You likely have one draped over the handle of your stove or refrigerator. Maybe it hangs neatly or lies in a pile near the sink. But every kitchen has a kitchen towel for drying hands and sometimes dishes, wiping up spills and mopping the counter.
In an age when we're all concerned about wasting paper, it only makes sense to make a washable towel a kitchen tool of choice. But new research suggests that this handy wipe may be putting you at risk for food poisoning.
Researchers from the University of Mauritius examined 100 kitchen towels that had been used for a month. They found bacteria, including E. coli, on about half the towels they collected.
Bacteria was more likely to be found on towels that were used for many jobs, such as drying hands, wiping down utensils, holding hot items and wiping and cleaning surfaces. It was also more likely to be found on damp towels, in larger families and in those households where meat was eaten.
Of the 49 towel samples that tested positive for bacterial growth, 36.7 percent grew coliform bacteria, a group that includes E. coli.
The researchers said the presence of E. coli indicated possible fecal contamination and poor hygiene practices.
"The data indicated that unhygienic practices while handling non-vegetarian food could be common in the kitchen," said lead author Dr. Biranjia-Hurdoyal in a statement.
Potential pathogens could be responsible for cross contamination in the kitchen, she said, and could lead to food poisoning.
"Humid towels and multipurpose usage of kitchen towels should be discouraged. Bigger families with children and elderly members should be especially vigilant to hygiene in the kitchen."
The study was presented in early June in Atlanta at ASM Microbe, the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.
Keeping germs from spreading in the kitchen
It's only natural that bacteria will thrive in the kitchen, a place where food is prepared and your hands get dirty a lot. To help keep germs from spreading, experts suggest changing out your dish cloth often and washing it well.
Wash your dish towel at least once a week, suggests WebMD. (Some experts even recommend replacing it daily.) Wash it more often if you are wiping up a lot of spills or preparing meat. Wash towels in hot water and dry on high heat. Allow them to dry out between uses so you're not just spreading germs around.
Another kitchen must-have, the kitchen sponge is probably the most germ-laden item in your house, says environmental microbiologist Charles Gerba. Although some experts recommend zapping it in the microwave to clean it, a newer study suggests running it through the washing machine at the hottest setting using detergent and bleach. To be safe, you may just want to replace it weekly.
To keep bacteria at bay, use separate cutting boards for meats versus vegetables and be sure to wash the boards in the dishwasher after each use.
Wash and dry your hands often in the kitchen, especially after handling raw meat and eggs, and after throwing away trash. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a study on how well people wash their hands after touching raw meat. Astonishingly, people were incorrectly washing their hands 97 percent of the time. Most people failed to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds or use a clean towel to dry their hands. "You can’t see, smell or feel bacteria," said USDA Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Carmen Rottenberg. "By simply washing your hands properly, you can protect your family and prevent that bacteria from contaminating your food and key areas in your kitchen."
Use paper towels to mop up some messes, such as meat spills. Never reuse paper towels, warns FoodSafety.gov. "When used multiple times, bacteria can find itself onto the paper towel and hitch a ride around the kitchen. When used once, that bacteria ends up in the trash .... not in your kitchen and on your food."
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in June 2018.