Moist, meaty kitchen towels could give you food poisoning — here’s how often to clean them

  • Your kitchen towel could be one of the germiest things in the house.
  • A new study found kitchen towels can be a breeding ground for E. coli.
  • Experts suggest you should swap out your kitchen towel every other day to be safe.
  • Meat-eaters and people with large families or shared kitchens should be especially conscientious, and clean towels more often.

Kitchen towels are a chef's essential. They can serve triple duty in a busy cooking environment, wiping up spills, cleaning surfaces, and drying hands. 

But foodies, beware: If you're not careful about how often you wash your towels, your kitchen rags could become a breeding ground for dangerous, stomach-sickening germs. 

Unwashed kitchen towels provide a great place for dangerous pathogens to thrive, especially when the towels stay wet, or come in contact with meat. A new study presented at the American Society for Microbiology meeting on Saturday revealed that moist and dirty kitchen towels can harbor bacteria that make you ill and even cause serious infections like E. coli

For the study, researchers handed out 100 fresh kitchen towels to people and sent them home to use the rags for a one-month study period. Participants were allowed to wash the towels as often as they pleased, according to Infectious Disease News.

Then the researchers rounded the dirty towels up, and took a look at what was growing on the fabric. The results weren't pretty. 

The microbiologists found that roughly half of the 100 towels were growing dangerous microbes, including the potentially infection-inducing Staphylococcus (also known as "staph") and E. coli.

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Don't Get Food Poisoning! Ten Tips to Help Avoid It
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Don't Get Food Poisoning! Ten Tips to Help Avoid It

Exposure to air is the enemy of food storage, and if a seal is broken or a can is dented, that’s a good sign that air (and potential foodborne pathogens) are making their way in. Bulges can be a sign of rampant bacterial activity inside the can. Even if the food looks okay when you open the can, don’t eat it.

Wash Your Hands

Always wash your hands before eating anything, because if you don’t, you’ll also be eating everything that you’ve touched since the last time you washed your hands. Be especially careful if you’ve handled raw meat — in that case, wash your hands before you touch anything else, not just food.

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Look Out for Cross-Contamination

If you’ve cut up raw chicken on a cutting board, common sense should tell you not to go ahead and prepare a salad with that same knife and cutting board without thoroughly washing them first. If anything’s come in contact with raw meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, make sure it gets a thorough scrubbing with soap and hot water.

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Cook Meats Thoroughly

Eating undercooked meat, especially chicken, can be a one-way ticket to the emergency room. Make sure that all poultry is cooked to 165 degrees and fish to 145 degrees (sashimi and tartares excepted, of course). And if you’re going to be cooking that steak medium-rare, make sure that it’s from a good source; if you have any doubt, cook it to 160 degrees.

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Refrigerate Perishable Food

Once perishable food has been sitting out for more than two hours, it becomes a world-class bacteria breeding ground. Cheese dip that’s been on that party table for six hours, we’re looking at you.

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Throw Raw Meat Away After Two Days

Raw meat is far more susceptible to infestation by bacteria and viruses than cooked meat, and even if it’s in your fridge, it can still go bad. Buy meat on the day you’re planning on cooking it, and don’t leave it in your fridge for longer than overnight. If you know you won’t be using it for a few days, freeze it.

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Use Common Sense

The “smell test” is often your first line of defense against food poisoning. If something smells a little funky, don’t risk it. If you take a bite and something seems a little off, throw it out. Trust your instincts; they’re usually correct.

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Only Drink Treated Water

“Don’t drink the water” is often the first thing you’ll hear when traveling to a foreign country, and it’s true: you haven’t had any time to build up immunity to potential toxins in the water like the locals have, so stick with the bottled stuff. In the same vein, never drink water from wells, streams, any other source that hasn’t been treated in some way, like chlorination.

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Watch Out for Broken Seals or Dented or Bulging Cans

Exposure to air is the enemy of food storage, and if a seal is broken or a can is dented, that’s a good sign that air (and potential foodborne pathogens) are making their way in. Bulges can be a sign of rampant bacterial activity inside the can. Even if the food looks okay when you open the can, don’t eat it.

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Don’t Eat Wild Mushrooms

This should go without saying, but if you’re out hiking and happen upon a funny-looking mushroom — or even one that you're pretty sure is one of those chanterelles or porcini that cost so much in the market — please resist the urge to eat it unless you're an experienced mycologist. It could be toxic, and eating a toxic mushroom can result in consequences from hallucinations to extreme discomfort to death.

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Cook Frozen Foods Thoroughly

There’s a reason why frozen foods always indicate cooking times on the package, and it’s not just because that's how long they take to heat up. Frozen foods, even if they’re cooked first, should still be considered raw, and need to be cooked thoroughly before serving. Even if you’re getting impatient, make sure your frozen foods heat for the specified time. Lukewarm food tastes even worse when served with a side of food poisoning.

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Non-vegetarian homes were more likely to have E. coli on their towels, but veggie-eaters weren't completely safe, either. The study authors said vegetarians had more Enterococcus on their towels. It's another type of bacteria that can lead to infection, especially in older adults. 

"Diet, type of use, and moist kitchen towels could be very important in promoting the growth of potential pathogens responsible for food poisoning," lead study author Susheela Biranjia-Hurdoyal of the University of Mauritius said in a release

Microbiologists have long recommended that people wash their kitchen towels every other day. This new study complicates that advice, suggesting it's not just how often you wash your towels, but also how you use them that determines how dirty they get and how often they should be swapped.

Here are a few basic tips for keeping kitchen towels germ-free:

  • Keep them dry. Bacteria love moisture, and humid towels grow more of it. Keep your towels splayed open on a rack or rod where they can dry out in between uses, and consider getting a towel with nylon or polyester in the fabric, as they'll dry faster than 100% cotton towels.
  • Use different towels for different chores. In the study, multi-purpose towels were more likely to have bad bacteria growing on them, suggesting it's better to keep a towel for cleaning surfaces like tables and countertops separate from your hand towel. Biranjia-Hurdoyal conducted an earlier study of kitchen tables in 2016 and found they can also be hangout spots for dangerous bacteria. If you wipe your eating spaces with a clean, dedicated cloth, there's less room for cross-contamination.
  • Change your towels often if you share your kitchen with others, especially older adults. More people sharing a kitchen means you're also more likely to spread and share germs (yum!). In the study, kitchen towels shared by larger families were more likely to be contaminated than others, especially if those families had kids around. Change your towels frequently if you've got a big, shared kitchen, and especially if you have older adults in the house, as they're more susceptible to picking up infections.
  • Be especially careful if you’re using towels for wiping meaty hands. E. coli bacteria from the guts of animals — especially cows, sheep, and goats — can easily end up in raw meat and unpasteurized milk or cheese. So if you're handling these foods in the kitchen, it's best to change to a fresh set of towels when you're done. 
  • When in doubt, sniff it out. "If there is odor coming from the towel, wherever there is odor, there are microbes growing, so it should be washed," Philip Tierno, a microbiologist and pathologist at the New York University School of Medicine, previously told Business Insider. So if your kitchen towel is not smelling too fresh, wash it up. Then give it a spin in the dryer, where heat can help kill anything that didn't get annihilated in the washer.

If you follow this simple advice, there’s no reason to be overly-paranoid about what's lurking on your kitchen towels.

Remember, microbes are literally everywhere, and most of them are harmless. In fact, having some of them on board can make us more resilient and healthy, and might even help people avoid getting sick in the first place.

So wash those used towels up every few days and enjoy your fresh, dry, disease-free kitchen.

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