Should You Air Dry or Towel Dry Your Dishes?

Pandemic lockdowns have meant people are eating at home more. Eating at home means more dishes being used. More dishes being used means more dishwashing. A lot more. A ridiculous amount, actually. 

Dishwashing is a task most people dread, my family included. But even in these pandemic times of alarmingly high dish piles, we seem to have things under control, mainly through an informal agreement that whoever cooks is off the hook for cleanup. (We also have teenage sons we can cajole into dish duty.)  So all goes smoothly with the washing. I wish I could say the same for drying but, in our home, this seemingly simple chore is bedevilled by one surprisingly contentious question: air dry or towel dry?

I’ve been on Team Air Dry since I learned in a food safety course about the many bacteria lurking in dish towels. Researching this point further, I found a 2015 study in Food Protection Trends that examined food handling practices among consumers. Its authors concluded that the “largest source of cross-contamination during meal preparation was the small dishcloth and large cloth towels.” Their findings echo research done in 2002 and 2004: cloth towels can quickly become contaminated “at significant levels with microorganisms originating from raw meat and poultry” because people typically use and re-use them to dry their hands after ineffective handwashing (i.e. no soap or too short a time). 

The major drawback of air drying is the space required. We have a dish rack but it cannot contain the multitude of knives, wooden spoons, spatulas, prep bowls, blender parts, mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, cutting boards, lids, pots, pans, and strainers we use on any given day. Add my beloved coffee press, a couple of water bottles, and some lunch dishes and you end up with a precarious pile of Seussian proportions, threatening to crash to the floor the second someone breathes too hard or brushes past in their haste to depart the kitchen. Trying to dismantle the pile is equally dangerous. It’s like Jenga: one wrong move and it’s game over. 

My solution? Spread things around. I dry lunch dishes on cooling racks set over a dish towel or drying pad. I put the ever dangerous blender blades and chef’s knives on their own dish towel, in a corner where they are less likely to maim someone. Luckily we have the counter space to complete this operation, but it drives certain members of my household crazy.

I get it. It’s a nuisance to have dishes dripping dry for long periods, occupying valuable real estate in the kitchen. Air drying also extends the entire process of cleaning up, since the dishes don’t get put away until long after the washing has been completed. There is no doubt that towel drying is efficient. I can’t really argue that point, but every time I look at the towel in our kitchen, all I can think about is the number of hands that touched it before it was hung back up, damp, wrinkled, and festering. 

But I’ve also wondered why, if towels are so laden with bacteria, we never seem to get sick. This question has been nagging at me more during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many people, I’ve read a lot about virus transmission in the past 7 weeks. The more I read, the more I began to see parallels between my concerns about dish towels and the fears other people have of catching COVID-19 from an envelope or a can of tomatoes at the grocery store. 

The science on COVID is clear: the virus may be detectable on surfaces for a few days, but it starts to lose infectiousness as soon as it lands. Within 24 hours, the “vast majority of the virus is no longer infectious,” meaning there is “very low risk” of transmission to people from surfaces like packages or groceries. (NPR, CDC

So viruses won’t transmit from surfaces, or at least not easily. What about the bacteria growing on our kitchen towels? As it turns out, the same general point applies: the presence of bacteria does not necessarily lead to transmission. A post on LiveScience noted that while bacteria can live on a towel, they are not “particularly concerning” when it comes to foodborne illnesses. Similarly, an article in Time stated that it’s “unlikely you’ll get sick just from touching a used towel.” This article quotes Susan Whittier, director of clinical microbiology at New York-Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Center, who says that as long as towels are drying completely between uses, “there’s almost no chance of passing bacteria from one person to another.” Both articles stress the importance of proper hand washing–the same “20 seconds with soap” method we’ve heard about since COVID-19 started. And because damp towels can grow more bacteria than dry, kitchen towels should also be washed frequently. 

Air dry or towel dry? It may not be as big a deal as I thought, at least in the context of a home kitchen. I cannot claim to have the last word on this, nor do I wish to dictate to anyone how they should dry their dishes, but diligent hand washing and regular turnover of towels seem to keep germs at bay. And while I still prefer air drying–old habits die hard–the sight of a sodden dish towel will worry me a lot less from now on.

Image of pots by Belchishche –

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