US & World

Why Is 'Dawn' The Bird-Cleaning Liquid Of Choice?

At a warehouse turned bird bathhouse in Venice, La., dozens of bottles of Dawn stand like soldiers behind a row of deep sinks.
At a warehouse turned bird bathhouse in Venice, La., dozens of bottles of Dawn stand like soldiers behind a row of deep sinks.
Elizabeth Shogren/NPR

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Whether it's sea turtles, brown pelicans or human hands, if they're coated with oil - it's likely one product is being used to clean them: Dawn dishwashing liquid. Ironically, a key ingredient in the detergent is petroleum.

Dawn dishwashing detergent is used to clean up just about anything covered with oil -- from birds to sea turtles to human skin. But what makes Dawn so effective?

At a warehouse turned bird bathhouse in Venice, La., dozens of bottles of Dawn stand like soldiers behind a row of deep sinks.

It takes three people as much as an hour to get the gooey oil off each pelican. They start by rubbing a bird with cooking oil.

Veterinarian Heather Nevill says that loosens the sticky petroleum, and then one of them sprays it with dish liquid.

"She's scrubbing very vigorously getting her fingertips under the feathers to really agitate the feathers in the water," Nevill says. "It's that action of getting the detergent into the feathers that really removes the oil."

The bird is covered with lots of suds.

"We're using very heavy concentrations of Dawn because this crude oil has become very weathered and it's very difficult to remove," Nevill adds.

When asked does it have to be Dawn? Nevill replies, "Dawn definitely works the best. It very effectively removes grease but does not cause harm to the skin of the birds."

Nevill and the rest of the folks who work for the International Bird Rescue Research Center sound like walking commercials for Dawn. And that's not new.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling discovered this when he interviewed the group's founder Alice Berkner during the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.

Zwerdling joked, "You're going to get letters from Ivory and the other companies."

"I hate to sound like an advertisement," Berkner said, "But I won't allow any substitutes for Dawn."

And in the BP spill, Dawn isn't just for birds. Even boat captains swear by it.

Kirk Prest ferries biologists through the oily waters and he says he uses Dawn all the time.

"Just to clean my hands several times during the day," Prest says. "It cuts the oil the best out of the different soaps. I would say most of the folks working this clean up know that."

Even before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, Proctor and Gamble was using Dawn's oil spill credentials to sell its detergent. It also has raised $500,000 for wildlife groups.

Dawn spokeswoman Susan Baba say all the attention Dawn is receiving because of the spill helps get out the message that Dawn is a strong cleaner with a gentle touch.

"This tension between toughness and mildness has always been something that's kind of challenging to communicate to consumers, Baba says. "So in a communications standpoint, it's been great."

She says the reason Dawn is so good at cleaning birds -- without hurting them -- is that it was designed to erase grease from dishes without harming hands. The exact formula is secret. But she says the key is balancing the surfactants -- the chemicals that cut grease.

What the company doesn't advertise -- and these days is reluctant to admit -- is that the grease-cutting part of the potion is made of petroleum.

"To make the best product out there, you have to have some in there," says Ian Tholking of Procter and Gamble. He says less than one-seventh of Dawn comes from petroleum.

"To say Dawn's horrible because of this, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Tholking adds. "That's what we're trying to avoid. Because we're not trying to do something evil here."

"I think it's extremely ironic," says Martin Wolf, a chemist for Seventh Generation, which makes a dish liquid without petroleum.

"Here we are trying to squeeze every last drop of oil we can out of the earth and its despoiling the earth," Wolf says. "And we're using that same product that's messing up the earth to clean it up."

Wolf says his company sent a truckload of oil-free detergent to the gulf, but he's hasn't heard that anyone has used it.

Veterinarian Nevill knows there are greener cleaners, but she says none of them have Dawn's magic.

When asked if she has a special connection to Dawn now, and does she use it at home? Nevill laughs, "You're not supposed to ask questions like that to an eco-hippie."

Besides, Nevill says, Procter and Gamble donates tons of the sudsy stuff. So she has lots of it left over around the house. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit