How to Do the Washing-up Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Do the Washing-up

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A wobbly pile of dishes in a sink

Unless you're rich enough to afford an automatic dishwasher wherever you go, or have a butler, or decide to live with your parents all your life, you're going to spend a good few hours of your stay on this planet washing dishes. Either that, or eat off dirty china and suffer repeated bouts of hepatitis.

Washing-up is time-consuming and excruciatingly boring but reading this may ensure it is no longer mental torture; you may end up finding that it doesn't take anything like as long as it used to.

The mechanism behind this minor miracle is understanding the conceptual basis of doing the dishes.

The Concept

Think of washing dishes as a war. Lined up against you are the three basic food groups - protein, carbohydrate and fat - each with its own weaknesses.

On your side are dishwashing machines, the physics of the universe you live in, sponges, brushes, scourers, chemicals and, if all else fails, human effort.

Taking your weapons one at a time:

  • Automatic Dishwashers are wonderful machines. If you've got a good one and are sure you're never going to rent a primitive cottage in the country, or volunteer to do the dishes after a dinner with your favourite aunt, read no further. Go at once to another h2g2 entry - there's nothing for you here.

  • Brownian Motion is the random movement of fluid molecules, and increases with heat. In hot water, it can be employed to remove dirt from dishes without any help from you. In fact, TV commercials for washing-up liquid often show things which in hot water clean themselves, as if the manufacturers had invented Brownian motion. But that's just typical marketing cynicism.

  • Water might seem an obvious ingredient, but water alone is a useful tool. Soaking and softening with water is particularly effective against carbohydrates, and involves no effort from you.

  • Chemicals fall into three categories:


    If you saw the programme The 1900 House1 on UK Channel 4, you may have noticed the family using washing soda to do the dishes. Not so long ago, this was all there was. Alkalis like this work well on fats, but are pretty much useless on proteins and carbohydrates.


    These are the broad-spectrum antibiotics of the washing-up world. They zap more or less everything. Think of a detergent molecule as a tiny magnet, except that instead of a North and South Pole, one end of each molecule loves water and the other end hates it. These helpful little entities gather on the surface of water, which is why washing-up water lies flat on a shiny plate rather than standing up like raindrops on a car bonnet2. The water-hating ends of the detergent molecules will do anything to get away from water, including sticking to dirt. Combine detergents with Brownian motion and you've got a powerful combination: jiggling little molecules shake the dirt off your dishes, then detergent molecules cling to the broken-off pieces, splitting them into smaller and smaller pieces till the water looks like, well, dishwater.

    Once these molecules have locked into a piece of stale food, they're out of action, so it's worth while scraping the worst of the mess into a garbage bin before you put the dishes into the water.

    The detergents sold for use in automatic dishwashers are like ordinary dishwashing liquid on speed. Because they know you're not going to dip your hands in the stuff and, because they know dishwashers are really stupid machines that aren't going to give an extra hard rub on that bit of bacon fat, the manufacturers really let rip. You can take advantage of this extra power even if you don't have a dishwasher, by using rubber gloves, or by simply being careful not to touch the solution with your hands while stirring with a brush or a spatula.

    Dishwasher detergent is also wonderful for cleaning worktops and garden furniture - but remember to wear those rubber gloves.


    Never use bleach on dishes, pots or pans. Bleach doesn't remove dirt; it disguises it by changing its colour. In the long run, ancient dirt will become bleach-resistant and will permanently stain.

  • Hardware: Buy a brush on a stick. Don't buy a piece of sponge with a scrubby bit on it as it will stay wet after you've finished the dishes, bacteria will grow and it will smell terrible. The same thing will happen to a dish cloth. For tough dirt use a Spontex scourer3, a complicated coil of white metal which is possibly aluminium. It dries quickly, doesn't seem to damage tough surfaces and lasts more or less indefinitely.

  • Rubber gloves: As mentioned above, dishwasher detergents are ferocious, but even ordinary washing-up liquids contain chemicals that mimic the female hormone, oestrogen. These molecules are small enough to pass through your skin so you should wear rubber gloves while doing the dishes, especially if you're a man. You might think this makes you look uncool but, if this worries you, remember you can buy butch black rubber gloves, designed for building work and car maintenance. They work just as well as thin pink or yellow gloves. Also damage to your male pride is easier to fix than changes to your body chemistry4.

  • Rinsing is important. As well as containing oestrogen-like molecules, washing-up liquids are poisonous. Drunk in relatively small quantities they will make you ill; large quantities will kill you outright. Very few people drink large quantities because it tastes disgusting (though you should protect children), but many people swallow minute quantities of dishwashing liquid with their food and drink because traces are left on glasses, china and cutlery after they've been washed.

    After washing your dishes, rinse them. If you don't have twin sinks, use a washing-up bowl and have a cold tap running beside it.

  • Drying up is unnecessary. Don't be ridiculous - go and buy a plate rack to let everything dry in the air.

Washing Dishes the Easy Way

  1. If you don't already have them, buy a washing-up bowl, some good quality washing-up liquid, some automatic dishwashing liquid (optional), a brush on a stick, a pair of rubber gloves, a Spontex scourer (also optional) and a plate rack.

  2. Fill the bowl with very hot water. Add a squirt of washing-up liquid, and swish it about with your brush. Scrape the worst of the muck off your dishes into a garbage bin and put the dishes into the bowl. Then walk away.

  3. After ten minutes or so, put on those rubber gloves. The combination of detergent and Brownian motion will have done the bulk of the work. Use the brush to rub off any traces of food residue then rinse everything under a tap.

  4. Put it on the plate rack to dry.

Emergency Techniques

The basic method works nearly all the time, but here are a few extra techniques to use in emergencies:

Cleaning Stubborn Dirt Off Pans

If the basic method doesn't work, do not be tempted to fall back on hard physical work. Fill dirty casserole dishes with hot water and a generous squirt of detergent and leave to go cold. Fill frying pans and saucepans with cold water and detergent and place them on the hob5 on a low setting and wait for them to slowly heat up (but watch them and don't let them boil over). This should loosen the toughest dirt. Repeat the operation if necessary.

Dried-on Egg

Washing-up liquid is excellent on fat, reasonably good on carbohydrates and only fairly good at shifting protein. Most of the time this doesn't matter, as protein isn't sticky. But there is one exception: egg. A simple solution is to let it dry overnight. In the morning, the bulk of the egg will flake away. Brownian motion, hot water and detergent will do the rest.

Stained China

Fill with or immerse the china in very hot water. Add dishwasher detergent, taking care not to let it touch your skin, and leave overnight. You can get a similar effect using those tablets made for soaking dentures. This technique works well with tea-stained cups, a common problem in hard-water areas.

Take a Holiday From Doing the Dishes

Excellent as the above advice may be, cleaning dishes will always be boring and depressing. From time to time, take a few days break from washing your own dishes. Move into a hotel, eat out, or buy paper plates and cups so you can throw your dirty dishes away.

1Also shown on American television as Edwardian House2For this reason, detergents are used as 'wetting agents' in, for example, photoprocessing.3A British product.4There may be some exceptions to this rule.5A hob is the flat top part of the cooker.

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