Spoiler: You’re probably not doing it frequently enough.
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A blue dish towel on a yellow background
Credit: Getty Images / tahsinaydogmus

Got a spill to clean up? A wineglass that needs hand-drying? Or do you simply need to dry your freshly washed hands? In these situations, and many more, you probably reach for a dish towel. Dish towels are indispensable in the kitchen thanks to their all-around usefulness. And because of their frequent use, it's important to keep them clean. Read on to find out how often you should be washing your dish towels—plus, get tips for washing them properly.

How Often Should You Wash Dish Towels?

You should wash dish towels frequently—we recommend every three to five days. Depending on how you use the dish towel, you may need to wash it more often. For example, if you use a dish towel to clean up spills and messes, we recommend swapping it out for a clean one and washing it sooner so bacteria don't build up. If you primarily use the dish towel to dry your hands after washing dishes, it's most likely OK to wait the full five days before laundering. But if you're not sure, follow this motto: When in doubt, swap it out.

Kitchen towels are known sources of bacteria, so it's important to wash them on a regular basis. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Food Protection examined potential areas of microbiological contamination in kitchens of adults, and discovered that bacterial growth was high on dish towels. Of the bacteria they tested for, dish towels had a high presence of aerobic bacteria, Enterobacteriaceae (the family of bacteria that includes Salmonella and E. coli, two common bacteria related to foodborne illnesses) and S. aureus

Researchers concluded that "the dishcloth can be a vehicle for microbiological contamination and the subsequent cause of cross-contamination," and noted that wet surfaces were more susceptible to bacterial growth than dry ones. So in addition to washing your dish towels often, make sure they are also hung up properly to dry between uses. In addition, keep a stack of dish towels on hand so you can change them out frequently.

How to Clean Kitchen Towels

The best way to clean kitchen towels is in the washing machine. As Meredith Carothers, M.P.H., a technical information specialist for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, advises, "To eliminate bacteria, kitchen towels should be washed frequently in the hot cycle of the washing machine." The hot water will help kill any bacteria that has accumulated. Be sure to let the towels fully dry, either by air-drying or in the dryer, before using them again in the kitchen.