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The Abstract

Fast Facts About Cutting Boards and Food Safety in Your Kitchen

Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Photographer unknown.

Anything that touches your food can be a source of contamination and foodborne illness – including cutting boards.

For example, if you cut up a raw chicken, and then use the same cutting board to slice a tomato for your salad, you run the risk of cross-contamination – with bacteria from the chicken being transferred to the tomato. That, of course, would be bad.

And vegetarians aren’t off the hook either. Fruits and vegetables can also carry pathogens (and transfer them to cutting boards).

To reduce the risk of foodborne illness in your kitchen, here are some things you should know about cutting boards.

Plastic Versus Wood

For a long time, most (if not all) cutting boards were made of wood. But at some point people began using plastic cutting boards. The idea was that they were easier to clean (and sanitize), and therefore were safer.

But in the late 1980s, a UC Davis researcher named Dean Cliver – the de facto godfather of cutting board food safety – decided to investigate whether plastic cutting boards really were safer. Answer: not really.

Photo credit: Betsssssy, via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo credit: Betsssssy, via Wikimedia Commons.

Plastic cutting boards, Cliver found, are easier to sanitize. But cutting on them also leaves lots of grooves where bacteria can hide. Wood is tougher to sanitize, but it’s also (often) tougher in general – you won’t find as many deep scratches in the surface.

In addition, researchers have discovered that the type of wood your cutting board is made from also makes a difference.

“Hardwoods, like maple, are fine-grained, and the capillary action of those grains pulls down fluid, trapping the bacteria – which are killed off as the board dries after cleaning,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety researcher at NC State. “Soft woods, like cypress, are less likely to dull the edge of your knife, but also pose a greater food safety risk,” Chapman explains. “That’s because they have larger grains, which allows the wood to split apart more easily, forming grooves where bacteria can thrive.”

Which type of cutting board should you use? Chapman recommends using plastic cutting boards for meat and wood cutting boards for fruit, vegetables, or any ready-to-eat foods (like bread or cheese).

Why use plastic cutting boards for meat? Because of how you wash them.

Cleaning Your Cutting Board

Plastic and wood have different characteristics, so you have to handle them differently.

Plastic cutting boards can be placed in the dishwasher, where they can be sanitized by washing at high temperatures. But wood cutting boards would quickly be ruined by a dishwasher, and not everyone owns a dishwasher. If you’re washing a cutting board by hand, you should:

  • Rinse the debris off the cutting board (being careful not to splatter contaminated water all over the place);
  • Scrub the cutting board with soap and water (to get out anything in the scratches or grooves on the board’s surface); and
  • Sanitize the cutting board (you should use different sanitizers for wood cutting boards than for plastic ones).

For plastic cutting boards, you should use a chlorine-based sanitizer, such as a solution of bleach and water (one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water – has a shelf life of a week or two). But for wood cutting boards, you should use a quaternary ammonium sanitizer, such as a solution of Mr. Clean and water (follow the dilution instructions on the label).

“This is because chlorine binds very easily to organic materials, like the wood in a cutting board, which neutralizes its antibacterial properties,” Chapman says. “Quaternary ammonium is more effective at killing bacteria on wood or other organic surfaces.”

It’s worth noting that you should also sanitize your kitchen sponge/rag/brush after you’ve used it to scrub the chicken-juice off your cutting board – or else you run the risk of contaminating the next thing you wash (which is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do).

The last step in cleaning your cutting board is an important one – dry it.

“Make sure you put the cutting board somewhere that air circulates, so that it can dry completely,” Chapman says. Bacteria need moisture to grow, and you don’t want to give them a welcoming environment.

“Historically, butchers used to put salt on their butcher blocks to keep them from smelling bad,” Chapman says. “This worked because the salt drew the moisture out of the wood and prevented bacterial contamination, which is what caused the smell – though the butchers didn’t know it at the time.”

When To Replace Your Cutting Board

At some point, scrubbing and sanitizing might not be enough. When your cutting board has accumulated a lot of deep grooves from repeated use, you probably need to replace it.

“The more grooves it has, and the bigger they are, the more area is available for trapping moisture and giving bacteria a place to proliferate,” Chapman says.

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  1. I have used the same hard maple cutting board for the last 30+ years. It started life as a 23 inch cutoff from a maple counter top I installed for a client. I oiled both sides with Walnut oil (it is among the fastest drying oils and has never gone rancid) and I ONLY clean it with a dish rag rinsed in HOT water. Not a sponge. If I’m cutting Fish, Poultry or Pork, I’ll wipe it 3 times rinsing the rag in hot water between. Until the fat is gone plus once. With Beef, Lamb and the like probably twice. The board needs to feel and look clean of particles. Vegetables, once, occasionally twice. Note that stains on the surface, say from cutting Beats, are magically gone in a day or two. What I was told many decades ago was that woods, especially HARD MAPLE were very tight grained and had naturally occurring enzymes which break down bacteria, keeping me and my family and guests safe from food poisoning. I do a lot of cooking and no one has been sick from my 30 year old board. And none of my 3 kids have food or any other allergies. Do you really want your cutting board stinking of cleaner???
    I would not use any of the fancy cutting boards that are made from open grain woods or bamboo for the same reason. Logically, food is going to get caught in the pores and go off.
    I use quality sharp knives and don’t have any grooves. My board is still flat. If it shows signs of cupping, I simply flip it over for a time. Both side can be used.

  2. I agree that a good wooden cutting board is the best for several reasons and can last for decades with minimal care. Wood’s natural antimicrobial/antibacterial properties mean that microscopic material missed while washing will be dead pithing 24 hours due to the woods natural tannins and fibers. Minor care is required for a good edge-grain cutting board.

    Wood cutting boards are simple to maintain as long as you follow best practice: hand wash with warm water and mild soap, allow both sides to dry fully, keep it oiled with a food-grade mineral oil as this oil won’t go rancid.

  3. For wooden cutting boards that have gotten too many nicks and grooves you can refurbish it by sanding it 80 grit then 120 grit then 220 grit, if you already have an orbital sander this is a really easy process else a bit of elbow grease can do it manually.

    after sanding, wipe down with a damp cloth, let dry, and apply some butcher block/cutting board oil

    1. Specifically HARD maple. There are many species of maple… It is dense and heavy for it’s size.
      Up to you for flat grain or cross grain. Cross grain is probably more stable but pricier. My 30 year old board is flat grain.

  4. I’m a dishwasher in a large restraunt chain we have plastic cutting boards that I just can’t get the stains off of also the cut groves concern me of course the are ran threw our dish washer for sanation any tips on how to remove the time giving stains ? Thank you. Shar in UT

    1. Shar, ask your chef or manager to find a local plastic cutting boards polisher. I used to work at restaurant where they polish the upper surface of all the long cutting boards that don’t fit inside the dishwasher machine. After the polishing, they become smooth like brand new.

    1. Hard Maple. Wipe it clean with a clean rag rinsed in HOT water ONLY. NEVER submerge a wood cutting board or leave any wetter than surface damp.
      See above.

  5. I’ve been a chef for over 40 years and a food writer for 10 years. I’ve worked in restaurants and hotels in the USA, UK, Bermuda and Holland, and used both plastic and wooden cutting boards. The reason for using colour coded, cutting boards in a professional kitchen can help prevent cross-contamination, but only if the colour code is followed. Over time, even with proper cleaning and sanitation, the heavy scarring in plastic boards can retain more bacteria. Since it’s proven fact that bacteria growth can be slower and indeed inhibited on some hardwood cutting boards, I would recommend wooden cutting boards for home use.

  6. I have a peice of porcelain floor tile and was wondering if I could use it as a cutting board and if so do I need to treat it or do anything special to it before I use it.

  7. I always use wood, there is too much plastic around, wood in natural, check out these guys at, all one solid piece timber and naturally antibacterial

  8. Wouldn’t the grooves in the cutting boards indicate tiny slivers of the cutting board end up in your food and that ultimately you are ingesting small pieces of cutting board?

  9. What kind of product is best for cutting boards and chopping blocks, I have used Walnut oil and just found out that it could be dangerous for someone that has an elergic reaction to peanuts.

    1. Richard,

      Use salad bown finish, or 100% pure tung oil. Best two nontoxic substances I have found to keep my board in top shape over the past three years.

      1. Mahoney walnut oil, which dries much faster, would be hypoallergenic as it is void of proteins, and it will not turn rancid. Instructions come with the bottle. Walnuts (a nut) and peanuts (a legume) don’t typically have cross allergies; however they are mixed all the time. To make matters worse, the Walnut Shrimp may have been cooked either separately or together in peanut oil. Look at the label.

        As for plastic cutting boards, I’m sure they are a carcinogen (at least in California) made worse in the dishwasher. The cuts in the plastic open up when you throw cold meat on them and close when it gets warm again, effectively making a Petrie dish. Most wooden boards contain tannums, and resist bacteria, though I’d still wash, sanitize and dry as described. A meat butcher told me they got rid of plastic boards for this very reason.

        Regarding end grain, Stanley developed a special plane (brought back by Lee Neilson and several others) for these as they need flattening from time to time. Of course they planed (really end grain cutting) from outside to the middle to avoid unsupported grain. Prior to Titebond III, glue-ups failed unless they made end grain butcher locks.

    2. I have only used Walnut oil and have never had an issue with anyone with allergies. Actual Peanut allergies are pretty rare, usually it is a sensitivity, if that.

  10. I guess I’ve been playing fast and loose with my health most of my life. I’ve been using a wood cutting boards although I did use some Plexiglas ones decades ago when someone gave them to me. I’ve been using a butcher block wood one for 8 years since I brought it home after my mom died. A few years ago I bought a couple OXO plastic ones I use for cutting chicken–the only meat I eat– and whatever else. I put those in the dishwasher once in a while. I usually wash both kinds right after use–hot water and dish soap, rinse, and dry. After reading the above posts I might get worried except that I never get sick, never catch whatever is said to be going around, not colds, not flu (since a 1968 durin epidemic). The time or two I had food poisoning was from food prepared elsewhere. No one has ever become ill from food I’ve prepared. I suppose I developed a strong immune system on the farm where we didn’t have running water. I guess the only harmful results of my habits might be dulling my knives.

  11. “For plastic cutting boards, you should use a chlorine-based sanitizer”

    HDPE will be degraded by chlorine, so you should not.

  12. I am wondering why aren’t silicon cutting boards approached? They wouldn’t dull the knives for sure, but I don’t know if the knives will cut through or not. But still. There are some pretty nifty and good medical silicon materials that are foodsafe and everything. I wished there was some research done on this topic…

  13. Questions, questions. Reading this post reminds me how much grasp I have on the ability to think for myself. Its like no one learned anything on their own unless someone told them. What about addressing the concern of plastic ingestion? All this talk about cutting boards and no possible down side from the use of plastic.

    1. Excellent point. I live with a heavy-handed knife-wielder. Our cut-resistant plastic boards are scarred after a couple of uses. The dishwasher also degrades the plastic, leading to further flaking off of plastic. If you can see plastic flaking off, multiply that in mind to realize how much is sloughing off microscopically. Ingesting wood splinters isn’t any safer. Cleaning with anything but a mild plant acid or base is also dangerous to the GI system. The obsession about bacteria is short-sighted, especially if you eat as much prepared fresh food as I do as a vegetarian.

  14. I read your statement that soft wood such as Cypress is more prone to harbor bacteria. Is this true of the Hinoki Japanese Cypress boards? They claim to have properties that guard against bacteria. Also Sushi Chefs are known to use these. I recently ordered two and since reading your article am questioning my purchase.

    Please advise.

  15. “Plastic cutting boards can be placed in the dishwasher, where they can be sanitized by washing at high temperatures. But wood cutting boards would quickly be ruined by a dishwasher, and not everyone owns a dishwasher.”
    “and not everyone owns a dishwasher” – I am finding it difficult to understand how this point fits in with what was said prior??
    Is your point that for those that don’t own a dishwasher, it is easier to clean a plastic cutting board as opposed to a wooden cutting board?? (I don’t see anywhere emphasizing that is easier to clean a plastic cutting board rathan than wooden in a sink)

  16. A man makes cutting boards for me. He makes them from scraps of Corian. Corian was a popular surface used for kitchen countertops in the 90s.
    Knives don’t leave a mark and Corian can be put in the dishwasher..

  17. Dont use bamboo board –
    1. they smell awful and contaminate the food with the smell
    2. the glues they use are not particularly good for food contact
    boards like ok are not great either because the tannins can also taint the flavours of food.

    the best wood for a board that I have found over the years is sycamor – very similar to maple but even more neutral.
    after use wash in soapy warm water and dry then hang to air – I always hang to dry on a saucepan rack withthe hooks.
    Plastics – I hate them – they are easy to sanitise but they do absorb chemicals and never release them especially oil based. They are not as good as people think they are.
    Wood is king – Ive got wood 🙂

  18. Chef.Alam.Qureshi says: OCT 15, 2015 at 11:25:am
    I’ve never liked the idea of using a plastic cutting board. Maybe because I don’t like drinking or eating from plastic, or using plastic eating utensils. I wondered if ceramic boards were in the market (even though I was sure of it), and, voila! “Stupid knife lovers” – Ha!

  19. Uh oh! I just bought a cutting board made from bamboo, Eileen. How bad are they? I bought it from a farmers market and can’t return it. Should it just become a piece of art or can it be used with caution? What makes them scarey?

    1. I found that anything bamboo for the kitchen falls apart and cracks quite easily – even with gentle care. And I know bamboo can be ‘tough’ as it’s also used for flooring. I’m sure we’ll see better versions of bamboo anything for the kitchen at some point.

  20. When we cut vegetables in a cutting board with a sharp knife, many grooves are formed. Do the tiny scraps of the cutting board material stick to the vegetable?

  21. We have a butcher block board that has been outdoors in a covered area. It is pretty black. Can we save it?

  22. Wow, excellent information Eileen. You obviously have deep knowledge on this subject. Thank you for sharing it with us. I’ve printed your comments out to keep in my kitchen.

  23. Thank you Eileen! That was the most thorough and excellent response of them all! I will certainly pass this information on to all my clients and try to implement this in all the homes I manage and prepare food in… Including my own 🙂 Much appreciated!

  24. I make cutting boards for a living. Oiling advice is to use either Mineral oil or 100% pure tung oil…any other oil will eventually go rancid. Treat your board as you would your skin….wash with warm soapy water…rinse and dry thouroughly. Lean againstcounter wall. A lot depends on what kind of wood your board is made from. Eastern hard rock maple is the gold standard….. western maple is a close secong… Walnut is about 15% softer than maple…good for cutting veggies… very stable. Cherry wood is 20% softer and ideal for cheese or bread boards… Platinum quality would be western Yew wood which is 20% harder than maple. Depending on how often use a board….a light sanding and re oiling every so often is good. think of your board as your skin….it needs a shaving to get rid of the hairs that rise…and it needs to be moisturized too. Avoid bamboo boards….scary construction….avoid laminated strip boards as they seperate along the lines….avoid boards with little rubber legs… they are hiding a warp. On a good quality board,keep one side for show and the other side for cutting.Have a non-skid mat ….like a drawer mat to prevent skidding when you cut plus it protects your show side. What destroys a cutting board most is…dishwashers…having it soak in hot water…using full strength bleaches/vinegars for soaking…. placing the board in direct sunlight for long periods of time… any extreme heat will cause the board to warp. the outer sides….sapwood…loose moisture faster than the centre… heartwood. To fix a warped board…wrap in a damp towel, place a basin of water on the bow of the hump and let it sit for three days. The weight should flatten it. Give it a quick sand and then oil. it is not unusual in summer for the boards to bend a bit. this is due to the drop in humidity levels. A board made in a damp climate will warp a bit when moved to a very dry climate. Humidity is key. Don,t abuse your board…use the right board for your needs…about 3 or 4 boards are needed …one for meats/poultry/fish… one for veggies….one for soft /dry foods…bread/cheese. a good board…with proper care should last a lifetime.

    1. Hi what about a camphor wood cutting board I had one for years it is said that bacteria won’t live in them they sure easy to clean and don’t seem to hurt the knife

    2. Hello, when you said Platinum standard I quickly googled Yew cutting board — but came across a bunch of posts about Yew wood being poisonous. The only ones I found for sale were on Etsy, so handmade. Do you have any more information along those lines? I’ve read everything from totally toxic stay away to it has cancer-fighting abilities…confused?

      1. Many woods are poisonous. The list goes on and on. Making a tea out of most would could make you very sick. Breathing sanding dusts from most is very dangerous.
        Having “casual” contact with a board, even as a cutting surface is not an issue except in very strange circumstances and with very special woods.

  25. Sanding a wood cutting board is just putting lots of tiny grooves in the wood which is what you are trying to get out. Don’t sand! Use a properly sharpened cabinet scraper or hand plane.

    1. Actually sanding is a great way to get rid of the scratches if you take it down to a 180-220 grain. At that plaint bacterium can no longer securely House them selves in the scratch’s. Water would make them fall off just as easy of the water. A scraper is a bad idea because it leaves more chance to splinter. If you are not going to replace the entire board it is safest to sand starting at 80 grit and jumping 20 at a time so 80, 100 etc. because it scrapes off anything possibly scratched and smooths it out, this also degraded the board faster, if you want a longer lasting board start at 120 grit and spend more time until the board looks and feels smooth and move to 180

    2. Thank you for saying that, I was thinking that all along. After you sanded it, wouldn’t you have to reseal it? Is putting oil on it enough to ‘seal’ it?

  26. Stupid knife lovers. I use ceramic. I don’t hate my knives. I’m sure my knives are sharper than people who use wood cutting boards and think my knives are dull. Why? Because it’s obvious those same people think my knives used on ceramic are dull because they would think I would be pulling the knife along the ceramic which would dull the knife; because they pull their knives along the wood which would dull them, just not as much as ceramic. But that’s the point. Not to be pulling the knife along anything. Make sure the knives are quality enough and sharp enough that you don’t need to pull them along. They should slice right through not needing much down force. Butchers paper can also be used on top, if not sliding through. And ceramic cleans up perfectly. And can be microwaved to kill any possible germ. Think things through.

    1. I’ve never liked the idea of using a plastic cutting board. Maybe because I don’t like drinking or eating from plastic, or using plastic eating utensils. I wondered if ceramic boards were in the market (even though I was sure of it), and, voila! “Stupid knife lovers” – Ha!

    2. Every time your knife comes into contact with the ceramic it bends the edge of your knife over causing it to be dull. An end grain wood cutting board is soft and doesn’t damage your cutting edge. All my knives are sharp enough to shave with. Wood cutting boards while porous, are also naturally sanitary. The wood contains natural chemicals to ward off infections and disease while the tree was living. I keep my board oiled and dry. Only wipe it off with a damp clean rag, then let it dry on end for 24 hours, then oil it. I commonly put a lite coat of pilot it right before use if working with something high moisture.

      1. “Wood cutting boards while porous, are also naturally sanitary.” I”m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but are you say the article above is wrong?

        I’ve just started really cooking, so I’m researching these things. We currently have 3 plastic boards and a small wooden one, that needs replacing. We just wash them with antibacterial soap or the dishwasher (plastic only).

        Btw, what is pilot?

        1. For your wooden board, use very little soap to clean it as it degrades the wood.
          Wipe it down with distilled vinegar after you’ve washed it to kill germs, and if the board ever develops any odours, put some bicarb of soda on the board before wiping with vinegar, and leave for 10 minutes (make sure you use enough soda and vinegar to make it foam).

    3. Stupid knife lovers?
      Yeah, I’m sure every chef in the world (including myself) avoids glass and ceramic cutting boards for no reason at all…
      You muppet.

  27. back in h.s. and college I worked parttime as a meat counter clerk and butcher…Every nite we poured good old bleach on the surface….and in a few minutes wire brushed it. and then washed and dried the surface…also had saw dust on the floor! Late 40s and early 50s at the A and P in Toledo, ohio. enjoy!

  28. Joe: if the cutting board is a “butcherblock” can not be re-surfaced on a planer because the grain runs vertically, but the shop can use a stationary belt sander.
    For those who are handy, a small belt sander can do the job, start with coarse grain belt (110/150) followed by 220/280 and finally 320/380.
    For several years I made and sold butcherblocks, maybe more than 1,000.
    To seal the board, use liquid vaseline from the pharmacy.
    How much? Once a day for a week, once a week for a month and once a month for a year.
    About glass and ceramic cutting boards……well, somebody just wrote about that.

    1. Ricardo,

      I generally sand my end grain boards down to 1200 grit due to controversy over these boards being less sanitary than cross grain cutting boards. Otherwise I just use bowl finishing oil on it after the wash and call it a day until I need to sand it again.

      1. From the article:
        “Hardwoods, like maple, are fine-grained, and the capillary action of those grains pulls down fluid, trapping the bacteria – which are killed off as the board dries after cleaning,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety researcher at NC State.
        The end grain exposes the maximum number of pores to provide the bacteria killing capillary action and also minimizes the depth of the bacteria nurturing grooves.

  29. there are no instructions given on how one should go about sanitizing the sponge/rag/brush.

    i’ve always put it in the microwave for a bit.

    Just googled and saw an article that said you would thoroughly rinse it with soap and then put it in the microwave while it still wet for 2 mins (but to keep an eye on it lest you burn the sponge)

    1. I saw an article that said not to put the sponge in the microwave because I was doing the same thing. They said to put a little bleach in water an let the sponge soak in there for about 5 mins.

  30. Yeah i use the wood/plastic combo strategy as described here. I clean them differently except I use some combination of hot water and soap and high acidity vinegar and sand or plane down my wood boards (one of mine is literally a 12″ thick X 2′ diameter board). My question though is what is the best oil to treat the board with? Obviously not an oil that could become rancid, I use mineral oil on mine albeit petroleum based but whatever, trade-offs. Any thoughts on, once cleaned, treating wood boards with oil?

    1. Use food grade mineral oil or butchers’ block oil. I usually find them in the paint section, near the refinishing supplies.

      1. Mineral oil is great. Follow with the last coat of a 1/4 3/4 mix of bees wax mineral oil. Double boil the bees wax into the mineral oil. Don’t catch fire.

        1. The bees wax will clog the pores of the wood, killing the capillary action that gives wooden boards their antibacterial advantage. Building the cutting board so that the end grain of the wood (or bamboo) becomes the cutting surface maximizes that advantage.

    1. Glass & ceramic cutting boards are harder than metal … so they dull your knives quickly, not only ruining them, but also increasing the chance of injury.

      You *do* need to replace a wooden cutting board if it develops cracks, but for scratches and such, Adam’s right — just sand it down. Or visit a wood-working shop and ask ’em to run it through their planer.

      1. Its true. Scratch marks and cutting marks left by knife and cleaver impacts can be removed with sanding. However sanding should be taken as a frequent exercise. So not wait for cur marks to get too deep. But and keep 120 and 180 grit paper. Uae it about once wvwry 8 weeks or early.
        Washing will make the surface fuggy over time, oil it every week. Takes just 5 minutes. Waxiing with a mixture of oil every couple of weeks will make the surface even more knife friendly.
        Nothing beats a good quality qood like Teak, Maple -and wven steamed beech. Teak is THE best.

          1. Silica content of Teak is less than 1%. I can’t find a single test showing that Teak dulls knives any faster than other woods. And the oil rich Teak is ideal for the kitchen environment as it’s naturally water and heat resistant.

  31. You don’t replace a wooden cutting board, you just use some sandpaper on it. A couple minutes work and it’s smooth and as new.

    1. We used to do that in the restaurant business, especially when the counter tops were made out of cutting board material.