The Dishwasher Versus Hand-Washing Debate Has Finally Been Solved — Sort Of

In the realm of domestic affairs, few things seem to generate as much universal contention as the argument over washing dishes by hand versus washing them in a dishwashing machine. Which method gets dishes cleaner? Which uses less water?

We reached out to Houzz users in eight countries — Russia, Italy, Spain, France, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia — and, through a series of discussions and polls, tried to determine what, if anything, other cultures and communities can teach us about this common dilemma. Here's how the dirty-dish debate stacks up around the world.

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Dishwashing machines are more popular — but it's complicated

For the most part, it seems, we're all bobbing together in the same basin of sudsy water. The majority of people in the countries we reached out to, with the exception of Japan, say they prefer to wash dishes in a dishwasher rather than by hand. In fact, 60 to 70 percent of people in every country — apart from Japan, where a small majority prefer hand-washing — said they preferred the appliance method. Houzz France user Valérie says: "I couldn't live without my dishwasher. Huge time benefit and it is far more ecological. And by the way, my hands thank my dishwasher a lot." In the U.S., 67 percent of respondents to our poll said they preferred machine washing to hand-washing. Houzz U.S. user nnigrt [sic] commented: "There are times I'd rather sweep the kitchen floor than vacuum it, make my own bread rather than walk to Whole Foods [grocery store]. But I never say, 'Heck, I'm feeling old-timey, let me wash up those breakfast dishes.' " But something can be said for hand-washing too. In each country we polled, 30 to 40 percent of respondents still prefer the hand method. Lorella Dia, a Houzz Italy user and owner of Milan Chic Chandeliers, says she understands why a large family that uses a lot of dishes might need a machine. But if it's just two people living together, hand-washing may be better — and perhaps more romantic? "They can take advantage of the hand-washing time to help each other and maybe have a relaxed chat," she says. "Wouldn't it be like in old romantic movies?" Let's take a look at common claims about each method to understand why some people swear by their appliance and others find solace in hand-washing.

Claim: Dishwashing machines save water. Answer: True, but so can efficient hand-washing

A 2009 study of U.K. consumers by Bonn University in Germany found that those who washed by hand used, on average, about 13 gallons (49 liters) of water, while the machines used a little over 3 gallons (11 liters). In 2011, the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) echoed this, stating that newer machines with an Energy Star rating used an average of 3 to 5 gallons (about 11 to 19 liters) of water. Compare that to what the council calls efficient hand-washing, which uses up to 8 gallons (around 30 liters), and the machine appears to win. But not so fast. What is efficient hand-washing? A group called Waterwise, a nonprofit focused on reducing water consumption in the U.K., says the amount of water flowing from a tap can vary from about half a gallon to 6½ gallons (2 to 25 liters) per minute. The organization, which says kitchen faucets and dishwashers account for 8 to 14 percent of all water used in a home, says putting aerators on your faucets can help reduce water flow. Also, soaking dishes in a basin of soapy water and not letting the water run while you wash every dish can result in a water savings of up to 50 percent, according to the organization. But if you're really strategic — using one basin for washing and another for rinsing, for example — you could get your water use down to the range of the newer machines.

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The NRDC estimates that regular hand-washing, in which the faucet runs the entire time, uses about 27 gallons (around 102 liters) of water. Yikes. Let's not do that anymore. Now, keep in mind that when it comes to water usage for dishwashers, it depends on the machine. Not all homeowners have newer machines, which tend to be more water- and energy-efficient. Older machines, Waterwise says, can use about 13 gallons (about 49 liters) of water per cycle, whereas some modern machines can use less than 3 gallons (11 liters). Waterwise suggests the following strategies to save water:

○ Consider a smaller appliance. If you live alone, you might not need a 12-place-setting machine; instead, look for a 9-place-setting model.

○ Use your machine's eco or economy settings, which use less water and energy.

○ Avoid pre-rinsing, which the organization says isn't necessary with modern machines and detergents.

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Claim: Dishwashing machines save time Answer: Yes, but it depends

Many people with a dishwasher often wonder how they ever lived without one. For some, the benefits are about more than just dirty dishes. "Toss it all in the dishwasher," says U.S. user dahupaylo, "including the pet bowls, keys, baseball hats, toys, plastic take-out containers, empty peanut butter jar, pot scrubber — and come back in an hour when it's all shiny and clean." But many people who've never owned a dishwasher and then get one are often surprised to learn there's quite a bit of work that goes into using the machine. You still need to scrape or rinse dirty plates, and you need to load the machine the correct way, wait for the cycle to complete and unload the dishes. This all takes time, but not as much as washing by hand. The Bonn University study found that homeowners who hand-washed dishes spent 60 minutes on the task, while those using a dishwasher took nine minutes to load and unload the machine. Normal cycle times for dishwashers are two to three hours, according to American product testing and rating organization Consumer Reports. That's time that could be used for all sorts of things that don't involve standing at a sink.

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"When you have a busy family life at home, anything that can cut down on domestic chores has my vote," says Houzz Australia staffer Susan Redman. But not everyone feels a dishwasher saves time. "Washing the dishes is not my favorite job, but I much prefer the end result of hand-washing," says Houzz Australia user Janine Ferris. "No more scratched, smeary glasses. Also packing and unpacking plus drying all the plastic that never dries properly takes almost as long as a hand-wash." While unloading and loading a dishwasher takes time, a Houzz U.S. poll shows that 67 percent of respondents prefer to load the dishwasher rather than unload it. One reason is that many people have a certain way of doing things and don't feel confident that someone else can do it the right way. "No one else loads it properly, so I have to or I have to rearrange it anyway," says Houzz U.S. user Whitney Wadsworth. "It's an illness, what can I say? I really dislike unloading. No clue why." Of course, when you hand-wash dishes, you also have to either load dishes onto a rack or dry them and put them away, all of which takes time. In the U.S., 72 percent of people who voted in a poll on the topic said they preferred a drying rack to towel-drying when hand-washing dishes. Things are similar in Australia and Italy. But racks in Italy aren't like the sink-side versions familiar in the U.S and U.K. Many Italians, as well as French and Russians, use above-sink cabinets, like the Italian version shown here, that allow dishes to drain and dry before they're transferred to cabinets.

Claim: Dishwashing machines sanitize better. Answer: True, but it may not be necessary

Sure, dishwashing machines are able to boost the temperature of your water to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), according to Energy Star, and thus kill more bacteria than hand-washing can. But it may not be necessary or even a good thing. "Putting stuff into a dishwasher that washes at a high temperature will certainly help you get pathogens off your dishes, but the problem with that is there are potential benefits that come from microbes," says Jonathan Eisen, a professor of microbial diversity at the University of California at Davis. He points to a Swedish study published in the journal Pediatrics in early 2015 that suggests washing dishes by hand may reduce children's risk of developing allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema. "We speculate that a less-efficient dishwashing method may induce tolerance via increased microbial exposure," study authors Bill Hesselmar, Anna Hicke-Roberts and Göran Wennergren said in their conclusion. Eisen agrees. "We need to get people to stop thinking the goal is to kill all microbes, because many are good for you," he says. "There's a massive amount of evidence now that excessive cleanliness is dangerous. To kids, unquestionably. If you wash dishes by hand with soap, then rinse them and let them dry, you're getting rid of any possible dangerous organism. The dishwasher is there for convenience, and to save some water in some cases."


Claim: Dishwashing machines don't get dishes clean enough. Answer: Often false

Lucinda Ottusch of the Whirlpool Institute of Home Science says she often hears from consumers that they don't use the options on their machines or the different cycles available. These options and cycles can extend the cycle for extra-dirty items, such as pots and pans, and cut back on the cycle time for small loads. One thing Ottusch recommends is that you read the owner's manual for the machine. There's been a lot of new technology over the years, and it's a good idea to make sure you're using the machine to its best advantage to save time and money. The manual will even offer tips on how to properly load the dishwasher, including rack tricks for organizing dishes for the most efficient cleaning. A 2015 study done at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. analyzed water trajectories inside a dishwasher and formulated the best loading method: in a circular layout around the middle, with carbohydrate-soiled dishes closest to the middle, where the water trajectory is at its highest, and protein-soiled dishes on the perimeter, where the water spray is diminished. Many homeowners will find this difficult, however, because dishwasher baskets aren't designed for this format. But it's worth a try.

Claim: Silverware handles should point down in a dishwasher Answer: True and false

Most people are torn on this one. In Houzz polls conducted in the U.K., Australia, and the U.S., preferences were pretty much split down the middle. Half the people out there prefer to load silverware handles-down. "I have a feeling they get cleaned better if [the handles are] down," says U.S. user armipeg. The other half load the handles up so they can grab the pieces better when unloading and not touch the parts of the utensils that go in people's mouths. Most people agree that sharp knives should be washed by hand, laid flat in a silverware drawer or be loaded with the handles up to prevent pokes and, in rare cases, death. In 2003, according to The Guardian newspaper, a 31-year-old woman in the U.K. died in a freak accident after slipping and falling on a knife that was pointing upward in the dishwasher. Six years before that, a 12-year-old boy was killed in a similar accident, the paper reported.

Related: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Dishwasher in Tip-Top Shape

Claim: Dishwashers are noisy Answer: Depends on the machine

Older machines can be annoyingly loud. If you're trying to watch a movie or have a quiet conversation with friends, you might want to hold off on starting the cycle. Newer machines are quieter, almost to the point where you might not even know the machine is on, which can be viewed as a plus or a minus.

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Claim: Hand-washing creates community. Answer: True, but so can the time freed up by dishwashers

We heard from some people who gave up on their dishwashers because they prefer the moments they share with their spouse, family or friends while doing the dishes together. They talk, chat, play, dance and listen to music while washing dishes. "The washing-up, drying and putting away used to be a family affair," says Houzz Australia user sjp777, "a time to have a family working together to get the task finished after the meal. Sadly this 'rite' seems to have disappeared, but we still do it." Houzz U.S. user Mark agrees: "We own a lovely home and have the space and good fortune to be able to have top-of-the-line appliances, but you will never see a dishwasher in our kitchen. It may sound crazy, but we actually like to be together and chat about our day while we wash and dry the dishes and put them away. It's a time carved out of our busy day that we look forward to. Snapping wet tea towels at each other like we were teenagers never grows old. Can't do that with a dishwasher." But many people find other uses for the time saved by using a dishwasher. "We've got two very small children and the time savings delivered by a dishwasher is extra time we can spend with them, and tidying up the rooms they've trashed," says Houzz U.K. user Michael Morton. Houzz Australia user mcxu8 agrees: "After I started working, I found it tedious to stand there for at least half an hour cleaning the dishes. I found I had more time to relax after a hard day's work."

Claim: It's best to wash dishes after each meal Answer: True, for the majority of people

As for when to wash those dishes, whether it's by hand or in a machine, most people say they prefer to tackle the task after each meal. In Houzz polls conducted in Italy and the U.S., the majority of people who voted said they take care of the dishes after each meal. "Why leave them stacking?" says Houzz Italy user Erica Bagnasco of Erica Bagnasco Architetto. "Better to deal with them right after the meal." The only time this wasn't true was when it came to after-holiday meals and dinner parties. In those cases, many people said it was better to clear the table, put some coffee on and relax and converse with guests rather than hustle to get the dishes done as soon as everyone put their silverware down.

Lavender Cottage - Kitchen

Claim: Hand-washing dishes is therapeutic. Answer: True, for some people

We've written about how working with your hands can have psychological benefits, and this goes for hand-washing dishes. Many people say hand-washing is cathartic and pleasurable. "While washing the dishes by hand, you can really think a lot and untangle many issues," says Houzz Italy user Laura Tallarida. Houzz Germany employee Robert Hergeth agrees. "It's totally calming doing it on your own," he says. Houzz U.S. user mirador echoes these sentiments: "I actually enjoy hand-washing, and find it easy, satisfying and rather contemplative." A Florida State University study published in the October 2015 issue of the journal Mindfulness suggests that washing dishes mindfully — focusing on the smell of the soap, the warmth of the water and the shape and feel of the dishes — can help stimulate the mind and reduce anxiety.

Claim: Hand-washing is better for delicate dishes. Answer: True

It's hard to argue with this one. Try finding anyone out there willing to put their grandma's fine china into a clunky machine. Pieces you care about are naturally going to get the extra attention of your own hands. This goes for good knives too. In Japan, where many dishes are earthenware and lacquerware, which shouldn't go into dishwashers, 54 percent of people, according to a Houzz Japan poll, prefer hand-washing over machines. "I never wash Japanese lacquerware and expensive glasses with a dishwasher," says Japanese journalist Miki Anzai. "Nor silverware, gold-plated dishes or silver-plated dishes." Yukiko Tahara, owner, and designer at LiB Contents in Tokyo says about 70 percent of her clients want a new dishwasher in their kitchen remodel. About 15 percent say they won't need one and another 15 percent say they decided against one after learning how much space it would take up. "An average Japanese kitchen is far smaller than an American kitchen," she notes.

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Apart from the fact that traditional Japanese earthenware and lacquerware can't go into a dishwasher, Tahara says the Japanese use more bowls than Westerners, and "dishwashers are not very good at washing them." But perhaps there's even more cultural relevance than that. "I think it's true that some Japanese love to wash dishes with hands," Tahara says. "In my experience, washing dishes by hand is the first household chore many children learn at home. In Japan, a strongly gender-based country, washing dishes by hand is one of the few chores many husbands are willing to do."