You've disinfected your cutting board, microwaved your sponge and even washed your hands with antibacterial soap. You think everything's as clean as can be in your kitchen as you finish drying your hands on a hand towel.
But wait. That gorgeous little piece of cloth — the thing you use to clean your hands and surfaces — could actually be responsible for making you sick.
Germs on kitchen towels may lead to food poisoning and the likelihood of this happening is increased not only by how many people there are in the household, but also by the number meat eaters in the family, according to a new study conducted by researchers from University of Mauritius. The findings were recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.
To conduct the study, researchers (led by Susheela D. Biranjia-Hurdoyal, PhD, of the University of Mauritius) collected 100 kitchen towels that were used for one month each, without washing. Then, they examined what kinds of bacteria grew on them in that timeframe. Nearly half of the towels were covered in bacteria like E. coli and staph, which can cause nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
"If it's on the towel and you wipe your hands with it, it's on your hands and then if you eat with your hands, it's on your food," said Dr. Jeffrey N. Weiser, chair of microbiology at New York University's School of Medicine. Dr. Weiser was not involved in the study.
More people using the same towel meant more germs and the study's researchers found that the amount of bacteria "increased in number with extended family, presence [of] children and increasing family size."
"If you have five kids or no kids, you probably have one kitchen towel," Weiser said. "If you're making five times as much food, there's probably five times as much of a chance that it's going to get contaminated."
According to the study's findings, there is also an increased risk of food poisoning in houses full of people who eat meat. "Non vegetarians are at a higher risk because meat and poultry products, like eggs and chicken are often a source of contamination," said Weiser. Also, kitchen towels, like sponges, are particularly susceptible to an overgrowth of bacteria because they are warm and moist — terrific environments for microbes, he added.
Now, there's no need to kick out the kids, give up meat just or throw in (or out) the dish towel. Weiser has a few smart tips that will help keep your kitchen clean.
First, stop wiping your cutting board, counter, sink faucet — anything but your clean, washed hands — with your kitchen towel. Weiser warned that inadequately cleaned cutting boards exposed to foods like ground beef, poultry or eggs are often some of the most contaminated surfaces.
Instead, he suggested simply wiping down everything with hot soapy water and paper towels that won't be reused in another part of the kitchen.
According to Weiser, there's no specific rule of thumb for knowing when it's time to wash your kitchen towel. Instead, he said that mindfulness is key. "The moment you realize that you've wiped a contaminated surface with a kitchen towel, put it in the wash and get a new one."
As for how to clean those germ-ridden dish towels, Clorox's resident cleaning and laundry expert, Mary Gagliardi (aka "Dr. Laundry") said that they should always be washed separately from regular laundry.
Follow Dr. Weiser's tips to stave off kitchen-towel germs, and also keep plenty of clean kitchen towels at the ready between laundry days. Here are some anti-microbial dish towel options from Amazon: