Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Dawn brand dishwashing liquid is significantly more caustic than other brands and erodes the corneas of children's eyes.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, 2002]
Origins: The above-quoted warning comes to us anonymously; presumably it describes someone's real experience and was written in an honest effort to do good. As is too often the case, unfortunately, the originator's efforts have ended up conveying misunderstood or misinterpreted information that may do as much harm as good.
The gist of this message is that Dawn dishwashing liquid is more caustic and potentially harmful to human eyes than other brands. We can't say whether the author of this message misunderstood what she was told or was given erroneous information in the first place, but it's simply wrong. We called the California Poison Control System (CPCS) ourselves to inquire about this rumor, and they confirmed that Dawn dishwashing liquid is no more harmful to the eye than any other brand. Dishwashing liquid is just soap, and little or nothing in formulation distinguishes one brand from another.
As for the claim that Poison Control advised the writer to take her child "to the emergency room to see if the Dawn eroded his cornea," Poison Control told us this is not advice they give out because "eroded corneas" or "corneal ulceration" is a common result whenever someone gets Dawn dishwashing liquid (or any other brand) in his eye. Irrigating the affected eye is standard procedure, and they advise a trip to the emergency room only when the patient exhibits symptoms even after the treated eye has been thoroughly irrigated.
Dawn dishwashing liquid has been manufactured by Procter & Gamble since 1972, and we couldn't find any reports across those thirty years about its causing severe corneal ulcerations or other eye injuries, either in children or adults. True, you don't really want to get any brand of dish soap into your eyes, but neither should you fear permanent injury if you inadvertently do.
Another similar baseless product rumor raged through the Internet in 1998. In that one, a child was also said to have been made almost blind through ocular contact with a substance
The greatest similarity between the two, however, was found in the nature of the rumors themselves: some special chemical aspect of the products made them lurking perils just waiting to take their toll on the eyes of children. In one, it was the waterproofness of sunscreen lotion; in the other, it was the much-touted grease-cutting properties of Dawn dishwashing liquid. Intrinsically, however, it was the same rumor, even though the products warned against were different.
At least not quite everything in the Dawn alert was fabrication:
I have since been told that Dawn was the only thing that would remove the oil from the animals affected by the EXXON Valdez oil spill, and that it is used to clean out septic tanks...We don't know about the septic tank claim, but Dawn was indeed used to degrease otters caught up in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, and the detergent was also used to remove oil from penguins and cormorants rescued after the Sydney Harbor oil spill in 1999. According to those who specialize in cleaning oil-soaked wildlife, the method amounted to "Apply a mixture of Dawn liquid detergent and water, and scrub." That Dawn might have been used to clean up wildlife after oil spills is of no real significance, save that it echoes another bit of bogus scarelore from the past (this one about shampoo), informing us that if a common product contains an ingredient effective for industrial uses, it's obviously far too harmful to use on the human body. This is akin to declaring that all angina pectoris sufferers had better give up using nitroglycerin, lest they blow themselves to Kingdom Come. Many substances harmful in large quantities or concentrated versions are quite safe and effective when used in appropriate amounts.
So yes, you can use Dawn to cleanse greasy wildlife or to scrub messes from asphalt. But if you're looking for something to blind someone with, you'll just have to keep searching.
Barbara "oedipus wrecked" Mikkelson
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