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Home > Turtles > Is Dawn Dish Soap Safe for Turtles? Vet-Approved Safety Facts & FAQ

Is Dawn Dish Soap Safe for Turtles? Vet-Approved Safety Facts & FAQ

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Tabitha Henson

Veterinarian, DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Perhaps those cute commercials with volunteers using Dawn Dish Soap to wash ducks and otters have got you thinking. If it’s safe for those animals, why can’t you use it on your turtle or clean its tank? Unfortunately, something that is non-toxic for one species is all right for another. For example, humans can eat chocolate, yet dogs and cats cannot. Sadly, Dawn is toxic to turtles.

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The Ingredients Needed

Reviewing the ingredients in Dawn Dish Soap is essential for determining its safety for turtles. The manufacturer is a participant in the Smart Label program1. This searchable database allows you to find out about the ingredients of any products that you use.

A query of its ultra-version yielded the following:
  • Water
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • C10-16 Alkyldimethylamine Oxide
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  • Alcohol Denat
  • PPG-26
  • Sodium Chloride
  • PEI-14 PEG-24/PPG-16 Copolymer
  • FRAGRANCE
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Methylisothiazolinone
  • Acid Blue 9

The second to fourth ingredients’ primary purpose is cleaning. The others are either solvents, stabilizers, or dyes. The one exception is methylisothiazolinone. It is a preservative. This class of chemicals isn’t always bad. Think of the alternative with bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing pathogens. However, that’s not the whole story about this one.

diamondback terrapin turtle
Image by: Miiko, Shutterstock

Use of Methylisothiazolinone

Methylisothiazolinone is a biocide. That means its function is to kill something undesirable, not unlike insecticides and herbicides. It is a common chemical found in a broad range of products, from shampoos to sunscreens to bubble baths. Its purpose is the same as it is in Dawn Dish Soap. It’s worth noting that the preservative is registered with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)2.

Methylisothiazolinone first came under scrutiny in the EU, followed by Canada in the 2010s. Some research found an association between this compound and contact dermatitis. Simply, there was a spike in cases of people having an allergic reaction caused by methylisothiazolinone. It was most evident in leave-in hair products.

a yellow bellied slider turtle in the pond
Image by: barmalini, Shutterstock

These findings prompted the EU to ban its use, using strong language in its report, concluding that there were “no safe concentrations.” Manufacturers, such as Head & Shoulders, did damage control with their PR, suggesting the same precautions. The FDA has since classed methylisothiazolinone as an allergen. A review of the other human health effects has been inconclusive.

However, the question of whether it’s harmful to the environment is another matter. Interestingly, the EPA’s methylisothiazolinone fact sheet calls the chemical “practically non-toxic to birds.” Yet, it is highly toxic to freshwater and marine organisms. We can say that you should not use Dawn Dish Soap to clean your turtle or its cage.

The Safe Way to Clean a Turtle’s Cage

The best way to clean a turtle’s cage is to start with products formulated for use with reptiles. Remember that these animals differ from mammals at the most basic level with how they maintain their body temperature. Bear in mind that good sanitation is imperative because of the environment in which they live.

Turtle care is like other aquatic organisms, such as fish. You should remove any uneaten food every day to prevent bacteria development. You should also do partial water changes regularly. The frequency depends on the size of the cage or tank and the number of animals in it. You can empty it completely every 2–3 weeks. Adding a reptile water conditioner will ensure it’s safe for your pet. Never use soaps to clean your turtle tank. Use a specially formulated cleaner for reptiles.

We also recommend washing your hands whenever you clean your turtle’s cage or handle the animal. That will reduce the risk of salmonella, which some reptiles carry.

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Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, Dawn’s marketing campaign with animals has helped has confused consumers into thinking their products are safe across the board. While it may not present a significant risk for mammals and birds, it’s harmful and even dangerous to use it with aquatic organisms, such as turtles. Even the residue poses a threat because of its highly toxic nature.

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Featured Image Credit: Maks_Nova, Shutterstock

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