Can hand washing the dishes be good for your mental health?

If you find doing the dishes relaxing, you’re not the only one. It turns out that washing the dishes by hand is scientifically proven to reduce your stress levels, as long as you go into it with the right attitude.

This was discovered during a study at Florida State University, when researchers had 51 students wash the dishes under controlled circumstances. Before starting, they asked half the students to read a passage about mindfulness, which encouraged them to let their minds wander during the task and focus only on the smell of the soap and the sensation of the warm water on their hands. The other half read a more generic passage about dishwashing, so they were more inclined to approach the activity as a job only.

The students who ‘mindfully’ washed the dishes were 25% more inspired than their peers who treated washing the dishes as a chore, and 27% less nervous or stressed overall. The study concluded that other routine activities, such as vacuuming or mopping the floor, could have similar mood-boosting effects because they allow us to slow down time and be more present in the moment.

We love this idea, and it got us thinking about the other ways that washing the dishes can benefit your wellbeing. Here are four more reasons to consider doing the dishes by hand instead of loading up the dishwasher.


1. Protect delicate dishes

There are some items that simply can’t go in the dishwasher. If they’re exposed to the machine’s heat and water pressure, non-stick, cast-iron and aluminium pans will rust, scratch and lose their protective layers, delicate hand-painted china can chip, wooden cutting boards will warp and sharp chef’s knives will go blunt. Hand washing is the safest way to clean this cookware and ensure it lasts longer.


2. Save water

Dishwashers are incredibly energy efficient, but only when you run a full load. Running constant half loads ultimately wastes water – and it also puts your dishes at risk of breaking, because they have more space to move around. If your household doesn’t produce enough dishes for a full load (which will vary by machine but would be about 120-150 items for a 60cm dishwasher) or you don’t have room for a dishwasher, then washing the dishes by hand might make more sense.    

It’s possible to use save water this way, as long as you plug the sink and don’t run the tap every time you rinse off a sudsy dish. Instead, keep a tub of clean water nearby for rinsing purposes. Australians waste about 150 litres of water when they wash the dishes with the tap running, which is quite significant. Using a small spurt of detergent is also enough – dishwashing liquid like Sunlight has been around for over 40 years and is powerful enough to remove food and grease in minimal amounts. When you use too much detergent, you need more water to wash away the suds.


3. Teach kids about responsibility

Washing the dishes is an easy chore that kids can take on after dinner from a relatively young age. If they’re told to hand wash the dishes, they will learn how to commit to a task and pay attention to details that they probably wouldn’t notice when just stacking things into a dishwasher. Plus, it will benefit them later in life if they know how to do the task by hand. After all, not all homes have a dishwasher in the kitchen.

You could also take the opportunity to teach them a few basics about cleaning products – for example, how dishwashing liquid differs to dishwashing tablets, why an ingredient like charcoal is present in some products (to cut through stubborn grease and oil), and how to choose a dishwashing product that is better for the environment (it has “biodegradable” on the bottle). These life skills will serve them well in adulthood.


4. Protect your kids from allergies

Here’s another reason you should convince your kids to hand wash the dishes – it may help protect them from developing allergies. A Swedish study published in the medical journal Pediatrics suggests that exposing children to microbes early in life (by letting them scrub bacteria off dirty dishes) helps make their immune systems stronger. The children involved in the study were significantly less likely to have allergies such as hayfever, or conditions such as eczema or asthma, when their families washed the dishes by hand.

While the study was only limited to 1,029 children and the concept requires further research before anything is definite, the idea of the “hygiene hypothesis” – that children benefit from being exposed to germs – has been around for a long time, and certainly has some interesting implications.

There’s no doubt the dishwasher deserves its place of pride in the home. When you’re busy or tired after a long day, it takes care of the hard work for you, giving you back precious time. But if it’s more practical to wash your own dishes, don’t feel dismayed – just remember that it can be surprisingly good for you.

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