Your Tea Towels Could Be Full of Icky Bacteria ... But There's No Need to Panic

Public Domain. Caroline Attwood / Unsplash

Bacteria is found everywhere, but it's how you handle it that matters most.

How long has it been since you last threw your tea towels in the wash? In light of a new study from the University of Mauritius, you might want to get on that, fast! Tea towels are home to a number of pathogens that could potentially cause food poisoning. When towels are used for multiple purposes and not hung to dry properly, the problem is made worse.

The researchers, who presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Atlanta last week, collected 100 kitchen towels that had been in use for a month. They found that 49 percent of the towels had bacterial growth, and that the quantity of bacteria increased relative to the number of people in a household, the number of children, and if the family ate meat.

Lead study author Dr. Susheela D. Biranjia-Hurdoyal said in a press release:

"Our study demonstrates that the family composition and hygienic practices in the kitchen affected the microbial load of kitchen towels. We also found that diet, type of use and moist kitchen towels could be very important in promoting the growth of potential pathogens responsible for food poisoning."

Live Science puts the findings into context, explaining why people don't need to be too panicked for their personal health, but should still take reasonable precautions:

"Of the towel samples that tested positive for bacteria, about 73 percent grew types of bacteria found in human intestines, including E. coli and Enterococcus species. About 14 percent grew Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, a bacterium that's sometimes found on people's skin. Although staph bacteria usually don't cause illness in healthy people, when the bacterium gets into food, it can product toxins that can cause food poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

Bacteria is everywhere, especially where food is prepared, so we should not be surprised by these findings. Paul Dawson, a food scientist at Clemson University, pointed out that E.coli as a general genus and species is not a problem, despite being in the news a lot: "But there are specific types that can cause problems, like the ones recently found on romaine lettuce."

Still, it's a good idea to be careful and not to leave your towels for a full month without washing! (Who does that, anyway? It seems a bit extreme.) Make it a rule to wash every 1-2 days, much like a washcloth, or if it's come into contact with raw meat or dairy products. Melissa Maker, owner of Clean My Space, a cleaning company from Toronto that we've featured a few times on this website, suggests laundering in hot water with a few drops of tea tree oil. She told Global News:

“When it comes to cross-contamination, be aware of what you are touching and using for cooking and prep work. I tend to ‘work’ with one hand (meaty hand) and ‘help’ with the other. If I season meat with left hand, I flip it with my right hand so I never get meat juices into my salt."

And please, don't take this study as a reason to give up cloth towels and switch to disposable paper towels. Cloth is always a better option, as long as you take care to wash regularly and thoroughly. Read: How to avoid using paper towels