Is it Better to Use a Dishwasher or Wash Up by Hand?
Houzzers in eight countries weigh in on whether an appliance saves time, water and sanity or if washing up by hand is the only way to go
We reached out to Houzz users in eight countries – Russia, Italy, Spain, France, Japan, the US, the UK and Australia – and, through a series of discussions and polls, tried to determine what, if anything, other cultures and communities can teach us about this common dilemma. Here’s how the dirty dish debate stacks up around the world.
For the most part, it seems, we’re all bobbing together in the same basin of sudsy water. The majority of people in each country we reached out to, except for Japan, say they prefer to wash dishes in a dishwasher rather than by hand.
In fact, 60% to 70% of people in every country apart from Japan, where a small majority prefer hand-washing, said they prefer the appliance method. Houzz France user Valérie says, ‘I couldn’t live without my dishwasher. Huge time benefit and it’s far more ecological. And by the way, my hands thank my dishwasher a lot.’
In the US, 67% of respondents to our poll said they prefer machine-washing to hand-washing. Houzz US user nnigrt comments, ‘There are times I’d rather sweep the kitchen floor than vacuum it, make my own bread rather than walk to Whole Foods [grocery store]. But I never say, “Heck, I’m feeling old timey, let me wash up those breakfast dishes.”’
But something can be said for hand-washing, too. In each country we polled, 30% to 40% of respondents still prefer the hand method. Lorella Dia, a Houzz Italy user and owner of Milan Chic Chandeliers, says she understands why a large family that uses a lot of dishes might need a machine. But if it’s just two people living together, hand-washing may be better – and perhaps more romantic? ‘They can take advantage of the hand-washing time to help each other and maybe have a relaxed chat,’ she says. ‘Wouldn’t it be like in old romantic movies?’
Let’s take a look at common claims about each method to understand why some people swear by their time-saving appliance, while others find solace in hand-washing dishes.
Answer: True, but so can efficient hand-washing
A 2009 study of UK consumers from Bonn University in Germany found that those who washed by hand used, on average, about 49 litres of water, while the dishwashers used a little over 13 litres of water.
In 2011, the US Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) echoed this, stating that newer machines with an Energy Star rating used an average of about 14 to 23 litres of water. Compare that to what the council calls efficient hand-washing, which uses up to around 36 litres of water, and the machine appears to win. But not so fast.
What is efficient hand-washing? Waterwise, a nonprofit organisation focused on reducing water consumption in the UK, says the amount of water flowing from a tap can vary from about 2 to 25 litres per minute.
The organisation, which says kitchen taps and dishwashers account for 8% to 14% of all water used in a home, says putting aerators on your taps can help reduce water flow. Also, soaking dishes in a basin of soapy water and not letting the water run while you wash every dish will save water by up to 50%, according to the organisation. But if you’re really strategic – using one bowl for washing dishes and another for rinsing, for example – you could get your water use down to the range of the newer dishwashers.
The NRDC estimates that regular hand-washing, for which a person runs the tap the whole time while they wash dishes, uses about around 123 litres of water. Yikes. Let’s not do that anymore.
Now, keep in mind that when it comes to water usage for dishwashers, it depends on the machine. Not all homeowners have newer machines, which tend to be more water- and energy-efficient. Older machines, Waterwise says, can use about 50 litres of water per cycle, whereas modern machines can use as little as less than 10 litres.
Waterwise suggests the following tips to save more water:
- Consider a smaller-sized appliance. If you live alone, you might not need a 12 place-setting machine; instead, look for a 9 place-setting model.
- Use your machine’s Eco or Economy settings, which use less water and energy.
- Avoid pre-rinsing, which the organisation says isn’t necessary with modern machines and detergents.
Answer: Yes, but it depends
Many people who have a dishwasher often wonder how they ever lived without one. For some, they are invaluable for more than just dirty dishes. ‘Toss it all in the dishwasher,’ says US user dahupaylo, ‘including the pet bowls, keys, baseball hats, toys, plastic takeaway containers, empty peanut butter jar, pan scrubber – and come back in an hour when it’s all shiny and clean.’
But many people who’ve never owned a dishwasher and then get one are often surprised to learn there’s quite a bit of work that goes into using the machine. You still need to scrape or rinse dirty plates, and you need to load the machine the correct way, wait for the cycle to complete and unload the dishes. This all takes time, but not as much as washing by hand.
The Bonn University study found that homeowners who hand-washed dishes took 60 minutes, while those using a dishwasher took 9 minutes to load and unload their machine. Normal cycle times for dishwashers take two to three hours, according to American product testing and rating organisation Consumer Reports. That’s time that could be used for all sorts of things that don’t involve standing at a sink.
‘When you have a busy family life at home, anything that can cut down on domestic chores has my vote,’ says Houzz Australia staffer Susan Redman.
But not everyone feels a dishwasher saves time. ‘Washing the dishes is not my favourite job, but I much prefer the end result of hand-washing,’ says Houzz Australia user Janine Ferris. ‘No more scratched, smeary glasses. Also packing and unpacking plus drying all the plastic that never dries properly takes almost as long as a hand-wash.’
While unloading and loading a dishwasher takes time, a Houzz US poll showed that 67% of respondents say they prefer to load the dishwasher rather than unload it. One reason is that many people have a certain way of doing things and don’t feel confident their partner can do it the right way. ‘No one else loads it properly, so I have to or I have to rearrange it anyway,’ says Houzz US user Whitney Wadsworth. ‘It’s an illness, what can I say? I really dislike unloading. No clue why.’
Of course, when you hand-wash dishes, you also have to either load dishes onto a rack or dry them and put them away, all of which takes time. In the US, 72% of people who voted in a poll on the topic say they prefer to use a drying rack to towel-drying when hand-washing dishes.
Things are similar in Australia and Italy. But racks in Italy aren’t like the sink-side versions familiar in the US and UK. Many Italians, as well as French and Russians, use above-sink cabinets, like the Italian version shown here, that allow dishes to drain and dry before they’re transferred to cabinets.
Answer: True, but it may not be necessary
Certainly, dishwashers are able to boost the temperature of your water to 60ºC, according to Energy Star, and thus kill more bacteria than with regular hand-washing. But it may not be necessary or even a good thing. ‘Putting stuff into a dishwasher that washes at a high temperature will certainly help you get pathogens off your dishes, but the problem with that is there are potential benefits that come from microbes,’ says Jonathan Eisen, a professor of microbial diversity at the University of California at Davis.
He points to a Swedish study published in the journal Pediatrics in early 2015 that suggests washing dishes by hand may reduce children’s risk of developing allergic conditions, such as asthma or eczema. ‘We speculate that a less-efficient dishwashing method may induce tolerance via increased microbial exposure,’ wrote Bill Hesselmar, Anna Hicke-Roberts and Goran Wennergren in their conclusion.
Eisen agrees. ‘We need to get people to stop thinking the goal is to kill all microbes, because many are good for you,’ he says. ‘There’s a massive amount of evidence now that excessive cleanliness is dangerous. To kids, unquestionably. If you wash dishes by hand with soap, then rinse them and let them dry, you’re getting rid of any possible dangerous organism. The dishwasher is there for convenience, and to save some water in some cases.’
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Answer: Often false
Lucinda Ottusch, from the Whirlpool Institute of Home Science, says she often hears from consumers that they don’t use the options on their machines or the different cycles. These options and cycles can extend the cycle for targeted cleaning of extra-dirty items, such as pans, and cut back on the cycle time for small loads.
One thing Ottusch recommends is that you read the owner’s manual for your machine. There’s been a lot of new technology over the years, and it’s a good idea to make sure you’re using the machine to its best advantage to save you time and money. These manuals will even offer tips on how to properly load the dishwasher, including rack tricks for organising your dishes for the most efficient cleaning.
A 2015 study done at the University of Birmingham in the UK analysed water trajectories inside a dishwasher and formulated the best way to load a dishwasher: in a circular layout around the middle, with carbohydrate-soiled dishes closest to the middle where the water trajectory is at its highest, and protein-soiled dishes on the perimeter, where the water spray is diminished. Many homeowners will find this difficult, however, because dishwasher baskets aren’t designed to support this format. But it’s worth a try.
Answer: True and false
Most people are torn on this one. In Houzz polls conducted in the UK, Australia and the US, preferences were pretty much split down the middle. Half the people out there prefer to load silverware with the handles down. ‘I have a feeling they get cleaned better if [the handles are] down,’ says US user armipeg. The other half load the handles up so they can grab the pieces better when unloading and not touch the tips of the utensils that go into people’s mouths.
Most people agree that sharp knives should be washed by hand, laid flat in a silverware drawer (like the one shown in this image) or be loaded with the handles up to prevent pokes and, in rare cases, death. In 2003, according to The Guardian newspaper, a 31-year-old woman in the UK died in a freak accident after slipping in her kitchen and falling on a knife that was pointing upwards in the dishwasher. Six years before that, a 12-year-old boy was killed in a similar accident, the paper reported.
Answer: Depends on the machine
Older machines can be annoyingly loud. If you’re trying to watch TV or have a quiet conversation with friends, you might want to hold off on starting the cycle. Newer machines offer quieter features, almost to the point where you don’t even know the machine is on, which can be viewed as a plus or minus.
Answer: True, but so can the time freed up by dishwashers
We heard from some people who gave up on their dishwashers because they prefer the moments they share with their spouse, family or friends while doing the dishes together. They talk, chat, play, dance and listen to music while hand-washing dishes.
‘The washing-up, drying and putting away used to be a family affair,’ says Houzz Australia user sjp777, ‘a time to have a family working together to get the task finished after the meal. Sadly this “rite” seems to have disappeared, but we still do it.’
Houzz US user Mark agrees. ‘We own a lovely home and have the space and good fortune to be able to have top-of-the-line appliances, but you will never see a dishwasher in our kitchen,’ he says. ‘It may sound crazy, but we actually like to be together and chat about our day while we wash and dry the dishes and put them away. It’s a time carved out of our busy day that we look forward to. Snapping wet tea towels at each other like we were teenagers never grows old. Can’t do that with a dishwasher.’
But many people find other uses for time saved by using a dishwasher. ‘We’ve got two very small children and the time savings delivered by a dishwasher is extra time we can spend with them, and tidying up the rooms they’ve trashed,’ says Houzz UK user Michael Morton.
Houzz Australia user mcxu8 agrees. ‘I’m glad my friend talked me into buying one. After I started working, I found it tedious to stand there for at least half an hour cleaning the dishes. I found I had more time to relax after a hard day’s work.’
Claim: It’s best to wash dishes after each meal
Answer: True, for the majority of people
As for when to wash those dishes, whether it’s by hand or in a machine, most people say they prefer to tackle the task after each meal. In Houzz polls conducted in Italy and the US, the majority of people who voted said they take care of the dishes after each meal. ‘Why leave them stacking?’ says Houzz Italy user Erica Bagnasco of Erica Bagnasco Architetto. ‘Better to deal with them right after the meal.’
The only time this wasn’t true was when it came to after-holiday meals and dinner parties. In those cases, many people said it’s better to clear the table, put some coffee on and relax and converse with guests, rather than hustling to get the dishes done as soon as everyone puts their silverware down.
Answer: True, for some people
We’ve written about how working with your hands can have psychological benefits, and this goes for hand-washing dishes, too. Many people say washing up is cathartic and pleasurable. ‘While washing the dishes by hand, you can really think a lot and untangle many issues,’ says Houzz Italy user Laura Tallarida.
Houzz Germany employee Robert Hergeth agrees. ‘It’s totally calming doing it on your own,’ he says.
Houzz US user mirador echoes these sentiments. ‘I actually enjoy hand-washing, and find it easy, satisfying and rather contemplative.’
A Florida State University study published in the October 2015 issue of the journal Mindfulness suggests that washing dishes mindfully – focusing on the smell of the washing-up liquid, the warmth of the water and the shape and feel of the dishes – can help stimulate the mind and reduce nervousness compared with the control group.
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It’s hard to argue with this claim. Try finding anyone out there willing to put their grandma’s fine china into a clunky machine. Pieces you care about are naturally going to get the extra attention of your own hands. This goes for good, sharp knives, too.
In Japan, where many dishes are made from earthenware and lacquerware that shouldn’t go into dishwashers, 54% of people, according to a Houzz Japan poll, prefer hand-washing dishes over dishwashing machines. ‘I never wash Japanese lacquerware and expensive glasses in a dishwasher,’ says Japanese journalist Miki Anzai, ‘nor silverware, gold-plated dishes or silver-plated dishes.’
Yukiko Tahara, owner and designer at LiB Contents in Tokyo, says about 70% of her clients want a new dishwasher in their kitchen renovation. About 15% say they won’t need one and another 15% say they decided against one after learning how much space it would take up. ‘An average Japanese kitchen is far smaller than an American kitchen,’ she says.
But perhaps there’s even more cultural relevance than that. ‘I think it’s true that some Japanese love to wash dishes with hands,’ Tahara says. ‘In my experience, washing dishes by hand is the first household chore many children learn at home. In Japan, a strongly gender-based country, washing dishes by hand is one of the few chores many husbands are willing to do.’
Are you a dishwasher fan, or do you prefer to wash up by hand? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.