How To Clean The Dishes

Full disclosure, I don’t wash dishes for a living. But I have washed dishes as part of making a living on several occasions. Of note, I was a grill guy at McDonald’s as a teen. Later I joined the military and was assigned chow duty on many occasions. To back this experience with science, I, like many children, fed mold water and food and watched it grow in a petri dish. Is this guide perfect? Surely not. But it should provide a minimum effective dose of food safety.

Okay, what’s my point? It’s come to my attention via interactions with former roommates and more recently certain new family members that people don’t teach their children the how and why of doing the dishes to avoid making everyone sick. As a result, I’m writing this guide in the hopes that it can be used as a concise, informative, guide to how and why to clean the dishes.


It’s simple. To keep your family, friends, and yourself healthy. Just look at this!
“An estimated 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420 000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years (DALYs).”

It’s not a coincidence that most countries, states, and cities all maintain food safety standards involving properly cleaning dishes.

If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will, and you can stop reading right here.

Important Concepts

Sanitize or Sanitation

First, we want to make sure the dishes are clean. The key definition here is “free from any dirty marks, pollution, bacteria, etc.” Bacteria are a form of microbe. So how do you make sure a dish is clean?

Start by keeping the dishes as clean as you can in the first place. Impossible when you’re eating off them, but you can take some basic steps pre-washing to keep them as clean as possible in the meantime. I’ll discuss those in the step-by-step instructions. The following bits on microbes are important to keep in mind when following the step by step.

If we have a look at the Microbes link, you’ll find the following, “All types of microbial growth are heavily impacted by environmental conditions. One of the most critical factors for microbial growth is the availability of nutrients and energy.” So it appears the easiest way to prevent microbial growth, and keep humans healthy, is to remove anything that could be used as a nutrient. So much like how you make a human starve, you take away the food.

Step one to get clean is to remove the food. The best ways to do that are three-fold. Soaking, helps loosen and detach food from surfaces. Applying a surfactant to additionally aid in removing, and keeping away from surfaces, the food you’re trying to remove. Finally, mechanical force. Brushing and scrubbing.

The same text does say, “Most microbes are fairly robust, meaning they can find a way to grow in a variety of nutritional conditions.” Fair enough. So we need to employ a second strategy. Let’s observe the following, “Extremely high temperatures usually denature the components required for the cells to survive and are lethal for many microbes.” Okay, so hot water. Easy enough.

Step two to get clean is to sanitize. Sanitizing as defined on the Wikipedia article is “Sanitation refers to public health conditions related to clean drinking water and treatment and disposal of human excreta and sewage.” In this case, we’re concerned with clean water in particular. So our goal to succeed at sanitizing in this case is clean, hot, water. Most soap is actually based in petro chemicals. Natural soaps are obviously better, but even natural soap isn’t something you probably want to eat. While we should be removing all the microbe food in the first phase of cleaning, we want to effectively rinse any soap from the dish and simultaneously polish off any of those remaining bacteria.

How to Clean the Dishes

Alright, we now understand the why and the mechanisms of how this all works. Get on with the “how” already!

Stuff You Need

  • Soap.
  • A brush.
  • A sponge, or sponge like tool.
  • One or, ideally, two basins.
  • Hot Water.
  • A drying rack
  • Waterproof “kitchen” gloves (optional)


Cleaning actually starts before the water and the scrubbing. Most people I know will put dishes in the sink some time well before they plan to actually clean them. I’m sure many of us have experienced the unpleasant odor of a sink full of dirty dishes. This is due to microbe growth. We can prevent this unpleasant experience, and help make the future cleaning easier, with a few simple steps.

First, do a little pre-rinse of dishes before they get left in the sink. Knock away excess food quickly with a quick flick of a brush, dirty utensil, or a short spray of water. Fresh, still moist food typically comes off quite quickly and easily.

Second, if a dish is at all dome shaped, bowls, cups, pots, pans, prevent them from holding water. Standing water+food is basically the ideal conditions for microbes to grow. That’s literally what a petri dish is. Flip anything that can hold water upside down, so water just runs off it down the drain.

Special Note: You can’t clean what you don’t touch. You must touch every bit of surface to get it clean.

Now, lets get to scrubbing step by step.

  1. Get two basins. Many sinks already provide this. If your sink only has one get a bucket or something similar.
  2. Fill one basin with the dirty dishes until they are just at the top of the basin. This might require leaving some out to do a second load.
  3. Fill the first basin with hot water until it reaches about 75% full, as hot as you can reasonably stand. Add dish soap. You don’t need much. Most dish soap is concentrated, so a small squirt will do.
  4. Fill the second basin with the hottest water you can get until about 50% full. Most hot water heaters at least in the US get plenty hot to kill microbes but if you must boil some water. If you boil water, be very cautious not to burn yourself or others.
  5. Now scrub!
  6. Use the sponge or sponge like tool to clean most items. This will create the biggest surface area to clean most efficiently. It will also allow you to really dig into stuck on gunk with your fingers if necessary.
  7. Use the brush to reach places your hand doesn’t actually fit, like the bottom of glasses or between the tines of forks.
  8. Move cleaned dishes into the second basin of hot water, being careful not to splash yourself or others.

At it’s most basic, that’s it. But there are some interesting things here to note regarding the nuances.

The Nuances.

First are the dish to water ratios. Dishes take up space. Water takes up space. You don’t want to fill the basin with water first only to find out that two bowls added cause the basin to overflow. Dishes first, then water, means you won’t overflow your basin. On the second basin, you don’t have the luxury of knowing just how much space your dishes will take up, so you only want to fill it 1/3 – 1/2 way to allow for the volume of dishes being added to it.

Your dishes are soaking in the first basin while you work your way through them. I recommend grabbing and cleaning the things you know are going to be easy, like well rinsed dishes, or perhaps the dishes you just dirtied that are still moist from the last meal. This gives additional time for those dry, stubborn dishes to really soften up.

The amount of work required to ensure dishes are properly clean and people are safe can be further sped up and enhanced by just thinking about it. Prioritize where people tend to put their hands and mouths. Give the rims and handles of cups extra attention while you can de-prioritize things like the outside large surfaces of certain containers because they’re less likely to have direct contact with someone’s mouth.

You’re probably thinking, great, I just added the dishes to a crazy hot second basin. How do I get them out without burning myself? Well, you wait. A basin of water usually has a pretty good surface area exposed to air and the rest exposed to only slightly, or not at all, insulated metal (at least in many American homes). If you’re truly touching every surface and taking the time to make things actually clean, then the water should be cool enough by the time you’re done to safely fish your dishes out for drying.


We can’t forget about that. Think back to the parts of the article advising to not leave sitting water. This is the part all about that. The advice here is basically identical to letting dirty dishes sit. If they’re able to be any kind of basin, flip them upside down, so there are no puddles.

The next best thing is to ensure air flow. This aids evaporation, so you don’t give any pesky microbes a place to try to gain a foothold.

Tip dishes at an angle or straight up and down, so they take up less space. You can then lean dishes against each other, so they prop each other up to provide the much-needed air flow and so gravity can do its thing and help pull water off the dish.


You did it. You made the dishes actually clean! You saved your family and friends a day or two of belly ache, diarrhea, and/or just generally feeling bad (and maybe even death). The more you practice, the faster you’ll get as you figure out your space and the shape of your dishes to maximize efficiency. A few dishes can usually be done properly in 10-15 minutes, while a maxed out sink full usually takes only 20-30mins. In a day with 1440 minutes in it, this is next to nothing.