You may have seen the commercials of adorable little ducklings covered in oil and being cleaned with Dawn Dish Soap after an oil spill. The message seems clear: Dawn Dish Soap can save the lives of ducks and other sea creatures. But is this accurate?

Dawn has long been considered the safest detergent to clean ducks and other sea life but is best used in an oil spill or heavy grease situation.

We take a closer look at what makes Dawn an effective cleaner in rescue situations and why it is the best method to clean your ducks.

duck-paw-divider Dawn and Oil Spills

Many agencies specifically use Dawn Dish Soap when cleaning up wildlife.

The Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research is a non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating wild birds in the U.S. and sometimes worldwide. Tri-State was founded in 1977 in response to an oil spill in the Delaware River. The community was ill-prepared, and thousands of animals died, and since then, they have assisted in saving wildlife from multiple oil spills.

SeaWorld San Diego Rescue has also used Dawn since 1989, which started in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The International Bird Rescue Research Center has been using Dawn for over 40 years.

However, it’s important to note that multiple steps must be taken when washing ducks. It’s not as simple as finding a duck in an oily substance and just giving it a Dawn bubble bath.

liquid dish soap
Image Credit: Jim Barber, Shutterstock

How Is Dawn Used to Clean an Oiled Bird?

The steps taken to clean an oiled bird start with ensuring that the bird or animal is stable enough to endure the cleaning process. The bird is given a physical exam, which includes blood tests, and is fed and given fluids.

About 24 to 72 hours later, Dawn is used to break down the oil. Just the right amount of detergent to water is calculated, which depends on what kind of substance it is and how much of it is on the bird.

The water temperature is very determined, and the bird is washed and rinsed with the warm water and detergent mixture for as long as an hour.

After washing, the bird must be carefully dried to avoid hypothermia, and appropriate care and support are provided afterward.

SeaWorld San Diego Rescue supervisor, Kim Peterson, has stated that Dawn is the same product used since 1989.

“I’ve washed hundreds of animals and it’s very effective,” said Peterson. “That was the safest product they found and the most effective product that they found. And, it has continued on for all these years and it’s what we still use today.”

Dawn is clearly the detergent of choice by many rescue agencies, so what exactly is in Dawn, and why is it so effective?

Why Dawn Dish Soap?

The International Bird Rescue Research Center’s founder has said that he won’t use anything other than Dawn. Even boat captains use the soap to clean their hands because it’s effective at cleaning off the oil.

It’s not just any dish soap that is the popular cleaning agent of choice — it’s specifically Dawn. What exactly is it about Dawn that makes it so effective?

Dawn apparently has a secret formula, so we can’t say what the exact ingredient (or combination of ingredients) makes it stand above the rest.

The right balance of chemicals, or surfactants, is what cuts through the oil. More specifically, Dawn’s formula was designed to eradicate the grease from dishes while being gentle on hands.

It stands to reason that the formula helps oiled birds by eradicating the oil but remaining gentle on a bird’s feathers and skin. However, there is a downside that should also be considered.

Dawn Free & Clear Dishwashing Liquid Dish Soap

The Controversy of Dawn

Unfortunately, one of the ingredients in Dawn Dish Soap that makes it so good at cleaning grease also happens to be bad for the environment: petroleum glycol. This ingredient can also be found in anti-freeze but is commonly found in shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, and dish soap.

Essentially, this means Dawn is using a small amount of oil in its product to clean the oil from wildlife. This can also lead to an increase in drilling for oil, which isn’t an environmentally sound practice.

Dawn certainly has a monopoly on rescuing wildlife from oil spills. Many environmentally friendly companies that also make dish soap have been trying to get their foot in the door, but Dawn’s effectiveness has made this impossible.

However, Dawn has donated over $4.5 million and 50,000 bottles of dish soap to the International Bird Rescue and The Marine Mammal Center. Over the past 40 years, their product has helped save over 150,000 birds and animals.

The veterinarians and founders of wildlife rescues all uniformly state that Dawn is the most effective at saving oiled birds, a benefit that should be taken into consideration.

Mandarin duck standing near the water
Image Credit: blende12, Pixabay

How Should You Clean Your Ducks?

For the most part, ducks are good at cleaning themselves with clean water and time. You might need to dump the water from the washing tub several times until your duck is clean, but this usually does the trick.

Ducks have a “preen gland” near their tail that produces oil. The duck uses this oil by picking it up with its bill and rubbing it over its body and feathers. This makes the outer feathers waterproof, which is vital for a duck so it can stay afloat.

If your duck does have a greasy substance on it or seems to be stinky even after bathing itself, you can put Dawn in a tub with lukewarm water and give it a gentle bath. You should have a second tub set up so you can rinse off your duck. You’ll want to be quite thorough in rinsing it off so no soap residue remains. Soap will strip your duck’s feathers of their natural oils, but the duck can preen the oils back into its feathers and be back to its usual buoyant self after a few days.

You should dry the duck with a clean towel, or you can use a blow dryer at a low setting. Be sure to move it around and not stay in one place on your duck for too long.

However, as long as ducks have frequent access to clean water, they are efficient at keeping themselves clean.

Also, if you find a wild duck covered in a greasy substance, you should leave the cleaning to the experts and call your local wildlife or bird rescue immediately.

duck-paw-divider Conclusion

Dawn might have a few questionable ingredients, but overall, it’s biodegradable and considered safe to use for us and for wildlife in need of rescue. It’s been used in this capacity for over 40 years, and many experts believe that it’s the absolute best at cleaning oiled birds.

You shouldn’t need to use Dawn on your own ducks because they do such a great job of cleaning themselves, but rest assured that it is indeed safe to use if your duck is stickier or stinkier than usual. Just be sure to keep it out of their eyes and wash them gently. Some people use a toothbrush for cleaning the head because you should never submerge a duck’s head into soapy water.

Hopefully, you won’t ever need to use Dawn with your own ducks, but now you know that it is safe to use when needed.

Featured Image Credit: Carolyn Smith1, Shutterstock