Kitchen Sponge: Handy Tool or Bacteria Haven?

Tips on how to sanitize one of the filthiest spots in your home

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Every home has one and it’s the most bacteria-laden surface under the roof. The toilet seat? The garbage can? Try the kitchen sponge that you use to wash utensils, wipe counters and scrub plates. It’s likely dripping with disease-causing pathogens.

A study by German researchers revealed 362 different types of bacteria present on household kitchen sponges — and half of those types were harmful bacteria.

While to most healthy people, the bacteria they encounter in their everyday life doesn’t unduly affect them, people who are immuno-compromised must remain vigilant about keeping bad bacteria at bay. And, for those who can’t stand the “yuck” factor of germy kitchen sponges, here are a few options.

• Ditch sponges altogether. “Restaurants use dish cloths,” said Kristin Goss, department chairwoman of culinary arts and assistant professor in the culinary arts department at Erie Community College, and also a certified serve safe instructor.

Restaurants typically hold their dishcloths in a bucket of bleach-diluted water to prevent contamination.

• Replace cloths. “I see many people who have dish cloths that sit there forever. Replace every day with a clean one. Wash them at the highest temperature setting. If you don’t replace them with a clean one daily, you allow an environment of bacteria to grow, especially if you wipe up after preparing raw products. That’s where cross contamination happens, especially if you wipe a counter where you were preparing chicken and then wipe again an area where you’d prepare a sandwich or a plate of raw vegetables. Or you set your purse on a counter or table and transfer bacteria that way.”

Of course, after the cloth has been exposed to a known germy surface, like raw meat juice, grabbing a clean cloth doesn’t hurt. Some washing machines offer a “sanitize” setting.

• Wash your sponge. “I wash the sponge in the dishwasher every other day and then ditch it after a week,” Goss said.

• Keep your hands clean. “Most food borne illnesses happen because of you not washing your hands. Sing the happy birthday song while scrubbing your hands with soap and warm water. It should last at least 20 seconds.”

• Use the right cleaner. Evelyn Lannak, professor in hospitality at Monroe Community College, recommends a bleach solution in a spray bottle or bucket, 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water.

“Allow it to air dry afterwards for safety,” Lannak said.

• Soak tools. Every day, soak item such as bottle brushes, sponge wands or sink brushes in the bleach solution for 30 seconds, Lannak recommends.

• Go disposable. “Handi Wipes are nice because you can throw them away,” Lannak said. “They’re single use.”

She added that especially for very germy chores, such as cleaning up after cutting up a raw chicken, a single-use cloth or paper towel prevents bacteria from spreading.

• Limit germy messes. For example, many people believe they must wash their raw, whole chicken before roasting it. Lannak said that doing so spreads bacteria, since the rinse water splashes around the sink. Anyone worried about the chicken’s cleanliness should realize that processors clean the birds before wrapping them for selling.

“Since you’re cooking it, it kills any bacteria that could be in it,” she said.

She added that drying the chicken with a paper towel, using single-use gloves for handling the raw chicken and sanitizing the cutting board after the raw chicken was on it can minimize the spread of bacteria. Lannak recommends using the dishwasher or a bleach solution for cleaning the cutting board.

• Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and raw vegetables to avoid cross-contamination and to limit where bacteria goes. Clean spills promptly, since bacteria multiplies over time.