Fighting Kitchen Germs: Dos and Don'ts

When it comes to germs, it's not all about the bathroom. The kitchen is the germiest room in the house. From the countertops and sink to the cutting boards and refrigerator, the kitchen is teeming with billions of microorganisms.

But you can tackle those nasty kitchen germs that lurk where you prepare your family's meals. Here are some kitchen hot spots and tips for how to clean them.

The Germiest Kitchen Item?

Kitchen sponge. This is probably the most germ-filled item in your house. It's used to sop up all kinds of germs and grime and then often stored under the sink -- a wet, dark place that's a perfect environment for bacteria to grow.

Experts point out that when you use a sponge throughout your kitchen -- wiping dishes, counters, or the sink -- you're just moving germs from one spot to another. While zapping the sponge in the microwave will get rid of some germs, it won't get rid of all of them. There are dead spots where the microwaves or heat doesn't reach, like cold spots in food, and germs survive there.

Washing a sponge in the dishwasher also isn't enough to kill germs unless you have an extremely high-heat germicide cycle. As an alternative, you can use paper towels or a clean cloth; be sure to use the cloth only once and then toss it in the laundry. If you do use sponges, you can soak them between cleanings in a solution of no more than 1 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water, or vinegar and water. Soak them in the bleach solution for about 5 minutes or in the vinegar solution for 20 to 30 minutes. Rinse thoroughly and let air dry.

More Kitchen Hot Spots

Counters. Spraying a 10% vinegar solution on counters will wipe out lots of kitchen counter germs at once. Keep the surface wet for 30 to 60 seconds, then wipe. Keep purses, briefcases, lunchboxes, keys, mail, and electronic devices like remote controls off countertops because they're teeming with germs.

Cutting boards. It's a good idea to have one cutting board for raw meats, poultry, and seafood, and another for produce and bread. Disinfect cutting boards by soaking them in straight vinegar or a bleach solution of no more than 1 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water for about 30 minutes. Then rinse thoroughly with hot, soapy water or put them in the dishwasher. Using the dishwasher alone isn't enough to sanitize them.

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Refrigerator. Refrigeration doesn't kill bacteria -- it just slows their growth. The more you open and close the refrigerator door, the greater your chance of bringing in mold. Every so often, wash down all surfaces of your fridge -- including racks and drawers -- with a vinegar solution. Wash the refrigerator door handle frequently with a bleach solution.

Floor. Kitchen floors can be subject to dropped food, dripped juices from raw meats, tracked-in dirt, crawling kids, and pets, among other things. Using the same bleach solution that you use to clean cutting boards provides good sanitization, but be sure to rinse thoroughly and let air dry if kids and pets will be on the floor. You may want to ask people to take off their shoes when they come in the door, especially if they're going to be in the kitchen.

Dishwasher. Do you see a black fungus on the seal around your dishwasher door or inside your dishwasher? It may be Exophiala dermatitidis, a fungus that likes high heat and is resistant to most detergents. Scrub it away with a paste of vinegar and baking soda. While you're in the dishwasher, pour a couple of cups of vinegar in the bottom and run a cycle to kill other tough germs.

Garbage disposal. Garbage disposals are convenient, but they're also kitchen germ hazards, experts say. Any food that remains can decay and breed germs. At least once a week, use a brush and the bleach solution to scrub as far down as you can into the disposal.

Trash can. Make sure to keep a lid on your trash can. Not only will it keep smells from spreading, it can also keep insects from landing in bacteria and spreading them throughout the rest of your house. It's not enough to just replace the trash bag. Once a week, pour the bleach solution into the can -- especially if there's a smell, stain, or substance inside. Let the liquid sit for a few minutes and then pour it down your sink. Rinse the trash can and let it air dry.

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Handles. When you move around the kitchen, opening cabinets, the refrigerator, or the pantry door to grab ingredients as you cook, you can spread germs among the handles. Wipe cabinet and refrigerator door handles at least once a week with the bleach solution to kill microorganisms.

Don't get overwhelmed by kitchen cleaning. When tackling kitchen germs, first clean the areas that look dirty. Get rid of mold in the refrigerator and dust on the countertops, for example. Then sanitize and disinfect.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 22, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Donna Duberg, assistant professor of clinical laboratory science, Saint Louis University.

Tierno, P. The Secret Life of Germs, Atria, 2001.

Philip M. Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and immunology, New York University Langone Medical Center.

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: "Cutting Boards and Food Safety."

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