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What Happens If You Put Away Dishes When They're Wet, According to Doctors

Not drying them first could have serious health consequences.

Your kitchen may be the heart of your home, but it can also be ground zero for the spread of serious illness. That's because according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million people get sick every year from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized from those illnesses, and 3,000 die from them.

Bacteria can spread countless ways in your kitchen, and doctors say it may pose a danger when you least expect it—for example, after you've washed your dishes. They warn that putting dishes away when they're still wet is a common mistake that can lead to food-borne illness. Luckily, there's a safe and simple solution to this problem. Read on to find out how to keep bacteria at bay when doing your dishes, and why it's so important that you do.

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Putting away wet dishes can lead to bacterial contamination.

Woman putting away dishes

In the food service industry, stacking dishes without completely drying them is known  as 'wet nesting.' Experts say this practice can be dangerous, since the lingering moisture can promote the growth of bacteria and other germs.

"Many people focus on washing dishes effectively to remove visible food waste, but it's also important to dry dishes carefully to prevent bacteria and other germs from growing on dish surfaces," says Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, a medical toxicology physician and medical director at National Capital Poison Center. She adds that the FDA Food Code requires restaurants to air-dry dishes, utensils, and other foodservice equipment instead of drying them with towels or putting them away wet.

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The longer you leave dishes wet, the more contaminated they become.


Johnson-Arbor notes that if you use freshly washed dishes that are not completely dried, "the risk of disease transmission is likely low." However, washed dishes that have remained wet over a longer period of time can harbor dangerous levels of bacteria, she says.

"In one study from 2001, researchers measured bacterial growth on dirty, air-dried, and wet-nested plates found in a hospital kitchen," the physician tells Best Life. "The researchers found that the air-dried plates contained similar levels of bacteria as the wet nested plates in the first 24 hours after washing. However, by 48 hours after washing, the wet nested plates contained significantly more bacteria than the air-dried plates, suggesting that prolonged wet nesting of dishes may be a risk factor for bacterial growth and transmission," she explains.

These are the types of bacteria commonly found on wet dishes.

A woman washing dishes in the kitchen sink

There are a few types of bacteria that are likely to contaminate your dishes if they're left undried. "Dishware is likely to contain germs that are commonly found in the hands and mouth of people who use them. Such bacteria include Staphylococcus and Streptococcus species," says Johnson-Arbor, adding that these can cause various diseases in humans, including wounds, skin infections, and sepsis. "Dishes used in hospitals, nursing homes, or other medical facilities may contain other germs, including disease-causing bacteria or fungal species such as Candida auris, if they are not disinfected and dried adequately," she adds.

If you have questions about the signs and symptoms of food-borne illness, Johnson-Arbor recommends contacting Poison Control either online at or by phone at 1-800-222-1222. "Both options are free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day," she notes.

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This is the best way to dry your dishes.

Drying rack with clean dishes on table in kitchen. Space for text

Though towel-drying your dishes may quickly eliminate moisture, Johnson-Arbor says the best way to dry your dishes is to thoroughly air dry them on a rack. "Using a towel to dry dishes can spread germs onto clean dish surfaces, and wet nesting creates a moist environment between dishes where germs can grow and thrive," she says.

In fact, according to a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, food-borne illness such as E. coli and Salmonella can live on dish towels for 48 hours or more. The research team notes that while 92 percent of consumers use dish towels and sponges as part of their dish-cleaning routine, just nine percent replace them daily, at a rate that would minimize bacterial contamination.

Meanwhile, using a freestanding rack provides a more sterile environment for dish drying, less prone to contamination. For once, the option that requires the least effort has proven most effective.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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