Dishwasher and Image

Washing Dishes By Hand vs. Dishwasher—Which is More Effective?

It’s an interesting question and one that comes up every time I write about how to use and maintain a dishwasher. For many readers, handwashing dishes just feels better and something that’s hard to let go of, especially for those who don’t use enough dishes to fill the dishwasher more than a couple of times a week.

But isn’t low-tech handwashing just as effective as a high-tech dishwasher? All things considered, the answer might surprise you.


Dishwasher and Washing

Health and safety

To kill the germs and bacteria on dirty dishes, water must reach a scalding 140° F, according to Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona. But if you set your home water heater to that temperature, you’ll put family members at risk of scalding when using hot water in tubs, showers, and sinks.

Most home water heaters are set to 120° F to avoid scalding, which means getting the water hot enough from the tap for hand washing dishes is all but impossible. And even if you could, 140° F is much hotter than your hands could stand for the minimum required 2-minutes those dishes would need to be exposed to that high temperature. But a dishwasher? No problem.

Since the early 1990s, most dishwashers in the U.S. have built-in heaters to boost water temperature to 140–145° F, the temperature recommended by manufacturers for optimum dishwashing performance and by food safety experts for killing bacteria.

The advantage of a dishwasher with a booster heater is that you can turn down your water heater thermostat, significantly reducing household water heating costs. Resetting your water heater to 120°F will provide adequate hot water for your household needs.


Hand washing dishes typically uses a lot more water than a dishwasher. Unless you could get that sink full of dirty dishes hand washed with soap and rinsed with the water running from the tap in fewer than 2 minutes, it’s likely you’re using a lot more water than a current dishwasher model requires. And in most cases, a lot more if you pre-rinse, wash, and then rinse again.

That’s because according to the U.S. Energy Department, a federal standard kicked in for dishwashers requiring a 20-percent reduction in the amount of water it uses. If yours is a highly efficient Energy Star-certified dishwasher, it uses less than 4.25 gallons of water per cycle.


Not long ago, we remodeled our kitchen. I was without a dishwasher for what seemed like forever, but in reality, it was about a month. That doesn’t mean I stopped cooking or we stopped eating a home. I just had to find other ways to get the job done.

Health, safety, and economics aside, it took so much time—far more time than required to get the same job done with a fully operational dishwasher. To keep up, it seemed like I was handwashing all the time; the drying rack was forever full; even so, there were always dirty dishes in the make-shift sink and clean dishes always waiting to be moved from the drying rack to the cupboard.

Not only does my dishwasher save energy and water, it just makes my life so much easier.

If you don’t own a dishwasher

Not everyone has a dishwasher. If that’s you, don’t panic. You can hand wash dishes and make sure they are sanitized, too. The Oregon State University Extension Service says you need to add this one step to the process:

After scrubbing with soap and water and rinsing, soak everything for 5 to 10 minutes in a gallon of hot water—a typical sink full—and one tablespoon of chlorine bleach. Don’t re-rinse. Instead, allow the dishes to air dry in a rack or on a drying mat. The bleach will kill any microorganisms that your scouring failed to kill. As everything dries, the bleach will evaporate, leaving your dishes clean and sanitized.


The evidence is clear—a dishwasher is far more efficient than hand washing dishes. It’s faster, safer, and cheaper than even the most frugal method of hand washing dishes.

More from Mary's Everyday Cheapskate

Woman with stinky shoe
A fountain in the middle of the tub
kitchen island wood floor beautiful kitchen
cleaning bathroom sink
bright colored cleaning cloths on white counter
Womans hand cleaning smartphone screen with alcohol. Concept of Cleaning dirty screen phone for disease prevention from virus Covid-19.
my clean kitchen
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
11 replies
  1. Jackie says:

    I have 4 dishwashers. My son and daughter-in-Love, My daughter and my husband. We don’t like dishwashers. Since I have a lot of allergies it is just easier to wash them by hand so I don’t have a reaction to anything.

    • Jackie says:

      I forgot to mention that we use Vinegar sanitize though because it removes any residue from the dishes and because of my allergies it also removes any fragrance from the dishes. Win Win situation for me.

  2. Sue in MN says:

    Half of each year we live without a dishwasher, and with no space to install one (and on a septic system, which loathes dishwasher detergent additives.) We wipe down the dishes with our napkins before placing them in the basin (eliminates rinsing), fill with soap & hot water and let soak while wiping table, stove & counter. The water cools sufficiently to safely place our hands for washing, dishes are rinsed in the other basin, which is filled with hot water, and dried on the rack. I like your sanitizing step with the bleach, and will add it to our routine. We also participate in communal meals where there is no dishwasher, and will add the bleach step to the cleaning routine there as well – where we already rack, cover with a clean dish towel, and air dry the dishes, then put away the next morning.

  3. tinydogpries says:

    I only feed one person so if I used my dishwasher it would never be full. I have gotten far too good over my lifetime at preparing meals with a minimum of mess. The dishwasher was already here when I moved in so I didn’t have any additional cost to buy one. I definitely don’t worry about sterilization as I, too, consider the world to be overly obsessed with such nonsense. On a baking day or for a cookout the dishwasher comes in handy but for regular needs hand washing is just fine.

  4. Cally says:

    our dishwasher broke last fall, since it’s just two of us the dishes don’t seem to pile up very fast. I hand wash, filling the sink with the hottest soapy water available, soaking those pre-rinsed dishes before scrubbing, then filling the other sink for rinse water. air dry because that’s easy.
    people hand washed dishes for ages before dishwashers, I refuse to “worry” about them not being clean enough. if/when we replace the dishwasher, I’ll probably go back to the once-a-week running.

    • plantsower says:

      I also agree that I don’t worry about the “germs”. Sheesh! Our society today just worries and worries about that and the germaphobes seem to have the most illnesses including their kids who are “protected” from everything. I don’t know about the water usage, but the electricity bill went up when we used our dishwasher. The pump went out and so we just use it as a great big dish drainer which works out great!

      • Cally says:

        “fear sells” and i refuse to be suckered in by most of it. plantsower- great idea!! dang, why didn’t i think of that!

      • Jackie says:

        I don’\t use the vinegar for sanitation of germs. I use it to remove any residual soap and or fragrance. I have a 10 page list of allergies and some are so bad they can cause anaphylactic sock. Since we live in a remote area and it is 50 miles to a hospital we take extreme precaution.

    • Susan says:

      I completely agree! My dishes are clean enough. Your body’s immune system needs to work! I often wonder if this is why we now have so many autoimmune diseases with the overuse of hand sanitizer, bleach, etc. Also, my water bill went down $20 dollars a month when we stopped using the dishwasher. I actually enjoy washing dishes and it makes the busyness of life slow down even if it’s for just a few minutes.

  5. Cathy down on the farm says:

    Very interesting … we, too, are on a septic and I don’t use our dishwasher much. Our water is absolutely scalding and I can find no way to turn the hot water heater down! With that said, I load up the sink and pans with hot soapy water and Dawn to cut any grease on things. Another staple I keep at the sink is hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle, instead of Clorox, as I have a tendency to ruin the things I wear with Clorox splatters. There are only two of us so I don’t mind washing dishes either. Kind of old school, I guess.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *