Coming from my parents' house, where my mom always kept her cooking space neat and tidy, I always assumed keeping up with my own kitchen cleanliness would be a piece of cake: sweep the floors, wipe the counter tops, bleach the white sink, etc. But new research has pointed out that the dirtiest part of your kitchen actually isn’t under the fridge where crumbs and other unmentionables roll under to rot. It’s actually one of your most trusted cleaning essentials, and no, I'm not talking about the grimy, once-yellow sponge next to the sink. The grossest thing in your kitchen is — are you ready for this? — your freaking dish towel. Yes, the one you used just last night to wipe off your fine china, and yes, the one you rung out and left to dry looped through your refrigerator door handle. Are you skeeved out? Because I’m pretty skeeved out.
TBH, I totally thought the dirtiest item in any kitchen would be either an old sponge or the four walls of a microwave because, I mean, who hasn’t just given up on that thing when Hot Pocket juice splatters all over the place? The thing is, though, unlike sponges, which literally go from white to a brownish-gray color after days, maybe even weeks, of wear and tear, dish towels don’t usually show visible signs of dirt. So what gives, right? How can your favorite dish towel, the one with the most ah-dorable colorful macaron pattern your sister gifted you for Christmas, be the most germ-infested accessory you own?
Your dish towel might just be the dirtiest thing in your kitchen, and as devastating as that may be, the reason why makes total sense.
According to research presented at the 2018 American Society of Microbiology meeting, dish towels are rank, my friends, and it all has to do with what you’re wiping on them, and how often you toss them in the wash. In order for the team at the University of Mauritius to carry out their study, Med Page Today reports, the researchers bought 100 kitchen towels and doled them out to the volunteers, instructing them to use said dish towels whenever and however they wanted to for one whole month. After that, the towels were collected for testing, and the participants answered questions about themselves and how the towel was used over the course of the month.
Here’s where things get seriously gross: According to TODAY, bacteria was found on about half of the kitchen towels, and growth was more likely to happen on cotton over nylon materials, because cotton is apparently more absorbent that way (gags). If you think that’s nasty, it gets worse: In terms of what types of bacteria were thriving on these dish towels, the ones that came back particularly damp had a high percentage of E. coli and staph, "which can cause nausea, diarrhea and vomiting," the news outlet explained. My stomach is turning just thinking about this.
It's disturbing, sure, but if you actually stop and think about why and how your dish towels become the dirtiest thing in your kitchen, it does make a whole lot of sense. Think of it this way: If you clean your dirty dishes with the same towel you use to dry your hands, all the guck you just wiped off your plate is now on your hands, and that guck will eventually find its way to your food. It's like the circle of life, except it's really the circle of grime. Cute, right?
But don't go throwing in the towel just yet (pun intended — sorry). The cleanliness of your dish towel depends on a few things, and you can easily make some simple adjustments to cut back on the contamination.
So here’s what you need to know in terms of what’s actually making your dish towel so funky. According to this new research, the more people you have crowding your living space, the more likely it is that bacteria is all up on your dish towel. The thought process behind that is this: The more hands touching the towel, the more germs that are going to be transferred from skin to fabric — which, at least to me, makes perfect sense.
What’s more, if you’re a meat-eater, you’re apparently even more at risk for catching something as serious as food poisoning from your dish towel. Dr. Jeffrey Weiser, chair of microbiology at New York University's School of Medicine, told TODAY that this is because foods like meat, poultry, and eggs “are often a source of contamination.” Plus, unlike veggies, you pretty much have to cook raw meat, and when you touch the stuff and wipe it onto your dish towel, you’re just spreading that contamination and allowing it to multiply all over the place.
For the record, I'm not saying the only way to not catch food poisoning from your dish towels is to go veg, though eating more plant-based foods will yield a ton of health benefits for your body and mind. What I am saying is that, no matter what you're eating, you need to be on top of tossing your dish towels in the laundry bin on a regular basis. And, while it may sound excessive, Philip Tierno Jr., Ph.D., a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU School of Medicine, says that, ideally, you should wash your dish towels every single day. He told CBS News,
[Dish towels] should be machine washed in hot water with soap and bleach if white, or if colored use a peroxide-containing soap made for sanitizing colored clothes. Many washing machines and dryers have a germicidal cycle, which is useful if possessed.
If laundry day isn't every day, Tierno added, the least you can do is buy enough towels that you can swap every day. Plus, doing things like wiping up the counters with a paper towel, disinfecting, and thoroughly cleaning your food, as well as the tools you use to prepare said food, can help reduce the risk of bacteria build-up and exposure around your kitchen.
Basically, keep doing what you're doing, but consider going the extra mile to rotate towels if you really want to guarantee you won't get sick. Better safe than sorry, right?