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Best Dishwasher Detergents From Consumer Reports' Tests

Packs and tablets lead the field, but price doesn't predict performance
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/ Source: Consumer Reports

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You don’t need a pricey dishwasher detergent to get clean dishes. The best formulas from popular brands like Finish and Cascade do a fantastic job removing food and resisting residue in Consumer Reports’ tough lab tests. But so do plenty of store-brand detergents, which cost much less per dose.

We tested 23 dishwasher detergents from eight brands, including premeasured packs as well as gels. (Sales of powder detergents have been dropping, so we haven’t included them in our latest tests.) The performance ranges widely between the best and worst of the bunch, and there’s a huge span of prices, too—anywhere from 5 to 43 cents per load.

Overall, the best-performing detergent packs clean better than the best gels. That’s because they contain a wider mixture of ingredients that can boost cleaning, including enzymes, degreasers, bleach, and rinse aids. Different combinations of those substances can make a big difference. “Generally enzymes do help,” says Richard Handel, the engineer who oversees Consumer Reports’ dishwasher detergent testing. “But it’s too complicated to pin it on one ingredient.” These single-dose units—also known as pacs, packets, pods, tabs, and tablets—are also easy to load into the detergent tray, with no squirting or scooping required. But gels (and even powders) still have their place, depending on your dishwasher’s performance and personal preference. If you don’t need to wash away much stuck-on food, for example, a good gel might be all you really need.

How Consumer Reports Tests Dishwasher Detergents

CR’s test engineers smear eight dinner plates with a carefully measured portion of starchy goop (it’s a secret recipe), then bake each plate until the goop gets crusty. "It’s really tough to get off," Handel says. After running the plates through a normal wash cycle, we use imaging analysis to determine precisely how clean each dish is, and whether any water spots are present.

Then we run a set of clear drinking glasses and aluminum plates through 10 consecutive wash cycles, all with very hard water—that is, we use well water to make the test extra-challenging. After that, we use a spectrophotometer to assess whether any haze or film forms on the glasses, or whether the metal plates have begun to discolor.

The best dishwasher detergents we test are able to get the dirtiest dishes spotless, and do so while resisting water spots and white film. The worst dishwasher detergents, mainly gels, are barely better than water for removing baked-on messes.

Below, you’ll find a selection of the best dishwasher detergents we test, listed alphabetically. They’re from several brands, in both single-dose packs and gels. But know that if your dishwasher does a decent job and you’re not dealing with baked-on messes, there are plenty more options that may work for you. You’ll find those, along with detailed results from our tests, in our dishwasher detergent ratings.

See CR’s review of the best dishwashers of the year, our overall dishwasher ratings and buying guide, and tips for loading a dishwasher.

Cascade ActionPacs with Dawn

CR’s take: Cascade is one of the two best-selling brands of dishwasher detergent in the U.S., which is why you’ll see 10 of its formulas in our ratings. The brand’s top-performing recipe is ActionPacs with Dawn, a bleach-free detergent that earns our recommended status, thanks to Excellent ratings on our cleaning test as well as our test to measure residue and discoloration. (These packs aren’t to be confused with the Cascade Complete ActionPacs with Dawn, or the Cascade Platinum ActionPacs with Dawn, which also perform well but cost a few cents more per dose.)

Cascade Free & Clear ActionPacs

CR’s take: If you prefer your detergents without heavy perfumes or dyes, consider the Cascade Free & Clear ActionPacs, which is the top-performing formula of that ilk, according to our tests. On all counts, it scores nearly as well as the regular ActionPacs with Dawn that we highlighted above and also earns our recommended status. However, it does cost much more per dose and is one of the pricier dishwasher detergents we tested.

Cascade Gel with Dawn

CR’s take: If you prefer a gel detergent—for the low price, dosage control, or really whatever reason—consider Cascade Gel with Dawn, which scored a Very Good rating on our cleaning test—better than any other gel. It’s about as bare-bones as a detergent can get: no bleach for lightening stains and no enzymes for breaking down stuck-on foods. But the results speak for themselves.

Finish Powerball Quantum

CR’s take: In addition to Cascade, Finish is the other major dishwasher detergent brand in the U.S., and Powerball Quantum is its top-performing formula, according to our tests. It’s also the only Finish formulation that earns our recommended status. Like many single-dose packs, it earns an Excellent overall rating, mainly on the strength of its cleaning performance.

Great Value Dishwasher Gel (Walmart)

CR’s take: Our top-rated gel detergent is also the lowest-priced dishwasher detergent we’ve tested overall. Great Value Dishwasher Gel (from Walmart’s store brand) earns a Very Good rating overall and costs just 5 cents per dose. It didn’t remove food quite as well as the Cascade with Dawn gel we highlight above, but it’s an all-around solid performer. Again, gels generally don’t clean as well as packs, but this Great Value formula actually outscores some of the single-dose pacs we’ve tested.

Kirkland Signature (Costco) Platinum Performance UltraShine

CR’s take: Costco members could consider the Kirkland Signature Platinum Performance UltraShine pacs. The formula earns Excellent ratings on our food-removal and film-resistance tests, and costs just 9 cents per dose—earning our CR Best Buy status for high performance at a low price. It also clearly outperformed the other Costco store-brand packs, Kirkland Signature Premium.

Member's Mark (Sam's Club) Ultimate Clean Dishwasher Pacs (unavailable)

CR’s take: Member’s Mark Ultimate Clean Dishwasher Pacs is a CR Best Buy, earning the highest score of any dishwasher detergent we’ve tested. And it costs just 10 cents per dose, less than half of most major-brand pacs—though it’s a Sam’s Club store brand, so you’ll get that low price only if you’re a warehouse member. But the results were fantastic, and this formula even resists water spots better than many other high-end packs do.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the source of hard water and the equipment CR uses in our dishwasher detergent testing.

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