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How to Clean Sponges, and Other Surprising Sources of Germs in Your Kitchen

You use a reusable bag to bring home your food, a sponge to clean your dishes after you cook, and a kitchen towel to dry those dishes off. But did you know that each of these items can be an unseen source of germs and bacteria?

Most of us probably have some bad habits when it comes to keeping our homes free of contamination. You might think that your bathroom is the dirtiest place in your house, but think again. Studies show that the kitchen is often the most contaminated spot in a household.[1] Learn how to clean sponges and other unexpected germ-laden kitchen items to reduce your exposure.

Sponges

At the top of the list of contaminated kitchen items is the dish sponge.[1] The very thing we use to clean our dishes and wipe off our counters is usually one of the most-germ laden items in the kitchen; sponges are porous, moist environments that make the perfect home for growing bacteria.[2,3] This means that we are often spreading germs to our dishes, our countertop, our hands, and the rest of the house when we use our kitchen sponge.

How to Clean Sponges

Use dishcloths instead of sponges when you can. They are less prone to contamination. But if you prefer a sponge (I personally prefer using a sponge over a dishcloth) make sure to sanitize it often to rid it of harmful bacteria. This can be done in numerous ways, but my favorite technique is simple and doesn’t require harsh chemicals like bleach: to effectively clean your sponge of bacteria, mold, and yeasts, put your sponge in the dishwasher and run it in a cycle along with your dishes.[4] Store your sponge in a place that allows it to dry in between uses, and replace your sponge often for a fresh start.

Kitchen Towels

A study conducted at Kansas State University observed people cooking fruit salad alongside a meat dish. The researchers found that more than 90 percent of the prepared fruit salad was contaminated with bacteria from the meat. One of the biggest behavioral habits that the researchers believed contributed to such high rates of contamination? Improper use of the kitchen towel.[5] For example, researchers saw participants wiping their hands on the towel (often after improper hand washing, or lack thereof) many times when handling the meat and the fruit. People also commonly wipe off the counter and dry clean dishes with a single kitchen towel. Mixing these tasks makes it easy for the towels to get contaminated with germs, and for us to spread those germs to supposedly clean surfaces.

How to Clean Kitchen Towels

First, be sure to wash your kitchen towels often (at least every few days, if not more). Throw your towels in the wash directly after any meal where you have prepared meat or poultry, which raises the risk for contamination. You can also reduce exposure by refraining from using one towel for multiple tasks; don’t wipe your hands, dry your dishes, and wipe off the counter with the same towel. Instead, have a separate towel for each task.

Reusable Grocery Bags

I love reusable grocery bags. I keep a stash of them in my car to have on hand whenever I end up at the grocery store. Aside from how easy it is to forget to bring them in the store (I end up having to either carry my groceries out by hand or return to my car to retrieve my bags on a regular basis), reusable bags present one major problem; they are a prime location for germs to accumulate.

A report published in 2010 found that almost all bags tested harbored large amounts of bacteria, with 12 percent of bags containing E coli. Meat juices, in particular, can be dangerous causes of contamination. The study also identified why such high rates of contamination are found; most people interviewed seldom (if ever) washed their bags.[6]

How to Clean Reusable Grocery Bags

I rarely bring my bags in to wash them, but that is a habit I am gong to change. Hand or machine washing your reusable bags can get rid of 99.99 percent of bacteria.[6] Put your bags in a load of laundry or hand wash them to sanitize them between uses, especially after carrying meat. Another important tip: try not to use the same bags for multiple uses. If you store your personal items like clothes, a phone, a water bottle, or others in the same bag you bring your groceries home in, you will increase the risk of cross-contamination.

No one wants to get food poisoning or another infection, especially if it can be easily prevented by proper cleaning techniques. Be sure to use these simple tips for how to clean sponges, kitchen towels, and reusable grocery bags effectively to keep your home clean and your family safe.

One final thing to keep in mind: avoid the overuse of antibacterial cleaning agents. These can be harmful to your health and can contribute to antibacterial resistance (read more about a the dangers of a common antibacterial agent, triclosan, here). Very hot water and plain soap are effective, safe sanitation tools, so stick to those.

References

[1] J Environ Health. 2012 Sep;75(2):12-9.

[2] J Infect Dev Ctries. 2013 Mar 14;7(3):229-34.

[3] Int J Food Microbiol. 2003 Aug 25;85(3):213-26.

[4] J Environ Health. 2007 Sep;70(2):57.

[5] Food Protection Trends. 2015 35(1):36-48.

[6] U of Arizona Tucson and Loma Linda U. 2010 June:1-14.

Contributing editor Chelsea Clark is a writer with a passion for science, human biology, and natural health. She holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology with an emphasis in neuroscience from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. Her research on the relationship between chronic headache pain and daily stress levels has been presented at various regional, national, and international conferences. Chelsea’s interest in natural health has been fueled by her own personal experience with chronic medical issues. Her many profound experiences with natural health practitioners and remedies have motivated Chelsea to contribute to the world of natural health as a researcher and writer for Natural Health Advisory Institute.


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