The kitchen is the hub of most homes. Unfortunately, it’s also a hub for microscopic bacteria and germs. “The traffic that goes through a typical kitchen, with people coming and going—in addition to the food preparation and food storage that takes place there—really opens it up to all sorts of contamination,” says Randall Phebus, PhD, professor of food safety and defense at Kansas State University.
Most of those microorganisms won’t hurt you. But some, like E. coli, salmonella, and listeria, can cause serious illness—especially for young kids, older adults, and people with compromised immune systems. These dangerous pathogens can hide all over the kitchen, but there are also some specific places where they’re known to thrive.
We spoke with Phebus and with Jennifer Quinlan, PhD, associate professor of nutrition sciences at Drexel University, about the biggest germ-ridden hot spots in residential kitchens. Here’s what they worry about, and how you can protect yourself and your family.
Your dish towels
Preliminary research presented at the recent American Society of Microbiology meeting found that after a month of use, about half of the 100 kitchen towels tested were contaminated with pathogens with the potential to cause food poisoning, including E. coli. Non-vegetarian families and those with more children were the most likely to have bacteria-laden towels in their kitchens.
What to do about it: Only use cloth kitchen towels to dry-clean things—like dishes, or your hands after you’ve washed them, says Phebus. If you’re wiping the counter or cleaning up anything food-related (especially if it involves raw meat or produce), use disposable paper towels, or toss those cloth towels immediately into the laundry. Washing and drying them in the sink doesn’t cut it, Phebus’s previous research has found.
Towels marketed as antimicrobial may provide some advantage over plain cotton ones, “but then I worry that people will rely too much on that technology, and not wash them as often as they should,” Phebus says. Instead, he recommends buying a large supply of generic, inexpensive towels so you can rotate and wash them regularly. We like Royal Classic White Kitchen Towels ($16 for a 15-pack; amazon.com).
When scientists search for germ hot-spots in household kitchens, sponges in or around the skin always turn out to be of the biggest reservoirs of disease-causing bacteria. “Preventing cross-contamination is one of the biggest issues in kitchen safety,” says Quinlan. “We know that when sponges are used all over the kitchen for multiple purposes, they can pick up and transport a lot of germs.”
What to do about it: Some experts advocate for keeping sponges out of the kitchen entirely, and only using disposable paper towels for cleaning purposes. If you do choose to use a sponge, make sure to sanitize it regularly, says Quinlan. “Either put in in the dishwasher with the rest of your dishes where it’s going to reach a high temperature, or put it moist into the microwave for a minute,” she says. And swap it out for a new one at least every few weeks.
When shopping for new sponges, you may want to consider its material, as well. According to a 2017 study in the journal Food Protection Trends, sponges made of polyurethane foam contained 100 times less E. coli bacteria than traditional cellulose sponges after 28 days of use.
The study was funded by FXI, a company that makes polyurethane foam products. But lead researcher Charles Gerba, PhD, a microbiologist and well-known germ researcher at the University of Arizona, says the results are legit. “Most kitchens cleaned using cellulose sponges wouldn’t pass a restaurant inspection,” he said in a press release. “Polyurethane sponges always have fewer bacteria than cellulose sponges.” To make the switch, consider subscribing to Skura Style; the website will send you a four-pack of its surprisingly chic polyurethane sponges either monthly or every other month for $12.
Your cutting boards
Cutting surfaces in the kitchen make contact with lots of raw foods, whether it’s a whole chicken or lettuce you’re chopping for a salad. Germs can also linger there—and be passed onto other foods or to the person handling them—especially if there are deep cracks or grooves that are difficult to clean.
What to do about it: Buy cutting boards you can clean easily (Phebus likes plastic ones you can put in the dishwasher), and wash them between each use. If you have one that can’t go in the dishwasher, scrub it down after use with hot, soapy water. We like the Vettore Non-Slip Poly Cutting Board ($9; amazon.com); it’s dishwasher-safe and BPA-free.
You should also have more than one cleanable cutting surface in your kitchen, so you can keep raw meat, unwashed fruits and vegetables, and ready-to-eat foods (like a loaf of bread) separate. “Multiple cutting boards are never a bad idea,” says Quinlan.
Your sink and countertops
Research has shown that kitchen sinks tend to be dirtier than most bathrooms, with more than 500,000 bacteria per square inch, according to some studies. Culprits can include juices from raw meat or poultry, pathogens from raw produce, and even dirty dishes left for too long.
In addition to food-related germs, kitchen counters are also exposed plenty of other sources of bacteria, as well. “People don’t think about it when they put their purse or backpack down on the counter, but they could be leaving all sorts of bacteria behind—and then they eat off that same surface,” says Phebus.
What to do about it: Keep a disinfectant solution handy and use it regularly, says Phebus. “You can buy a pre-made kitchen cleaner, like Clorox or Lysol, and it will work just fine,” he says. “Or you can put a tablespoon of bleach into a spray bottle with water, and that will be just as effective as the high-dollar commercial brands.”
Handles, knobs, and faucets
“When you’re handling things like raw produce or raw chicken or meat, the potential exists to contaminate anything you touch,” says Quinlan. “So when your hands turn on the water, or you open the refrigerator or the oven door, you may have passed on that bacteria.”
What to do about it: Wipe down those handles and faucets every time you clean other kitchen surfaces. “It sounds obvious, but those places are easy to forget about,” says Quinlan. If you’re a fan of gadgets, you might also consider implementing motion-operated hands-free technology into your kitchen; you can find it in soap dispensers and even sink faucets, such as with the iTouchless EZ Faucet PRO Automatic Sensor Faucet Adapter ($70; amazon.com), which can be installed on most standard faucets.
“Smartphones and tablets have become very useful in the kitchen, for things like looking up recipes or passing time watching videos,” says Phebus. “But because we’re touching them all the time, research shows that they are consistently some of the germiest objects in the home.”
What to do about it: “You need to think about wiping those screen surfaces off regularly, and washing your hands after using them—especially if you’re going back and forth preparing food at the same time,” says Phebus. Chemicals in a regular kitchen cleaner could be damaging to electronics, however, so look for wipes that are specifically made for digital devices, like Awesome Wipes ($10; amazon.com).
Uncooked meat and poultry
Raw meat and poultry may be the most well-known and most feared source of food poisoning, but that doesn’t stop people from still getting sick every year. According to a 2016 government food safety survey, most Americans know to wash their cutting boards after handling raw meat and to refrigerate meat or chicken dishes within two hours of cooking. But fewer respondents said they always used a meat thermometer when cooking, and most said that they washed chicken parts or whole chickens in the sink before cooking them—a practice that’s not recommended by food safety experts, since it increases the risk of cross-contamination.
What to do about it: Keep raw meat and chicken out of the sink. “High heat will kill the germs, so there’s really no need to wash it first,” says Quinlan. To ensure you’re cooking it long and hot enough, use a tip-sensitive meat thermometer and make sure that meat, poultry, and seafood all reach their safe minimum temperatures.
Fewer Americans worry about getting sick from contaminated produce, but data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that fruits and veggies are a bigger source of foodborne illness than meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs combined.
All types of fruits and vegetables can carry contaminants, and because they’re eaten raw, they carry an increased risk. But one major culprit is pre-cut fruit. Just this week, the CDC reported that at least 70 people have been sickened by a salmonella outbreak linked to pre-cut melon and fruit salad.
What to do about it: Wash all fruit and veggies before eating, and scrub the surface of firmer produce (like melons or cucumbers) with a produce brush, says Quinlan. Washing won’t protect you 100% from germs, however, so it’s also important to pay attention to news about recalls and outbreaks.
You can also reduce your risk by preparing your own cut fruit, rather than buying it pre-packaged. Always use a clean knife or cutting tools, says Quinlan, and always wash the outside of the fruit, even if you’re not going to eat the rind or the skin. “We know now that the bacteria on the outside of the fruit can travel through when you cut it,” she says. Make the process easier with handy fruit sliders; this set includes a pineapple corer, watermelon slicer, melon ball scoop, strawberry huller, and apple corer for just $20.