Hand towels can be some of the dirtiest places in your home.
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It’s easy to get caught up in making sure your home is as germ and bacteria-free as possible. While spraying down countertops and constantly-touched surfaces is always a good practice, there can also be bacteria living on items that you don’t always consider: kitchen and bathroom towels. Is washing and drying your face (as well as your hands and body) on a dirty towel really that bad? And what constitutes as dirty? Inside Edition did an investigation in Feb. 2020 on just how dirty your towels are along with microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba who found “you are actually getting more [fecal] bacteria in your face than if you put your head and flushed it in the toilet.”
The department of soil, water and environmental science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, conducted a study that analyzed the contents of 442 kitchen towels from five cities. The study found coliform bacteria on 88.7% and E. coli in 13.5% of the towels tested. Two of the towels also contained salmonella — which is specifically a risk with kitchen hand towels. The study revealed that the presence of E. coli was directly related to the frequency of washing. So, if you’ve refrained from washing your towels too often in an attempt to save water — definitely think again.
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But why are they so dirty?
If you really think about it, this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. In the kitchen, hand towels are grab-and-go solutions to spills, hand drying, and they’re occasionally even used in cooking. In the bathroom, hand towels can be used when your family and guests are washing their hands — and they’re often what we reach for after washing our faces. The point is this: hand towels around your home are used for lots of occasions. So while it’s easy to think of them as the clean thing you reach for after washing your hands, you’d be smart to think again.
“We keep them damp — we use them on everything,” Lisa Guerrero, Inside Edition’s chief investigative correspondent, told Dr. Oz on a recent episode of The Dr. Oz Show. “Wiping utensils, drying hands, holding hot dishes and wiping surfaces. The more items you jump between the more bacteria you introduce.”
Guerrero notes that the amounts of bacteria living on the tested towels tended to be higher in larger families. This means — you guessed it — that you might need to wash your kitchen and bath towels more frequently if you have more children or frequent guests.
In addition to varying forms of bacteria, the University of Arizona study found that Staphylococcus can live on cotton for 19 to 21 days. They cite a MRSA outbreak, a strain of Staphylococcus, among college football players that they believe was transmitted by using communal bath towels in locker rooms. They also found that some blood-borne diseases, as well as fungal skin infections can potentially be transferred if you’re using the same towel as someone who is infected. The takeaway here? Don’t share towels in public, and maybe even be wary of the practice in your own home.
How often should you wash your hand towels?
There are definitely two schools of thought when it comes to how often households should be washing their hand towels. According to a Dr. Oz poll, about 16% of respondents say that they wash their towels daily. The poll revealed that most people wash their towels much less often — 33% say they wash them two to three times per week, while 40% say they only wash them once per week.
"What we found was surprising,” Dr. Michael Crupain, MD, MPH told DoctorOz.com. “Significant numbers of bacteria were present on all of the towels we tested, including those used for only one day. Also significant yeast microbes were present on more than half of the towels and mold was present on nearly half of the towels. Some of the towels even held significant amounts of E. coli.”
Despite these findings, Guerrero says that general towel usage only necessitates washing every three to five days. She does however mention that she’s switched to white towels so that she can add in bleach as an extra precaution.
How to wash towels:
In addition to washing towels every three days, Guerrero urges people to make sure their washing machines are using hot water.
While this has been shown to get rid of germs and bacteria, it’s hard to recommend or monitor the exact temperature of the water in your washing machine. That said, Dr. Alexandra Sowa, an internist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, told the New York Times that people should try to make sure the water is around 140 degrees. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also notes that some laundry detergents are designed to work better at specific temperatures — so make sure you’re checking labels.
Pay attention to the way you’re drying towels:
Another important factor to take into consideration is how you’re allowing the towels in your home to dry in-between uses.
Guerrero advises that tossing towels in the dryer after one use is much more effective than hanging it to dry. That said, if you need to hang it up, make sure you’re not layering it on top of other towels on the back of the bathroom door or on the drying rack.
The same goes for kitchen towels, but in this case, Guerrero adds that it could be a good idea to introduce towels for different uses. “Try limiting your kitchen towel to a specific use,” said Guerrero. “A kitchen towel for spills, one for drying hands and one for everything else. This limits cross contamination and should keep the bacteria down.”
When should you toss your towels?
While the amount of bacteria found on towels is a cause for concern, the good news is that washing them truly does solve the problem. It’s still important to make sure you’re refreshing them when needed — a practice that is especially dependent on how you treat your towels.
The more they are used, towels will not only lose their absorbency, but they’ll start looking worn. Guerrero recommends a general rule of replacing your towels every one to two years.