Trial and error through the years has shown that the dish detergent cleans oil off feathers and fur without irritating the skin.
Gulf spill animal rescue specialists prefer hand-washing oiled wildlife over using "bird washing machines."
Years of trial and error determined that Dawn dishwashing detergent is the preferred cleanser.
So far, 2,000 bottles of Dawn have been shipped to Gulf cleanup effort sites.
When it comes to cleaning oil-affected wildlife, nothing beats Dawn dishwashing detergent.
It may sound like an ad jingle, but experience has shown that the soap is better and safer than other methods, such as using stronger cleansers or "bird washing machines," according to animal rescue specialists who are involved in the Gulf spill recovery effort.
Machines that wash oiled animals have been available for at least a decade. Manufacturers claim they cut clean-up time by half, reducing a 35 to 45-minute manual washing to just 20 minutes. The speed, however, may come at a cost.
Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC), told Discovery News that his network of specialists will not use such a machine "as it does not truly clean the birds all the way and is sometimes hurtful to them."
While working after the Erika oil spill in France, his specialists initially used a machine, with disastrous results.
"Each time, the birds' wings were injured and the birds died," he said. "Our biggest concern is that it does not take into consideration the individual needs of each bird. Animals cannot be cleaned like apples. They come in different shapes and sizes, even within species, and therefore require individual care and cleaning."
Instead, the preferred method for the past three decades has been to clean birds and many other oiled animals with Dawn dishwashing detergent. Deciding on this particular technique and cleanser required substantial time and experimentation, according to Holcomb.
He said that in the 50's and 60's, "different substances were applied to the feathers of oiled birds, some of which were: mascara remover, butter, lard, powdered chalk, waterless hand cleaner, acetone, detergent and various oils." None worked very well, which led to one not-so-bright idea in the early 70's. At that time, oiled birds were covered with warmed mineral oil and then corn meal, thought to absorb the oils.
"That was not what happened," Holcomb said. "The end result of this process was a bird resembling a giant corn dog!"
The IBRRC and other groups next tried certain solvents and cleansers, most of which were difficult to rinse out and were irritating to the skin and feathers of the animals, and bothered the human staff as well. IBRRC founder Alice Berkner and her team then started to try out "off the shelf" dishwashing detergents and "one, and only one, had us jumping up and down," according to Holcomb.
"Dawn dishwashing liquid was a standout!" he exclaimed. "Oil seemed to fall off the feathers! Rinsing was easier than we thought possible. Once we started using Dawn on live birds, we did not see the irritated skin we had encountered with the previous detergent."
Marie-Laure Salvado, a spokesperson for Procter & Gamble (P&G), the parent company of Dawn, told Discovery News that the liquid detergent was designed to "provide powerful degreasing action while still being mild on human hands." That benefit wound up extending to birds, since she said the soap, when diluted to about 1 percent with water, "is gentle enough to be used on delicate feathers."
The diluted Dawn mixture is also the preferred cleanser for oiled marine mammals and most other spill-affected species, she said.
Over the years, P&G has donated 50,000 bottles of Dawn to oil spill clean-up efforts. The number of bottles is determined by need in the field, Salvado explained. Two weeks ago, for example, the IBRRC requested 1,000 bottles, which were immediately sent from P&G's Kansas City plant, she said. An additional 1,000 bottles were recently sent to Florida.
Although Dawn is the cleanser of choice for animals after oil spills, Salvado doesn't recommend that pet owners wash their dogs and other pets with it.
"I know some homeowners use it on their pets, but it is a dishwashing product, and we don't want to mislead consumers," Salvado said.