As one the worst oil spills in American history continues to wreak havoc in the Gulf Coast, local birds and animals are finding themselves muddied in toxic sludge. Surprisingly, volunteers and rescue crews are using a common household ingredient to clean up the oil-coated wildlife -- Dawn dishwashing liquid.

The “tough on grease” dish detergent, commonly found at kitchen sinks across America, is used by animal rescue and rehabilitation teams to help gently remove oil from feathers, fur, and skin of oil-soaked critters. Procter & Gamble, which owns Dawn, has donated thousands of bottles to wildlife conservation programs over the past 30 years, cleansing more than 75,000 animals.

The International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC), a California-based nonprofit group, treated 1,084 birds in the 2007 San Francisco oil spill. According to the group’s website, they recommend cleaning birds with Dawn dishwashing liquid because of its ability to remove most oils, its effectiveness at low concentrations as well as the fact that it is non-irritating to the skin and eyes and easily rinsed from bird feathers. "We discovered that Dawn is an effective way to clean and rehab animals," explained Jay Holcomb, the executive director of the IBRRC. "[It's] strong enough to remove the oil quickly, but mild on their skin and feathers."

A bird covered in oil tries to preen itself. While that may seem like a good thing, it actually leads to the bird ingesting the oil. As well, over-eager volunteers often attempt to quickly rub the oil off, which can also be more dangerous than helpful.

The trick to removing oil is to force it to be suspended in water, so it can be rinsed away. That's not an easy task, since oil and water are notoriously hard to mix, and in Dawn's case, it achieves this feat using a group of chemicals known as "surfactants," a term that's short for "surface active agent." Surfactants reduce the surface tension of water and can weaken the barrier that automatically forms between oil and water, allowing them to unnaturally mix. Dawn specifically uses anionic surfactants -- such as alkyl dimethyl amine oxide, found in Dawn Power Dissolver -- which means the detergent's molecules don't convert to ions in water. Combined with other ingredients like viscosity adjusters, buffering agents and processing aids, this allows the soap to wash away oil without leaving behind a residue.

According to a November 14, 2007 article on Slate, specially trained workers clean the birds in a solution of 1 percent dishwashing soap and warm water. The water temperature should match the bird’s internal temperature of about 103 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. "Up to 15 tubs can be used for a single animal; washing a bird the size of a pelican might take 300 gallons of water," wrote Morgan Smith.

As part of the Minnie Driver-headed Everyday Wildlife Champions campaign, consumers who use Dawn can help rescue/rehab efforts directly. Next time you’re at the store, look for a special-edition bottle of Dawn (it'll have a cute animal image on the bottle). Take it home and head to the donation activation page at the Dawn website. Once you plug in the special code on the bottle, $1 dollar will be donated to wildlife groups like the Marine Mammal Center and the International Bird Rescue Research Center. Dawn’s goal is to raise $500,000.

For those wishing to help scrub the animals in person, the National Audubon Society and the Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research, among others, are coordinating volunteer efforts.

Story written and researched by Benyamin Cohen, Matt Hickman, Russell McLendon, and Steve Pollak at MNN.

Read more about Procter & Gamble: Procter & Gamble and the environment

Dawn dishwashing liquid being used to clean animals affected by oil spill
Procter & Gamble donated thousands of bottles to help rescue efforts.