How Clean Do Your Dishes Really Need to Be, Anyway?

It depends on what’s on them.


It may be the year 2020, but living in a home with a dishwasher is still a luxury to many. Hand washing dishes after each and every meal is a necessary evil across much of the world, and with much of that same world in some level of isolation and largely eating most, if not all meals at home, keeping dishes clean is literally more important than ever.

Which raises the question: How clean do our dishes really need to be, anyway?

For real: So what if there’s a little sauce residue here, or a bit of caked on food there, right? A half-assed rinsed out glass of lemonade isn’t going to hurt anybody. And, incredibly, the experts agree: “Unless you’ve been working with raw meats or a plate that has been used by someone who has been sick, the risk is quite low, and so [keeping your dishes perfectly clean] may not be as important from a microbiological perspective, says Jason “The Germ Guy” Tetro.

Indeed, while a little glued-on veg on your plate might be alright, it’s plates (and any other surfaces, like cutting boards) that have been in contact with raw meat that are of particular worry when it comes to keeping it clean. “If you’re dealing with raw meats, you may end up coming into contact with salmonella, campylobacter, and e. coli.,” warns Tetro. In that case, Tetro suggests that scraping off ALL food, soaking in at least 150-degree water, scrubbing well with antibacterial dish soap, then rinsing and drying your dishes is the way to go. Oh, and throw out the sponge, and use a plastic brush instead: The porous material sponges are made of is better at being a petri dish for bacteria than it is at getting rid of it.

That said, if you’ve got a dishwasher, use it. “A dishwasher tends to run much longer with that hot, 150-degree water, so that there’s no chance for microbes to survive,” explains Tetro. “There are other advantages, such as total coverage with water and sensors to detect soil, not to mention high efficiency to save you energy, but if we’re talking microbiologically, it’s really just the water.”

At the same time, though, if you’re lucky enough to own a dishwasher, don’t get all high and mighty: Dishwashers are not perfect. “There is a huge caveat that, [unlike with a dishwasher which can leave some dishes and containers still wet] when you wash by hand, there’s little chance that you’re going to leave behind water that can cool down and allow any stragglers to survive and thrive.”

“So you have to be extra diligent about keeping your dishwasher clean — and that means keeping it clean… by hand.”