Dish towels — they might be an important decorative item for you. Maybe you collect them as souvenirs when you travel, use them to display your political views, or belong to a dish towel swap club. You probably don’t think of them as one of the major disease vectors in your home.

You should. One study of kitchen towels from five North American cities found that 89% of the towels were contaminated with coliform bacteria and more than one quarter held e coli, one of the deadliest of all household bacteria.

Salmonella showed up on 14% of the towels. Campylobacter was also found.

Towel use makes a difference

You may be wondering what the homemakers were doing with these towels to lead to this kind of result. And the answer to that question does make a difference.

The safest way to use kitchen towels is to use them only to dry your hands after washing. Unfortunately, people don’t always wash their hands that well. Drying hands after washing them is important because it helps get bacteria off your hands. But where do you think that bacteria ends up?

One of the primary examples of dangerous tea towels in the study was from a home where someone prepared raw chicken, washed her hands, and dried them on the towel. She then used that towel to dry dishes and cross-contaminated her dishes with bacteria from the chicken.

Drying dishes and pans with a kitchen towel can also be a way to get bacteria from poorly washed kitchen gear onto the towel, which then ends up spreading the bacteria around.

If you use your kitchen towels to wipe down the sinks and counters when you finish cleaning the kitchen, you can spread bacteria widely. The towel often stays damp for a while, allowing the bacteria to grow, and they can live on the towel till the next time you use it.

So how often should you wash your towels?

Most experts say you should toss your kitchen towel in the laundry at the end of each day and put out a fresh towel.

If you only use it to dry clean hands and you’re sure those hands are really clean, you could wait for a couple of days. However, keep in mind that dish towels may have a life beyond your personal use.

In a study presented to the American Society for Microbiology, researchers found that kitchen towels used for multiple purposes (such as drying hands and also wiping counters) were the germiest, and that families with children had higher bacteria counts on their towels.

It’s safest to wash and dry kitchen towels every day. If you ever use a kitchen towel to sop up messes from meat preparation, launder that towel immediately and replace it with a clean one.

Too much trouble?

If washing your kitchen towel every day seems like too much trouble — it probably isn’t. Make it easier by buying a few extra. Think about keeping one towel for drying clean hands and using different tools for wiping counters.

Let dishes air dry or dry them in your dishwasher.

Make sure your kitchen towel is hanging with good air circulation rather than lying crumpled on a counter. Wash kitchen towels with hot water and be sure to dry them thoroughly.

If that sounds like a lot of work, consider using a professional cleaning service to take care of your basic maintenance cleaning. You’ll have enough extra leisure time to enjoy hanging up a spanking clean towel every day.