When it comes to cleaning our kitchens, washing our towels tends to be an afterthought. Because we often use kitchen towels to tidy up other appliances, it's easy to forget about keeping the towels themselves clean. But according to new research, unhygenic practices with kitchen towels could lead to the growth of harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning.
The June 2018 study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, found that a wide variety of factors — including family size, type of diet, multi-usage of towels — play a role in how much bacteria grows on a kitchen towel. Researchers from the University of Mauritius analyzed 100 towels after a month of use by culturing and identifying the bacteria on them. As it turned out, 49 of those towels tested positive for bacterial growth. While bacteria by itself isn't always bad news, a sizable portion of these samples did grow potentially harmful bacteria: 36.7 percent grew coliforms (E. coli), 36.7 percent Enterococcus spp., and 14.3 percent S. aureus.
"Our study demonstrates that the family composition and hygienic practices in the kitchen affected the microbial load of kitchen towels," said study author Susheela D. Biranjia-Hurdoyal, PhD, in a press release. "We also found that diet, type of use and moist kitchen towels could be very important in promoting the growth of potential pathogens responsible for food poisoning."
You might be nervous to hear that bacterial growth increased in number with an increased family size, especially with the presence of children and extended family members. But even if you have a large crew in your household, that doesn't mean that it's impossible to keep your kitchen towels safe.
How to Prevent Harmful Bacteria in Kitchen Towels
Humid towels had a higher bacterial count than the dry ones in the study, so it might be a good idea to start airing your wet towels out after using them if you're not doing that already. Definitely make sure they're not crumpled up and sitting in a mini puddle of water behind your faucet — that's just asking for them to get wet and stay wet.
It may also be in your best interest to ban the use of multi-purpose towels in your kitchen. We know, we know: It's so easy to have that one "useful" towel to wipe your utensils, dry your hands, and clean your kitchen surfaces. But the study showed that these multi-use towels had a higher bacterial count than single-use ones — and when you reallly think about it, you can't be too shocked.
On a day-to-day basis, it's always helpful to practice good hygiene while handling, cooking, and preparing food, but the study shows how especially important it is if you often handle meat. For families on non-vegetarian diets, Coliform and S. aureus were found at a much higher prevalance than they were for vegetarian families. (Don't worry, this doesn't mean you need to give up meat!) Just be sure to take extra care with hygiene; remember to always wash your hands before and after handling meat — especially raw meat — and never touch your kitchen towels prior to giving those hands a thorough scrub-down.
Cross-contamination is the last thing you want as a side dish!