5 Really Important Things You Need to Know About Cleaning Your Fridge, According to a Microbiologist and a Food Safety Expert

published Oct 23, 2021
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We all know firsthand that the refrigerator is often ground zero for plenty of messes. But how often are you supposed to clean your refrigerator? And which cleaning products should you use to do it? We had our guesses, but we wanted to be sure, so we spoke with a microbiologist and food safety expert to get the best advice. Here are five very important tips to remember when cleaning your fridge — and keeping it free from bacteria.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

1. Wipe your refrigerator door and handle every single day.

First, you should be wiping down the exterior of your refrigerator at least once a day. Stephen Amato, a food safety expert and the director of the global regulatory affairs and quality assurance programs at Northeastern University, says he wipes down his fridge once in the morning and again at night, before bed.

Amato’s process is pretty simple: He uses paper towels and Windex, but says Lysol works, too. “Cleaning the door and handle is especially important if you’re going in and out of the fridge often during the day,” says Amato, who has spent 20 years working in the bioscience industry.

2. Remove food before cleaning the shelves.

Time to clean the inside of the fridge? Yay, you! Before you launch into wiping down your fridge’s shelves and drawers, remove all of your food items. As you do this, you can use a cloth moistened with disinfectant to wipe down sealed containers (for example, a jar of pickles or sticky jam!). It’s best to empty the fridge — at the very least, one shelf at a time — before wiping it down.

This is also a good time to check expiration dates, and throw out any food items that seem questionable.

Credit: Kitchn

3. Aim to create a disinfected environment inside your fridge.

There is a major difference between cleaning and disinfecting. Cleaning removes smudges, stains, and dirt, but it won’t kill bacteria, viruses, or germs. Disinfecting, on the other hand, kills germs after cleaning, so that you can lower the risk of spreading infection.

A disinfected refrigerator means there are no live pathogens (disease-causing bacteria) on any surface. Bacteria can thrive and multiply on non-living surfaces (like a fridge shelf!), so it’s important to do a thorough job. Once the food has been removed from the shelves, Amato explains that the inside of the refrigerator should be cleaned with a disinfectant and a clean cloth. How often should you be disinfecting your fridge? That’s really up to you, says Amato. Doing a thorough wipe-down once a week is a good starting point, he suggests.

If your fridge has removable components — like drawers and shelves — wash them in the sink or dishwasher. Just be sure to clean the sink first! (The sink is one of the dirtiest places in the kitchen and those germs can spread.)

Emily Ledgerwood, a microbiologist and virologist at Le Moyne College, says timing and technique matter when disinfecting. “To properly disinfect, it usually requires leaving the surface visibly wet for five to 10 minutes, depending on the cleaner,” she says. Ledgerwood is a big fan of using Seventh Generation Disinfecting Multi-Surface Cleaner on her fridge. “It’s [also] my go-to for countertops, to disinfect my sink, and in my bathroom,” she notes, explaining that she had students in her lab test it against other natural cleaners, and Seventh Generation came out on top.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

4. Minimize risk of bacteria spread.

Once your refrigerator has been disinfected, it’s important to keep it tidy — and prevent potential bacteria from spreading. You can do this with the following smart tactics, explains Amato: Throw away expired items, properly store and cover all food items so nothing is exposed, and avoid overcrowding.

The first step reduces the risk of harmful bacteria developing in the first place. The second two are to minimize the risk of spread, should bacteria be introduced to your fridge, Amato says. For example, if your wedge of cheese has turned moldy, and it’s crammed in next to others, that bacteria has a much easier job of spreading to nearby foods! The key is to remember to firmly press seals on any plastic bags and tightly screw on jar lids.

5. Check for food recalls regularly.

Here’s one of the most important tips Amato wants people to know about keeping a safe and healthy refrigerator: Regularly check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website for food recalls. “They happen every day,” he says, citing chicken as one of the main culprits. The faster you remove potentially contaminated food items from the fridge, he says, the less likely bacterial spread will occur.

What’s your method for cleaning the refrigerator? Tell us about your cleaning process or any tips you may have in the comments below.