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. Thus, 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 of their meals at home, the dishes are more plentiful than ever.

Which raises the question: How clean do our plates, bowls and utensils 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. I mean, a half-assed rinsed-out glass of lemonade isn’t going to hurt anybody, right? 

Incredibly, the experts agree. “Unless you’ve been working with raw meats or a plate that’s 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 might be just fine, it’s plates (and any other surfaces, like cutting boards) that have been in contact with raw meat that are of particular concern. “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, he suggests scraping off ALL food, soaking the item in 150-degree water (bare minimum) and scrubbing well with antibacterial dish soap. 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, definitely put it to work. “A dishwasher tends to run much longer with that hot, 150-degree water, so 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 aren’t perfect either. “There’s 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.”

And so, Tetro concludes, bringing us full circle, “You have to be extra diligent about keeping your dishwasher clean — and that means keeping it clean… by hand.”