Is it better to air-dry or use a dishtowel?

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Sometimes, the decision between air-drying your dishes and reaching for a dishtowel is simply a matter of the amount of available space on your dish rack. And if you own a dishwasher, letting your dishes dry in the appliance may be the easiest option. Most of us probably let convenience guide our dish-drying habits, but there's one more factor to consider: the cleanliness of our chosen technique.

According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, there is actually a hierarchy of most to least sanitary methods. That's right: having clean dishes isn't just about washing them, but also about drying them in a way that doesn't sabotage your cleaning efforts. To make sure, let the ranking below be your guide—start with the most sanitary drying technique possible, then work your way down the list.

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1 Most Effective: The Sanitizing Cycle on Your Dishwasher

If you have a dishwasher with a "sanitize" option, this is hands-down the most effective method to make sure your plates, cups, and utensils are germ-free. The extended hot-water rinse kills bacteria, reaching at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit, which would be unbearable for hand-washing.

When you select the "Heated Dry" option, the machine pumps in hot air, causing the moisture on the dishes to evaporate into steam. This is the most sanitary way to dry your dishes, but some also warn that because it works the appliance's air fan harder, it can put extra strain on the machine. If you want to extend the life of your dishwasher while still getting the cleanest dishes possible, consider using this method sparingly, such as when washing baby bottles or when someone in your house is sick.

2 Drying in the Dishwasher

Even if you skip the sanitizing wash cycle, drying dishes inside the dishwasher is the next-best option. The drying cycle reaches high temperatures, helping to destroy germs and bacteria.

3 Air Drying

Don't have a dishwasher? Wait, don't reach for that dishtowel just yet. It turns out that air drying dishes on a dish rack is generally a more sanitary method than using a dishtowel. To make more space for air-drying, consider a two-tier dish rack or one that fits over your kitchen sink.

4 Drying with a Paper Towel

Since paper towels are single-use, they won't spread bacteria around your dishes in the same way a reusable cloth dishtowel might. The one big caveat: using paper towels to dry all of your dishes would be a wasteful habit.

5 Least Effective: Drying with a Dishtowel

Because most of us don't wash our dishtowels often enough, they may be spreading germs onto our freshly washed dishes. If you have to use a dishtowel for items that can't be air-dried, try to wash the towels as often as possible, ideally using a clean towel every day and letting it dry out between uses. To dry a cast iron skillet, set the rinsed pan on the stovetop over low heat for a few minutes until it is dry.