Watkins Co. are a new company to this site, despite being established in 1868.
Their website plays up its “humble beginnings in Plainview, Minnesota”, a birthplace that mirrors the company’s commitment to transparency.
Regular readers will know that cleaning product manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients in their products unlike, say, manufacturers of personal care products. And regular readers of this site will know, we are not keen on this. So much so, we refuse to review any products that don’t have full ingredient disclosure.
You’ll be delighted to know that Watkins Co. isn’t like most manufacturers. They list all of its ingredients with pride – and points out those that are notably absent—ammonia, bleach, dyes and phosphates.
So, what is the soap like?
The branding of the bottle smartly coincides with The Watkins Co.’s appeal to the old-timey charm of a tried-and-true brand. It has a simple, yet artfully-embellished design featuring an aloe plant in the center. The effect is reminiscent of an old medicine bottle from the 1800s.
The 25% recycled bottle boasts that its contents are non-toxic and were produced free of animal testing and promises that its product removes “even dried-on food”.
The detergent itself a clear, viscous liquid (dye-free!). The bottle lists an Aloe and Green Tea scent, although it’s almost undetectable at first sniff – more like a bottle of bubbles or a generic hand soap. Indeed, the ingredients only list “fragrance” and not specifically aloe or green tea; More on this later.
First of all: Does it actually wash dishes?
To test out how Watkins dish soap works, we compared it to a popular name-brand dishwashing liquid. Below you’ll find a picture of Last Night’s Baking Sheet, reinforced with some fresh oil so we can thoroughly put Watkins’ grease-fighting power to the test (pardon the older dishware – it gets a lot of use and needs a thorough cleaning! Watkins dish soap to the rescue?). We washed the left side with Watkins and the right side with the popular competitor, applying the products in similar amounts directly to the baking sheet and scrubbing with a standard sponge.
As you can see, both products did a similar cleaning job, removing nearly all of the fresh oil and dried-on chicken nugget crusties. We performed a quick finger swipe on each side. Both felt very clean; Watkins may even have been a pinch less greasy—10 points to Watkins!
We dried each side with a clean paper towel (photos spared). Both were mostly clean, although the Watkins side left slightly darker marks. Hardly the height of scientific rigor, we’re declaring this cleaning comparison a tie.
Overall, Watkins was easy to use and did a fine job of removing grease and burnt, stuck-on food. Further, its scent had a chance to blossom outside of the bottle and turned out to be pleasantly mild.
Onto the real science… how is it formulated?
The primary active agent in Watkins dish soap is sodium laurel sulfate (SLS). SLS is an anionic surfactant that works by trapping oil-based dirt that can then be washed away with water. SLS can be found in many consumer household cleaning products, but often gets a bad rap or gets confused with other compounds with similar names. Media reports and marketing campaigns have claimed that using products with SLS can cause cancer or punish the environment, but a recent scientific review says that most of these assertions stem from misinterpretation of the scientific literature. Since dish soap is a rinse-off product with limited contact with the skin, use is unlikely to cause irritation for most people. SLS has a low absorption rate in the skin, and it’s biodegradable.
That said, there are less irritating alternatives out there, so someone with skin sensitivities might want to choose another option.
Working alongside SLS is a nonionic surfactant and skin-conditioning agent called decyl glucoside. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) is an independently-operated but cosmetics-industry funded expert panel. CIR found decyl glucoside and other alkyl glucosides to be “safe in the present practices of use and concentration when formulated to be nonirritating”. In other words, it’s generally safe in the amounts typically used in consumer products. Although allergic reactions to alkyl glucosides like decyl glucoside are rare, they have occurred in rinse-off products like shampoos.
Other surfactants in Watkins dish soap include lauramine oxide and myristamine oxide.
Lauramine oxide itself is not considered to be hazardous, but can, in some circumstances, be contaminated with cancer-causing byproducts like nitrosamines.
Myristamine oxide is classified as a suspected environmental toxin, though the research is limited. It poses no concerning risks to human health.
Toward the end of the ingredient list is methylisothiazolinone, or MI. MI is a controversial volatile biocide that is sometimes used as a preservative in personal care products. It has the dubious distinction of being awarded contact allergen of the year in 2013, and those that do suffer reactions to it can suffer pretty extreme reactions if this facebook group is any indicator. The UK Press picked up in the ingredient as a cause of a skin allergy epidemic a few years ago and many manufacturers ceased using it on the back of that bad press. The European Union, which has more conservative restrictions on the use of chemicals in consumer products compared to the U.S., banned the use of MI in leave-on products in 2017. Dish soap isn’t a leave on produce so it’s usage is still allowed. As it’s a VOC, it can cause airborne allergic reactions in people, however, a study in 2015 concluded that it is unlikely to cause asthma.
Watkins dish soap contains another controversial preservative, phenoxyethanol. In some animal studies, but not others, organ toxicity was found when phenoxyethanol was applied to the skin. It’s also a highly suspected skin irritant, although data are limited. However, most products contain phenoxyethanol in concentrations less than 1%, which is considered to be safe when used in cosmetics, even those left on the skin. If we extrapolate that to dish soap, which is only in contact with the hands for a short time, you may want to hold off on trashing your Watkins dish soap for now.
A note on Fragrance: Manufacturers in the U.S. are not required to disclose specific perfume allergens contained in their products. As such, some of the ingredients housed under these sometimes complex formulas can be sensitizing or even carcinogenic. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the formula contains harmful ingredients that the manufacturer is trying to hide, but we really have no way of knowing.
Other ingredients: Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine sounds scary, but this skin-conditioning ingredient is considered to pose a low risk to human health. Methylglycinediacetic acid, or Trilon M, is advertised by one wholesaler for its ability to “prevent rancidity and extend shelf life”. It is a considered a biodegradable, environmentally healthy alternative to phosphates, which are known to be harmful to human health if they are able to accumulate systemically.
Capryl glucoside is another nonionic alkyl glucoside, like decyl glucoside, that is generally considered to be safe.
Overall – do we recommend it?
Both Watkins dish soap and the competitor we compared it to can be found at Walmart, but Watkins brand costs more than a dollar more – roughly $4 per 24-ounce bottle vs. $2.45 per 19.4-ounce bottle, or $0.17 per ounce vs. $0.13 per ounce. In both formulas, the most prominent ingredient listed (after water) is sodium lauryl sulfate, which is considered by experts to be generally safe. Compared to the less offensive decyl glucoside, the competitor uses the riskier lauramine oxide as its secondary surfactant. The competitor’s formula contains dyes, while Watkins’ does not. Neither formula contains ammonia, bleach, or phosphates, so these claims by Watkins may hold more fluff than substance. Both formulas contain questionable preservatives MIT and phenoxyethanol.
J.R. Watkins dish soap is manufactured by a reputable transparent company. It does a good job of cleaning dishes. And we know what ingredients are in the bottle. In addition, Watkins bottles are partially recycled from used consumer products, and they don’t test on animals. Not to mention, their branding is pretty cool.
Unfortunately, there’s too many fairly harsh ingredients for our liking. I hoped manufacturers would have ceased using methylisothiazolinone altogether by now. It also contains sulfates, phenoxyethanol and a number of other ingredients that could induce contact dermatitis.
If you do decide to use it – be sure to wear gloves!