Are dishwasher powders, gels and tablets marketing hype, or do they do the job? Our panel sits back and watches
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If Joanna Lumley is to be believed, getting your dishes to sparkle - even with a robotic machine to do the work for you - isn't as simple as picking the first dishwasher detergent off the supermarket shelf. Fairy, suggests a current television ad, is the only one to get Joanna's exquisite china squeaky-clean without damaging it as rival powders might. As is typical in the promotion of products with little or nothing to choose between them, celebrity and knocking the opposition are all. Just when you think all dishwasher detergents are the same, along comes an advert showing that one fades your crockery, while another is packaged so excessively that it's too bulky to carry home.

We found that, despite the manufacturers' claims, all the products tested cleaned dishes to exactly the same standard. Convenience of use, price and fragrance were the things that told them apart. None of the detergents let the testers down badly, whether they were giving dishes a quick rinse or blasting away the burnt remains of last night's casserole.


Dishwasher-dependents Charlie and Evelien Madden, Natasha Kahn, Amy Wright and Jacqueline Watson.


The testers were spread around the country to compensate for variations in water quality. Natasha Kahn rinsed her dishes in Glasgow's super-soft water, the Maddens washed in Liverpool, while Amy Wright and Jacqueline Watson battled with the limescale solution that flows from London taps. They tried all five products, doing their best to standardise the degree of soiling each time. As Natasha Kahn pointed out, this proved difficult. "However hard I tried, I was unable to produce a burnt pan, crusted plate or coffee- stained cup - normally not unusual. Perhaps a watched pan never burns. The nearest I got to encrustations were the remnants of a roux and a cheese sauce, which were easily dealt with."

Our testers agreed that all the products performed excellently in terms of cleaning; they all passed the "smear test". The differences were in ease of use, dosage and smell.

Jacqueline Watson, who did all her loads at 55C, suggested that results were mainly dependent on the dishwasher itself and not the detergent. "There wasn't much variation between the products. All did what they were supposed to do. However, I would say a lot depends on the dishwasher itself and the settings used."

Evelien Madden concluded: "My dishwasher is far superior to its human equivalent [husband, Charlie] and cheaper to run! Hurrah for dishwashers and their detergents."


pounds 3.79 for 25 tablets

Though they were the most expensive product in the test, Finish Tablets certainly won for convenience and ease of use - though they weren't our overall winner. The small box of 25 individually-wrapped single-dose (but "double action") tablets proved light to carry home and tidy to use. Amy Wright was entirely won over by their convenience. "The best! Easy to use, no spilling or wastage. Small and easy to store," she enthused.

Though she agreed with Amy on convenience, Jacqueline Watson was less keen. "I do not consider them economical and therefore would not buy them. My cutlery, crockery and glassware were clean and shiny but the tablets are expensive and would only last me about a month," she said.

Charlie Madden found these gimmicky and Natasha Kahn disliked the packaging: "They are tricky to unwrap, and I don't like the idea of finger contact with the detergent."


pounds 3.09 for 1 litre

Sold through health-food shops, Clearspring Dishwasher Gel is promoted as an ecologically friendlier product. It contains no phosphates, and the company is starting a scheme to let users can return five-litre bottles for refilling. Each bottle will have stars to show how many times it has been refilled. Clearspring also promotes its biodegradability, which, the National Consumer Council says, is normal in all detergents.

The testers agreed that this product got the dishes clean but all questioned its ease of use and whether they would buy it. Amy Wright said "Sparkling, shiny, very clean dishes but awkward to pour - it gushes out quickly and spills. However, I would like to buy this because it actually does clean the dishes and claims to be environmentally OK. I like the idea of not paying for packaging."

Natasha Kahn agreed about the dispensing difficulties, "Too gluggy and sticky. I dislike this bottle. Much as I would like to be ecologically correct and save money," she went on, "the liquid splashed all over the place when I tried to pour it. Definitely not desirable for me."


pounds 2.99 for 1kg

This powder was considered easy to dispense and reasonable value for money. Amy Wright and Natasha Kahn were impressed by its washing capabilities and liked the funnel on the packaging. "The 1kg size is convenient to store and easy to lift," said Amy Wright. Natasha Kahn declared this "a good value powder in a pleasant container. Poured well; no smell before or after. It really comes down to brand loyalty. I have always bought Finish and will stick with it."

Charlie and Evelien Madden, however, had disappointing results with this powder. "It left the cups dirty with muck in the bottom and the glasses with a haze on them. We were not impressed," said Evelien.


pounds 5.29 for 1kg

A compact powder, Fairy Ultra requires half the normal 40ml dose per wash - slightly more for particularly heavy loads. This lower dosage makes it seem expensive, but it is actually one of the more economical detergents when calculated by cost per wash. "Excellent," exclaimed Charlie Madden. "It performed the best overall with a vast load of pans, glasses and plates!"

Jacqueline Watson agreed. "My cutlery, crockery and glassware were clean and shiny. Even a dish with baked-on pudding was no problem. Excellent, at a reasonable price."

Amy Wright found the powder easy to pour, and liked the "convenient little measuring cup" which slips into a well for storage when not in use. However, she found some dishes were smeary after the cycle.

Natasha Kahn also complimented the measuring cup "to make sure you only use the right amount", but found the "chemical freshness" odour too powerful when she opened the pack.


pounds 5.49 for 3kg

At approximately 712p per load, the Sainsbury's Lemon Fresh Dishwasher Powder was the cheapest detergent in our test. This didn't appear to greatly affect washing ability, but it also turned out to be one of the least convenient. "The size of the container made it awkward to pour and heavy to handle," said Amy Wright. "But this is great value, and the dishes looked very clean." Neither she nor Natasha Kahn were keen on the "lemon" freshness, "Too much fragrance, which seemed to cling to glasses and hit you as you take a sip of wine," said Natasha.

Charlie Madden found that this Sainsbury's product did well, but failed to successfully tackle a moderately greasy frying pan in his load. "But," he said, "the glasses were like crystal. Very good value for money."

Jacqueline Watson was pleased with the results on most of her load, but she found the powder let her down on a soiled baking tin. On balance, she said, she wouldn't buy it.


Clearspring is available from health food shops, other products from supermarkets nationwide. !