* Ethically Accredited
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For as long as petroleum-based surfactants continue to appear in the most popular washing-up liquid brands, clean dishes will equal a dirty planet. Fortunately, many retailers now offer a range of eco-friendly ethical alternatives, which substitute vegetable oil for petroleum and natural perfumes for chemicals. Some of these companies also use recycled materials in their packaging, and even offer facilities to refill old bottles once they are empty.

Keyword-ResearchLook out for our new sector-specific Ethical Accreditation certification marks which now cover over 15 different consumer product sectors. These are additional to our original Ethical Company mark that features on the packaging of over 100 million consumer products every year.


The active ingredient in washing-up liquid is a surfactant. This helps to remove grease from an item by emulsifying oils and then dispersing and suspending them so they don’t settle back onto its surface. The most commonly found surfactants in handwashing detergents are anionic, which usually means that they create a lot of suds. Some products also list ionic or non-ionic surfactants.

Surfactants may either be produced from petrochemical sources or from vegetable oils such as coconut. In a life cycle inventory study by a German research body, the vegetable-based or ‘oleo’ surfactants were shown to be better than their petrochemical equivalents in nine of the 13 categories studied. Not only this, but petrochemical surfactants were found to be slower to biodegrade and were significantly more damaging in terms of aquatic and air eco-toxicity, global warming, depletion of water, acidification, petrochemical oxidant formation and consumption of renewable energy sources.

Synthetic perfumes and colourings in washing-up liquids, also based on petrochemicals, can be slow to degrade and may cause problems for those with sensitive skin. The ‘green’ brands tend to be colourless and use natural fragrances such as volatile plant oils. Eco-friendly companies favouring these and oleo surfactants include Faith Products, Bio-D, Little Green Shop, Down to Earth, Caurnie and Ecover.

Antibacterial additives

Since Procter & Gamble launched Fairy Antibacterial in 1997 (which it claims helps kill E-coli, salmonella and campylobacter), many others, including supermarket own brands, have followed with their own disinfectant formulas.

Some scientists believe that our obsession with hygiene could be making us more susceptible to allergies and problems such as asthma. While we obviously need to be very careful around uncooked meats and protein products, and be sure to wash our hands thoroughly before cooking, some argue that a little less cleanliness could actually do us good.

In the case of washing-up liquids, a good kitchen hygiene routine (cleaning items carefully and rinsing the dishcloth thoroughly after use) should offer adequate protection against germs – without the need for extra antibacterial products.


Most washing-up liquid bottles are made from high density polyethylene (labelled PE or HDPE). This is one of the few plastics that can be recycled in the UK, although provision of local collection schemes is patchy. Look out for the numbers 1 and 2 inside a triangular recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic bottles, as these indicate that they are suitable for recycling.

Bio-D’s bottles contain 55 per cent recycled material which, according to a company spokesperson, is the maximum amount possible without the plastic becoming too brittle. Ecover and Bio-D are the only companies providing natural products suppliers with large drums that allow customers to refill their bottles rather than throwing them away.

Ethical Alternatives

In a hard water area it is a good idea to use a water softener to reduce the number of suds generated. Ordinary household soap can be recycled to produce a perfectly good washing-up liquid. Save the scraps from old bars then mix them up in a jar with some boiling water to produce a jelly-like substance.

Make an effort to buy The Good Shopping Guide’s ethical brands when you can, and look out for Caurnie, who are one of the Ethical Company Organisation’s accredited companies.

Ethical Comparison – Washing-Up Liquid Rankings Detailed Table

Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Caurnie, Bio-D, Clear Spring, Ecover, Surcare, Morning Fresh, Persil,

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