Can I Use Dish Soap to Clean Clothes? The Complete Guide

Using dish soap to clean clothes is a method that many people rely on in a pinch when laundry detergent runs out. But is dish soap an effective and safe alternative for washing clothes? This comprehensive guide examines if and when dish soap can be used for laundry, the pros and cons, and tips for getting the best results.

What Is Dish Soap?

Dish soap, also known as dish detergent or dish liquid, is a cleaning agent formulated to cut grease and lift food residue off dirty dishes. The main active ingredient in most dish soaps is surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate, which allow the soap to mix with water and grease.

Other common ingredients include:

  • Water – thins the solution
  • Foaming agents – creates suds
  • Perfumes – add fragrance
  • Colorants – creates colorful visual appeal
  • Preservatives – prevents bacterial growth
  • pH buffers – balances the pH level

The main difference between dish soap and laundry detergent is that dish soap is meant for cleaning food, oils and grease while laundry detergent is formulated to remove dirt, body soils and stains from fabric.

Laundry detergents contain ingredients tailored for clothing such as:

  • Bleaches – whitens whites
  • Optical brighteners – enhances bright colors
  • Enzymes – break down protein stains
  • Fabric softeners – makes clothes fluffy

Can You Use Dish Soap to Wash Clothes?

The short answer is yes, you can use dish soap in place of laundry detergent to wash clothes in an emergency when you’ve run out.

Dish soap is capable of cutting through grease and oils on dishes, so it stands to reason it can handle body oil and food stains on clothes. The surfactants allow dish soap to penetrate the fabric and detach most dirt.

However, there are some downsides to using dish soap compared to laundry detergent:

  • Dish soap may not fully dissolve detergent-soluble stains – Laundry detergents contain enzymes that help break down soils. Dish soap lacks these enzymes.
  • Colors may fade – Optical brighteners in detergent enhance drab colors. Dish soap does not contain brighteners.
  • Whites may appear dingy – Laundry detergent has bleaching agents to brighten whites. Dish soap does not contain bleach.
  • Clothes may retain soap residue – Dish soap may not fully rinse out leading to residue that leaves clothes stiff and rough.
  • Fabrics may experience more wear – The harsher cleaning agents in dish soap can be rougher on fabrics than laundry detergent.

So in a pinch, it’s fine to wash a load or two of clothes using dish soap. But for continued use, laundry detergent is the better choice.

When Is It Okay to Use Dish Soap on Clothes?

There are certain situations when using dish soap on laundry is an acceptable temporary solution:

  • You’ve completely run out of laundry detergent – A bottle of dish soap can tide you over until you can get to the store to buy more detergent.
  • Washing an extra greasy stain – Dish soap can help lift out tough oil and grease spots, so it can be used as a laundry stain treatment.
  • Handwashing delicates – The gentle cleaning power of dish soap makes it a decent choice for handwashing delicates that require a mild wash.
  • Cleaning musty smelling clothes – The degreasing action can help eliminate odor from clothes stored in musty basements or closets.
  • Washing cloth diapers – Some parents use dish soap as an inexpensive way to wash cloth diapers and remove residue.
  • In an emergency away from home – If you’re traveling and need to hand wash some clothes, bathing with dish soap from a hotel room can work.

Tips for Using Dish Soap on Laundry

If you do need to use dish soap to wash a load of laundry, follow these tips to get the best results:

Check Clothing Labels

  • Scan clothing tags to make sure the items are not dry clean only. Dish soap can ruin delicate dry clean fabrics.

Use Less Than Laundry Detergent

  • A teaspoon or tablespoon of dish soap is all you need for a whole load. Using too much can lead to soap buildup on clothes.

Skip Fabric Softener

  • Don’t pair dish soap with fabric softener. It can cause soap scum to stick to clothes.

Wash in Warm or Cold Water

  • Hot water can make dish soap suds up too much. Stick to warm or cold washes.

Use an Extra Rinse Cycle

  • Run the wash load through an additional rinse cycle to flush away any lingering soap.

Avoid Bleach

  • Don’t add bleach when washing with dish soap. Bleach and dish soap together can damage fabrics.

Line Dry or Dry on Low Heat

  • Dish soap washed clothes take longer to fully dry so line drying or using a low temperature dryer setting prevents over-drying.

Test on Darks First

  • Try a load of dark colored items first since dish soap may cause fading before washing lights and whites.

Homemade Laundry Detergent Recipes With Dish Soap

Some DIY laundry detergent recipes call for using a small amount of dish soap along with washing soda, borax and other ingredients. Here are two popular homemade detergent formulas with dish soap:

Recipe #1

  • 1 bar soap finely grated
  • 1 cup washing soda
  • 1 cup borax
  • 1⁄4 cup dish soap

Recipe #2

  • 1 cup grated Castile or olive oil soap
  • 1⁄2 cup washing soda
  • 1⁄2 cup borax
  • 15 drops essential oils (optional)
  • 2 Tbsp dish soap

The main benefit of adding a small amount of dish soap to DIY laundry detergent is extra grease cutting power. But only use 1-2 tablespoons per batch or it can leave behind residue.

Liquid Dish Soap vs Bar Dish Soap for Laundry

If you need to wash clothes with dish soap, liquid dish soap generally works better than bar forms like hand soap.

Liquid Dish Soap Pros

  • Specifically designed to mix with water
  • Produces more suds for cleaning
  • Easier to rinse away

Bar Dish Soap Pros

  • Lasts longer than liquids
  • Leaves less residue
  • More versatile uses

While bar dish soap can work, stick to liquid hand dish washing soap whenever possible to get clothes thoroughly clean and avoid buildup issues.

Is Laundry Detergent or Dish Soap Better for Stain Removal?

Both laundry detergent and dish soap can be used as laundry stain treatments, but detergent usually works better on more types of stains.

Laundry Detergent Advantages

  • Contains enzymes to break down protein stains
  • Designed to lift food and drink stains
  • Removes detergent-soluble stains
  • Brightens dingy, stained areas

Dish Soap Advantages

  • Cuts through greasy stains
  • Can eliminate musty odors
  • Cheap and readily available

Enzyme-based detergent is the winner for pretreating the widest variety of stains. But for oil and grease spots, dish soap can be just as effective if not better in some cases.

Does Dish Soap Damage Washing Machines or Clothes?

Using dish soap occasionally instead of laundry detergent will not damage washers or fabrics. But there are a few issues to keep in mind with continued long-term use:

  • Excess suds – Lots of suds may leak and require the machine to be cleaned.
  • Soap scum – Residue buildup can coat washers and hoses over time.
  • Faded fabrics – Colors are more prone to fading without optical brighteners.
  • Shrunken clothes – Aggressive cleaning can shorten cotton and wool clothes.
  • Dryer issues – Soap film left behind can gum up dryer vents and parts.

The harsher formula of dish soap means laundry will require more rinsing. So as an occasional solution, damage is unlikely but not using detergent long-term is not recommended.

FAQs About Using Dish Soap on Laundry

Can I use dish soap to clean clothes?

Yes, dish soap can be used to wash clothes in a pinch when you’ve run out of laundry detergent. It can clean grease and oils from fabric. But for continued use, laundry detergent designed for clothing works best.

Is Dawn dish soap safe for clothes?

Dawn dish soap is gentle enough to not damage clothes when used every so often. But the dyes and perfumes may cause faded colors over time. Make sure to use warm or cold water and rinse clothes thoroughly.

Can I wash baby clothes with dish soap?

It’s not ideal to use dish soap when washing baby’s clothing since their skin is highly sensitive. The dyes, fragrance, and harsher formula of dish soap could irritate your baby’s delicate skin. Stick to gentle, fragrance-free baby laundry detergent.

Does dish soap sanitize clothes?

No, dish soap does not sanitize laundry. Only detergents containing antimicrobial ingredients like bleach can sanitize fabrics. Dish soap is not meant to kill germs in clothing.

Can I use dishwasher detergent to wash clothes?

Dishwasher detergent is too harsh to use on clothes since it’s formulated for hard surfaces. Stick to laundry detergent or dish soap in an emergency for washing clothing. The chemicals can damage fabric.

Will dish soap shrink clothes?

Dish soap is harsher than laundry detergent, so with repeated use it may cause cotton and wool clothes to shrink. To help prevent shrinking, always wash dish soap laundered clothes in cold water and line dry.

Does dish soap remove stains from clothes?

Dish soap can help lift some greasy stains like oil, butter and makeup from clothing. But for food, sweat and other stains, laundry detergent with enzymes and stain fighting ingredients works best.

The Bottom Line

Dish soap like Dawn or Palmolive can function as a temporary stand-in to wash clothes when you’re out of laundry detergent. A small amount can clean as well as a detergent in a pinch. But for ongoing laundry needs, using a detergent made for fabric is still the best way to get clothes thoroughly clean while avoiding damage and fading.


Using dish soap on laundry is an effective cleaning solution in certain circumstances when laundry detergent is not available. With proper precautions, dish soap can remove oils and grease until you’re able to replace your regular detergent. But for gentle, thorough fabric cleaning session after session, always reach for a dedicated laundry product. With smart use, dish soap can become a helpful tool in your laundry arsenal.