It's Just Common Sense, Folks
I'm kind of shocked by a new study revealing that kitchen towels can make you sick. To me, the shocking part wasn't the bacterial growth on the towels so much as how it got there.
The study was recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. CNN reports that, according to a lead study author, Susheela D. Biranjia-Hurdoyal, senior lecturer of health sciences at the University of Mauritius, nearly half of the common kitchen towels examined – 49 out of 100 – exhibited growth of bacteria normally found in or on the human body. Nasty stuff like staphylococcus aureus, normally found on skin and in the respiratory tract, and e. coli and enterococcus, usually found in.....well, most everybody knows where you usually find those. The point being that any and all of them can make you sick as a dog.
The study broke things down a bit: researchers discovered that the type and amount of bacteria differed based on a family's size, socioeconomic status and type of diet. For instance, the aforementioned “staph” germs were more likely to be found on towels from big families and those of lower socioeconomic status, while the intestinal bugs were more likely to occur among meat eaters. The logic behind the latter statistic is that people who prepare meat regularly tend to grab a handy kitchen towel to wipe down cutting boards and countertops.
The paragraph that got me was this one: “The bacteria were also more likely to be found on wet towels than dry towels and on towels that were used for multiple purposes, such as wiping utensils, drying hands and cleaning surfaces, according to the study.”
Wait a minute. The wet towel thing is obvious and I get that part. But what's with the “used for multiple purposes” thing? “Wiping utensils, drying hands and cleaning surfaces?” You mean there are people out there dum......errrr....uninformed enough to use the same towel for all that? My mother the clean freak who would even wash and sanitize paper towels before she threw them into a carefully compartmentalized and segregated trash can – wet stuff in one plastic bag, dry stuff in another; food scraps in one container, paper trash in another – is absolutely spinning in her grave at the thought!
In my restaurant kitchen, there was a progression. In the first place, you can't use “dish towels” to dry dishes in a restaurant kitchen. Nope. Health code violation. Points off your score. If you don't have a dishwasher with a heat cycle, hand washed dishes have to air dry on racks. That's always one of the hardest things to get across to new employees who are used to using “dish towels” at home. But we did use towels to wipe down surfaces. Once you used a “clean” towel to wipe down a countertop or a table a few times, the by then “dirty” towel moved down the ladder to be used to wipe up spills on the floor. Then it went into the laundry hamper. Towels for drying hands were always of the “sanitary roll” type, or came out of a paper towel dispenser mounted at the handwashing sink.
My home kitchen works pretty much the same way. I usually air dry dishes in a dish rack just because I'm lazy. But if I do dry them with a towel, it's a dedicated “dish” towel. It gets used for dishes and nothing else. I won't even dry my hands on a “dish” towel; I have “hand” towels looped over the oven door handle and on a metal towel rack that fits over one of my cabinet drawers. “Dish” towels are for dishes and “hand” towels are for hands. I have special bar mops – thick, super-absorbent terry cloth towels designed for the purpose – hanging around to wipe down countertops, stove top, appliances, etc. And I either use dedicated “floor rags” or dirty dish or hand towels or bar mops to wipe up floor spills and such, depending on how nasty the spill is. I can't wrap my brain around people using the same towel for everything. Although I know they do it. They're the same ones who use filthy, smelly, raggedy dishcloths over and over again and then leave them wadded up wet beside the sink in an open invitation to any nearby bacteria to set up shop and party. Those are also the people in whose houses I will not eat anything.
Another story I was reading on the subject inferred that some people were not regularly changing out their kitchen towels; as in they were using them for weeks without washing them. Yikes!
There have been numerous articles published about changing out your dishcloths or sponges or scrubbers or whatever every couple of days at most. But I guess dish towels kind of get overlooked. Okay, so lets look. I do a load of “kitchen laundry” every week. Towels, dishcloths, aprons, bar mops – anything made of fabric that I use in my kitchen – go in the wash on “hot” with bleach every week. Potholders and oven mitts get the treatment from time to time, as well. And I don't do endurance testing to see how long I can go without washing something. If a dish towel or hand towel or whatever has seen extra heavy use for some reason, into the laundry hamper it goes and a fresh one comes out of the linen drawer. I don't try to “make them last” for a whole week.
I also keep a spray bottle of the same sanitizing solution I used in my restaurants (and still use for catering) in my home kitchen to wipe down surfaces so I'm not just spreading germs around with those nice clean towels. Add about a quarter teaspoon of liquid chlorine bleach to two cups of water. Pour into a one quart spray bottle. This yields a mixture that equals approximately the 100ppm concentration recommended by most health departments for low level disinfection.
The FDA says: “Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. Then, throw the germs away with the towels! If you use cloth towels, launder them often, using hot water. Note: Don't dry your hands with a towel that was previously used to clean up raw meat, poultry, or seafood juices. These raw juices may contain harmful bacteria that can spread to your hands and throughout the kitchen.” (The agency also says, “keep pets off kitchen counters and away from food,” but that's a topic for another time.) I can get behind the paper towel notion, too, but many environmentally conscious folks are vehemently opposed to it. When I do use paper towels, I use the heavy-duty, thick, absorbent variety. Yes, they are more expensive, but they are cost effective and relatively “greener” because you need fewer of them to do the job: one or two sheets as opposed to half a roll of the cheap dollar store brands. But I'm cheap too and I tend to limit the use of paper towels to food prep and use cloth towels for cleanup.
It's just common sense, folks. I know someone who changes out bath towels and wash cloths after every single use. Germs, you know. Yet that same person will leave a dish towel on the counter by the sink until it resembles a battle flag from the field at Gettysburg. Go figure.
Bottom line: heed the advice of scientists, the FDA, and yours truly. Wash your dish towels regularly. Heat dry or air dry your dishes as much as possible, but if you do take a towel to a fork, plate, or glass, make sure it's not the same one you just used to wipe the floor. Or the one you used to wipe your hands after you handled raw chicken. Or the one with which you wiped your toddler's nose. (I swear, I've seen it done.) Multitasking is fine for some things but not for kitchen towels. Try my method of separate towels for separate tasks. Or don't. After all, dealing with food-borne illnesses will give you lots of opportunities to check out the condition of your bathroom towels, too.