Whether you’re a neat freak
or do the bare minimum on
cleaning day, learning a few
basics will make your kitchen,
family and planet healthier.

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Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan
| Credit: Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan

Choose Your Cleaner

If you're looking for a quality household cleaner, opt for ones with the EPA's safer choice label, which identifies consumer products made with safer criteria for chemicals. In general, that means kitchen sanitizers with hydrogen peroxide, citric acid, lactic acid or ethanol listed as active ingredients. And reconsider products with synthetic fragrance, which "can include thousands of different chemicals," such as carcinogens, neurotoxins and respiratory irritants, and may trigger headaches, says neuroepidemiologist Hannah Gardener.

Refrigerator

Guys? Your fridge is  gross. Which makes  sense since you store  raw meat, eggs and  unwashed produce in  there. A study by NSF  International, a public  health and safety group,  found mold, yeast and  harmful bacteria, like  salmonella, in people's  vegetable crispers and  meat drawers. Ick!

For clean freaks:  Pull out those drawers  and wipe down with a  sanitizer (something  stronger than just that  wet sponge) once a week.

For everybody else:  You still want to disinfect  things like meat juice  spills. But unless your  fridge looks and smells  grimy, scrubbing with  an organic surface wipe  once a month will do, says  Hannah Gardener, ScD,  neuroepidemiologist and  founder of A Green Slate  Consulting, which helps  homeowners live greener.

Dish towels

Pop quiz: What has  more bacteria than your  trash can's handles?  Your kitchen towels! In  a 2015 study, researchers  had people prepare a  meal with ingredients  that were full of  nonpathogenic bacteria  (don't worry—they  didn't eat it) and then  checked to see which  surfaces and tools had  the most bacteria on  them afterward. Hand  towels won out. Just  think about all the  purposes they serve:  makeshift dish-drying  rack, oven mitt,  hand dryer for family  members with less than- perfect washing  technique (i.e., anyone  under 18).

For clean freaks:  Have separate towels  for drying dishes and  your hands, and wash  all towels at least weekly  in a hot-water load  with an EPA-approved  laundry detergent.

For everybody else:  Same deal: Separate  towels for separate uses,  and toss them all into  your weekly laundry.

Floor

"Dust is a general term,  but it can contain all  sorts of chemicals and  particulates," including  pesticides and lead, says  Alan Woolf, MD, MPH,  director of the Pediatric  Environmental Health  Center at Boston  Children's Hospital. "In  kitchens and throughout  the house, it's a good  idea to keep the floors  clean," Woolf says, especially if you have  little humans (or animals)  crawling around.

For clean freaks: Keep  your broom handy for  regular crumb sweep-ups.  (Stay away, ants!)  Woolf also advises a  damp mopping or  Swiffering three to four  times a week (to keep  dust mites, dirt and  chemical-laden dusts  to a minimum) and a thorough mopping with  a floor cleaner every four  to six weeks. Stick to a  no-shoes policy to avoid  tracking in pesticides  and bacteria.

For everybody else:  The broom advice  stands. But if you don't  have little humans  running around—and  you don't observe the  five-second rule—you  can probably get away  with wet-mopping or  Swiffering once a week.

Sponges

That innocent-looking  puff is "the perfect  breeding ground for  bacteria," says Elizabeth  Scott, PhD, professor  and codirector of the  Simmons College Center  for Hygiene and Health  in Home and Community  in Boston. A new German  study found common  sponge-cleaning  methods (tossing in the  microwave, boiling in  water) weren't effective  in reducing bacteria over  the long term. In fact,  researchers discovered  a "massive colonization"  in the sponges they  tested, with 54 billion  bacteria per cubic  centimeter of sponge!

For clean freaks:  Replace your sponge  once a week, and use  it for dishwashing only.  Cooking with raw foods?  Clean up with recycled  paper towels, instead.

For everybody else:  Keep one sponge for  counter cleaning and  one for dishwashing.  Wring 'em out after each  use to avoid bacteria  growth. And "when it  begins to look a little  grubby, get rid of it,"  says Scott.

Cutting board

Your go-to prep surface  may come into contact  with potentially harmful  bacteria. This is  especially true if you're a  carnivore and handle raw  meat on a regular basis.

For clean freaks: Buy  a plastic cutting board.  Actually, make that two.  According to the USDA,  nonporous surfaces, like  plastic, are much easier  to keep clean than  wood—into the  dishwasher and done!  And keeping separate  boards for meat and  produce will prevent  bacteria from your raw  chicken from migrating  into your fresh salad.

For everybody else:  Hot water, detergent  and the dishwasher are  also your friends. If two  cutting boards sound  like overkill, just make  sure to give your one  (plastic or otherwise)  a high-temp wash every time you chop any  sort of raw ingredient— that includes produce.

Sink and  counters

As with cutting boards,  when raw ingredients  come into contact with  kitchen surfaces, they  can leave "pathogenic  bacteria and viruses  that can make you ill,"  says Scott.

For clean freaks: This is  an easy one: Just spray  your counters and knobs  with a sanitizer, and wipe  clean with a paper towel.  No sweat!

For everybody else:  A wipe-down with a  sanitizer is a good idea  for you, too. If you're not  working with raw meat  or veggies, you can  probably skip it.