Get a Cleaner, Greener Kitchen

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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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.