No, Your Dishwasher is Not Broken

My sister in-law has taken to washing her dishes by hand because her dishwasher no longer gets them clean. Millions of other Americans have had the same problem. Many have vainly replaced their dishwashers with new ones only to face the same problem. The problem is not your dishwasher. It is your dish-washing detergent. It has changed. It is not the same product it used to be. A vital ingredient is missing.

While you may have noticed the effects of this missing ingredient in your dishes, you may not be aware of the same problem with your clothes. That is because this vital ingredient was taken out of laundry detergents over twenty years ago. That is so long ago, that most of us just think clothes are supposed to be grungy after a few washings. I am old enough to remember clothes staying clean, but didn’t understand why they didn’t any more until recently.

The Missing Ingredient

The magical ingredient that is no longer present in commercial detergents is tri-sodium phosphate or TSP as it is commonly known. This natural ingredient is made from phosphate deposits primarily found in Florida.

In general, it acts as a detergent, but in the specific case of dishwashers and washing machines, it works to prevent dirt from clinging to the articles being washed during the rinse cycles. You can see this effect most dramatically in the dishwasher. When TSP was removed recently, food particles reattach to the dishes instead of being washed away with the rinse water.

While not as dramatic, the same thing happens to your clothes in the washer. Instead of the dirt being drained away, it remains to make your clothes grungy. I recently noticed a new t-shirt that came from the laundry with so much grey sludge embedded that we had to throw it away. My wife, who is an expert laundress, was clueless as to why this grunging of clothes was happening. Now we know why.

So why was TSP removed from detergents? It is thought by some that phosphates being a fertilizer contributes to fouling of lakes and coastal waters. Many question the significance of TSP in laundry and dish washing, so it is far from conclusive that this removal/ban has any real environmental significance.

My own opinion on the matter is that the run-off from lawn and agricultural fertilizers poses the lion’s share of water pollution. You can see this most dramatically in the waters of Pinellas county in Florida where I grew up. The visibility of the water at the beach is only a few inches and red tides are a frequent problem. This situation is unchanged in over 40 years. The cause is very clear – there is a lot of run-off from people’s lawns which have not only phosphate but also nitrogen fertilizers frequently applied. Compounding the problem is the overwhelming amount of asphalt and lack of trees, both of which contribute heavily to the amount of run-off. Sorry for the rant, but it is clear to my mind that TSP in detergent is not a problem.

Fixing the Problem

Fortunately, fixing this longstanding problem is easy – simply add a small amount of TSP back to your detergents. TSP is easily acquired in the paint section of your local hardware store. It is safe and natural and has many cleaning uses.

It is difficult to determine the exact amount to use, but I believe about 1 part TSP to 6 parts detergent is about right. For dishwashing, that works out to 1/2 teaspooon per load. For laundry, use 1 to 2 teaspoons per load. It those amounts are not sufficient, you can safely use more – extra does no harm.

Learning More

Here is an article by a homemaker’s own pilgramage and experiements in adding TSP back to her laundry detergent. If you want to know more about the backstory of its removal, this article by Jeffrey Tucker is useful and amusing.


Our world is becoming less trustworthy every day. The clandestine removal of TSP from laundry and dishwasher soap is just one example. Politics is useless against this onslaught. Instead, we must be vigilant to watch what is happening around us and take steps to make the appropriate corrections for ourselves. In this case, the proper response is easy – buy some TSP and restore what has been taken from us.

Share your experiences with TSP in the comments below.

No, Your Dishwasher is Not Broken by Provide Your Own is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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