You may want to rethink how you’ve been using your kitchen towel.
A new study suggests that your dish towels are teeming with bacteria that can potentially cause food poisoning and other foodborne illnesses.
Researchers from the University of Mauritius cultured 100 multiuse kitchen towels after one month of use, without washing. They found that nearly half tested positive for bacterial growth — most of which originated from human intestines.
“In this study, we investigated the potential role of kitchen towels in cross-contamination in the kitchen and various factors affecting the microbial profile and load of kitchen towels,” Susheela D. Biranjia-Hurdoyal, PhD, senior lecturer in the department of health sciences at the University of Mauritius and lead author on the study, said in a statement.
The team presented the findings at the ASM Microbe, the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, earlier this summer.
What’s contributing to the bacterial growth?
Of the 49 samples that tested positive, 36.7 percent grew coliform bacteria, 36.7 percent grew Enterococcus, and 14.3 percent grew Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus).
The dish towel bacteria also reflected their owners. Researchers found the type and number of bacteria present varied based on family size, presence of children, socioeconomic status, type of diet, and type of towel used.
For example, S. aureus, a bacterium typically found on the skin, nose, and throat, was more prevalent on towels from families who had more children and were of lower socioeconomic status.
On the other hand, E. coli, a member of coliform bacteria, was more likely to be on towels used by meat eaters. According to the study, E. coli is commonly found in human feces, which suggests poor hygiene and fecal contamination have made their way into the kitchen.
The study also revealed there’s more bacteria on towels that were used for multiple purposes — like wiping utensils, drying hands, and wiping surfaces. In addition, there were higher instances of bacterial growth on warm, humid towels as opposed to dry towels.
“Humid towels and multipurpose usage of kitchen towels should be discouraged,” Biranjia-Hurdoyal said. “Moist kitchen towels could be very important in promoting the growth of potential pathogens responsible for food poisoning.”
What does this mean for my health?
Most of the bacteria present are relatively harmless to healthy individuals. However, certain pathogens — such as E. coli and S. aureus — have been linked to food poisoning, which causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever. Symptoms may last from just a few hours to several days.
“Problems arise when these bacteria make their way into places they should not reside and when they multiply through casual contact and/or between people and foreign objects,” Dr. Bruce Ruben, an infectious disease specialist and founder of Encompass HealthCare and Wound Medicine, said.
“When proper food handling and sanitation precautions are not taken, for instance, they can linger in kitchens and cause foodborne illness,” Ruben added.
Just how dirty is your kitchen?
This isn’t the first study to reveal that your kitchen is probably laden with bacteria. Older research has indicated that kitchen sinks and kitchen drains contain particularly high amounts of E. coli.
The sponge isn’t so pristine, either. In fact, researchers found 362 different species of bacteria that lurk in and around kitchen sponges.
Bacteria are attracted to warm, moist environments, which is why the kitchen is one of the germiest rooms in the house. In addition, cross-contamination runs rampant in the kitchen, which causes microbes to spread and multiply easily.
What can you do?
Start by cleaning and swapping out your towels often. The absence of pathogens from single-use towels suggests that proper hygiene practices could play a huge role in preventing the growth of harmful bacteria.
“If reusable towels are a staple in the kitchen, then use just once and by only one person, before laundering. Never share towels, as that leads to the spread of germs on hands and surfaces,” Charles Gerba, PhD, a microbiology professor at the University of Arizona, told Healthline.
Gerba also recommends disinfecting messy countertops, washing hands, and wiping off cabinets and refrigerator door handles — especially after cooking with raw meat, eggs, and dairy.
“One of the biggest offenders in the kitchen that causes recontamination of germs is the hands. Hand-washing remains the gold standard for keeping any frequently touched surface clean,” Gerba said.
Larger families with kids or elderly members should be most attentive to household hygiene, as they tend to be most at risk of getting sick.
While it’s impossible to keep your kitchen entirely germ-free, washing your towels (and hands) regularly will help keep bacteria at bay.