over five years, previously working as an editor across regional magazines. Before this, I graduated from Nottingham Trent University a degree in journalism, along with an NCTJ gold diploma. I love running, decorating my rented Victorian home, and discovering new cheeses. For Real Homes, I specialize in interior design, trends and finding the best viral buys.