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Good or Bad Tool: Sponges & Dish Towels


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Two convenient tools in a kitchen are the sponge and the dish towel. However, in spite of their versatility there is a concern that must be considered; that they are a harbourage site for bacteria. The cleaning agent manufacturers have reacted to this concern by designing products to clean kitchen sponges and dish towels.

According to Cardinale et al (2017)1, built environment such as a kitchen has a remarkable microbial diversity including pathogens like E coli and salmonella. Therefore, sponges and towels pose a risk of cross-contamination as they act as vehicles moving the bacteria from one area of the kitchen to another. In fact, in the article “Bacterial Occurrence in Kitchen Hand Towels”, it was demonstrated that a significant number of coliform and E coli grows on kitchen towels. In the investigative study, 82 kitchen towels were collected from households in the USA and Canada; a survey was done on age, use and cleaning frequency of towels. Coliform bacteria were found on 89% of samples and E coli on 25.6%; it should be noted that the level of E coli was linked to the frequency of washing. The study also proved the potential for cross-contamination of foodborne enteric bacterial pathogens and their growth in kitchen towels. (Gerba et al 2014)2.

Cardinale et al (2017)1 states that areas such as kitchens can function as microbial incubators due to activities such as food handling and direct body contact with surfaces; it also stated that the kitchen environment hosts more bacteria than bathrooms. This level of bacterial activity is linked to the use of sponges since they were proven to be the biggest harbourage site of bacteria in the whole house.

But what is the big deal? Why not just clean the sponges and dish towels? Unfortunately, both studies showed there is no one cleaning method/agent that was able to get rid of 100% of bacterial contamination. In fact only a 60% reduction in bacterial load was seen after cleaning. The type of bacteria will depend on the sponge, food, climate and food handling practices. It is important to know that coliforms, E coli and almonella can survive the drying of kitchen towels and regrow if the cloth becomes soiled again (Gerba et al 2014)2. Kitchen towels were also found contaminated with Camphlyobactor linked to the wiping of hands after the preparation of chicken; cross-contamination was seen from the use of the same towel to dry plates. This contamination and cross-contamination is linked to poor hand hygiene.

Therefore, care must be taken in the use of sponges and dish towels; good hygiene practice is key. If being used in the kitchen, these items need to be changed or “decontaminated” frequently. The use of single-use paper towels is being recommended for drying hands and cleaning up spills. Other recommendations include air drying of dishes and countertops after sanitisation. Control must be maintained to prevent contamination and cross-contamination.