Your dish towels are full of bacteria—here's what you need to do

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Dish towels are one of the (many) unsung heroes of the kitchen. Dish towels absorb spilt milk, dry wet dishes, clear crumbs off of the countertop, and double as potholders in an emergency.

According to this USA TODAY article (which summarizes the findings of this study), though, left unwashed for long periods of time, dish towels can unknowingly become an enemy of your stomach by harboring food poisoning-inducing bacteria like E. coli.

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Basically, the researchers saw that it was possible to have dangerous amounts of bacteria growth on dish towels where some or all of the following factors were present:

  • households with a higher number of people
  • dish towels were “multi-purpose” (i.e. not just swiping countertops)
  • dish towels were “humid” (i.e. either in a humid environment or frequently wet)
  • dish towels were used on or near areas used to prepare meat

Two of the most frequently observed bacteria culprits, E. coli and S. aureus, can cause food poisoning and/or skin infections.

The worst part is, you can’t tell if a dish towel is loaded up with fiendish bacteria by looking at it. So what should people who own dish towels (and who also don’t want to have diarrhea or throw up a lot) do? The answer: get into the habit of washing your dish towels regularly.

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How should I wash my dish towels?

While many people are starting to wash their clothes almost entirely in cold water (which is good for both stain removal and the environment), a dirty dish towel is one item that should definitely be washed in warm or hot water. While hot water alone isn’t enough to kill all bacteria, it is enough to get the dish towel down to “acceptable” bacteria levels. However, if you really want to kill bacteria, throw bleach into the hot water wash to get the job done.

How often should I wash my dish towels?

If you use dish towels for many different tasks, including food prep, then consider washing your dish towels frequently. Both E. coli and S. aureus can can grow and multiply at room temperature, so chances are that if the dish towel has come into contact with any food (but particularly meat), that bacteria is present and reproducing on that towel. If you do laundry every day or so, consider throwing your dish towels into every wash or every other wash, just for safety’s sake.

For those who do not use dish towels in food prep, consider washing your dish towels every week or so; you never know who or what has come into contact with the dish towel. A little extra caution can’t hurt when it comes to preventing food poisoning, especially if you’re already doing a load of laundry, and you can just toss the dish towels into the machine.

After washing, should I put my dish towels in the dryer?

The “danger zone” (or the ideal conditions for bacteria growth) for most bacteria that ends up in food is 40°F-140°F; at temperatures beyond 140°F, you have a good chance of killing most bacteria; throwing the dish towels in a dryer cycle can definitely help on that score.

How do I know if my dish towels have an unsafe amount of bacteria?

Unfortunately, unless you have a very powerful microscope, there’s no way to know for sure. One thing you can do, though, is to give your dish towels a sniff. If they smell like anything other than cloth and laundry detergent, chances are that that dish cloth is harboring bacteria (among other things), and that’s a good indication that it’s time to chuck these dish towels into a load of laundry.

Even if none of the circumstances described above (it smells, you use it in food prep, it lives in a hot, damp area, etc.) apply to your dish towels, please wash your dish towels semi-regularly.

Does it matter what kind of dish towels I buy?

Our picks for the top dish towels are here. to reduce the likelihood of bacteria growth, look for dish towels that dry quickly and are washing-machine safe.

Any other advice?

In addition to washing dish towels frequently, some easy ways to reduce the likelihood of bacteria build-up in your kitchen include washing your hands, using paper towels, and storing wet dish towels in places where they can air-dry quickly.

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