Dishwasher vs. Hand-Washing — Which One Should You Use, and When? Experts Weigh In

published Nov 28, 2023
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Man washing glass in the kitchen
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The dinner party you just hosted went off without a hitch — everyone complimented you on the food and the tablescape. But now comes the not-so-fun part: washing that massive pile of dishes. There’s a rather heated debate over which method to use to accomplish the task — namely, using a dishwasher vs. hand-washing the dishes. You may be concerned about conserving water, getting those dishes sparkling clean, and keeping your water bill down while you’re at it. So, which method should you opt for?

Quick Overview

Dishwasher vs. hand-washing — which one should you use, when?

While using a dishwasher is generally better for the environment, it also depends on the size of your dishwashing load and the items you’re washing.

“The three main differences come down to water conservation, time, and energy spent,” says Mary Colvin, a senior scientist at Procter & Gamble. Keep reading for everything you need to know about whether you should run the dishwasher or hand-wash every plate and glass, with expert advice on when and why it makes a difference.

What’s Better for the Environment: Using a Dishwasher or Hand-Washing Dishes?

“Through an environmental lens, the main differences between traditional hand-washing and using a dishwasher come down to energy use and water conservation,” says Anita Spiller, director of environmental, social, and governance at Tru Earth. “Although both dishwashing methods have pros and cons, most consumers will likely never be able to match or beat the energy and water efficiency of a dishwasher, if used correctly.”

CEO and founder of sustainable cleaning company arbOUR, Carol Mehas, agrees. “It’s so important for us to remind ourselves that our resources are not a bottomless source,” she says. “We all must do our part to conserve them for future generations.” She points out that today’s dishwashers are far more energy-efficient than older models, too. “In the end, the electricity, water, and product usage far outweigh hand-washing your dishes daily,” she says. But for a more thorough understanding of the pros and cons of each method, here’s what the experts had to say. 

The Pros and Cons of Hand-Washing Dishes

The Pros of Hand-Washing Dishes

Non-Dishwasher-Safe Items

There are certain items that can’t be put in the dishwasher. For that, hand-washing is not just the smarter choice, but also the only choice. “Hand-washing special surfaces, like nonstick or coated baking sheets, is really the only way to preserve their integrity,” says Mehas. She also recommends hand-washing fine china, crystal glassware, and sterling silver. “These delicate items are worth your time and care,” she recommends. Hand-washing is also best for items like wooden utensils, cast iron, and aluminum.

Washing Fragile Items

If you’re concerned about certain fragile items, hand-washing is the way to go, according to Jessica Ek, senior director of digital communications for the American Cleaning Institute. “It provides the opportunity to wash things more carefully, which is helpful for fragile pieces like crystal and fine china,” she says.

One-Off Washing

Sometimes you only have an item (or two) that needs to be washed. In those times, it’s best to opt for hand-washing, instead of running a nearly empty dishwasher. “Throwing a few dishes in the dishwasher and running a full cycle wastes energy and water,” Spiller says. “If you have a few one-off items to wash, it’s better to do those by hand.” (Not to mention you’ll be able to dry them in a super-chic dish rack.)

The Cons of Hand-Washing Dishes

Water Waste

The amount of water used during one load of hand-washing dishes is larger than how much water will be used to run a load in the dishwasher. “A full dishwasher uses about seven liters of water to wash around 72 items,” says Alvin Pullins, home improvement specialist at Nerd in the House. “Washing the same load by hand will require 50 liters on average.”

Colvin concurs: “Most Americans use a running tap for 11 minutes while hand-washing, [which] uses up to 24 gallons of water,” she says. (You could also opt for navy dishwashing to save water while hand-washing.)

Skin Sensitivity

Washing your dishes by hand can irritate your skin. “Dish soap and hot water can dry out your hands,” says Ek. If you do decide to hand-wash your dishes, be sure to have a great pair of rubber gloves on hand. (Pun intended.)

The Pros and Cons of Using a Dishwasher

The Pros of Using a Dishwasher

Water Conservation

At the top of the list for stacking that dishwasher? Saving water. “Modern dishwashers have evolved to be more water-efficient, using significantly less water than if you were to traditionally wash dishes by hand,” says Spiller. “This is because dishwashers recycle the water being used to clean multiple loads.”

Energy Use

While dishwashers do generate greenhouse emissions, ones that are Energy Star Certified help meet water and energy saving requirements. According to Energy Star, a standard-sized Energy Star certified dishwasher costs about $55 per year to run — and can save you nearly 4,000 gallons of water during its lifetime! “Energy-certified dishwashers are meant to be 12 percent more energy-efficient and 30 percent more water-efficient than older models,” says Spiller.

Removing Tough Stains

If using that stainless-steel scrubber didn’t do the trick, popping the item in the dishwasher just might. “Try an ultra-hot setting,” recommends Mehas for tricky stains and stuck-on gunk. Pullins also likes this plan. “Dishwashers are generally more effective at removing bacteria and germs due to their higher water temperatures and special cycles and features,” he says.

The Cons of Using a Dishwasher


Dishwashers cost more than simply getting a bottle of dish soap and turning on the tap. “Not everyone can afford to get a dishwasher,” says Pullins. Plus, your space simply might be too small for a dishwasher in the first place.

Unintentional Water Use

Simply put? If you don’t have a full load of dishes, experts recommend that you don’t run that dishwasher. Even though washing dishes by hand can feel time-consuming, it’s better not to waste water to get only a few dishes clean.

So, Which Should You Use?

While using a dishwasher is generally better for the environment, it also depends on the size of your dishwashing load, the age and model of your dishwasher, and the items you’re washing. Plus, Mehas says hand-washing dishes is the best time to catch up on some good gossip after a party. “I think we all can agree that some of the best conversation always happens when cleaning up after a meal or dinner party,” she says.