Keep your sponges and dish cloths bacteria-free

Clean your sponge and dish cloth often to lower bacterial growth in the kitchen.

A stack of dish sponges.
Photo: Jonathan Khoo/Flickr.

Using proper cleaning practices can help keep odors from taking over your kitchen. But the biggest culprit that can produce bacteria might be your sponge or dish cloth. These tools are great for wiping up spills and absorbing liquid quickly, but they also can pick up harmful foodborne pathogens along the way.

Are your sponges and dish cloths clean? Chances are, they’re not. A damp, smelly dish towel, cloth or sponge is a sure sign that unsafe bacteria are growing. Replace sponges or sanitize sponges once a week; don’t wait until they are smelly or falling apart.


Sponges provide an ideal environment for pathogens to multiply, offering warmth, moisture and lots of "food". A sponge can contain all types of bacteria, including campylobacter, salmonella, staphylococcus, E. coli, and listeria. All of these bacteria can cause mild to severe intestinal and skin infections. 

Use hot water and soap on the sponge to lower or eliminate bacterial growth. To lower the risk of cross-contamination, sanitize sponges. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that over 99 percent of bacteria, yeasts and mold were killed by microwave heating damp sponges for one minute. Putting your sponge in the dishwasher can also help kill off harmful bacteria.

Another method for cleaning sponges is soaking the sponge in a solution of one-quarter to one-half of a teaspoon of concentrated bleach per quart of warm water. Soak the sponge for one minute. Once done soaking, wring out and let it air dry.

Other tips include:

  • Replacing sponges frequently. Even if you take steps to clean sponges, they need to be replaced regularly.
  • Store in a dry location. This helps limit harmful bacteria from multiplying as quickly.
  • Avoid wiping up meat juices. This may increase the chances of spreading harmful pathogens. Instead, use a paper towel or food-grade sanitizing wipe to clean up spills.
  • Don't use sponges on countertops. Using a sponge to wipe up counter tops increases the chance of spreading large quantities of bacteria on a surface. Reduce the chance by using a single-use paper towel or food-grade sanitizing to cut back on the potential for cross-contamination.  

Dish cloths

Many people choose dish cloths to wipe up spills on counters, and clean up when they are done cooking. Dish cloths are also used for wiping kids' hands and faces and other general clean up. Just like sponges, these cloths can harbor harmful pathogens and spread germs if not cleaned frequently. All these uses can spread harmful bacteria and make us sick. Dish cloths can be full of bacteria, and when they smell, that is a sign that it is time to throw it in the wash.

Once your cloth makes it to the laundry room, the wash cycle is important. Remember that bacteria live and multiply in damp, warm conditions. Wash your dish cloths and towels on the hot cycle of your washer and make sure they dry completely on a high setting. 

Even though handwashing is still the number one rule to keeping everyone safe when it comes to food safety, Michigan State University Extension recommends keeping your sponges and dish cloths and surfaces clean.  If not kept clean; they will spread germs just like dirty hands can. 

For more information on keeping your kitchen food safe, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

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