Keep your sponges and dish cloths bacteria-free this summer

Warm kitchens are the perfect breeding grounds for bacteria on sponges and dish cloths; take steps to keep things clean and fresh.

Summer, it’s the perfect time for funny odors to quickly take over your kitchen if proper cleaning practices don’t happen on a regular basis. The biggest culprit might be your sponge or dish cloth. The sponge and dish cloth are great tools for wiping up spills and absorbing liquid quickly but they also can pick up harmful foodborne pathogens along the way.

Ask yourself, are your sponges and dish cloths clean? More than likely the answer is no. Research done by The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ConAgra Foods Foundation found that nearly one in four of us (21 percent) keep sponges until they look dirty or smell bad, while 17 percent wait until sponges fall apart before throwing them out. Another 18 percent say they typically keep their sponges for three to four weeks, while a few (8 percent) keep them for a month or longer. A damp, smelly dish towel/cloth or sponge is a sure sign that unsafe bacteria are growing. Replace sponges frequently- don’t wait until they are smelly or crumbly!

Here are some tips to keeping the pathogens at a safe level

Sponges:

First, know that sponges are ideal locations for pathogens to multiply. They supply the perfect environment:  warm, moist and lots of ‘food’. A sponge can contain all types of bacteria, including campylobacter, salmonella, staphylococcus, E. coli, and listeria – all of which can cause mild to severe intestinal and skin infections. 

Rinsing well after using a sponge with soap and hot water isn’t going to eliminate the pathogens. It is recommended to lower the risk of cross-contamination; you should sanitize your sponge. The USDA has found that over 99 percent of bacteria, yeasts and mold were killed by microwave heating damp sponges for one minute or dishwashing with a drying cycle. The best results were found by soaking the sponges in a solution of one-quarter to one-half of a teaspoon of concentrated bleach per quart of warm water. Soak the sponge for one minute. Once done soaking, wring out and let it air dry. Soaking the sponge in the bleach solution reaches all the crooks and crannies where bacteria may be hiding.

Other tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics  include:

  • Replace the sponge frequently – even if you take steps to clean sponges, they should be replaced regularly.
  • Store in a dry location – this helps limit harmful bacteria from multiplying as quickly.
  • Avoid  doing  these things:
    • Wiping up meat juices – this may increase the chances of spreading harmful pathogens. Instead, use a paper towel or disinfectant wipe to clean up spills.
    • Using on countertops – using a sponge to wipe up counter tops increases the chance of spreading large quantities of bacteria on a surface. Reduce the chance by using a single-use paper towel or disinfectant wipe, to cut back on the potential for cross-contamination.  

Dishcloths:

More than half of Americans choose dish cloths as a cleaning tool to wipe up spills on counters, clean up when they are done cooking, wipe kids hands and faces and other general clean up. Just like sponges, these cloths can harbor harmful pathogens and spread germs if not cleaned frequently. A damp, smelly dish cloth is telling you germs are multiplying! It is time to throw it in the wash.

Once it makes it to the laundry room, the wash cycle is important. Remember bacteria live and multiply in damp, warm conditions. Wash your dish cloths and towels on the HOT cycle of your washer and make sure they dry completely on a high setting. 

Even though handwashing is still the number one rule to keeping everyone safe when it comes to food safety, Michigan State University Extension recommends keeping your kitchen tools and surfaces clean as well.  Sponges and dish cloths fall into this category, if not kept clean; they will spread germs just like dirty hands can. 

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