Is Your Dishwasher Really Sanitizing?


If you're like me, you probably don't read the owner's manual of your dishwasher. Most of the time you choose a normal cycle, push start, and let the dishwasher do its job. There comes a time when some people question if the dishwasher is really killing germs, though.

Concerns over sicknesses like flu, Covid-19, and the safety of infant feeding comes to mind. In this article, I cover the basics of knowing if your dishwasher is, in fact, sterilizing and other factors that affect disinfecting dishes.

It's important to understand:

  • the correct dishwasher cycles that qualify as sterilizing
  • water temperature
  • detergents and soap options
  • physical concerns of dish placement and dish size
  • safety concerns of washing plastics

By the way, if your dishwasher is not getting dishes clean, read the article, When Good Dishwashers Behave Bad.

How to know if a dishwasher is really killing germs

There is cleaning, and then there is cleaning. You want to know if a dishwasher can sterilize your dishes and kill germs, such as Covid-19, and keep those baby bottles germ-free. Let's review the qualifications to see if your dishwasher is capable of disinfecting. In this article, the use of "sanitize" means sterilizing (killing germs and viruses).

The Albert Lee Appliance Co. does an excellent job explaining the ability of a dishwasher to sanitize. Not every dishwasher will have the capability. The features to look for on the control panel are:

It is slim that your dishwasher would have all those cycles. Many well-known brands dub their sanitization cycle as "Sani Rinse". Read your owner's manual to learn the level of cleaning your dishwasher is rated at. The question is, how does soap play into all this? Does it kill germs, too?

Dishwasher control panel sanitize settings on a KitchenAid dishwasher.

Dishwasher control panel Hi-Temp and Sani Rinse settings on a KitchenAid dishwasher.

According to the Albert Lee Appliance Co. "Regardless of the kind of soap you use, what destroys germs and viruses is the incredibly hot water. The higher temperature used on the dishwasher sanitize cycle will get the job done every time."

I took a look my KitchenAid dishwasher and found out it did indeed have the Sani-Rinse option that heats the main wash temperature to 140° Fahrenheit and the final rinse water to 155° Fahrenheit, in accordance with NSF/ANSI Standard 184. In addition, I also have the option of Hi-Temp Wash and Extended Heat Dry. Note that the "Eco" washes are cooler water temps, that heat setting will not get hot enough to sanitize.

To be honest, I only use the normal cycle. With a hubby harping about electric bills, we can get by without running the more energy-demanding Sani-Rinse every time.

Let it be known that in addition to the hot water, the powerful jet stream action of the dishwasher actually washes away some germs. According to Albert Lee Appliance Co. the detergent loosens and removes grease and residue. "It won’t physically kill any viruses, but like hand soap, it lifts germs and bacteria off your cooking and baking surfaces so they can be easily washed away by water.

The high heat follows up and  kills the germs. Both the disinfecting rinse and heat cycles can be longer than the usual wash cycle.  The CDC does say that if you use a dishwasher with a sanitize setting, you don't have to hand wash the bottles.

Sterilizing baby bottles and drinking bottles in dishwasher

Sterilizing baby bottles is important for newborns and babies with low-immune systems. This prevents germs from entering their body and reduces the chance of them getting sick. If you're skimming this article, don't miss the section on "will high heat hurt plastic" - there are safety concerns regarding plastic breakdown.

Running  baby bottles and sports bottles (such as Gatorade/Powerade) through the dishwasher on super high heat settings can be a real drain on your water and electric bill. It would seem much wiser and easier to use a baby bottler sterilizer. A bottle sterilizer only takes 10 minutes and keeps the bottles sterilized (when covered) for 6 hours. 

Collage of methods of sterilizing bottles including dishwasher, boiling in water, and using a baby bottler sterilizer.

Methods of sterilizing bottles for safe feeding to infants and adults.

The CDC recommends to sterilize any feeding items used with 2-months old infants or any infant with a weakened immune system. Breast pumps will require their own disinfecting guidelines. Made For Mums, a British site, indicates continuing to sterilize baby feeding equipment for 6-12 months, depending on the equipment.

The other option is to use CDC guidelines and put items in need of disinfecting in hot water and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. It's important to understand that bottles don't stay sterilized for long. Once they are out of the water, they can potentially be exposed to air-borne viruses and germs from handling by human hands. Bottles remain sterilized in a bottler sterilizer for up to 6 hours because they remain covered after the cleaning cycle (this should be the same if you keep the dishwasher closed after running it on a sanitizing setting).

Other baby equipment accessories

When you're ready to graduate baby items to dishwasher cleaning, consider a dishwasher basket for baby bottle parts. If you don't have it already, baby bottle brush kits are really helpful in cleaning out the insides of bottles. Baby bottle drying racks will aid in air drying the endless baby dishes.

Don't forget about the blender, whisk, and the formula scoop, and spoon that mixes the formula. According to the CDC, all of these items also need to be disinfected. According to the CDC, infant feeding items include "bottles and the nipples, rings, and caps that go with them. Certain bottles also may include valves or membranes. Some infants may be fed with a syringe, medicine cup, spoon, or supplemental nursing system."

Mixing baby feeding equipment with other dishes

The CDC does recommend that if you use a drying rack, to only use it for baby feeding items. The rack itself should be wash frequently, like every few days. Drying racks can trap moisture that may allow mold and germs to grow, frequent washing puts an end to it.

Please refer to the CDC for detailed answers to all facets of cleaning baby feeding equipment.

Just like when washing baby clothes, parents choose milder dishwasher soap for baby feeding equipment. Seventh Generation is a trusted brand that offers dishwasher soap that is free of fragrances, dyes, phosphates, and chlorine bleach


Bottle wash cycle for dishwashers

In the article When Good Dishwashers Behave Bad I discovered that some models of dishwashers have a "bottle wash" cycle and special flip-up spray nozzles that can get water up and into deep baby bottles and sports bottles. I'm sure this is an upgrade feature, maybe your dishwasher has it.

In the photo above it shows baby bottles that are short with wide mouths. These have a better opportunity for hot water to reach inside and rinse food debris away. If the setting on your dishwasher incorporates steam, it should reach inside of the bottles for sterilizing.

Keep in mind the physical size of the bottle (bottle opening and length) to judge how well a dishwasher can wash it. Many sports bottle are very tall.

Using antibacterial soap or hand sanitizer to remove germs from dishes

I included this section because it's natural to wonder if you could cut corners and wash baby and sports bottles by using these two products.

I always thought that if I just hand-washed the mouth of a water bottle with antibacterial soap, I achieved a germ-free bottle. The Minnesota Dept. of Health cautions that antibacterial soap is not more effective than plain soap and water for killing disease-causing germs. Any action to wash with any type of dish soap will help remove germs.

In addition, the CDC informs that handwashing removes all types of germs from hands, while using a hand sanitizer only kills them. You would still have to take the extra step of washing to get the germs off your hands (or dishes). To be effective in killing germs, the hand sanitizer (or hand wipes) have to contain at least 60% alcohol.

Best advice is that although handwashing bottles removes most germs, it doesn't remove all germs. Only a sterilization process can assure all germs are killed.

Mayo Clinic advises to wash hands for 20 seconds and only use hand sanitizer when handwashing with soap is not an option. FYI, according to Cedars-Sinai, germs and virus are the same thing - a virus is just a form of a germ.

Applying that same wisdom to bottle washing, it would make sense that a thorough cleaning of the bottle by hand would leave a bottle acceptably clean to drink from (outside of best practices for cleaning equipment for babies).

Optionally, all dishes can be washed with bleach. Please refer to the CDC guidelines for using bleach to disinfect. Worth noting, the CDC advises, "make a new diluted bleach solution daily. Bleach solutions will not be as effective after being mixed with water for over 24 hours."

Sterilizing toys in the dishwasher

Washing toys in the dishwasher is as great mom tip. Think of all the cracks, crevices, curves, and bumps that need dirt removed! Even a normal wash can remove some questionable dirt. If you must move up to the sterilizing level, be sure to grab a dishwasher basket for baby bottle parts. 

If concerned about heat damage and leaching of chemicals from the plastic, use bleach instead (see section above).

Will the high heat of disinfecting hurt the plastic?

It's natural to wonder if the heat is so intense, wouldn't it damage the plastic?

According to Consumer Reports, "For safety’s sake, certain plastics shouldn’t be washed in a dishwasher. A dishwasher’s heat can cause harmful chemicals such as phthalates and BPA to leach from plastics that contain them."

Don Huber, director of product safety for Consumer Reports goes on to say, "don’t select cycles that use higher wash or dry temperatures, such as the “sanitize” cycle when washing plastic."

Because of leaching of harmful chemicals during the high heat sanitizing process, baby bottles, sports bottles (such as Gatorade and Powerade) should not be disinfected with a dishwasher.

In addition, Poison.org, an independent 501(c)3 organization advises, "Discard scratched baby bottles, infant feeding cups, and water bottles. Minute amounts of BPA might leak into the contents; in addition, damaged areas could provide a hiding place for germs."

Sports bottles could be washed in a dishwasher on a lower wash and dry cycle, such as the Normal setting. The concern remains with the plastic baby bottles prolonged exposure to heat.

Comparing notes with a friend, she said she never puts any plastic in her dishwasher. She mentioned a time when a cheap plastic container came out crumpled from the heat, and it was on the top rack. My friend is also concerned with unhealthy leached chemicals of the plastic coming in contact with her food.

In conclusion

There is a lot to take in when it comes to the safety of your health and a dishwasher's role in it.. It becomes a matter of balance when using the dishwasher as a kitchen convenience vs health concerns. Know that you have options, but always put your baby, you,  and your family's health first!

About the author 

Renee Matt

Renee is a former kitchen designer, home remodeling enthusiast (having lived through several DIY projects), and an Iowa farmwife. Renee is passionate about preparedness, garden skills, and knowing where her food comes from. Years of being a stay-at-home mom and supporting the family farm with hearty meals has been key to Renee's pantry readiness. She uses her professional IT background and expertise to bring the Everything Pantry website to life.

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