Solved! Your Dishes Don’t Have To Look Like Dirty Chalkboards: How to beat hard water stains

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It’s a sad fact of life. If you eat, you’re going to use dishes. While you could use paper plates and plastic utensils, that’s probably not best for the environment. Or, your wallet.

And that means dirty dishes that have to get washed.

Sure, you could hand wash them all, but you’ve got a life to live! So, you throw them into the dishwasher. Problem solved!

But not really:

When you pull them out, you see that the glasses have this gross looking white film on them. Or, they’re spotty and cloudy looking.

You know they’re clean because you put soap in the dishwasher. But, they sure don’t look it!

I mean:

Rest assured, your dishes are clean. However, what you’re seeing are hard water stains. While they look gross, they aren’t dangerous.

But, no one wants to serve their favorite meal on something that reminds them of a freshly powdered baby butt. You need to figure out what’s causing these stains and stop them from happening again.

My Dishes Look like a Dirty Chalkboard

a clean glass vs a dirty stained glass

Image: by h20_care via Instagram

You’re unloading the dishwasher, and you notice your glasses don’t look as clean as you were expecting. In fact, they look downright dirty. Maybe they look something like this:

The glass on the right has hard water stains. You want your glasses to look like the one on the left.

Hard water has nothing to do with the weight of your water. The term “hard water” refers to the minerals in your water supply.

Here's the truth:

All water has minerals in it. The minerals dissolve from the soil and into your water. While there are a number of minerals that find their way into your water, calcium, and magnesium are the hard water stain culprits.

It’s a common misconception that only people with well water have problems with hard water. However, at least 85 percent of homes have hard water. That's because no matter where you get your water from, water treatment plants do not treat for hard water minerals.

85%
hard water

And here comes the bad news:

Calcium and magnesium do not evaporate from the water. What you see on your dishes are the minerals that are left behind.

Hard water stains happen thanks to evaporation.

When you wash your dishes in the dishwasher, it uses heat during the dry cycle. The rinse water is heated, and then it evaporates off the dishes.

I Can't Believe This Is Happening

a clean wine glasses in a dishwasher's rack

Image by PhotoMIX-Company via Pixabay

Don’t worry. It’s probably not your fault.

Interestingly, for a long time, people who had hard water may not have realized it. Their dishes came out squeaky clean and perfectly shiny after every wash. The “problem” only started when phosphates were banned from dishwasher detergents.

By stopping the process of “sticking,” phosphates helped create smaller magnesium and calcium deposits that were easier to rinse off.

And that's a shame because:

Phosphates prevent hard water stains by making the calcium and magnesium unable to “stick together” to create large mineral deposits. 

The fact is:

While phosphates are naturally occurring compounds (as a nutrient for plants and animals), overuse of phosphates in dishwashing detergent created pollution that was hurting the environment.

Phosphates were found to play a role in creating algae blooms in rivers and lakes, which starve fish of oxygen.

So, while we’re doing great things for the environment by not using phosphates, our dishes look dirty.

And no one wants to eat off a dirty dish.

Destroy Hard Water Stains

Since there’s nothing you can do about your dishwasher detergent, you’ll have to attack the problem from a different angle.

Start with cleaning your dishwasher regularly.

This doesn’t mean daily. Or even weekly. You should only clean your dishwasher once a month. As long as you clean your dishwasher regularly, you shouldn’t have to use too much elbow grease.

Not only will cleaning your dishwasher (the irony!) help reduce hard water stains on your dishes, it will also help your dishwasher wash better.

The reason is...

Hard water stains don’t just form on your dishes. Those minerals deposit themselves on the sprayers of your washing arms. Over time, the hard water deposits build up, clogging the jets. When that happens, your dishes are a little less clean every time.

And that’s just gross.

But, don’t get too ambitious and think that weekly cleaning is better than monthly cleanings. Washing your dishwasher too often could damage it. Many of the tips lists here are too harsh for weekly or daily cleaning.

Here’s another pro tip:

When you wash your dishwasher, only use a regular wash cycle. Don’t use “heavy duty,” “sanitary,” or any other fancy cycle when you’re cleaning the dishwasher.

And the reason is rather shocking.

It’s the smell.

When you use, for example, the sanitary cycle, you’re super-heating the water. There’s nothing wrong with that. Super-hot water will kill germs.

But, that means that the stuff you use to clean your dishwasher will also super-heat. And, when that happens, nearly all of the cleaning agents we list here will release an odor.

But don't worry:

It’s not dangerous. It’s just that super-heated vinegar doesn’t smell super great.

Natural ways to eliminate hard water stains

inside look of the racks in a dishwasher

Image: by Wendelin Jacober via Pexels

Because hard water stains come from naturally occurring minerals, natural cleansers can be quite effective at destroying them.

Most of these cleaners are probably lying around the house already. So, you’ve got no excuse not to go and try a few of these out.

Vinegar

drawing of a white bowl

For this method, you’ll need an empty dishwasher and a large glass or bowl. Empty the dishwasher.

white dishwasher with dishes inside that needs cleaning

Take the empty container and place it upright (like you’re pouring a drink into it) on the bottom or top rack of the dishwasher. Check your machine’s manual for advice on which rack to use.

a bottle of vinegar put inside a dishwasher

Pour 1 to 2 cups of vinegar into the glass. Don’t add any soap. Close the door, and turn on a regular clean cycle.

vinegar being sprinkled all over inside an empty dishwasher

As the cycle runs, the water from the dishwasher will overflow the cup, dumping the vinegar in the bottom of the dishwasher. The vinegar will mix with the water and spray all over the inside of the empty dishwasher.

particles where water is made up

Vinegar (as you might remember from high school chemistry) is an acid. A weak one, but it does the trick. The acid from the vinegar decalcifies the gunk on the sides of the dishwasher and on the sprayer, too.

sparkle all around a super clean dish

When the cycle ends, open the dishwasher and dump the cup. Then, leave the dishwasher open so it can air out. When it’s dry, enjoy how sparkling clean it is.

a clean dishwasher after removing the dirt inside

You should notice that the inside looks cleaner and brighter. If you don’t see it, that’s OK. You should see a noticeable improvement in your dishes.

Baking soda

This is a super easy way to clean your dishwasher.

Take some baking soda (you’ll have to eyeball it), and sprinkle it on the bottom of the dishwasher, making sure to cover the cleaning arm.

That doesn’t mean combine baking soda and vinegar.

Do the vinegar clean first. When the cycle ends and the dishwasher is dry, perform the baking soda clean.

Let the baking soda sit overnight, then in the morning, run a regular cycle of just plain water (no soap!) in the empty dishwasher. Viola! Clean dishwasher. 

Some experts recommend you combine the vinegar and baking soda methods.

Obviously, this takes a lot of time. And, you’ll be out one dishwasher for a while. But, if your dishwasher is extra grimy, it might be worth it to go for a combo clean.

Borax

do it your own laundry detergent

Image: by oilytravelrn via Instagram

If the vinegar smell is too much, you can try Borax instead.

Here's what you do:

Just like the baking soda method, sprinkle Borax in the bottom of the dishwasher. Let it sit, then run the dishwasher to clean it out.

Or, you can pour some Borax in the detergent cup and run a cycle. You should get the same result.

Commercial cleaners

So, none of the natural methods have worked. Or, they work, but not well enough. In that case, you may want to consider a commercial cleaner.

JetDry® or Finish®

You might see the product under one of these two names, but the same company makes them.

It can't get much simpler than this:

This product is specifically for cleaning your dishwasher. You take the bottle and put it upside down in a lower dishwasher rack. Don’t add any soap. Run a regular cycle on the dishwasher.

Your dishwasher should be nice and clean when the cycle finishes. Then discard the bottle.

CLR

CLR is safe to use in the dishwasher. However, you need to follow the instructions to ensure you use it properly.

Here's how:

In the empty dishwasher, pour half a cup of CLR directly into the bottom of the dishwasher. Run a regular cycle. When it’s finished, run the empty dishwasher again without soap to rinse it out.

After that, you should be good to go.

Lime-A-Way®

While we were researching this, we came across some advice that said to use Lime-A-Way® to clean the hard water stains in your dishwasher.

But beware:

According to Lime-A-Way®, they do not recommend you use their product to clean anything that comes into contact with food.

Make the Dishes Sparkle

a sparkling clean white plate

You’ve cleaned up the dishwasher, but what about the dishes?

The fact is:

Even if you clean your dishwasher regularly, you’re still going to get hard water stains. Remember. It’s not your fault!

But, that doesn’t mean you want to put out your dishes and then say “Not my fault!” at every dinner party.

You need to prevent hard water stains from happening in the first place.

We've got good news:

Fortunately, there are a few easy things you can do to stop hard water stains before they start, no matter what kind of water you’ve got.

Use a rinse aid

With a clean rinse, less water remains on your dishes when it hits the dry cycle. If there’s less water on the dish, that means there’s less to evaporate off the dish. When there’s less to evaporate, you lower the chance that there will be minerals left behind on the class to hang out and create hard water stains.

A rinse aid will help water rinse off your dishes. That might sound crazy. Of course, water rinses off your dishes!

But, what we mean here, is that a rinse aid helps the water wash cleanly off your dishes.

Get it?

Most dishwashers these days have a rinse aid drawer. Load up the rinse aid to the “fill” line (it should be marked). Close it up, and away you go. Just keep an eye on the level (there’s an indicator) and refill as necessary.

Not sure what to do? Check this out:

You can use a commercial product, like Jet Dry® or Finish®. Or, you could use vinegar instead.

#vinegarischeap

Plus, it's entirely natural.

However, there is that vinegar smell to worry about.

Also, be aware that some silverware manufacturers advise against cleaning or rinsing their products with an acid-based product (like vinegar). The acid, while weak, may cause pitting on the silverware.

So, double-check your silverware manufacturer's instructions before using vinegar as a rinse aid.

Use less soap

Confused? We don't blame you:

Using too much detergent can create a residue that remains on the dishes. The residue actually attracts the minerals you’re trying to get rid of and holds them in place. When this happens, you get hard water stains.

So, ironically, using less soap will get your dishes cleaner!

You’re probably thinking if you use less soap, you won’t get your dishes as clean. But, if you use less dish soap, you lessen the chances of getting hard water stains.

Put less in the dishwasher

If you overload the dishwasher, you make it harder for the dishwasher to do its job. When the dishwasher is too full, the sprayers can’t do their job.

This means, for example:

If you use a rinse aid, but the sprayers can reach all of the dishes, you may end up with hard water stains.

Here’s a helpful video that explains the basics of loading a dishwasher.

Hand dry the dishes

Since evaporating water is the main cause of hard water stains on dishes, hand washing the dishes means you’re eliminating hard water stains before they start.

Technically, this means you’re only using half the dishwasher. And, it also means you aren’t doing anything to get rid of the hard water.

But, hear us out:

If you hand dry the dishes, the water that is left behind doesn’t have a chance to evaporate.

When Nothing Works

So, you’ve used vinegar, baking soda, all the commercial cleaners, and you’ve hand washed the dishes.

But you’re still getting hard water stains.

In that case, it may be time to consider a water softener system.

Just like the name implies, a water softener makes your water less hard. Water softeners remove the “hard” minerals -- the calcium and the magnesium -- and replace them with “soft” minerals.

The soft minerals are usually sodium or potassium.

You may not want to install a water softener system just to eliminate hard water stains from your dishes. However, there are some other reasons to consider installing this system in your home.

Water softener system pros

One of the biggest reasons to consider a water softener is that it can help your soaps work more effectively. The hard water minerals often react with the “sudsing” part of soap. While you don’t need lots of bubbles for your soap to work, you do need them.

Soap bubbles help spread out the dirt in whatever you're washing. The longer the bubbles last, the more they spread out the dirt. Which means you can get your stuff cleaner.

So take a look:

If you notice that your bubble bath isn’t as bubbly, or your shampoo isn’t as sudsy, you may benefit from installing a water softening system which will help everything get cleaner.

And, just like your dishwasher, over time, these residues can cause your appliances to work less effectively.

The other advantage is this:

Over time, using a water softener can help extend the life of your appliances and your plumbing. Just like the hard water minerals stick to your dishes, they stick to the inside of your pipes and your appliances.

Water softener cons

Of course, there are some cons to consider.

First, there's the price. Installing a system may set you back anywhere from $1000 to $2000. But, that’s just for the system. There’s an ongoing expense for the softening minerals.

Consider this:

The minerals are bags of pellets that weigh anywhere from 25 to 40 pounds per bag. And, each bag costs between $4 and $7. On average, you’ll use 40 pounds of pellets a month, adding to your overall cost.

Here’s something else to keep in mind:

Those minerals that are causing the stains? Not only do they give your water flavor (who knew?), they supply some health benefits. And while that may not be a deal breaker for you, it is something to think about.

And not only that:

Most water softener systems are salt based. As you use the water, this salt-infused water washes into the general water supply and some water treatment plants may not be able to get the salt out.

Water Conditioners

If the cons of a water softener outweigh the pros, you could also consider installing a water conditioner.

Unlike a water softener, water conditioners don't actually soften the water.

They do this instead:

They change the water in some way to make it “better,” which doesn’t mean softer. It sort of means “not as hard.”

The bad news is:

Generally, water conditioners are not as effective as water softening systems. And some of these methods are not proven to make the water softer. However, they can be an alternative to using sodium based water softening systems.

For example, a carbon filter (like the one in your refrigerator or water pitcher) is a water conditioner. Instead of adding something to your water, the filter traps certain particles that are in your water.

But they're not the only game in town.

Other types of water conditioner systems include a magnet-based system. These magnets claim to trap calcium and other minerals inside a filter. And, another is a catalytic system that is similar to a water softener, only it doesn’t use salt.

Splish Splash

Now you know what’s causing that gross looking film on your dishes. We’ve given you a great set of tools to try out.

Some are expensive, and some are cheap.

And some have a particular scent that you may or may not enjoy.

But, most of these are simple and easy to try out, and generally won’t break the bank. So, the next time you see a chalkboard glass come out of your dishwasher, you’ll know exactly what to do.

Have you tried any of these methods to get rid of hard water stains? Tell us your story in the comments!

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