Some new research, courtesy of the University of Mauritius, has some bad news for frequent users of kitchen towels: they’re battleships of sneaky, invading microbial monsters. Thanks in part to how often they are reused, they are often filth-encrusted sheets infested with bacteria, meaning that they’re putting you – an innocent kitchen-dweller – at an elevated risk of food poisoning.
Saying that, we probably shouldn’t all suddenly start setting our kitchens on fire to stop any Escherichia coli getting into our guts and triggering profuse bowel movements. While it’s true that a new study did find that kitchen towels aren’t exactly bastions of cleanliness, you don't necessarily need to forever banish them to the deepest, darkest pits of hell.
First, the study: Not yet available for peer-review, it was first presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Atlanta, Georgia. The team collected 100 kitchen towels – both single-use and multi-use versions – after a month of use from a variety of households, and then cultured the bacteria on them to identify bacterial strains and loads.
They found that 49 percent of them had bacterial growth; towels from larger families, particularly those with children or an extended family, were more infested. Multi-purpose towels had a higher bacterial count than single-use towels. Humidity in the household increased the bacterial loads.
Common bacterial strains were E. coli, species belonging to the Enterococcus genus, and Staphylococcus aureus.
A little bit about those: S. aureus commonly colonizes the skin and mucosal linings without incident, but sometimes it can cause infections if it gets beneath your skin. Enterococcus bacteria, often found in feces of humans and animals, can sometimes infect wounds or cause urinary tract infections.
E. coli is most infamous for causing the symptoms of food poisoning, but it’s worth noting that most strains of E. coli are entirely harmless to us. Both E. coli and S. aureus were far more prevalent in towels in families with non-vegetarian diets, with the latter being more commonly isolated from families with children or a lower socio-economic status.
The authors’ advice, then, is to refrain from using multipurpose kitchen towels, to keep towels out of humid environments, and to be especially vigilant if you have extended family staying over or you’ve got kids.
If you’re wondering how freaked out you should be about this, we checked in with Dr Ben Libberton, a microbiologist at the MAX IV Laboratory in Lund, Sweden, who was not involved in the paper. Noting that these results weren’t particularly surprising, he explained that anything that gets wet and contaminated with old food is of a similar risk.
“It’s the same with sponges. They’re breeding grounds for bacteria, and we use those on our clean plates,” he told IFLScience. In addition, you’re likely to help bacteria accumulate on “anything that has cracks in that can’t be disinfected easily, like chopping boards. The plug hole can be a nightmare if food’s left in it too.”
So – are we all doomed by our kitchens?
“I mean, we’re doing okay, right? Either the illnesses aren’t that serious, don’t happen, or are underreported,” Libberton explained. He did add that having a dirty kitchen will surely increase your chances of getting ill, so if that’s the case, the solution is clear: wash things more regularly, including your hands.