The advice to use dish soap to deal with garden pests and plant diseases has been around for ages. But is it a good idea? Is dish soap safe for the garden? Let’s have a look at the facts.
This is part of a series on common garden myths and misconceptions to assist beginner gardeners who wish to practice earthly-friendly garden methods.
Using Dish Soap in Gardens
Is Dish Soap a Natural Alternative?
It seems like so many household products from the kitchen have been touted as great for the garden, acting as herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, or other simple solutions.
They get recommended over and over again. I see them mentioned so often in (otherwise) organic gardening discussion forums that I think I’m on the wrong page!
Dish soap, diluted in water as a spray, is frequently recommended as a “natural” insecticide, killing pests in the garden. The first clue is, if it does kill pests, is it really harmless?
I used to think this stuff made sense too. But not now.
Are Kitchen Products Really “Natural”?
It seems the underlying message is that common household products are safe or “natural” alternatives to other commercial products made to address garden problems. We’ve seen so many scary poisons on the store shelves for the last 50 decades that we’ve stopped trusting any possible solutions offered there today.
But are household products a better choice?
Let’s look at dish soap.
Joy, Palmolive, Sunlight, and Dawn in particular gets mentioned so often I wonder if Procter & Gamble has some genius grassroots advertising underway.
The logic seems to be, we use this stuff to wash our dishes and eat from them, so it can’t possibly be harmful, right?
But, what is dish soap, and what effect does it have when we spray it on plants and insects?
Dish Soap is a Detergent
Liquid dish soap is actually a detergent, not a soap. The difference is that soaps are made from natural ingredients and detergents are made from synthetic ones. Soaps have their own issues in the garden but for now we’ll just look at typical dish detergents.
Dish soaps (really, synthetic detergents) contain a whole array of chemicals, most of which are pretty benign, but I’m not sure how it can be presented as an alternative to “harmful chemicals” with such ingredients as sodium lauryl sulfate, poly-propylene glycol-26, phenoxyethanol and several others.
Acute Aquatic Toxicity
The Environmental Working Group shares particular concern about the ingredient methylisothiazolinone, which they say is of “high concern” for its “acute aquatic toxicity”. In other words, it gets in our water and kills stuff. [Dishwashing Products Made by Dawn | Environmental Working Group]
So, definitely not “chemical-free” in the way that term is often used to mean non-toxic.
And what about harmless?
Let’s look at what dish soaps do.
Dish Soap is Not Designed to Target Pests
Dish soaps are designed to dissolve the food stuff leftover on our dishes including fats and oils. They also work to remove waxes.
Now, let’s think about how this would affect plants and insects.
The common advice is to dissolve a small amount of dish soap in water in a spray bottle and apply it to the unwanted pests that are chomping on our plants.
Here’s the problem.
Dish Soap Doesn’t Target Pests
The dish soap doesn’t know what you consider to be a pest or weed or disease. There is no specific biological interaction. That spray is just going to blindly affect everything it comes into contact with.
Yes, it may eat away at the body of the pests. But it’s also going to get any other insects who happen to be in its range.
Breaking Down a Plant’s Natural Defenses
And, completely counter-productive to the aim, it’s going to break down the plant’s own natural defence mechanisms by stripping away the naturally-occurring oils and waxes on the leaves.
So, that plant you were trying to spare is weakened too. And (it is suspected that) weakening a plant makes it vulnerable to more pests.
So, what the heck are we doing putting dish soap in the garden?
If the only aim was pest control without any concern for the environment or gardening organically, it’s probably the same as choosing any other random thing that might burn, harm, or smother the wee critter, temporarily reducing the problem.
For me the question is, does dish soap really belong in nature? And what are we (collectively) doing to our gardens with stuff like this?
The gardening world is filled with single-use plastics, waste, harmful fertilizers, pesticides, and countless other things causing a multitude of other problems.
Dish soap isn’t going to make the Top Ten List of Horrible Things We Wreck the Environment With and not even come close—there is just way too much competition— but this whole notion of calling it safe, non-toxic, harmless, or natural and promoting it as a good, green alternative is really not helping.
Dish Soap is Not for Gardens
Here’s what we know.
- Dish soap is a detergent. Not a soap.
- It is synthetic, not natural. And even if it were, “natural” does not necessarily mean safe or good.
- It is made from chemicals (everything is). And not that all chemicals are bad—that’s absurd—but the point is, the chemicals in dish soap are not designed to target specific pests or diseases.
And that’s why it’s not a harmless, natural alternative, and doesn’t really fit with the aims of an organic garden.
It’s more of a hit and miss tonic that could do other harm.
We might say one gardener doing this, big whoop. But there are millions of us spreading these home remedies around, so how many gardeners are spraying this stuff in their gardens?
So, what to do?
First of all, there is not a solution to every problem: not in the garden or in life.
For pest problems, there are products that target specific issues and have the science to back them up. If you have concerns about the environment, it’s worth researching the company and how the product is produced, distributed, and any effects it has.
Not that I’m the poster girl for using anything like this—I don’t use any products for pests—but the industry has come a long way compared to several decades ago.
There is still a ton of harmful products out there, but, if you are determined to treat a problem, there are likely better options than randomly coating something in dish soap.
Iowa State University sums this up nicely on its website, saying that they provided these homemade recipes for years, but now suggest store-bought products as more effective, safer and worth the extra cost. [Control Houseplant Insect Pests Safely with Insecticidal Soap | Iowa State University]
If you are determined to go after an insect pest in your garden, we can take responsibility by doing our homework first.
Problem-Solving Tips for Ecological Gardeners
Dealing with possible pests or diseases
- Is this really a long-term problem or simply part of the eco-system?
Never take action without understanding both the issue and the overall effects of any possible remedies.
- What will happen if I leave it be?
Most problems resolve on their own with time. Many “pests” have natural predators—give them time to do what they do best. Many diseases come and go in gardens. What if you just let it be?
- Will the remedy or solution cause other harm?
It’s rare that a product or solution does not cause residual harm either through manufacturing, use, or disposal. Hand-picking a multitude of snails may be fine. Poisoning insects that support wildlife and the ecosystem? Not so much.
- Are there better uses for my time or money?
- Are my garden choices contributing to a healthy ecosystem?
You can read more ecological gardening tips here.
Bottom line, just because it’s in the kitchen cabinet does not make it good for the garden.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
PS: Some of you have asked, what about using Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap? Well, it is a soap, not a detergent, but again, best to use a product made for the specific purpose you are intending. Castile soaps like this are alkaline and not considered beneficial to plants.