What item is teeming with bacteria like salmonella and most likely to give you food poisoning? Hint: it's not the sponge

By Rachael Schultz
March 19, 2015
Corbis Images

You responsibly wash your hands before cooking, but if you dry them on that tea towel that's been hanging for weeks-or even just days!-you're actually just contaminating your hands all over again. In fact, kitchen towels are one of the leading causes of cross contamination in your home, says a new study from Kansas State University. (Surprised? Brace yourself: 6 Health Threats Hiding in Your Makeup Bag.)

In an observational study, researchers noticed that people would touch the same towel before rinsing their hands and after washing inadequately, with both acts transferring bacteria onto the cloth. Then, after properly scrubbing food bacteria and germs, they would reuse the same towel, contaminating themselves all over again.

Although only nine percent of reported foodborne illness outbreaks happen at home, scientists believe the actual number is much higher. And thanks to this tea towel cross-contamination, the bacteria you put back on your hands may be a huge factor in these illnesses, like food poisoning.

In addition the germs you and your family add to the towel, past research has found that salmonella-bacteria commonly in raw meat that can lead to food-related sickness-can grow on clothes stored overnight, even after they're washed. (Gross! If you can feel the bugs crawling just at the thought, here's 6 Ways to Clean Your Place Like a Germ Expert.)

One option is to eliminate the contaminated cloth entirely and stick to paper towels. And you should definitely do this for wiping countertops, according to lead researchers and food safety specialist Jeannie Sneed. But using disposable towels for every task in the kitchen can add up fast, so the real solution is to wash your towels after every home-cooked meal, she adds. (Go ahead and throw them in the washer with these 7 Things You're Not Washing (But Should Be).) It may seem excessive, but if it can save you from a bout of food poisoning, are you really going to complain?