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Can Ice Cube Trays Make You Sick If You Don’t Clean Them?

It's not likely, but it's good to be safe.

I’ve always thought of ice cube trays as self-cleaning, so I’ll admit it — I can’t remember the last time I washed mine. I mean, they only contain water and the freezer kills germs, right?

That’s not what the internet has to say about it. Turns out, there’s a lot of evidence that ice cube trays are actually really dirty. The reason: The trays are exposed to open air in your freezer, absorbing smells and germs from your frozen foods. What’s more, taking them out of the freezer with dirty hands is a big no-no.

Curious and eager to verify this, I did a little digging. Here’s what I found.

Your freezer doesn’t kill germs and pathogens.

The claim that “ice cube trays are dirty” has some merit. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), freezing foods (and other items) does not kill microbes, bacteria, yeasts, and molds. Instead, it inactivates them.

Inactive pathogens are those that cannot replicate or cause illness. But they aren’t destroyed or killed, either. They are dormant, and will simply reactivate when temperatures rise (i.e. when you thaw your freezer’s contents).

Does this mean that you’re thawing harmful pathogens and possibly spreading them every time you take out your ice cube trays? Not exactly. Bacteria doesn’t begin to re-activate and multiply until it hits about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and it takes a decent amount of time for ice cube trays and their contents to thaw.

It is possible to get sick from dirty ice cube trays.

Remember how you shouldn’t order drinks with ice in certain countries? (We might not realize it, but drinkable tap water is a luxury.) That’s because ice quickly turns into melted water, which may be full of active and harmful pathogens.

You could also get sick from the ice in your home if it’s contaminated. That might happen if:

  • You touch the ice trays with contaminated hands
  • You place meats and other foods, which haven’t yet been frozen, near the trays

As soon as the ice melts in your drink, you may expose yourself to bacteria and other microbes that could cause foodborne illness.

It’s easy to prevent contaminated ice.

The bottom line: While it’s possible that you could get sick from dirty ice trays, it isn’t likely. Most of us are careful about where we place our trays in the freezer, and most of us wash our hands immediately after touching contaminated items or raw meats. You don’t have to go crazy cleaning your trays.

That said, you can follow three rules to keep yourself safe: Wash your hands before touching your trays, don’t rest them on the countertop (the surface might be dirty), and wash the trays every time you empty them. (This is especially important if you put anything other than water in the trays, like lemon juice or coffee.)

Cleaning ice cube trays is simple, too. Wash them by hand with hot soapy water and let them dry on your dish rack. If they’re dishwasher-friendly, toss them in the top rack and let the washer do the work. Then, enjoy your clean ice in peace.

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