You’ve likely scrubbed down your bathroom at least once in the past few weeks. (Or at least, we hope you have.) You’ve probably also wiped down your phone a time or two. But when was the last time you gave your kitchen the same treatment?
Germs love to hang out in dark, wet, and warm places — and chances are your kitchen is at least two of those things most of the time. In fact, one initial study from NSF International, an independent public health organization, found that the kitchen is the germiest place in your home. And another study, done by Porch.com, turned up germs in some surprising areas you’d probably never think to sanitize.
Read on for some super germy kitchen items, starting with the most obvious. The further down the list you go, the more surprising those items get.
1. Dish sponges and rags
Why it’s gross: Yes, you probably already know your sponge is a breeding ground for germs. But just how much can be a little shocking. In NSF’s initial 2011 study, 75% of sponges and rags sampled contained at least one form of coliform bacteria, which includes salmonella and E. coli and is a potential indicator of fecal contamination. A majority of samples also contained yeast or mold, and a small percentage even contained bacteria that can cause staph infections. This was by far the most germ-ridden item in the house, containing more than 321 million microorganisms per gram.
How to clean it: Keep in mind that not all of those microorganisms were harmful, and not all bacteria will cause you to get sick. However, sponges are inherently damp, and thus more likely to also breed the nastier bacteria as well. Real Simple suggests rinsing your sponge after each use with hot water, and then allowing it to dry in a ventilated soap dish. At the end of each day, pop the wet sponge in the microwave for 1 minute, which should zap most of the bacteria that has stuck around. Cloths should be hung on the towel rack between uses, and then tossed in the laundry and washed with hot water after 1 day of use.
Next: This one might not come as a surprise.
2. Kitchen sink
Why it’s gross: You might occasionally run your sponge around the sink to wash away any lingering remnants from food prep or your dinner, but it is still often one of the germiest places in your kitchen. It had the fifth-highest number of microorganisms in the houses that took part in the 2011 NSF study, and had a presence of coliform bacteria and yeast or mold.
How to clean it: WebMD suggests using a solution of bleach and water to clean the sink once a day, and allowing the mixture to filter down the drain. NSF says to scrub the sides and bottom of the sink once or twice per week with a disinfecting cleaner, and pour 1 tablespoon of bleach mixed with one quart of water down the drains and disposals. Additionally, the organization suggests putting your kitchen sink strainers through the dishwasher once per week.
Next: You use this every day, but how often do you sanitize it?
3. Counter top
Why it’s gross: The counter top is ground zero for food preparation, and it probably isn’t surprising that you need to clean it more often than you think. (And no, wiping it with a paper towel to dry it off doesn’t count here.) You likely prepare fresh produce, raw meat, and a host of other foods on the counter tops — not to mention contaminate it with germs from everyday life. The good news: Counter tops are flat surfaces, which means it’s harder for germs to grow. They’re also typically well-lit, another strike against bacteria. However, the original NSF study found the presence of coliform bacteria on the surfaces, along with yeast and mold.
How to clean it: Better Homes & Gardens suggests cleaning with a germ-killing cleaner of your choice regularly, and drying with a microfiber cloth to dry thoroughly and prevent streaking. The site also provides guidance on the best tips for each type of counter top surface. How Stuff Works provides similar guidance, adding that seamless materials, such as common plastic laminate, make it the easiest to get rid of germs completely. At the very least, wipe down the work surfaces once a day with your cleaner of choice — hot soapy water at a minimum.
Next: You need a clean place to store your food.
4. The Refrigerator — every part of it
Why it’s gross: In its second study, NSF found that the water dispenser on your refrigerator is one of the most germ-laden areas in your kitchen. It’s likely based on the amount of human contact, coupled with the wet environment. NSF also found that E. coli and salmonella were present in most refrigerator’s meat compartments, and listeria and mold were growing in the vegetable drawers. And besides that, the refrigerator door seals were found to be crawling with listeria, and coliform was present on most door handles. Bottom line: Refrigerators are gross unless they’re frequently (and properly) cleaned.
How to clean it: You’ll want to check the manufacturer’s directions first, but both the Huffington Post and Do It Yourself suggest cycling vinegar through the water dispenser to sanitize it. The same can be done for that door seal as well. As for the inside compartments, washing them with warm, soapy water is your best bet. And the door handles should be cleaned with either soap and water or a non-toxic, all-purpose cleaner — just make sure to check that your cleaner won’t ruin the finish on the handles.
Next: Taking food on the go is easy — but how clean are these?
5. Food storage containers
Why they’re gross: When was the last time you gave a second thought to how clean your Tupperware is? If you store leftovers in containers with the rubber sealed lids, food particles and other bacteria might unknowingly get caught in the seal. Homeowners in the 2013 NSF study didn’t even consider these containers to be bacteria-laden, but in reality they contained traces of salmonella, along with yeast and mold.
How to clean them: There are numerous sources and tips for cleaning your plastic food storage containers, which means you’re not alone if you typically just wash them quickly and forget about them. If the containers smell from leftovers or are stained, Good Housekeeping suggests letting them soak in a solution of baking soda and water for 30 minutes — or even using a bit of chlorine bleach before washing in hot, soapy water. Food52 offers other options, including storing them with a pinch of salt or crumpled newspaper. To avoid the yeast and mold, be sure the containers dry completely before storing them in your dark cabinets.
Next: You utilize these most days, but probably never clean them.
6. Salt and pepper shakers
Why they’re gross: The salt and pepper shakers on your dining room table might have more germs than you thought. According to WebMD, they can be a common place to find cold virus germs — which means they’re also likely to contain other microorganisms, too.
How to clean them: When you wipe down the table or finish washing the dishes, it doesn’t hurt to run that same cloth over your salt and pepper shakers, too. Obviously, WebMD points out that washing your hands before and after dinner is also a good way to make sure unwanted germs aren’t making it to your dinner table.
Next: Have you ever thought about how often you touch these?
7. Stove knobs
Why they’re gross: You probably run an antibacterial wipe or sponge over your stovetop frequently, but do you take the time to clean the knobs of your stove and oven as well? You’re constantly touching them, often as you’re preparing food, which means there’s ample time for bacteria to build up. Those knobs made the Top 10 list of germiest places in the entire house, ranking above the remote control, refrigerator handle, and toilet seat.
How to clean them: Once you figure out how to remove and reinstall the knobs on your stove, this is a pretty simple one to resolve. All you have to do is remove them once a week to wash them in hot soapy water, and then allow them to dry properly before reinstalling them.
Next: This contains more bacteria than your toilet seat — and you’re probably ingesting that bacteria.
8. Coffee reservoir
Why it’s gross: When was the last time you actually cleaned the reservoir in your coffee maker, where the water sits before brewing a new pot? If you’re anything like the homeowners in the NSF tests, probably not lately. According to the study findings, those reservoirs contained more bacteria than your toilet seat does, most notably mold and yeast microorganisms.
How to clean it: NSF suggests following the manufacturer’s directions for cleaning out the entire coffee maker — not just the pot — every 40 to 80 brew cycles, or at least monthly. Though directions will likely vary, this often includes adding up to four cups of undiluted vinegar to the reservoir, and allowing it to sit for 30 minutes. Then run the vinegar through the unit, followed by two to three cycles of fresh water, or until the vinegar odor is gone.
Next: Most people don’t think to clean this — but you may want to think again.
9. Blender gasket
Why it’s gross: If you have the type of blender where the blade unscrews from the base and the main container, make sure you’re cleaning the rubber gasket. That’s the piece that fits between the bottom and the blade to make sure liquid doesn’t leak out of the container when you’re using it. If you’re not fully disassembling kitchen appliances that come into contact with food, you’re likely allowing bacteria to build up. NSF data showed the gasket can contain E. coli, salmonella, and yeast and mold.
How to clean it: Completely unscrew your blender after use, and consult your manual for cleaning instructions. You might be able to put that rubber ring in your dishwasher, Good Housekeeping reports, but can otherwise clean it after every use with hot soapy water, allowing all the pieces to dry completely before reassembling.
Next: Think of all the foods you use this for and how dirty it is.
10. Can opener
Why it’s gross: You might wipe off the can opener with a dishcloth every now and then, but invisible food particles can continue to stick there, providing a hotbed of activity for bacteria. NSF found yeast and mold bacteria, along with traces of E. coli and salmonella in some samples.
How to clean it: Whether you have a manual opener or an electric one, it’s time to pull out some vinegar and a toothbrush. That’s what Home Ec 101 suggests, anyway, and makes sense based on the other cleaning tips in the kitchen already. If it’s been years since your can opener was cleaned, and the gunk is gross, The Huffington Post suggests soaking the entire thing in a bowl of vinegar, for a few hours or up to overnight. Use a toothbrush to scrub away lingering particles, rinse thoroughly, and dry completely.
Next: Bacteria like to make themselves comfortable in dark spaces like these.
11. Knife block
Why it’s gross: Worse than the can opener in NSF’s studies were the knife blocks. Your knife blocks probably don’t get a buildup of food on them, most likely, but that trace bacteria can then grow in the dark recesses of where you keep your knives. In most cases, the researchers were more likely to find mold and yeast traces than the other bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses.
How to clean it: The NSF recommends removing any knives from the block, then washing the entire thing in hot soapy water. To clean the slots, the organization suggests using a small brush, like the ones used to clean baby bottles. Then, dilute 1 tablespoon of bleach in 1 gallon of lukewarm water — a solution that will further sanitize the block. Submerge the entire block, or simply fill each slot with the liquid and allow it to sit for 1 minute. Rinse thoroughly and turn upside down on a clean surface to dry. If used frequently, you should follow this process monthly, making sure to completely dry all knives before placing them back in the block.
Next: Along with a knife block, this is also harvesting bacteria.
12. Cutlery drawer
Why it’s gross: Similar to the knife block, the cutlery drawer is another breeding ground for bacteria. According to Porch.com’s study, the cutlery drawer was covered in four times’ more bacteria than a toilet handle (about 117 culture-forming units per inch). That’s because we often rinse our utensils rather than sanitize them, which doesn’t get rid of all the bacteria. And since cutlery drawers are dark when closed, bacteria love to grow in them.
How to clean it: The most important thing is to make sure you’re sanitizing your utensils after every use. This will help cut down on the number of bacteria that grow in the drawer. But to clean it, empty out all of the utensils and wipe the drawer clean with all-purpose cleaner or white vinegar. (Dilute the white vinegar with a bit of water first.) You can use a toothbrush to get into small crevices. Leave the drawer open to allow the area to dry completely before placing utensils back inside.
Next: You use this for so many recipes — and rinsing it off isn’t enough to keep it clean.
13. Rubber spatula
Why it’s gross: Many rubber spatulas used for baking and mixing still have two parts — the paddle and the handle it slips off of. If you don’t separate the two each time you clean it, you’re likely allowing bacteria to build up around that edge, leaving the possibility it spreads to the foods you’re preparing. NSF’s tests revealed traces of E. coli and yeast or mold on some of the spatulas it sampled.
How to clean it: Though some spatulas are easier to separate than others, all you have to do is take it apart after use, either washing it by hand in hot soapy water or putting it through the dishwasher. As long as you allow both parts to dry completely before putting it back together, you shouldn’t have a problem. Alternatively, if you’re due for a new spatula anyway, consider buying the silicone version that’s all one piece. No nooks and crannies equals less bacteria.
Next: Heat won’t kill bacteria in here, despite what you’ve been told.
14. Microwave plate
Why it’s gross: Your microwave’s turn table is covered in 120 times’ the bacteria of a standard pet toy (and you know you hardly ever sanitize your pet’s toys), according to Porch.com. That’s because it’s an area that you might wipe down occasionally but almost never actually clean. Some think the heat kills all of the bacteria when the microwave is on, but that isn’t the case. In fact, the strongest bacteria survive, which allows them to reproduce and become even more resistant to the heat over time.
How to clean it: It’s important to wipe down your microwave every couple of days to at least control the amount of food buildup. For a deeper clean, wipe the inside, including the turn table, with a non-toxic, all-purpose cleaner. Allow it to fully dry before using again. If you’re worried about the all-purpose cleaner drying on the inside of the microwave, you can also boil water with lemon and let the steam kill the bacteria.
Next: You’ll never believe this is more than 100 times’ dirtier than eating straight from the sink.
15. Fruit bowl
Why it’s gross: The fruit bowl is 163 times’ dirtier than eating straight from the kitchen sink, says Porch.com’s study. Yes, you read that right. When is the last time you sanitized your fruit bowl? When fruits are not cleaned, or they rot in the bowl, those bacteria stick around and spread onto the next fruits that make their way into the bowl. It’s not something you think to sanitize frequently, but it’s so important to do so.
How to clean it: Simply clean your bowl with soap and water or put it in the dishwasher to rid it of bacteria. Do this every time you go to the food store and restock the bowl.